Careers: Windows 7 Skills Shortage Looming?

IT pros with Windows 7 skills are -- or soon will be -- a hot commodity.

Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 7 operating system is popular with enterprise customers, but soon they'll be under the gun, reports market-watcher Gartner Inc.

The Redmond firm plans to stop supporting its Windows XP operating system in 2014. The upshot is that Windows 7 migration schedules have been severely compressed. According to Gartner's tally, in fact, enterprises will phase in as many as a quarter of a billion new Windows 7 installations over the next four years.

As a result, Gartner projects, demand for IT pros with Windows 7 migration skills will go through the roof.

"We estimate that large and midsize organizations worldwide will migrate approximately 250 million PCs to Windows 7, during the migration timeline, so it makes sense for organizations that plan to leverage external services to line up service providers early," said Gartner vice president Charles Smulders, in a statement.

He recommends enterprises "begin talks with suppliers now about putting in place contracts that can deliver flexible levels of resources at a fixed rate over the migration period."

Most shops skipped Windows XP's successor, Windows Vista, planning instead to wait for Windows 7. Although Windows 7 shipped late last year, IT organizations usually don't deploy untested (or unvalidated) operating environments. (In the case of Microsoft operating systems, Gartner and other industry watchers usually caution shops to wait for the first service pack release before deploying.)

Microsoft is currently prepping Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows 7. Once it ships, IT organizations will likely ramp up their migration efforts, but SP1 by itself won't precipitate a migration free-for-all. In most cases, organizations prefer to phase in new operating systems as part of a scheduled hardware refresh: if a system running Windows XP gets decommissioned, it's replaced with a new PC running Windows 7.

The rub is the timeline: in many cases, shops were still buying new hardware preloaded with Windows XP less than 12 months ago.

True, many lame-duck systems came with free (or deeply-discounted) upgrade paths to Windows 7. However, an in-place upgrade on top of existing hardware is objectively more expensive than a phased-in upgrade via new hardware.

In a 10,000-PC environment, for example, Gartner puts the cost of phasing in new systems pre-loaded with Windows 7 at between $1,200 and $2,000 each. To perform an in-place upgrade in the same environment would be considerably more costly -- between $1,274 and $2,069, according to Gartner.

More to the point, notes Smulders, no large shop is going to approve a complete rip-and-replace of its desktop computing infrastructure. Instead, it will plan to phase in new hardware (and a new client operating system) over a scheduled period; in most cases, that's 4 to 5 years.

With Microsoft planning to pull the plug on Windows XP in 2014, some shops won't be able to complete a full refresh cycle. "Corporate IT departments typically prefer to migrate PC operating systems … via hardware attrition, which means bringing in the new OS as they replace hardware through a normal refresh cycle," said Smulders.

"With most migrations not starting until the fourth quarter of 2010 at the earliest, and PC hardware replacement cycles typically running at four to five years, most organizations will not be able to migrate to Windows 7 through usual planned hardware refresh before support for Windows XP ends."

One thing is clear: the transition from Windows XP to Windows 7 will be a windfall for Microsoft, Intel, PC OEMs, and (of course) services firms.

"Whether replacing or upgrading PCs, it is clear that Windows 7 migration will have a noticeable impact on organizations' IT budgets," said Gartner research vice president Steve Kleynhans, in a prepared release. "Based on an accelerated upgrade, we expect that the proportion of the budget spent on PCs will need to increase between 20 percent as a best-case scenario and 60 percent at worst in 2011 and 2012.

"Assuming that PCs account for 15 percent of a typical IT budget, this means that this percentage will increase to 18 percent (best case) and 24 percent (worst case) which could have a profound effect on IT spending and on funding for associated projects during both those years."