Companies saddle up for NT's ride into sunset

The New Technology Server was Microsoft's entrance into enterprise-class software in 1996, but in 12 months Windows NT will leave the ranks of supported software, and network executives must decide now what to do with the platform, users and experts say.

Corporations should have migration plans in place and an understanding of the benefits and risks of staying on NT or moving to something else, experts say. And users should devise a detailed business analysis and cost assessment because the upgrade will involve the operating system, hardware, applications, and network and security software.

The questions are immediate because support for Windows NT 4.0 Standard, Enterprise and Terminal Server editions ends Dec. 31, 2003. Windows NT Workstation 4.0 support ends June 30, 2003.

The questions are made more difficult given stagnant IT budgets and the overlap of existing and forthcoming Microsoft operating systems that replace NT and alternatives such as Linux that are gaining credibility.

Without NT support, users won't find help over the phone, and more importantly, they won't be able to request hot-fixes for problems they might encounter. Microsoft also has yet to announce when it will stop offering security patches, although the company says it will give users 12 months' notice. Online support will conclude at the end of 2004.

Some experts say users can stay on NT for noncritical systems to maximize their investment in the platform, while others disagree.

On the move

"It's decision time," says Chris Burry, technology infrastructure practice director for consulting firm Avanade. "Corporations need to adopt their strategies and give themselves the lead time to make intelligent decisions."

Burry says it boils down to a cost/risk analysis based on the amount of change going on in a company.

"There are two risk decisions. If you have no plans to change your infrastructure, hardware or add new applications maybe you can stay. But if you don't make a change you can introduce risk especially if there is a bug in the software that you can't get fixed."

There are many users who have to go through the mental gymnastics.

The Yankee Group reports that nearly 70% of Microsoft customers still have NT somewhere in their network. And IDC says that one-third of the Microsoft install base are NT server shops, while nearly 20% run NT Workstation on the desktop.

Another telling number is that more than 70% of Exchange customers are on Version 5.5, which most often is run on NT. That translates into nearly 78 million corporate e-mail seats.

"NT is working fine for us, but we have a corporate mandate to get off of unsupported software," says Gary Stoynoff, product consultant for network software for the Wisconsin/Michigan chapter of the American Automobile Association in Dearborn, Mich. "We don't want to get stuck without security patches. Being an insurance company, risk avoidance is something we like to do."

This month, the company will begin migrating 240 NT servers to Windows 2000. Stoynoff says his staff is looking forward to better administrative tools and security with Win 2000.

For some companies, the move is not so tidy because of homegrown applications coded for NT that have to be rewritten for a new operating system. And many have pressing needs for new applications that don't run on NT.

Brian Skrentny, network engineer for Grande Cheese in Brownsville, Wis., has weeded out all but 20% of his NT servers, but can't move those supporting legacy applications designed for NT until they are rewritten.

"Ideally we would like to have them migrated before NT support ends," Skrentny says. "If not, we'll have to take our chances, but I'm not very comfortable with it." Skrentny says the company has an e-mail gateway product that only runs on NT. "I've reminded them that NT support is ending but they have yet to upgrade," he says.

Others are just fed up with NT.

"NT had its moment, but we are tired of supporting its issues," says Kevin Barnas, senior network engineer for Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan. "We have lots of troubleshooting with NT. It has networking problems." Last month Barnas began using migration tools from NetIQ to retire 80 NT servers, and he hopes to have NT eliminated by June next year. He says he stayed on the platform for so long because it was supporting a large thin-client deployment that is being upgraded and because of homegrown DOS-based applications, which are being rewritten for Win 2000.

There were also economic factors.

"It's been a struggle each budget season to justify an upgrade of the [operating system]," Barnas says. "The executives say why upgrade it if it works, but now we have reason to justify the move."

No time to panic

Despite the impending support deadline, experts say, users don't have to panic over NT.

"If something is working and reliable this is no reason to step up to the next [operating system]," says Al Gillen, research director for system software at IDC. "Chances are an [operating system] being used to run firewalls and Web servers will need patches and updates. But [for] apps running such things as file and print that are buried in the company, there is no reason to upgrade."

That advice mirrors the thoughts of Microsoft.

"If you are a customer running some application on NT 4.0 that you haven't touched in a long time it would be silly for us to encourage you to upgrade that system," says Bob O'Brien, group product manager for Windows servers. But O'Brien is not shy in expressing where he thinks users who decide to upgrade should go.

"We are close enough to releasing Windows .Net Server that customers should look at its performance, security, Web services support and collaboration features that are not in Windows 2000," he adds.

But the decision isn't so cut and dried, especially for those on NT and fresh off evaluating their support options.

Microsoft's new end-of-support timetable has mainstream support for Win 2000 ending in March 2005, whereas Windows .Net Server will have support until 2008. But the operating system likely won't have its first service pack until mid-2003, a milestone many wait for before deploying new Microsoft software.

The best course of action, experts say, might be to buy Windows .Net Server licenses, exercise the downgrade rights and roll out Win 2000. Users who upgrade to Win 2000 and buy into Microsoft's Licensing 6.0 program also will get the rights to upgrade later.

But some might choose Linux as a replacement for such things as file and print and Web servers. Recent IDC surveys show Linux has nearly 28% of the server market, and the software is getting strong backing from IBM.

Whatever avenue taken, some say applications used for business systems must be taken off NT now because lack of support raises serious liability issues.

"Unsupported software has ramifications, especially in an interconnected world," says Laura DiDio, an analyst with The Yankee Group. "If a security breach can be attributed to a problem with your unsupported software you could open yourself up to legal troubles. If NT bugs are corrupting your partner's data they could sue you."

DiDio says it is imperative that users avoid thinking NT's retirement is a nonissue because they don't use Microsoft support. "That's a very narrow viewpoint," she says. "Unsupported software means lots of things. Anyone just sitting there passively is increasing his risks."

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