Microsoft Windows XP has been a serviceable operating system
for more than a decade in organizations of all sizes around the world. However,
with the end-of-support deadline looming (April 8, 2014), many companies are wrestling
with the need to find other OS solutions for their servers and desktop
workstations.

Migrating to a new operating system is a formidable task,
and many businesses have been unable or unwilling to take it on. In India, for
example, 16% of large enterprises are still running XP, as are 35% of banking and
financial services institutions. In scenarios like that, sunsetting of the XP operating
system will drive maintenance costs to excruciating levels, expose new security
risks, and prevent companies from moving to innovative technologies as they
become available.

Many tech and business leaders are trying to decide which
route to take, recognizing that the end of XP support represents an opportunity
to shift gears — and feeling the pressure to implement a viable long-term platform
strategy. Let’s take a closer look at each of the available options for an OS
replacement.

The immediate choice: Windows 8.1

At a large technology conference recently, a popular New
York media commentator quipped to his audience, “I have 11,000 of the smartest
technology minds before me. So — has anyone figured out Windows 8?”

The remark was in jest, but it drew its share of snickers, because
for many companies, there was truth in it.

Windows 8.x comes with a touch-oriented user interface that
positions companies for new technologies. It also provides a desktop UI that appears
to move closer toward a uniform user interface across desktops and tablets.
This could be advantageous for device interoperability with end users, and it
might mean less training in the long run. Unfortunately, the dramatic shift in
the user interface is so disruptive for companies at present, many are hiring
consultants to unload the Windows 8 OS that comes pre-installed on new desktops
and to reinstall Windows 7.

For bosses already concerned about employee productivity, users
struggling to find a miniscule desktop icon that offers entry into business
applications among the noise of movie, game, music, social media, news, and
other diversionary icons isn’t helping, either.

It’s also not an easy task to upgrade from XP
to Windows 8.x. It takes hours to reinstall applications and restore files on desktops,
let alone corporate servers in data centers. Microsoft even put out a call for power users to help friends
and family with the XP-to-Windows 8.1 upgrade process. It’s
small wonder that many companies are shying away from migrations to Windows
8. 

The preferred choice: Windows 7

It also comes as no surprise that a majority of enterprises
have planned their migration efforts around Windows 7, which is a stable operating
system platform with a business-friendly user interface. Moving Windows XP users
to Windows 7 also requires very little retraining. And a plethora of commercial
enterprise applications already run on Windows 7.

Judging from the chilly enterprise response to Windows 8.x,
and the fact that many businesses are already engaged in projects that are
migrating Windows XP machines to Windows 7, it would seem unlikely that Microsoft
plans to de-implement Windows 7 anytime soon. If it does, there might be enough
pressure to restore some of the lost business focus of Windows 8.x to Windows 9
— and to make that transition easier.

Whatever the outcome, there is enough business disappointment
with Windows 8.x to encourage Microsoft to take a hard look at any decision
that would de-implement Windows 7 in the near future.

Time for Linux?

A decision to migrate to Linux is by necessity a two-pronged
one. The first prong involves the commercial applications that the company must
have for its business. The second consists of the common suite of Office
applications Microsoft is known for.

Make no mistake about it. The commercial software offerings
available for business applications in Linux are plentiful and well seasoned.
They are the results of an open source community that has heavily focused on them
for the past decade. Linux is also a natural virtualization platform (e.g., KVM
Linux, SUSE Linux, and various other Linux flavors), which coincides well with
most enterprises’ desire to continue to virtualize and to move more applications
into the cloud.

Security breaches of Linux-based systems are rare compared
to the breaches and threats that plague Windows, and Linux is also a highly
stable and resilient OS where almost every major IT vendor has a presence. From
the standpoint of the data center and mission-critical application servers,
there is a lot to like.  

A more difficult issue is how to fill the shoes of Windows
in the office. While there are office suites that run on Linux, and whose files can be exported to Microsoft Office,
no one relishes the idea of having to retrain employees on new office software,
especially given Microsoft’s dominant position in office applications. There is
also the issue of how “perfect” the file translations from these other office products
are, since corporate employees must also exchange these files with other
organizations that run their office apps on Microsoft.

Programs like CrossOver enable users to install one or two Windows applications on Linux. Users can also run Windows software
in a Linux emulation mode with some sacrifices of functionality (like
encryption), but these, too, are imperfect solutions that require retraining.

Perhaps the best complementary strategy for a shop choosing
to move its Windows application base to Linux in the data center is to
outsource Office applications to a third-party vendor offering virtual desktop
such as Google or Amazon. Even
if outsourcing is a temporary strategy, it can get a company through the XP
sunsetting crisis until it can make a smooth transition to another OS platform for
its office applications.

The road less traveled: Mac OS

If an XP conversion presents a major challenge for a shop
that runs most of its mission-critical applications in the data center in a Mac
environment, the decommissioning of XP could be the tipping point to consider Mac
for office applications, too.

Industries like publishing, graphics, broadcasting, and
music heavily rely on Apple solutions for their work. On both its desktop and
notebook platforms, Apple has its own office suite, the centerpiece of which is
Pages, which assumes the workload
of Microsoft Word. Pages easily translates its files into Word formats for
export to Word users, so there is no compatibility anxiety. If you don’t like
Pages, there are also a number of commercially available office suites available for Mac that offer
file translation into Word formats — and of course, there’s Word itself.

What if you can’t make the deadline?

All of this discussion brings us back to the impending end
of XP support, and what to do if you can’t make the deadline.

First, relax. While
there might be complications and you might have to temporarily pay more for
support if you require it, at least this isn’t a Y2K deadline with its hard stop
line on dates. You can continue to run your applications on XP as you always
have after formal support ends. However, if you are in charge of these apps, as
most IT managers are, you will want to explain to your executive management what the risks are, how you are going to mitigate them, what additional budget
should be reserved for anything unanticipated, what your migration strategy is,
and how long it will take.

Clearly, you have to migrate off Windows XP to another OS
platform — but with a little risk management and an orderly and well-conceived
plan, you can make the transition, even if not all of it is complete by the
deadline.

This is also a golden opportunity for many companies to
reconsider their long-term Windows strategies, given the unstable and sometimes
unpredictable history of this operating system.

Industrial-strength commercial applications that run in the
Linux environment for business-critical applications numbers in the thousands.
As a natural “virtualization” operating system, Linux is also a safe and a stable
bet as a long-term OS strategy from the micro on up to the mainframe tier of
the data center — so perhaps now is the time to consider making it the data
center’s OS of choice.

For the office, the time might also be at hand to consider a
virtual desktop strategy, even if it is temporary while you perform a systematic
transition of your PCs to a new OS environment, whatever the technology might be.
Indeed, a hybrid strategy that features Linux as a major OS platform in the data
center and virtual desktop for the office tools could well prove to be a viable
strategy for many companies that want to optimize their business software
advantages at the same time that they reduce future risk.

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