German car maker BMW is many things: manufacturer of luxury cars and motorcycles; a prestigious brand name famous around the world; a sponsor of major sporting events; and a giant corporation with a reputation for efficiency.

You can now add Windows 7 early adopter to that list.

The Munich-based auto giant, whose headquarters is considered an architectural icon in Europe, has 100,000 employees in 250 locations in countries as diverse as Germany, South Africa, the United States and China. On average, BMW manufactures between 1 million and 1.5 million vehicles each year.

Within this vast environment, with users ranging from auto engineers to salespeople, sits 85,000 Windows machines.

BMW has been running Windows XP in its broad client environment since 2001. Happy with XP, the automaker passed on Windows Vista, so its planning for Windows 7 started early, says Bernhard Huber, BMW's head of IT workplace systems.

Huber's department is responsible for the purchase, operation and support of all of devices such as PCs, phones and printers, as well as its corporate applications like email, telephony and video conferencing.

"We identified a lot of functional and monetary benefits of Windows 7 early on," says Huber, adding that BMW first started testing the Windows 7 beta in the first quarter of this year and has increased the number of pilot users since the RTM (release to manufacturing) version of Windows 7 became available in late July.

"It is expected that 200 to 500 key users will participate in the pilot programme until the end of 2009," he says.

Huber mentioned that BMW IT will increase compatibility testing with 5000 users in a production environment in 2010, after which the rollout of Windows 7 on all machines at BMW will begin in 2011, probably around the launch of Windows 7 Service Pack 1.

Huber says two areas where Windows 7 will make life easier for BMW employees is with the redesigned user interface and improved memory management.

The desktop features of the new OS, such as the revamped taskbar, are not usually mentioned as enterprise benefits. However, Huber envisions improved worker productivity with features like thumbnail previews, which allows for quicker switching between applications.

Huber also expects Windows 7 will further promote efficiency via its speedier startup times and improved memory management.

"Windows 7 uses its resources well and starts the applications perceptibly fast," he says. "This will make the upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 easier than it would have been with Vista."

Huber adds that BMW will be using XP Mode, a free virtualisation feature for enterprises in Windows 7 that runs older XP-only applications through a Microsoft virtual machine containing a licensed copy of Windows XP SP3.

"With the help of application virtualisation features like XP Mode, whatever software we have that is still not compatible with Windows 7 can be further used as we roll out the new OS. We can migrate legacy applications immediately and establish Windows 7 readiness later," he says.

Huber's department is also responsible for connecting PCs, phones and other devices to the corporate network and handling the patch management and security of all devices and applications.

BMW plans to utilize the Windows 7 security and networking enterprise features that work with Windows Server 2008 R2, which will release the same time as the client OS. Huber says that plans to deploy Windows Server 2008 R2 are well under way in order to use "the full potential of Windows 7."

Huber highlights features tailored for BMW's mobile workers such as DirectAccess, a networking tool that eliminates the need for VPNs, BranchCache, which speeds up networks in remote offices by caching files locally, and BitLocker To Go, an encryption feature that protects portable devices such as thumb drives and external hard drives.

"These features will give BMW IT more efficient remote management abilities and will replace third-party products which must be purchased," he says.

Huber says BMW is also hoping its diverse user base will benefit from the improved Remote Assistance functions in Windows 7. Remote Assistance, a long-time Windows tech support tool that allows an IT expert to connect to a user's computer to fix problems directly, has a new feature in Windows 7 called "Easy Connect" that simplifies the process of connecting IT experts to distressed users.

"The improved Remote Assistance functions permit quicker failure analysis and will reduce downtime," he says.

Huber says he's confident that Windows 7 will be as reliable as Windows XP once it is fully rolled out at BMW.

"The new and extended features of Windows 7 such as DirectAccess and Remote Assistance and application virtualisation will play an integral part in our roadmap to have a highly automated client environment," he says.

Huber expects support costs per client to go down as employees use Windows 7 to log on, navigate and get technical support quicker. He also points to improved energy management in Windows 7 that will lower the amount of electrical power needed.

Huber's hope is that Windows 7 will help BMW maintain a cost-effective IT business. To measure this goal, he gathered consensus from local (German) and foreign colleagues from different departments at BMW about their business needs as they relate to a Windows upgrade.

"Because of this, our IT organisation is conserving as many resources as possible and a lot of the Windows 7 deployment will be done parallel to the daily business," he says.

Huber adds proudly that in comparison to BMW's competitors, "we have achieved a leading position in cost-effective IT operations."