In-Depth

Windows NT: Hard to Kill

Official Microsoft support is no more, but WCVB-TV's Rick Zach and lots of other users are sticking with their NT servers and piecing together support options.

Rick Zach is praying that his little Windows NT 4.0 servers aren't victimized by a worm, virus or an attack from inside or outside his organization. If something goes wrong with the mission-critical boxes that still run on Microsoft's aging operating system, he can't turn to Microsoft for help anymore.

Zach is chief engineer at WCVB-TV Channel 5 in the Boston area, and Jan. 1, 2005, was the day Microsoft officially stopped providing virtually all technical support for NT—unless you have really deep pockets.

Although the ABC affiliate is the largest station in the Boston area, as well as the biggest station in Hearst's communications empire, Zach doesn't have the budget to buy into Microsoft's custom support package. But he's nonetheless keeping several of those NT servers for now.

Not Dead Yet
He is far from alone. More than 40 percent of all U.S. companies still have some NT 4.0 servers in place, mostly running legacy applications, according to JupiterResearch. That number has changed little in the past year. Companies of all sizes have business-critical applications still running on the oldest of Microsoft's server operating systems, despite the fact that the last version, NT 4.0, shipped in 1996. So, while newer versions of Windows predominate, in many instances IT still has to support aging NT applications.

In Zach's case, one of those is the station's $300,000 Grass Valley switcher, a sophisticated controller used to switch between video signals as a TV producer decides what video goes on the air and when during a live broadcast.

"It's the most mission-critical TV that we do and there's NT running it all back in the corner," says Zach. While Grass Valley makes switchers that use newer OSes, this particular switcher can't accommodate a version of NT later than Service Pack 2 (SP2). "If it's revved above SP2, Grass Valley won't support it," Zach explains, because the switcher has proven to be stable on SP2. There was no guarantee a newer service pack would function as reliably, and if the SP level was changed they'd have to retest that particular switcher.

That's a problem, because television equipment doesn't become obsolete nearly as fast as computers do. "The life of the switcher is 10 to 15 years and ours is 7 years old," Zach says. He believes in the old cliché: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

NT on Life Support
The same is true for Joseph Granneman, manager of networking and data security for integrated health care provider Rockford Health Systems (RHS) in Rockford, Ill. RHS is the largest health system in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The company includes one of the largest hospitals in the state—490 beds— outside of Chicago.

Like television, the health care industry still hides pockets of applications that run on NT. RHS has dedicated NT-based devices and systems that are difficult or impossible to change out—because of cost as well as the need for reliability. Industry-specific hurdles present further impediments. "Our EKG monitoring system is on NT and we'd like to move but it's certified by the FDA," says Granneman.

Out of roughly 160 servers, Granneman estimates he still has about 20 running NT. Like many problems, this one could be solved with money, by completely replacing the systems. But with so much pressure on health care providers to hold down costs, only the most critical NT systems are currently slated for replacement.

In fact, the hospital's IT staffers have triaged their NT-based systems to identify those that need to go first. "We run a risk analysis and, if it's not directly attached to the Internet or to a patient, it's [less] important," says Granneman. One exception is the hospital's card swipe system. "That's definitely a risk [because] it controls all the doors," he says, adding, "We're trying to hit that right away." Another application soon to be upgraded handles nursing staff scheduling, while an archival system for older medical billing records stays on hold.

NT Support Timeline
The Rise and Fall of Windows NT
(Click image to view larger version.)

How Long Is Long Enough?
Given that NT is 11 years old and NT 4.0 has been out for eight, how long should Microsoft have to support it? Microsoft officials argue that it can't support all products forever, and most analysts agree.

"I don't think it's reasonable to expect any company to support [its OSes] forever," says Michael Cherry, lead analyst for operating systems at Directions on Microsoft.

"Microsoft has been more generous [about continuing to support older systems] than most operating system suppliers," agrees Dan Kusnetzky, program vice president for system software at market researcher IDC. According to IDC, by the end of 2004, NT 4.0 was expected to still represent about 17 percent of the installed base of Windows servers.

In recognizing the place NT has earned in corporate IT shops, Microsoft unveiled a new support policy last May that covers most products for five years of mainstream support and an additional five years of extended support. Under the new policy, for example, Win2K server, which came out in early 2000, will continue to be supported until June 30, 2010.

In Microsoft parlance, "mainstream support" includes all available support options, both no-charge and paid support. Extended support, on the other hand, is paid support only, with a variety of options available. Security-related hotfix support continues to be provided at no charge during the extended period.

Redmond had planned to cut off all support for NT, except for security patches, by the end of 2003. Due to customer demand, though, Microsoft extended that to the end of 2004. Then, in December 2004, just prior to the deadline, it introduced custom support contracts for large customers to run through the end of 2006, in order to give them more time to migrate to newer versions. These contracts are similar to agreements Microsoft began offering to NT Workstation users in July when all Workstation support ended.

"This [the availability of custom support contracts] gives customers a full two years to complete their migrations," says Peter Houston, Microsoft's senior director for Windows serviceability.

In the Beginning …

NT grew out of a disagreement between Microsoft and IBM over OS/2, and whether the software company would abandon its work on Windows, as well as on a second OS it was working on.

Microsoft took a huge gamble and abandoned its decade-long relationship with IBM in order to make Windows its core product line. Because it was built on a newer code base than Windows 3.x, chairman and then-CEO Bill Gates called that second system "New Technology," or "NT" for short.

Windows NT was critical for Microsoft's continued growth as well as its long-term survival, and Microsoft knew it—not least because of IBM's OS/2 onslaught that followed the breakup. Simultaneously, Microsoft was also battling to dislodge Novell NetWare, then the corporate network operating system standard, as well as Banyan Vines, from their ensconced positions.

The first version, Windows NT 3.1, finally shipped in August 1993 after several delays. It was a tough sell. The company had no track record for building or supporting server OSes, and the IT world had not yet adapted to the idea of servers built using commodity hardware and software. Still, Microsoft stuck with it and, largely due to the cost and flexibility advantages offered by a commodity approach to IT, finally generated enough momentum among customers to seize the low end of the server OS market. Three years later, in August 1996, the final version, NT 4.0, shipped. Microsoft put out a total of six NT service packs, the last of which—SP6a—shipped in November 1999.

By then, NT's days were numbered. In early 2000, Microsoft released Windows 2000, marking the end of the road for the "NT" moniker.

— Stuart J. Johnston

Upgrade—or Else
The custom contracts are expensive—reportedly around $200,000 per year—and are available only to select customers. The contracts include both "important" and "critical" security patches and hotfixes, patches that will be unavailable to users who don't ante up for support contracts.

Microsoft, for its part, is urging users to upgrade to Windows 2003. In fact, only companies actively migrating off of NT are eligible for the new NT support contracts. "We still believe it's in our customers' best interests to migrate as quickly as possible," says Houston.

To that end, the company has set up a Windows 2003 Upgrade Assistance Center, which includes downloadable tools, articles on migration, streamable webcasts and other information.

Microsoft has maintained existing software downloads, patches, other updates, Knowledge Base articles and other support documentation on its site. Those materials will only remain online until the end of 2006, however.

After that? "At this time there are no plans to [continue to] post the information past 2006 but we will continue to talk with customers … and if there's a need to prolong the availability of the content, we will revisit the policy," says a Microsoft spokeswoman.

That could happen. Microsoft has changed stances in the past when customers railed loudly enough; for example, twice extending the cutoff period for all NT support. But there's no way to predict whether it will do so a third time.

Neither Zach nor Granneman are in the market for a custom support agreement, but neither of them is losing sleep over it, either.

Over the years, WCVB has patched together maintenance contracts from various hardware vendors, and agreements with consultants. Zach has also made sure he has the in-house expertise to handle most circumstances. "We have a staff of 10 people and all the maintenance is done in-house," he says. It hasn't been difficult, since the remaining NT systems are very stable and have been so for a long time. It's the same story at RHS.

But Zach's NT issues don't end with the switcher. NT is also used to run the station's Doppler radar system—the radar won't even revolve if the server has to be rebooted, but that's an extremely rare occurrence, Zach says. It, too, will stay on NT for now—to upgrade the software would cost $10,000.

Where to Turn
Observers say that those without the funds to pay for custom support from Redmond—in other words, almost everyone—have many options to keep orphaned NT servers running, though few are able to name any company that provides that kind of support specifically. Microsoft lists some of its support partners on its Web site, including several of the biggest services firms.

However, queries to one large tech services firm listed on Microsoft's site as to whether it will provide NT support went unanswered. And when contacted, a spokesman for IBM, another of the listed firms, responded: "While IBM is authorized to provide NT 4 assistance based on our support relationship, it's currently only being considered as a capability to be used in support of existing IBM IT outsourcing customer engagements."

It also doesn't help matters that third parties will not be able to provide patches, because Microsoft owns NT's source code. One place you can turn to, though, are user groups.

"User groups are a great source of information and a lot of users are taking advantage of that," says Dave Sanders, global executive director of Culminis in Charlotte, N.C. Culminis is an umbrella organization for 500 user groups around the world with a total of 360,000 user members. It provides support and leadership training to user group leaders.

"Within these user groups there's a wealth of talent and knowledge … 75 percent of our members are certified to provide support," says Sanders, who also heads up the Carolina IT Professionals Group, a regional user group.

Online user forums are another place users can look for NT expertise. "There's a fairly sophisticated channel out there, [so] I can't imagine that there won't be dozens of options for support," says Dwight Davis, vice president and practice director at analysis firm Summit Strategies.

However, many IT shops may already have NT support issues handled for now. A quick check of several popular NT user forums, including Microsoft's, found little or no discussion of the end of NT support and no cries for help.

Rick Zach of WCVB-TV
As Rick Zach looks on, WCVB-TV Technical Director Al Conant mans the controls of the station's $300,000 video switcher, a "mission-critical" device that runs on Windows NT 4.0.

Tear It Out
But given that holes are still going to be found in NT going forward—the recent, serious WINS vulnerability is an example—and help won't be forthcoming from Microsoft, NT should be replaced as soon as possible. "Most people are just going to grin and bear it, harden the perimeter around their NT 4.0 apps and persevere without support," says Bob Withers, principal consultant at BWA, a Windows training and consulting firm near Colorado Springs, Colo.

Microsoft's Houston argues that newer server versions of Windows are much more secure, more reliable and more scalable, not to mention providing the benefits of having Active Directory. All of that points to Windows 2003 as easier, and thus less expensive, to support going forward.

In the long run, the decision on whether to migrate to newer systems may turn out to be a lot like deciding whether to keep a 7-year-old car or buy a new one, says Directions on Microsoft's Cherry. "There's a point where I know that the old car is costing me more than buying a new one would."

More Information

Here's a listing of various Web sites and user groups that offer Windows NT support:

Web Sites:

User Groups:

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