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Custom support contracts are available for those who require NT4 support, but this option will end on 31 December 2006. Peter Houston, Microsoft Windows serviceability senior director, said, "Some of our large enterprise and public sector customers have told us they need until 2006 to complete the upgrade. To ease their migration, we have decided to run the custom support programme until 31 December 2006 and charge the same amount as we will in 2005.
"Previously we only offered support for vulnerabilities designated as 'critical'. After hearing from customers that they want updates for vulnerabilities we have designated as 'important', we have found a way to deliver this enhanced level of service."
Microsoft has also announced that standard support for Exchange Server 5.5 will finish at the end of 2005, and that there will be a further two years of custom support available, with Microsoft pulling the plug completely in December 2007.
Even with support coming to an end, Ian Brown, research director at analyst firm Gartner, said, "Some information will still be available and fixes may be published by Microsoft." He predicted that Microsoft might even release fixes made under custom contracts into the public domain at some time in the future.
But it is not necessary to rely on direct support from Microsoft. Given the maturity of NT4, there will be a wealth of information available to users, first from Microsoft's Knowledgebase, an online database of patches, workarounds and technical know-how, and second from the wider NT4 user community active on the internet.
Although datacentre and mission-critical systems are likely to have been migrated already, research from Gartner has estimated that 35% of users will still have an NT4 server running somewhere in their businesses.
Migrating to Windows Server 2003 is Microsoft's recommended upgrade strategy, but Gartner has found that users are seriously considering Linux instead.
Users can also run server virtualisation software such as VMWare or Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 to consolidate NT4 servers onto logical partitions in a single box. This can ease management as the IT department only needs to maintain one box, rather than several NT servers scattered across the business. Although this is an alternative to migration, users will still have to run the unsupported NT4 system.