What To Expect with Windows 7's End of Support

It's the end of an era, as Windows 7 fell out of support this week, on Jan. 14, 2020.

The venerable 10-year-old operating system continues to run, but it no longer gets free patch support from Microsoft. Fixes for OS vulnerabilities no longer arrive, unless organizations have bought into Microsoft's Windows 7 Extended Security Updates program.

In many respects, Windows 7 might be considered dead to the world -- that is, if it weren't still in use so much. Of the Windows systems surveyed by Net Applications in December, Windows 7 was found to have a 26.6 percent market share compared with a 54.6 percent share for Windows 10. Measurements by StatCounter in December were somewhat similar, with Windows 7 accounting for a 26.8 percent market share versus a 65.4 percent share for Windows 10.

Those stats likely reflect consumer use of Windows 7, although some organizations likely are experiencing troubles moving their workloads to Windows 10. For instance, a December survey of 100 IT pros in the United States and United Kingdom, conducted by enterprise content delivery network solution provider Kollective, found that 53 percent of businesses still had not yet completed their upgrades from Windows 7.

"It took many businesses up to three years to move from [Windows] XP to Windows 7 and we can expect a similar timeline for the move to Windows 10," said Jon O'Connor, a solution architect at Kollective, in a released statement. Kollective sells a peering solution designed to deal with Windows 10's more frequent updates and upgrades.

The stable Windows 7 OS is perhaps Microsoft's last purely functional OS. Windows 7 was somewhat quiet, quaint and genteel. Windows 10, in contrast, is Microsoft's last desktop OS, representing a radical change in direction. Organizations used to just installing and forgetting OSes will be surprised, perhaps, by Windows 10's invasiveness and frequent servicing needs. On the plus side, Windows 10's frequent updates are said to improve security.

Windows 10 is like a mechanic that returns to your home every six months to fix your car, except now he's now staying overnight, tinkering with it constantly and wants to get to know you better. This oversight is enabled by a Windows 10 information collection service that uses so-called "telemetry" data from systems. Windows 10 also has a friendly interface along those lines called "Cortana," which is your personal digital assistant, recording your behaviors. Some of these privacy-invasion aspects can be disabled by IT pros or end users, but they are also rather complex to understand, as a Dutch government privacy agency has found.

In some cases, disabling a privacy-invasion feature disables the feature itself. Consequently, with Windows 10, you'll likely always see the weather in Redmond, Wash., unless you tell Windows 10 your location.

Application Compatibility
Microsoft contends that there's high application compatibility between Windows 7 and Windows 10. Its Desktop App Assure program, for instance, found just 0.1 percent of apps had incompatibilities.

Still, some organizations may have other Windows 7 upgrade troubles. It may have been 10 years since IT staff replaced the underlying OS on devices.

Hardware Considerations
Hardware replacement is definitely a consideration for organizations or individuals moving to Windows 10. It's possible to perform a so-called "in-place" upgrade on a Windows 7 system to Windows 10. An in-place upgrade keeps a machine's data but replaces the OS' underlying bits. The alternative upgrade approach is the traditional "wipe-and-replace" method, but data typically needs to get backed up before carrying out those kinds of OS upgrades. Still, there could be hardware compatibility issues beyond the basic Windows requirements that Microsoft lists here.

Windows 10's "life" is tied to the lifecycle of a machine's processor. This idea is alluded to in Microsoft's "Windows Silicon Policy." Per that policy, Windows 10 is said to be supported on processors if those processors are still supported by the original equipment manufacturer (namely, AMD and Intel). A guide can be found in this "Windows Processor Requirements" document, which shows supported AMD and Intel processors per Windows 10 versions. The most recent release of Windows 10 is version 1909, which supports seventh-generation AMD processors and 10th-generation Intel processors.

Another hardware consideration has to do with the amount of drive storage space needed to deal with Microsoft's faster Windows 10 update and upgrade cycles. Microsoft has suggested in a support article that Windows 10 machines may need "6 GB-11 GB or more of free space" for the OS "feature updates" that arrive twice per year, while Microsoft's quality and security "cumulative updates" arriving each month may require "2 GB-3 GB or more" of storage space. The Windows 10 OS itself, when installed, requires "a minimum of 32GB" of storage space.

Organizations overseeing multiple PCs may have a bandwidth hit from this more frequent update and upgrade pace. However, Microsoft offers some peer-to-peer techniques that aim to reduce this bandwidth impact.

Windows 10 as a Service
Windows 10 adds the bold new world of "Windows as a service," where the OS' underlying bits are to be replaced twice per year, in the spring and fall, bringing new feature updates. Windows as a service likely will be somewhat of a shock for entrenched Windows 7 users. They did get a taste of Microsoft's faster release approach, though, when Microsoft put Windows 7 on its monthly cumulative update cycle for quality and security patches, which happened almost four years ago. No new OS features arrive with these monthly cumulative updates.

Things do go wrong with Windows 10's faster feature update approach. Microsoft uses machine learning algorithms to check if systems will have upgrade problems, based on telemetry information. It'll hold off a new OS upgrade if compatibility problems are detected. However, the implication of this approach is that some systems will succumb to problems when these new OS bits arrive. In some cases, as with Windows 10 version 1809, new OS deliveries resulted in data losses for some users.

Windows 10 feature updates are complicated releases. Microsoft recently warned its partners (the document was removed) about their opportunities for issuing Windows 10 drivers with feature updates, stating that "recently when a driver update is released alongside OS updates, it has resulted in a poor experience and significantly impacted end-users." Driver problems are not a new story with Windows, but the faster updates and upgrades coming with Windows 10 typically have Microsoft's partners racing to keep pace, and glitches happen.

Windows 10 Home edition users, who might be called "consumer" users, are conceptually "guinea pig" testers for Microsoft. Home edition users can defer new Windows 10 feature upgrades for perhaps seven days at most, although Microsoft will force-upgrade a Windows 10 system that's found to be out of support, which gets done automatically through the Windows Update service. Organizations, in contrast, can perhaps defer a Windows 10 feature update for 35 days or so if they are using Windows Update for Business (Group Policy) or another management solution, such as Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager (formerly System Center Configuration Manager) or Windows Server Update Services.

Windows 10 feature updates are further distinguished as part of Microsoft's "channel" servicing model. The spring and fall new feature updates are called "semiannual channel" releases. If an organization using the Enterprise or Education edition of Windows opts to just use Microsoft's fall semiannual channel releases, then that OS version will be supported for 30 months. All other Windows 10 edition users, or users who opt to use a spring semiannual channel release, will have that OS version supported for just 18 months.

Microsoft used to have so-called "semiannual channel targeted" releases of Windows 10, but it dropped them last spring.

There's also a long-term servicing channel of Windows 10, which has similarities to the old service pack update model of Windows 7. Under the long-term servicing channel, it's possible to not upgrade a Windows 10 installation for up to 10 years. However, Microsoft only recommends this channel for organizations running machines that can't tolerate frequent updates, such as medical devices. Some applications that get frequent updates, such as the Microsoft Edge browser, are disabled by Microsoft under the Windows 10 long-term servicing channel model.

Modern Lifecycle Support
When a Windows 10 version falls out of support, Microsoft's patches stop arriving, which can increase security risks. Consequently, organizations and individuals have to keep Windows 10 up to date. Windows 10 also follows Microsoft's Modern Lifecycle Policy, which requires users to "stay current as per the servicing and system requirements."

Under that Modern policy, Microsoft only has to provide a 30-day advance notice of any change that might degrade Windows 10's normal use. Consequently, organizations using Windows 10 have to be assured of being able to respond quickly to Microsoft's changes. It means that IT shops will have to spend more time keeping up with the changes. It means more testing, not less.

Microsoft has suggested that IT pros can keep pace by joining the Windows Insider Program to see what's coming beforehand. IT shops are also supposed to triage Windows 10 feature updates by creating testing "rings," which consist of subsets of end users within an organization. If a Windows 10 feature update works with a set of users, it can be more broadly expanded. Microsoft considers the traditional approaches of IT pros in testing individual patches and maintaining OS images to be a waste of time.

Resistance Is Futile
Organizations or individuals thinking that they can stick with Windows 7 may want to reconsider, or switch to Linux. They'll bear the risks of a potential security compromise if they continue to use Windows 7. Moreover, application support will wane, if not end, for Windows 7 users.

A case in point on the security side is the infamous WannaCry ("NotPetya") wiper malware that affected unsupported Windows XP systems almost three years ago. WannaCry reportedly disabled hospitals, manufacturers and shipping companies around the world that had continued to use unpatched Windows XP systems.

Microsoft is just committed to issuing patches for its Windows 7 Extended Security Updates program participants, although it has issued patches for out-of-support OSes in extreme cases, as it did with the WannaCry incident.

Common advice, though, is to just get off Windows 7.

"If an organization is running Windows 7 past Tuesday, January 14th, they are putting their company and staff data at risk, as well as that of their suppliers, partners and customers, because security patches will no longer be available," said Ken Galvin, senior product manager at Quest Software, which makes patch management solutions.

The end of Windows 7 also brings the end of support for the Internet Explorer 11 browser, which is the last of its kind. It's possible to use the Chromium-based Edge browser instead, which is planned for release on Jan. 15, and has support for Windows 7. Google has committed to supporting its Chrome browser on Windows 7 for another 18 months.

Microsoft Security Essentials, the free anti-malware application for Windows 7, won't get patched after Jan. 14. However, Microsoft does plan to continue to release anti-virus signatures for it, according to a Computerworld article.


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