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By | Gavin Clarke 10th February 2015 09:04

Why 1.6 million people will miss Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 date with fate

You want to do what? Again?!

Upgraded your Windows Server 2003 yet? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Gartner reckons there are eight million Windows Server 2003 OS instances in operation, and SI Avanade reckons that of those instances, a full 20 per cent – 1.6 million – will blow past the 14 July end-of-support date.

What happens six months from now, on 14 July? That's the date Microsoft issues its last security fix ever for Window Server 2003 – the end of extended support from the server operating system's maker.

That means any new hacks built or vulnerabilities discovered in Windows Server 2003 and those running the legacy server OS will be facing them on their own.

It’s a problem if your server systems hold data of any kind – which they will – and could be accessed directly or indirectly from the internet.

Server systems are generally thought isolated from external attackers, but last year’s attack on Sony Pictures put an end to that illusion.

Sony’s internal financial and employee systems were compromised and employees’ personal data snaffled by hackers. Sony’s only response was to take the systems offline.

This becomes of even greater concern if you work in a regulated industry like finance or pharmaceutical, where watchdogs will levy fines if you put customers’ data at risk.

The last time we jumped though this upgrade hoop was in April 2014, when Microsoft ended extended support for Windows XP.

XP had been running on millions of machines worldwide, tens of thousands in the UK government alone.

Of course the number of Windows Server 2003 instances is small in comparison to the numbers of Windows XP overall, but the problem is actually bigger.

A 2013 survey of Fortune 1000 IT pros by AppZero, touted by Microsoft, reckons more than half had 100 or more Windows 2003 servers.

Windows Servers run systems that are the beating heart of organisations - ERP, finance, accounting, manufacturing and more.

The consensus among those The Reg has spoken with is that despite the mission-criticality of Windows Server systems, people are holding off moving.

Aidan Finn is technical sales lead for value-added reseller MicroWarehouse and a Microsoft MVP.

He coaches and trains partners who work with end users on implementing Microsoft technologies. An expert on Windows Server and Windows Server virtualisation, Finn admits to a sense of unease on the topic of moving off Windows Server 2003.

"When I look at the kind of people that have this issue, it's not just companies that tend to be under-funded, low skilled or slow to do things, it's every kind of company – including extremely well-funded, very leading edge IT organisations. It is businesses from the smallest to the largest, it's evenly spread around the planet and industry segments."

“When I talk to people, they are pretty non-committal about upgrades,” Finn told The Reg just before Christmas. “I have a feeling of unease about it, that come January, February and March I expect there will be a lot or work happening and a lot of pressure.”

Application migration specialist Camwood is jittery, too. The firm was busy on Windows XP upgrades and had about 10 Windows Server 2003 projects currently underway when we spoke.

Camwood solutions architect Ed Shepley told us: “We had a fairly decent flurry from people when [end of support] was announced for Windows XP.

“We were kept quite busy before XP and expected a similar pace for Server 2003 but we found people have a different challenge.”

Nick East, chief executive of IT provider Zynstra, told The Reg that 50 to 60 per cent of customers who have contacted his firm about migration are still only at the talking stage.

Just a small fraction have finished, with about 10 to 20 per cent “on the journey", he said.

All of which is a problem, because according to Gartner, the “typical” migration runs between nine to 15 months – from research to upgrade, test and rollout.

Translation: if you haven’t started now, you won’t make July’s deadline.

Given the importance of such systems, why aren’t people moving sooner? One problem is the sheer complexity and importance of the systems we're talking about. The workloads on Windows Server 2003 are the really big thorny ones. Email servers, web hosting or file serving have likely already been migrated to Windows Server 2008 R2. The hard stuff is what’s left – which firms seem to have been putting off.

One such example is a specific line-of-business app running on SQL Server on Windows Server 2003 for a particular vertical sector – with plug-ins to ERP and CRM that are also tied to the customer.

East draws a picture: “Such a system will have been super reliable and has been running in the business for some time and its bound up with everything – ordering, logistics, supply, customer support and perhaps there’s no good way to move it into the cloud. Then, perhaps, there are applications that are integrated to lots of other things in the business; you move one part and you have to move lots of other processes, too.”

Complicated and critical by their nature, these systems have only grown in complexity during the 15 years of Windows Server 2003’s life.

Throw out the yardstick

A difficult migration project by any normal yardstick is made harder by step change in systems architectures – from 32-bit Windows Server 2003 to 64-bit Windows Server 2012. Further, since Windows Server 2003, Microsoft has put Hyper-V in the server software for free, introducing possible new opportunities in virtualisation.

IT departments are also facing kickback and delay from the business side of the house in terms of securing the pounds and pence required to finance the change.

Another upgrade, just over a year after Windows XP? On systems that are out of sight of the average business user? IT departments likely found getting approval and budget for Windows XP hard enough – and that was right in the faces of most of those who were responsible for OKing such projects.

Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst Carl Claunch said: "When I look at the kind of people that have this issue, it's not just companies that tend to be under-funded, low-skilled or slow to do things – it's every kind of company, including extremely well-funded, very leading edge IT organisations. It is businesses from the smallest to the largest, it's evenly spread around the planet and industry segments."

There’s a firm consensus there will be a late rush as July’s date approaches. And you won’t see wholesale server estates migrate, but rather specific apps say insiders.

Finn predicts movement as the support deadline enters the six-month time frame and people realise there’s no way out.

Don't expect a Windows-XP support lifeline

“Hopefully people realise this is not just Microsoft sabre-rattling; the date is fixed and it’s not moving,” he said.

Camwood's Shepley reckons on an upsurge in the second quarter of this year – as Microsoft’s deadline hoves into view. He says his firm has been asked to move individual apps rather than entire estates.

But Shepley reckoned the fact so many missed the Windows XP date and haven't yet been caught out on security has bred complacency about getting off Windows Server 2003.

“There was no feared hacker who sent out a big virus or security breach that couldn’t be fixed and that brought down every machine,” he told us.

So, let’s assume you’re one of those delaying migration – or else being forced to put it on hold. What are your options?

The default is to do nothing – continue running Windows Server 2003. Thereafter you have two choices: pay Microsoft for a custom support deal or go it alone.

The former option relies on the hope Microsoft offers custom support – as it did for the many laggards on Windows XP still using the client after April 2014’s end-of-support date.

Microsoft was dragged into Windows XP custom support and – so far – has made no such commitment of a repeat for Windows Server 2003 holdouts.

The reason is simple: Microsoft wants you to buy its latest software. Having its engineers building patches for old products simply diverts its time and resources away from that goal.

If Microsoft does turn, expect to pay through the nose: Windows XP custom support started at $200 per client, doubling every year thereafter.

Claunch reckons if Microsoft does U-turn, you can expect to pay two to three times what you paid for Windows XP.

"For some customers it [upgrade] will be relatively fast now. For some – they won't transition. If it’s doing what it’s doing and they don’t worry about support, they won’t change - they will risk it.”

“I would say that most of those machines that will remain running Windows Server 2003 will not take the custom support agreement,” Claunch said. “They will be run without support.”

Hewlett-Packard’s EMEA boss Ian Stephen said plenty of customers will evaluate the risk and calculate that running an unsupported Windows Server 2003 after July is worth it.

"For some customers it [upgrade] will be relatively fast now. For some – they won't transition. If it’s doing what it’s doing and they don’t worry about support, they won’t change - they will risk it.”

That brings us back to migration; you won’t hit that July deadline, so at this point it’s a question of priorities: which apps must be moved and which can go later?

Then it’s a question of: move to what exactly? New physical servers, virtualised servers, or bumping workloads up into this cloud thing people are talking about?

Stephen reckons big firms with lots of server-based apps are swapping hardware – going to yet more servers.

Mid-sized companies are swapping server-based collaboration apps for Microsoft’s Office 365. It is less clear the direction small firms will go, Stephen says.

According to Stephen, HP is working with Microsoft on that mid-market segment that is running lots of different apps on different servers.

He reckons the mid-market is most troubling: firms lack the full IT complement of the enterprise, which can more easily steward a move but has more IT to manage than a small firm.

“The process of doing migrations [for the mid-market] is more intensive,” Stephen said.

If you’re starting that move, the first step is to ascertain exactly which apps you’re running – numbers and type – to lay the groundwork on what can and should move.

Shepley says people seriously underestimate the number of apps they have running on their server estate – the product of years of updates as users and IT staff leave. Sometimes apps drop out of use or those who built them move on.

“Last time we did a software audit for one client they said they had under 1,000 apps. We found more than 2,000,” Shepley claimed.

Once you can see what you have, the next step is to assess what to move and the target environment: do you virtualise, buy new hardware or put the app in the cloud?

Cloud is no get-out-of-jail card

It can mean virtualisation or tracking down the online version or equivalent of your legacy apps supported on, say, Windows Azure or Amazon Web Services.

Zynstra has helped move Microsoft shops to a combination of Office 365 and Windows Azure. The answer for more than one-third of Windows Server 2003 users is to simply upgrade to "the cloud", but cloud isn’t that simple – you can’t simply turn off your Windows Servers and install an existing app on somebody’s cloud. Migration isn’t like swapping like for like.

Going to cloud is a strategic move – the kind of action that you should take having weighed the pros and cons of seeing off part of your IT infrastructure to a third party.

It’s like a more accessible form of outsourcing, so prepare accordingly.

The skills needed will seem slightly alien: it’s still very much a developer mindset up there, with apps built for things like elasticity and scale. Microsoft and partners like Finn have been running virtual academies for IT pros.

At this point, though, Gartner reckons the opportunity for the cloud has sailed, given the strategic decisions and architectural choices it involves. That might take a year to pull off.

“The time to do dramatic changes like moving to a hybrid cloud market was a year or two ago, and now it’s more of survival, get the job done,” Claunch said.

The message is simple: don't get seduced by the rhetoric of cloud. It's not a quick or easy answer.

That leaves moving from one server to another and - having audited your apps - it again comes back to deciding which are the priority before upgrading and moving in batches.

If migration is still in your future, so is missing Microsoft's deadline. Nobody who hasn't already started migrating will have made a clean break by July. How far you miss will depend on your appetite for risk and your long-term IT strategy. ®

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