End of the line for Windows XP

September 9th 2013

Excerpts from Computers in Business cover story, published in the Sunday Business Post on 01/09/2013

Dick O'Brien reports

Microsoft recently announced that it was going to end its support for the Windows XP operating system on April 8, 2014. Also being consigned to the product graveyard is Microsoft Office 2003, which is almost as old as the operating system.

While Windows XP enjoyed a reputation for reliability, it has long been superseded by newer Microsoft operating systems, such as Windows Vista, Windows 7 and now Windows 8. In short, Windows XP was going to reach the end of the line at some stage and it has enjoyed a longer period of service than most operating systems.

The move means that computer users who are still on Windows XP will no longer be protected against faults or security vulnerabilities. In other words, if hackers discover a new weakness in the operating system, Microsoft isn't going to be on hand to release any patches for it. Anyone still on XP will be on their own. For a business running the operating system, it could potentially expose it to serious security risks, which are only likely to increase as time goes on.

According to Patrick Ward, client business manager at Microsoft Ireland, around 30 per cent of Irish PC users are still on Windows XP. While this figure does sound remarkably high, Ward said that many of those people have already begun the process of migration to a new operating system. It is the small coterie of laggards that he is worried about.

What many people tend to forget is just how old Windows XP now is.

‘It's hard to believe, but Windows XP has been on the go since 2001,’ said Joe Molloy, director of managed services at IT Force ‘My understanding is that it's the operating system that Microsoft has supported for the longest period. Usually they get around six or seven years from an OS.’

‘You can't really stick your head in the sand. Some people may have over the past two or three years because of the recession, but they can't do it much longer. The world isn't going to end the first of May, but there will definitely be serious trouble for some people by the end of next year’.

Molloy said that to illustrate the level of obsolescence his customers were facing, he asked them to imagine bringing a Windows 95 PC into the office and trying to put it on their network and install applications on it. ‘It wouldn't work, it would be vulnerable to viruses and hacking,’ he said. ‘That's what you are heading for, so you need to do something’.

Microsoft's Patrick Ward said that the company was taking the issue quite seriously and didn't want to see any of its customers left out in the cold. It is contacting organisations directly, engaging in publicity campaigns and also working with its partners to help them identify which customers may still be using Windows XP.

‘It is getting increasingly urgent,’ Ward said. ‘A deployment, between planning, testing and rolling out, can typically take between 18 and 32 months. That said, there are very few companies who have now not started any kind of formal planning, so we are seeing a pretty significant level of migration away from XP.’

Ward said that there were three main consequences to sticking with Windows XP beyond the end of its support date.

‘The first is around the security risks of running an unsupported operating system,’ he said. ‘If a vulnerability is identified with Windows XP beyond the support date, we won't be providing patches, hotfixes and so forth. The risk is around the penetration of a PC and the corporate network through malware which will potentially expose data or other failures in key control.’

Ward said that the second consequence was that businesses were missing out on the benefits of running a newer operating system. He said that Windows XP was ‘a 12-year-old operating system in a 25-year-old industry’, which in technology terms was a very long time. Software has moved on considerably since then, particularly in the areas of security, productivity and mobility.

‘The third area is that companies are really limiting their choices by sticking with Windows XP,’ he said. ‘There are fewer and fewer PC models that will support Windows XP. A lot of software doesn't now support XP. There is also peripherals to consider, where there may not be a driver for Windows XP. As time goes on, things like printers are increasingly unlikely to be supported on Windows XP.’

Others said that the fact that current versions of Windows were closely related to what came before could mean that vulnerabilities discovered in supported versions may leave users of Windows XP exposed.

‘An interesting fact, which Microsoft themselves mentioned recently, is that as they patch Windows 7 and 8, it can be pointing attackers towards potential issues with Windows XP,’ said Francis O'Haire. ‘There are common components and they might find a bug that is many years old.’

Ward warned that moving operating systems can't happen overnight, since it involves a lot of planning and testing.

‘The good news is that we have a broad range of Microsoft certified partners out there who have experience in doing this,’ he said. ‘There is also the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit that is available free to all organisations to help them with the process.’

Molloy estimated that there were thousands of businesses still running Windows XP. A lot of them are SMEs and he said that in many cases, it was firms running machines with Outlook, Office and one or two third party applications, such as Sage or a CRM package.

‘I would safely say that a lot of them are aware of it and either have already moved or are in the process of moving to either Windows 7 or Windows 8,’ he said. ‘I think it is actually the bigger companies that are going to be more at risk.’

The risk for big corporations is less about budget and more about applications. The bigger the firm, the more likely it is to have a lot of specialised or bespoke software applications running on its systems. This increased the likelihood that they may not be compatible with newer versions of Windows, such as Windows 7 or Windows 8.

‘The reality is that people are still using old, third-party applications,’ Molloy said. ‘They probably haven't upgraded them, but they have all been running fine on Windows XP. They might be 32-bit applications, but when you move to a 64-bit operating system like Windows 7, they are just not going to be compatible at all.

‘Nobody wants to rush out and spend loads of money, but the problem is that applications also need to be upgraded. The newer operating systems will also not run on old hardware.

‘So it isn't just your applications, you may also find that you would need to go out and buy new hardware. That adds to the cost.’

Molloy said that while hardware was important, applications were the most important part of the jigsaw. ‘At the end of the day it is the applications that are running your business,’ he said. ‘You could buy new hardware a new operating system, but if your applications don't work on it, then you are in trouble.’

What are people moving to?

While Windows has gone through several iterations since the launch of Windows XP, those companies that are still using it may not opt for the latest version. Industry observers think that Windows 7 is likely to be the new ‘workhorse’ operating system for businesses, while the newer Windows 8 could remain the preserve of consumer devices, at least for the time being.

Microsoft best-before dates

End of mainstream support:

Microsoft will offer mainstream support for a minimum of five years from the date of a product's general availability, or for two years after the successor product is released, whichever is longer. For example, if you buy a new version of Windows and five years later another version is released, you will still have two years of support left for the previous version.

Microsoft will offer extended support for either a minimum of five years from the date of a product's general availability, or for two years after the second successor product (two versions later) is released, whichever is longer.

For information on how this will impact you us on 01 5546 000.  

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