What the end of Windows XP means for you

Windows XP will still be usable after April 8 but potential security threats and software compatibility issues mean that migration is the best – and cheapest – option.

Microsoft’s announcement that it will no longer provide technical support for its 12-year-old Windows XP operating system as of April 8 has caused quite a lot of consternation amongst its user base. Given that an estimated 20 per cent of all the world’s computers are still using the soon-to-be unsupported XP (though in Australia, the percentage is substantially lower, at just 7.8 per cent), it’s little wonder that it has prompted such a reaction.

But what are the implications for organisations that continue to use XP after the deadline expires?

Security and compatibility

First and foremost, there is the issue of security. With Microsoft no longer providing patches for vulnerabilities after April 8, nefarious characters will have the opportunity to exploit any vulnerabilities in the operating system which have not been identified and fixed before that date. Indeed, security experts have speculated that hackers are stockpiling attacks that target identified vulnerabilities, and plan to execute them after April 8. This way, they will be able to attack systems using those avenues for a prolonged period, knowing that Microsoft won’t provide further security patches.

If that was not enough to contend with, next there is the issue of compatibility. New application software being developed may no longer support Windows XP. This is also linked to one of the issues holding back the migration from XP, as many organisations are running legacy applications on XP that will not run on Windows 7 or 8.

So how should organisations approach their migration?

Well, despite the tight timeframe they are now faced with, organisations should still take the time to test the new operating system prior to deployment and carry out the migration in stages, so as to minimise disruption to the network.

Given that the cut-off date for support is only a week away, and full operating system migration takes up to six months to complete, larger organisations who have not begun the migration will not have time to see this through to completion before the deadline. As such, they should take corollary steps to ensure that their threat of exposure to breaches is minimised. An effective way of doing this is to engage a third party to provide technical support in the intervening period until the migration is complete.

Maintaining XP will sink the boat

While upgrading your network en masse may be a costly endeavour, maintaining XP will prove far more costly -- and not just financially. While there will be monetary costs of retaining XP -- Microsoft will be offering extended special support fees in the US -- the security and compatibility issues will also contribute to significant opportunity costs. XP’s incompatibility with new and forthcoming technologies will stymy an organisation’s innovation and growth potential.

News of the withdrawal of free tech support for XP has been felt particularly keenly by the banking industry. With around 95 per cent of the world’s ATMs still using XP, banks will be forced to pay hundreds of millions in ongoing support fees, before eventually having to go through the process of upgrading all of their machines with a more up-to-date operating system.

For those organisations who have not initiated their migration in time to have it finalised prior to the April 8 deadline, Microsoft has announced that it will make available a Malicious Software Removal Tool for XP until July 14, 2015, and it will also continue to provide signature files for their software that runs on XP, including Windows Defender, Microsoft Security Essentials, and System Centre Endpoint Protection.

Windows 8 a shock to the system

Moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 should be fairly straightforward for employees to deal with, as most would have been using Windows 7 on their own personal devices for several years. The operating system also provides the option to create a user interface that looks and behaves in exactly the same way as Windows XP.

Windows 8, on the other hand, may come as a bit of a shock to staff, as the user interface is radically different. However, the new update to Windows 8 (Windows 8.1), will allow users to boot it direct to the desktop, just like Windows 7 and XP, thus making the transition an easier process. Nevertheless, it is still important to have an effective change management strategy in place to ensure that employees understand the need for this migration, and that accessible support is provided to anyone who encounters any difficulties navigating the new operating system. Microsoft has also aided this process by providing numerous online educational videos to guide users through the process of using its newer operating systems.    

Organisations should not panic about the impending deadline for Windows XP support. However, they should be setting the wheels in motion on their migration strategy if they have not done so already, as a number of factors -- including compatibility issues with new hardware and applications, heightened security threats, and spiraling ongoing support costs -- will quickly render maintaining XP an unviable option.

Lawrence Garvin is head geek at enterprise IT software provider SolarWinds.