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The end of mainstream Windows 7 support on Jan. 13, 2015, caused a lot of concern for IT administrators who still need to maintain their Windows 7 deployments. The good news is that, from a security standpoint, there's little to be concerned about. Microsoft will continue to fix security problems in Windows 7 via extended support for years to come.
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However, note that Microsoft will no longer update that operating system with new features, and you will have to pay for technical support from Microsoft if you need it. Here's what to do to keep Windows 7 systems running smoothly.
Stay on top of Windows 7 security alerts
If you don't already, you'll need to browse security information repositories such as the alerts and bulletins issued by US-CERT and The MITRE Corp.'s CVE list for information that could affect Windows 7 computers.
Keep all antimalware applications up to date
This is a best practice for every computing environment, but it's even more important as an OS ages. The antivirus/antispyware suite running on Windows 7 computers must be kept current.
Also, consider adding the Microsoft Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET) version 5.1 to your antimalware arsenal. It is designed to protect against zero-day exploits that other software can't catch, and it's free. EMET requires .NET Framework 4.0.
Keep all applications up to date
Making sure that all apps running on Windows 7 are patched will go a long way toward maintaining a secure computing environment. Consider using a tool such as Secunia Corporate Software Inspector (CSI) for company-owned machines. It requires corporate licensing and fees.
In addition, there is Secunia Personal Software Inspector (PSI) for bring your own device machines running Windows or Android. It is free for home and personal use and can help you keep up with the latest security patches for most widely-used Windows applications.
The most current versions of PSI and CSI can apply such updates automatically, or you can push them out through Microsoft System Center or other management/deployment platforms with CSI only.
Install the latest browser that will run in Windows 7
Web browsers are a user's portal to the Internet and where most malware is picked up, so be sure to run the latest browser possible in Windows 7.
If compatibility problems don't arise -- and you'll have to test to determine if that's the case --consider switching users over to WhiteHat Security Labs Aviator Web browser. It's designed and continuously tested to ensure the most secure access to the Web available.
Time and technology march on, but be sure to test
Eventually, though, all of these security precautions just won't cut it. Technology marches on, bringing with it new applications and new ways to interact with those apps, which can burden older OSes. Consider touchscreens, for example. Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 are designed with touchscreens in mind, and it's no stretch to forecast that they will play an increasingly prominent role in desktop user interfaces.
New features such as the ability to access files and settings across devices using a single Microsoft account, as well as tightened security in Windows 8.1 and 10, may trump your reasons for holding on to Windows 7.
You will have to upgrade to a new operating system at some point, so why not start now by installing Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 on a test computer to see how well it performs? Be sure to test all apps, not just those most typically used. Legacy programs usually pose the biggest problems when running a new OS.
If your users need a specific application but it runs in fits and starts on Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, finding out now gives you time to talk to the vendor about a workaround or to learn about planned upgrades. You could also explore desktop virtualization as a way to run legacy apps or as a method of distributing desktops across your environment.
Don't forget about mobile devices, either, as you weigh Windows 7 support. The trend toward incorporating smartphones and tablets in the workplace remains on the rise, and newer Windows OSes are designed with these types of devices in mind. It may be worth your while to begin looking at apps or custom products that run on one of the most popular mobile platforms -- currently iOS and Android -- to complement OS upgrade plans for your desktops and laptops.
About the authors:
Kim Lindros is a full-time writer, content developer and project manager who has worked around high technology and computing since the early 1990s. She co-authored Introduction to Computers and Application Software 2nd edition (Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2015) and MTA Microsoft Technology Associate Exam 98-349 Windows Operating System Fundamentals (Wiley, 2012), among other textbooks. Lindros has developed numerous college and corporate courses focused on IT security, Microsoft technologies and Microsoft Office. She has also co-authored certification-related articles with Ed Tittel.
Ed Tittel is a 30-year-plus veteran of the computing industry who has worked as a programmer, a technical manager, a classroom instructor, a network consultant and a technical evangelist for companies that include Burroughs, Schlumberger, Novell, IBM/Tivoli and NetQoS. He has written and blogged for numerous publications and is the author of over 140 computing books with a special emphasis on information security, Web markup languages and development tools, and Windows operating systems.
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