An official of a local government in Canada with thousands of desktop PCs recently got a shock, according to an industry analyst: Those end-of-support-for-Windows-XP stories should be taken seriously.

Wes Miller, a research analyst at Directions on Microsoft, recalled recently fielding a surprising call from that Canadian wondering exactly what end of support means. Some IT managers, apparently, haven’t got the message. Microsoft Corp. has been spreading the word for some time that venerable WinXP’s time has come.

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An operating system that provided a significant boost in stability when it came out in October, 2001, it has been a highly popular corporate standard since then. Forrester Research estimated that a year ago 38 per cent of corporate PCs were running XP, and 16 per cent of companies were still deploying it on new machines. But all good things come to an end, and, following standard policy of offering a minimum 10 years support for business products, Microsoft will stop issuing XP patches (and Office 2003) on April 8, 2014.

That’s about seven months from now. It comes down to this: If hackers find an exploit in the operating system, it won’t be fixed. You’re on your own.

“A lot of organizations don’t understand what end of support means,” Miller says. “As a result, they’re not panicking when they should.”

But the reality is if you’re not executing a plan to get off XP today you’re probably not going to make it if you’re an organization of any size.”

The good news is many have already shifted to Windows 7 or 8. Forrester’s figures from a survey a year ago estimated 47 per cent of North American corporate desktops had Win7 at that point, and 67 per cent of new business PCs were sporting Win7.

Survey respondents also estimated that by Q3 of this year — that is, about now — 60 per cent of new PCs would be running Win 7 and 26 per cent would have Win8 loaded. Still, looking ahead three per cent thoughts they’d still be installing XP on machines now.

Henrik Gutle, director of Microsoft Canada’s Windows business group, said the company can’t disclose its figures on how many PCs are running XP here.

“If I look at some of the companies I talk to and friends and family I believe there’s still a significant amount of XP customers out there. And I’m not sure every one of them is aware of what it means that XP is coming up to end of support.”

Experts said there’s a number of reasons why XP is still hanging on. Some organizations, likely smaller ones, can’t afford to buy new PCs to run Win7/8. Others just take for granted XP’s existence, or don’t think certain staff need a modern OS.

And there may be those who follow one industry analyst quoted in a publication that as long as XP is running service pack 3 and has the latest updates and patches and is using any browser higher that Internet Explorer 6, things — for a little while — will be OK.

David Johnson, an infrastructure analyst at Forrester Research, is stunned into silence on that one.

XP might work for some uses like embedded systems, he concedes. But he notes that when Microsoft ends support, there’s a risk applications developed for the OS won’t work well because third party developers will stop their support. In addition, companies that make peripheral devices, like printers and mice, will stop their driver support for XP.

Miller notes that there’s never been a month when Microsoft hasn’t issued a key patch for XP.

If you’re a likely target of hackers — regulated company or government –you’re “asking for trouble” if you’re still running XP next April, he said.

Gutle believes large organizations have got the message and have been migrating to other OSs for some time. “I would be very surprised if there was a publicly-traded who is not aware of the implications and not embarked on a migration process.”

That means a lot of SMBs have a lot of work to do. The good news, Gutle says, is the smaller the organization the easier it could be — he estimates a couple of weeks for a firm with 20 PCs.
Still, he added, with seven months to go you need “a strong sense of urgency,” says Gutle. Migration “definitely does not happen overnight.”

Making a migration plan

If you haven’t started on an XP migration project yet, here’s advice on what to do:

  • Decide what platform you’re moving to: Few organizations are standardizing on Windows 8, says David Johnson of Forrester Research, in part because the new interface is so different from what staff are used to.
  • Do a hardware and application assessment. Can existing PCs run the new platform? Are your apps compatible with it? Once that’s done, decide if apps need to be migrated. Develop an application readiness schedule for each mission-critical app.
  • Do you have the resources to do the migration yourself? If so, Microsoft and other suppliers have some automated tools. If the work is too much, it may have to be outsourced. Delay other outsourcing decisions until you have a clear migration plan, says Forrester.
  • Build a Win7/8 reference image to test remediated applications against;
  • Develop a project plan and a communications plan. Departments have to know what’s coming – you don’t want to delay a product launch because there’s a PC migration. Every staff member getting a new PC has to know when to expect it. Do they need to avoid travelling at a particular time? Will the company have to give some people PCs temporarily?
  • Perform the migration on test groups to catch problems. If everything’s okay, do it.
  • Confronting a desktop migration is also the time to think about alternatives, like virtual desktop infrastructure, thin clients and allowing some staff to use Macs or tablets. In fact, it’s an opportunity to think about implementing a bring-your-own device (BYOD) policy, although that comes with other IT implications – BYOD means having security software that checks the configuration of anything that connects to the network.
  • Johnson notes that some companies are using unorthodox solutions rather than convert older XP-compatible apps, such as running them on Windows Server 2003 – largely binary compatible with XP — in a virtualized XenApp server environment and giving staff desktop access through Citrix.
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