The life and death of Microsoft’s software

As certain as Microsoft is working on new software, its old software is being retired, leaving users to sometimes plan as carefully for decommissioning aging technology as they do for rolling out what’s new.

The latest Microsoft software to fall off the support bandwagon includes Windows 98, 98 Second Edition and Millennium. While those desktop operating systems may seem ancient in the face of the hype around Vista, Windows 98 represented 5% of the corporate Windows installed base at the end of 2005, according to IDC.

It isn’t only aging operating systems, however, that have their support lapse. Windows XP Service Pack 1 will be retired for good on Oct. 10, and users are being advised to start planning now for completing upgrades to XP Service Pack 2, which has been touted for its security improvements.

While Microsoft has previously extended end-of-life dates, most notably for Windows NT and Exchange 5.5, users should be aware that extensions are not the norm.

Not on my network you don’t

“Generally, it is a bad idea to run unsupported software, but there can be a business case to run it,” says Cary Shufelt, Windows infrastructure architect at Oregon State University, in Corvallis. The university still has some NT machines running in isolation in its labs.

But Shufelt says there are security risks in allowing connections to legacy machines and that the university makes sure to minimize those risks.

“We don’t allow [Windows] 9.x clients to connect to our Active Directory,” he says. “But we try to stay current with technology so these issues don’t typically come up.”

Others say they also stay current to avoid headaches and fire drills.

“If you are on a product where support is ending, it puts a whole new kind of pressure on you,” says Tom Gonzales, a senior network administrator for the Colorado State Employees Credit Union in Denver. Gonzales says he didn’t flirt with end of support when upgrading from NT to Windows 2000 (mainstream support ended in June 2005) and then to Windows 2003.

When support ends for an operating system, users are left to their own devices to troubleshoot problems or devise hot fixes.

“There was no compelling reason for us to get off NT other than not having to do it with a gun up to our heads,” Gonzales says. He says running unsupported software likely would require a full-time staff to fix it and patch it.

“That’s why we stay closer to the new edge than the old edge,” Gonzalez says.

The next major slice off that old edge will come on Jan. 9, 2007. At that time there is likely to be a lot of hype around the impending release of Vista, but 5-year-old versions of connectors for BizTalk, Content Management Server, line-of-business applications, gateways for mainframe integration and Office programs for the Macintosh will all see the end of what Microsoft calls mainstream support, which runs for five years after a product is released or two years after the successor product is released (whichever is longer).

For example, delays in Vista and Longhorn Server have forced Microsoft to extend past five years mainstream support on Windows XP and Windows Server 2003.

After mainstream support ends, Microsoft offers extended paid support for five years on business and developer products, but not for its Microsoft Dynamics products.

Extended support also provides nonsecurity hot fixes to those who purchase an agreement within 90 days of mainstream support ending.

The next round of retirees

Before January 2007, Microsoft will have other retirements. On July 31, the company says it will end support for tax and regulatory updates for Small Business Server 7.5 and on Aug. 1 the tax and regulatory updates for all databases will disappear for Great Plains 7.5. And in October, Mobile Information Server 2001 and Visual FoxPro 7.0 will see mainstream support disappear. Solomon 5.5 and Navision 3.7, introduced just three years ago, also will fall off the support radar in October. Those applications, which don’t qualify for extended support and were brought under the Microsoft banner via acquisition, are being transitioned into the company’s product life cycle system.

Regardless of Microsoft’s life cycle system, some users can’t get away from certain products.

“We have lots of customers in manufacturing environments, and they have no choice because the vendors of their applications don’t update the software and it is designed to run on a specific platform,” says Nelson Ruest, a consultant and systems integrator with Resolutions Enterprises in Victoria, British Columbia.

Ruest says he still sees lots of users with Access 97, for which support ended in 2004. “It is one of the most used unsupported products because it is so costly to upgrade Access databases and applications,” Ruest says, adding that he had a corporate client with 500 Access applications.

Others agree that support deadlines need to be evaluated and rules established.

Some analysts say that running unsupported software doesn’t have to be a huge risk as long as the product is stable.

“If you are on a platform that is running out of support chances are it probably is a pretty static environment, is pretty stable, and well understood by the IT department,” says Al Gillen, an analyst with IDC. “If the company chooses to stick it out a little longer on that product, I would say they are fairly safe other than the fact they don't have a fallback position. And if some new hack comes around to compromise that product, that may be just the motivation they need to get off of it entirely.”

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