End of Life

End of Life

March 4th, 2014 by Christopher C. Wright

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We at MSMB Networks have received many questions from Sonoma County business owners concerned with the upcoming end-of-life for Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. Today we’re exploring what it means for local companies when April 8th comes and Microsoft no longer releases security or usability updates for these still-popular products.

What is “End of Life?”

Companies producing computer software, like those manufacturing cars or appliances, determine how long a given product will be supported. Whereas with cars or a blender which can be protected with a warranty, software is supported with security updates to prevent hostile users from taking over your system or accessing your information. However at some point, just as warranties for complex machines last for a set time period, companies must decide that they will no longer support an old and outdated version of their software, particularly if they have released new versions.

Windows XP was released in 2001 and has been a standard for business workstations across the world ever since. Microsoft has lengthened its support timeframe for XP several times owing to its vast popularity, but after 13 years and several new operating systems they have announced that they will release their last security patch on Tuesday, April 8th. This is important news because exploitable vulnerabilities are still being discovered which allow attackers to steal information, penetrate corporate networks, and wreck havoc. After April 8th Microsoft will no longer patch these holes as they are found, no matter how serious.

Similarly Office 2003, Microsoft’s flagship office suite, is also receiving its last patch on April 8th. While less vulnerable than an entire operating system, security vulnerabilities are also regularly found that, if exploited, would become a very effective vector for attacks.

Though Microsoft has been announcing this sunset date for several years many Sonoma County businesses continue to use these vulnerable applications.

Getting Secure

A large reason Microsoft announced the end of life so far ahead of time is to give businesses the opportunity to inventory their network and plan accordingly for upgrades. In the years since Windows XP was released Microsoft has produced several additional operating systems, including Windows Vista, 7, and 8. Many industry-specific software vendors have not tested their products with Windows 8 or are in the process of updating to ensure compatibility. Upgrading a workstation to a new operating system is a serious endeavor, particularly because often older hardware can’t cope with the demands of new software.

As hardware and software ages, the amount of time spent maintaining it increase dramatically. A common adage in the IT field is a system should be replaced if the cost to repair is half the price of a new workstation or more. Upgrading an operating system could easily take a technician three to four hours, plus the cost of the software, easily increasing the cost of an in-place upgrade. New systems bought with warranties and support agreements are protected by the manufacturer for a period of one to three years, and will typically show greatly reduced IT overhead costs.

When it comes to word processing and spreadsheet applications, there are several choices. Staying with Microsoft Office is a very popular option, and Microsoft has given businesses two ways to pay for the software. As with previous versions companies can purchase individual copies of the suite, which will be supported until their respective end-of-life dates, currently undeclared. Alternatively Microsoft has begun offering what they have called “Office365,” a subscription-based service where companies lease the right to use the software at prices that may be much more attractive to the small business market.

There are alternate software suites available for those who don’t use the collaboration options found within Microsoft Office or for those who are looking to reduce the cost of their software. Programs such as LibreOffice have been developed as low-cost competitors to Microsoft Word, Excel, Publisher, and PowerPoint, and by and large do a very good job at providing a comparable experience. A word of warning however that these alternative software suites may not handle all plugins and document types as well as the more mainstream programs, and so are not recommended for industries with many specific forms in their documentation, such as legal or financial firms.

Looking Ahead

We at MSMB Networks believe the best way to prepare for software going end-of-life is to be aware of it with enough lead time that an informed plan and budget can be created. Updating three or four workstations at a time over the course of months is often much more appealing to the bottom line instead of replacing 20-50 within the same quarter. Spreading out the upgrades allows users to learn the new system if necessary and also for IT staff to properly handle and prepare for any additional requirements, changes, or snags that may emerge during a larger migration.

Some companies do not reveal their “end of life” dates, such as Apple quietly dropping all security patches for their popular Snow Leopard OS, released in 2009, and so a knowledgeable IT staff is key. Not only should they be focused on problems and solutions facing a network today but also should be keeping an eye on the horizon, noting when updates, upgrades, or replacements are due, and when warranties from hardware and software vendors expire.

The next large pieces of office software to end their support are Microsoft Server 2003 in July of next year, Office 2007 and Windows Vista in April of 2017. Many other vendors and program creators have internal end-of-life dates for their products, and this information should be documented with your network diagram, important configuration and organization details, and software inventory.

Do you know when your software goes end-of-life or when your hardware warranties expire? Call us today at 415.462.6297 and we will ensure that you will be well-prepared, and well-covered, for many years to come.

MSMB Networks — Your IT Professionals!

Christopher C. Wright is the CTO of MSMB Networks, focusing on network and system administration, upgrade planning, disaster recovery, and IT budget analysis in Petaluma and all over Sonoma and Marin Counties. With more than fifteen years of hands-on experience, he is committed to educating and protecting his clients, ensuring they receive the best individualized support possible. Email him at christopher@msmbnetworks.com

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