Standing at the Windows XP crossroads: Where do you go next?

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Around the world, organizations are trying to hammer out a strategy for replacing Windows XP. Here's a rundown of your primary options and why (or why not) they might make sense for your business.

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

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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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