Making the case for the upgrade from NT to XP

You know it's time to upgrade the OS and office suite, but you're just not sure whether XP is the right choice. Find out why it might--or might not-- be the best decision for your organization and the other upgrade scenarios to consider.

Many companies standardized on Windows NT and Office 97 as their corporate personal computing environment for good reasons. Windows NT 4.0 was touted (by Microsoft) as the most stable, secure OS available. And Office 97 was described as a quantum leap ahead of its predecessors (and competitors).

But it’s been six years, and many environments are in dire need of a face-lift. Newer releases of both the Windows and Office platforms have come to market, and companies that are holding on to NT and Office 97 lag behind, facing issues of supportability, security exposures, and compatibility with present industry de facto standards.

Meanwhile, organizations that have standardized on Windows 2000 and Office 2000 are actually in reasonably good shape and can likely defer an upgrade until .NET and Office 11 have at least one service pack under their respective belts.

This spring will bring a new round of PC purchasing, and 2003 capital budgets will be maturing, so it’s prime time for organizations using NT and Office 97 to prepare to adopt Microsoft’s XP platforms. The first step is formulating a project plan for Windows XP and Office XP to ensure consistent, cost-effective development of the new standard.

First understand the background
In 1996, Windows NT 4.0 and Office 97 were released and heralded as the choice for functionality, reliability, and security for their respective platforms, prompting many organizations worldwide to standardize on them. It’s for those same valid reasons that organizations have ignored subsequent upgrades. But as with everything, there’s a price to pay. As organizations continued to purchase PCs, they ended up with a mixed environment of OSs and office suites due in part to several factors:
  • Manufacturers such as Dell, Compaq, and IBM no longer bundled Windows NT with new equipment.
  • For technical and business reasons, new PCs were not always retrofitted with the older standard OS and office suite.
  • Clients sometimes insisted on running the latest version of technology as it became available.
  • Incompatibilities existed between Windows NT and some of the newer hardware standards available, such as plug-and-play and USB technologies.

While cleaning up a mixed environment is a valid reason to upgrade, there are also several other reasons for considering the XP infrastructure:
  • Microsoft’s Product Support Lifecycle announcement last fall: While it doesn’t add much new information with respect to Windows NT 4.0 and Office 97, it does punctuate the end-of-life proximity for such platforms and adds some urgency.
  • Microsoft Open License (MOL) agreement: Since many organizations have finally signed on with MOL and they’re already paying for the new software, they might as well install and use it.
  • As 2003 capital budgets mature and a new purchasing cycle revs up, delaying an upgrade only draws more cost at the end of the road. Organizations that retrofit with legacy standards and later upgrade will find they have considerably more work to do.

It is for these reasons that organizations should now undertake a project to select a common XP platform and take steps to implement a new standard across the company.

Platform alternatives
Before delving into available options, remember that this article is geared toward enterprises that have not already upgraded to at least Windows 2000/Office 2000.

As noted earlier, organizations on a 2000 platform are in excellent shape and should likely not consider an upgrade to an all-XP platform. The amount of effort in the upgrade project compared against the incremental benefits doesn’t favor the move.

Here are the four primary upgrade options and related issues that require attention.

1. Standardize on Windows XP and Office XP
A pure XP environment with Windows XP as the base OS and Office XP as the productivity suite is the best choice for platform standardization.

Both XP offerings have proven to be very stable and well received by the technical and business community. Both have also released at least one service pack, which will typically address the many issues associated with first releases. Both have many years remaining with respect to product support life, and will require equal or less upgrade effort than standardization options. Windows XP, in particular, offers greater compatibility with legacy applications than does Windows 2000. Windows XP also offers a higher level of compatibility for legacy systems older than Windows 2000.

This makes Windows XP a more attractive upgrade than Windows 2000 if older software is to be maintained in the environment.

2. Do nothing (wait for .NET)
This is a short-term option that has no visible costs but in reality does have associated costs. Remaining with a mixed Windows/Office environment throughout the organization is costly to support, does not address data incompatibility issues, limits clients’ ability to utilize new technologies, and limits clients’ access to more productive and stable technologies.

If organizations wait until the release of Windows and Office .NET platforms before upgrading, they’ll lag behind in technology, and there will be an increasing number of nonstandard PCs deployed throughout the organization as new PCs are purchased and not faithfully retrofitted to the legacy standard.

The .NET platforms will be very new and so completely unproven—therefore inherently riskier alternatives to consider, at least in the early releases. I advise organizations to wait until the first .NET service pack before mass adoption. Such service packs are unlikely to be released in 2003.

Keep in mind, however, that this option becomes less viable as time progresses and only delays the inevitable need to upgrade the Windows and Office standards. Beyond the short term, this is not a viable option.

3. Standardize on Windows 2000 and Office 2000
Migrating clients to Windows 2000 and Office 2000 is a real possibility but has fewer long-term benefits than some other options.

Windows 2000 has proved to be a capable and stable platform—and it’s a mature product on its third service pack release. Windows 2000 was released in late 1999 and has been widely adopted and well received in the business community. It’s a proven and stable platform for both desktops and servers.

Office 2000 was also released in fall 1999 and is currently on its second service pack. Office 2000 was a significant improvement over Office 97 with respect to stability, features, and performance. Yet, it introduced incompatibilities with previous Office versions. The incompatibility was minor with Word and Excel and more significant with the Access application.

Because both Windows 2000 and Office 2000 are mature products, they would be stable platforms. The single biggest detractor for both of these respective platforms is that they’ve been supplanted by subsequent (and improved) releases of both Windows and Office, namely the XP versions. This means that the effort and costs incurred wouldn’t have as much long-term benefit as upgrading to products that were not so aged in their respective product lifecycles.

4. Standardize on Windows XP and Office 2000
This option represents a blending of new and newer technologies. While experience has found this combination to be stable and viable, the ROI involved in upgrading is weaker than simply upgrading to a pure XP environment.

Since the release of both Windows 2000 and Office 2000 in 1999, newer versions of the OS and office suite have come to market, specifically Windows XP and Office XP.

In 2003, Microsoft will release both Windows .NET and Office .NET (official names not yet decided). This means that if an organization were to deploy either Windows 2000 or Office 2000, they would adopt technology that is already quite mature in the Microsoft Product Support Lifecycle.

With the costs and upgrade effort similar, if not identical, to that of Windows XP/Office XP, and with a pure XP environment being younger in its product support lifecycle, there is not one compelling reason to consider this option.

Upgrade recommendations
I recommend that firms standardize on Windows XP and Office XP for the following reasons:
  • Windows XP and Office XP are the latest releases in the operating system and productivity suite categories. They both include technology that is faster, more secure, easier to use, and more stable than previous versions of each respective product platform.
  • While both Windows XP and Office XP are the latest products, they each have at least one service pack that has been released. Waiting for at least one service pack prior to adoption of a product is a practice recommended by major consulting organizations in order to avoid the initial bugs commonly found in new product releases.
  • The cost to standardize on XP and Office XP is the same as it would be with earlier releases of each platform (i.e., Windows 2000 or Office 2000); however, the selection of the XP platforms will provide organizations with greater shelf life because both products are much younger with respect to Microsoft’s Product Support Lifecycle.

As part of a continuing focus on XP issues and topics, stay tuned for insight on specific deployment alternatives (such as mass upgrade vs. staged upgrade) as well as implementation consideration and how to approach application testing.

What’s your take on XP?
We’re looking for advice, stories, and tips on XP efforts. Write and tell us why you use or didn’t choose to upgrade to XP. If we include your feedback in a future article, we’ll send you a TechRepublic coffee mug.


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