Windows 2000 is shipping. Windows .NET server is in beta and should be shipping by the end of this year. Meanwhile, back in the corner of your server room your Windows NT 4.0 server sits—humming happily, serving files, hosting Web sites, sending e-mail, and printing reports. What’s a network administrator to do? Upgrade to Windows 2000 immediately? Wait for .NET? Hold on to Windows NT until the server finally dies?

One of the things a network administrator must take into consideration when deciding what to do about a server platform is the type of support that can be expected out of a vendor. In this Daily Feature, I’ll look at how Microsoft plans to bring down the curtain on Windows NT. Knowing Microsoft’s plans to phase out Windows NT 4.0 will help you decide when, or if, you need to migrate to Windows 2000 or .NET Server.

We’re behind you all the way—until it becomes too costly
Vendors provide patches and upgrades for as long as it’s economically feasible. After all, as a product gets older and is no longer being sold, it becomes more expensive to support it. While supporting older products can increase customer confidence and create customer loyalty, after a while, there comes a point of diminishing returns, and the product must be discontinued along with its support.

When examining whether to cancel support or discontinue a product, the vendor generally looks at the added support expenses, including training and maintenance. The vendor must cross-train its staff to support multiple platforms. Sometimes this even means training employees to support products that were first released while they were still in elementary school. Adding to the pressure to discontinue a product, programmers must also update and maintain old code while under pressure to add features and release new versions.

Eventually, something has to give. That something usually winds up being support for your product—in this case, the Windows NT server.

To buy or not to buy: That is the question
Microsoft began shipping Windows NT 4.0 in September 1996. Nearly six years later, NT is still very popular. However, with one newer version of Windows shipping and another one about to ship, Microsoft has little interest in continuing to sell Windows NT 4.0.

As it stands right now, you can purchase and install brand-new Windows NT 4.0 server licenses, as long as you don’t plan to do so using Microsoft Volume Licensing. Microsoft stopped supplying new Windows NT 4.0 volume licenses back in October 2001. If you’re a Volume Licensing customer, you must purchase Windows 2000 licenses and exercise what Microsoft calls “Downgrade Rights.” Essentially, this means that even though you’ve bought Windows 2000, you have the right to install Windows NT instead.

If you don’t participate in the Volume License program, your time for purchasing Windows NT is quickly running out. As of July 1, 2002, Microsoft will stop selling Windows NT through Direct OEM channels, such as IBM or Compaq, as well as other reselling channels, such as retail stores. As of July 1, 2003, Microsoft will stop selling Windows NT licenses through participants of Microsoft’s System Builder program.

What about support?
Microsoft hasn’t provided a new Service Pack for Windows NT since the turn of the century. Last year, Microsoft decided that NT 4.0’s code base was solid enough after shipping Service Pack 6a that it wouldn’t produce a Service Pack 7 or subsequent Service Pack. However, Microsoft has continued to supply hot fixes for post-Service Pack 6a problems that have popped up from time to time. Additionally, Microsoft has consistently produced security hot fixes for Windows NT 4.0 when security holes have appeared, including providing a large security service pack called the Windows NT Security Rollup Package.

Going forward, Microsoft plans to continue supplying security hot fixes to Windows NT customers for free. If new security vulnerabilities appear in Windows NT, Microsoft will correct them and doesn’t plan to charge for such fixes.

While perpetually free security hot fixes are great news for NT administrators, the future isn’t so bright for free, nonsecurity hot fixes. Starting Jan. 1, 2003, Microsoft will start charging for nonsecurity-related hot fixes. To make matters worse, you’ll only be able to buy such hot fixes if you purchase a Premier-level support contract. Pricing for such hot fixes will vary depending on the change and the amount of work Microsoft has to put into it. You’ll be able to contact a Premier Technical Account Manager for prices as needed. After Jan. 1, 2004, not even Premier Customers will be able to obtain nonsecurity hot fixes.

The outlook is a little bit brighter if you have a problem and need to call Microsoft’s Technical Support to get help. Microsoft will continue to provide live technical support for Windows NT for Premier customers until Jan. 1, 2004. If you don’t have a Premier contract with Microsoft, you can obtain support by paying Microsoft on a per-incident basis. After Jan. 1, 2004, Microsoft will provide only online support for Windows NT. Microsoft plans to supply online support at least until Dec. 31, 2004.

All good things must come to an end—and Windows NT is no exception. Your ability to purchase new NT licenses and obtain hot fixes and product support is in a steady decline. Of course, if you have Windows NT servers and aren’t ready to move on to Windows 2000 or .NET Server, you can still obtain new Windows NT licenses—but you’d better hurry. For at least the next year and a half, you can count on full support from Microsoft for Windows NT. But after that, you’re pretty much on your own.