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Windows XP end of support: What are the risks for users?

As the Windows XP end of support nears, see what IT admins should do to prepare for the end of life of Microsoft's venerable OS.

In 2010, Dimensional Research surveyed more than 950 IT professionals about their plans for Windows XP after Microsoft...

stops supporting the operating system in April 2014. Of those who responded, 48% claimed that they would continue using the product. According to an IDC report released almost two years later, only 11% of Microsoft's commercial clients will be running Windows XP. That report, however, was sponsored by Microsoft and involved only nine organizations. Even if the IDC projections are accurate, many enterprises will still be running XP-based systems in 2014, and doing so could prove to be risky business.

Losing Microsoft's Windows XP support at the end of life

After Microsoft ends support of Windows XP, it will no longer provide software updates for the operating system (OS). Of greatest concern are the security fixes that protect against malware such as viruses and worms. According to Microsoft's Security Intelligence Report, Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) -- the only version still receiving security updates -- is over twice as vulnerable to infections as the 32-bit version of Windows 7 SP1 and nearly three times as vulnerable as the 64-bit version. Without security updates, Windows XP will become increasingly vulnerable. Cybercriminals may step up their attacks after the Windows XP end of life.

And it's not just the lack of security patches that causes IT to lose sleep. Operating system updates also improve reliability and keep hardware running properly. But after April 2014, those protections are gone, along with per-incident support services and hotfix agreement support. Windows XP might seem stable today, but in just over a year that stability might be little more than a memory.

Lagging behind technology

Productivity and technology have become nearly synonymous, as seen in the trend toward consumerization. Windows XP was developed to run on hardware manufactured a dozen years ago and to interact with technologies from that same era. Software and hardware are now much faster and more efficient, but Windows XP can't take complete advantage of them. For example, XP can't fully exploit the memory capabilities of today's PCs.

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In addition, computers now support features such as high-resolution monitors, touchscreen functionality, faster USB ports, and integrated Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. In many cases, Windows XP doesn't natively support such features, or its support is limited. When compared with an OS that takes full advantage of hardware's capabilities, an XP-based system can translate into lost productivity, particularly for users accustomed to the modern interfaces found in their home systems and mobile devices.

By continuing to run Windows XP, enterprise IT also faces diminishing support and availability of third-party hardware and software. Before long, peripherals will not include compatible drivers, and new products or updated versions of existing products will not run in Windows XP. That might be fine for an organization planning to run its systems exactly as they exist today, without doing any software or hardware upgrades, but even this approach is nothing more than a temporary solution.

For example, Mozilla announced that Firefox 12 will be the last version of its Web browser to support Windows XP editions prior to SP3, so most XP users are safe for now. But what happens when Firefox and other browsers no longer support SP3? Internet users will be putting their systems at greater risk because the browsers won't be receiving current updates, and those users cannot take advantage of new Web technologies that require updated browser features.

Rising operating costs

The IDC report also concluded that running Windows XP can cost five times more to manage than running Windows 7, a pronouncement Microsoft happily jumped on in evangelizing a move to the newer OS. But the report makes another valid point. Windows XP usually runs on older machines, and the combination of aging hardware and a 12-year-old OS can increase the need for support resources and contribute to downtime and lost productivity.

According to the report, the annual cost to support a Windows XP-based PC averages $870, compared with $168 for a Windows 7 system. Even if the differences are not so extreme in your organization, the costs associated with supporting older systems cannot be ignored. And once Microsoft has pulled its support, those differences are likely to increase because more time will needed to protect those systems, keep them running and integrate newer technologies.

End of the line for Windows XP

Ready or not, come April 8, 2014, Microsoft will execute the Windows XP lifecycle end. By sticking with the OS, some enterprises are putting their systems at greater risk, sacrificing stability, minimizing productivity and incurring higher operating costs.

In addition, organizations that stick with Windows XP might have problems standardizing systems or addressing compliance issues that might arise as a result of running an unsupported OS.

To be sure, upgrading an enterprise to a new OS and whatever equipment is necessary to support that upgrade is no small task and could require a significant investment. Not all legacy applications and hardware can make the transition. Windows migration efforts never run as smoothly as everyone hopes, and some organizations might be able to make a case for sticking with the OS past the Windows XP end of support.

In most situations, however, holding on to the legacy OS could prove to be a liability. Carefully analyze the potential costs and risks. Careful planning for a Windows upgrade needs to happen today, not two years down the road.

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