Most enterprises have moved on from Internet Explorer 6. But when it comes to running important legacy apps, the combination of this browser and Windows XP remains in widespread use.
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With Windows 8 around the corner and XP support lifecycles ending soon, companies need to make a move. Part of the problem is the time and cost needed to update applications for new operating systems and browsers. Plus, IT administrators see little value in upgrading their systems and apps unless there are new features in the next-generation platforms that add value to the business.
One Ohio-based IT pro, who until recently worked in a large bank, said his former employer still runs Windows XP. He said he can't imagine the bank upgrading for at least another two years. Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) apps drive the business, and an upgrade could be disruptive because of potential application-compatibility glitches, he said.
Small and midsize businesses also tend to stay with OSes and browsers long after Microsoft ceases to offer security updates for the software.
"I see doctor's offices still running Windows 98," said Michael Cherry, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent analyst firm in Kirkland, Wash. Cherry said it makes him cringe, but he understands that they do it because it still gets the job done.
With Windows 8 and Internet Explorer 10 due later this year, Cherry advised companies to upgrade to Windows 7, which is stable. This will give them a clean upgrade path to Windows 8 -- and a better operating system.
For those who must continue using IE6, there are ways to move to Windows 7 without immediately updating legacy IE6 applications.
Running IE6 apps in a Windows 7, IE9 world
IT can run legacy apps using the browser engines built into IE8 and IE9 in Windows 7, with Ion, a tool developed by Browsium Inc. It works without rendering the IE6 engine the way the Redmond, Wash.-based company's previous product, Unibrows, did.
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Ion is a migration tool that lets IT upgrade to Windows 7 and IE9 without spending money and time on application upgrades, said Matt Crowley, chief technology officer of Browsium, who previously served as a Microsoft Program Manager on the Internet Explorer team.
"Businesses like banks, all they need is a terminal system, which is why they have the same apps they had 20 years ago," Crowley said. "We allow them to keep using their apps instead of paying more for new versions they don't need."
For instance, companies using massive, customized ERP systems that rely on IE6 would have to spend big money to upgrade those systems, simply to avoid compatibility problems with next-generation browsers, said Matt Heller, CEO of Browsium, who previously worked with Microsoft and its Internet Explorer customers.
Here, the upgrade gives ERP vendor significant gains, but the customer gets very little additional value out of it, he said.
Microsoft officials said they were unable to comment on the Browsium technology. Microsoft does promote IE6 virtualization through its Med-V product, a component of Microsoft's Desktop Optimization Pack.
Some other options include using XP Mode to run IE6 apps, or Quest Software Inc.'s IE6 App Compat tool. Companies can use Citrix Systems Inc.'s XenApp to deliver IE6 remotely to users. With this option, the IE6 browser lives on a Remote Desktop Services server and is delivered using XenApp. Since XenApp doesn't separate the OS from IE, it is fully supported, as are the previously mentioned tools that keep Windows and IE together.
Browsium executives claimed that Ion is simpler than using virtualization, because the virtualization options require an extra Windows instance to run with IE -- an extra instance of Windows to manage, secure and support.
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Ion also runs multiple versions of Java side by side in IE tabs and lets IT pros manage IE security settings per Web app. Pricing is flexible. The base licensing fee is $5,000 annually, and the per-seat fee depends on the number of seats. The free Browsium Ion 60-day Evaluation Kit is available now.
Browsium executives also said there is minimal latency involved with spinning up an IE6 program using Ion software; it is equivalent to IE spinning up a user's homepage. The delay would be longer with desktop virtualization, Heller said.
IE10 to introduce new compatibility problems
Enterprise IT shops might also expect application incompatibilities in the upcoming IE10 browser.
"If people move to Windows 7 and IE8 or IE9 first, the transition shouldn't be too tough,” Cherry said. "I don't know that Microsoft will offer a clean upgrade path from Windows XP to Windows 8."
Windows 8 desktops will include two different IE10 browser versions: one for the Metro UI and one for the traditional user interface. In both versions, the rendering engine component will be different. In addition, IE10 won't include conditional comments, which are used by developers for things like differentiating Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) rules for specific versions of Internet Explorer.
"Since conditional comments are being removed, none of those apps will work," Browsium's Crowley said. "That's a huge change that will impact enterprises."
For companies that find that their Web apps won't work, Browsium said it will deliver a product for the traditional interface to make things work in Windows 8. The Metro interface browser is locked down, so extensions such as the Ion tool can't run in it.