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Microsoft to Offer NT 4 Custom Contracts Through 2006

Less than a month from Windows NT 4.0 Server's official end of life, Microsoft on Friday announced that it will offer custom support contracts for large customers running the aging operating system through the end of 2006.

The program is modeled after a custom support contract program begun for large customers that covered Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, which hit its end of life as a supported product in July.

Peter Houston, senior director for Windows serviceability, says feedback from large companies led to two key changes to the program from when the Windows NT 4.0 Workstation custom contracts were introduced about six months ago. Microsoft will now approve requests for the custom contracts through the end of 2006 instead of the end of 2005. And while the original program guaranteed Microsoft would develop Windows NT 4.0 patches for security vulnerabilities it rated "critical," the company will now also patch problems rated "important" on its internal threat scale.

"They [large customers] didn't think one year of the custom program would be enough to complete their migrations. In virtually every case, these companies were already underway with their migration," Houston says. One requirement of the custom support programs has been that customers must show that they have a migration plan to a more recent version of the operating system.

The support program is primarily for security, although Microsoft remains ambivalent about its ability to secure Windows NT 4.0, which originally shipped in 1996. When Microsoft unveiled a new support policy in May that covers most products for five years of mainstream support and an additional five years of extended support, the company cited its inability to guarantee security on Windows NT 4.0 as a reason not to include that operating system.

"These programs are designed to help them stay secure," Houston says. "We are concerned about the level of security we can deliver on NT 4. To be as secure as possible, customers should be on one of our newer operating systems." In cases where Microsoft is unable to develop a hotfix for critical or important security holes, the company's support team will help customers find a workaround.

Those new benefits are also being added to the Windows NT 4.0 Workstation custom contracts.

Although Windows NT 4.0 Server support has been extended past several previous deadlines, Microsoft officials say the new policy is not an extension of support for most customers. The security bulletins developed for the custom contract customers will not be made generally available for other customers. And the program will be too expensive for organizations with just a few servers or workstations on Windows NT 4.

"Most of the customers that need this kind of support are those that have perhaps thousands of NT 4 units still in their environment," Houston says. "This service is designed for those customers that are larger and simply need more time."

According to market researchers at IDC, by the end of 2004, Windows NT 4.0 Server is expected to represent about 17 percent of the installed base of Windows servers.

Analysts at Gartner have previously pegged the cost of the workstation contracts at $200,000 in published reports. Houston would not comment on the price of the contracts, but he did confirm that it is a flat fee paid quarterly, as opposed to a per-server or per-workstation contract that might be more reasonably priced for smaller customers. He also said a contract covering 2006 will cost the same as a contract covering 2005.

While there's nothing in the arrangement for smaller customers or for customers unwilling to pay extra to support their Windows NT 4.0 environments, Houston reiterated Microsoft's commitment to making fixes generally available in cases of extreme security risk through the end of 2006.

"We feel very strongly that in the event that a virus or worm emerges that threatens the stability of the Internet, that we need to act broadly and quickly," Houston says. In that case, Houston added, "As quickly as we can, we will create a fix and make it publicly available."

Those who enter the custom contracts can also request non-security fixes, which will be provided for an additional fee. After eight years on the market, most customers have stable installations and no one has requested a non-security fix since the workstation custom contracts started in July, Houston says.

The absolute end of any support for Windows NT 4.0, custom or otherwise, will come on Dec. 31, 2006. "We have absolutely no plans to go beyond the end of 2006," Houston says. "By getting our support out to 2006, that achieves a full 10-year lifecycle for NT 4. That, I think, aligns pretty well with our five-plus-five announcements that we made back in May."

Some analysts agree with Microsoft's contention that its efforts to support Windows NT 4.0 have exceeded standard industry practices. "They've supported it longer than many operating system software vendors support their software," IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky told ENT in an interview earlier this year.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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