Don't get stung for support

IT users should expect suppliers to charge more for maintenance and drop support for older products as software firms try to...

IT users should expect suppliers to charge more for maintenance and drop support for older products as software firms try to combat the downturn in spending.

Maintenance has always been a valuable revenue stream for software firms and, as users struggle with tight budgets, the software industry appears to be using it to squeeze customers.

Analyst group Meta, for example, estimates that in 2002, the cost of IT maintenance increased by as much as 25%. Five years ago, maintenance costs were increasing only by 10% a year.

In recent months, users have seen many examples of suppliers laying out plans to drop support for software products that are still widely used.

Oracle, for example, planned to drop support for the 10.7 release of Oracle Applications to move users on to the new 11i platform. The US-based Oracle Applications User Group (OAUG) convinced Oracle to extend support until June. Analysts at Butler Group estimate that there are still about 1,500 sites running the older version of the software.

Oracle has now said it will continue to offer extended support on the product, leading to user confusion over when support actually ends.

To clarify this point Tim Butler, OAUG vice-president, said, "Essentially, the release 10.7 de-support means that Oracle will no longer devote any technology changes, programming fixes or enhancements, or functionality changes to that release."

He added that Oracle would continue to provide technical support and access to existing bug fixes, patches and technical documentation for another year after the de-support date.

It is not only Oracle users that have faced the prospect of an unscheduled upgrade of their systems to remain on a supported release. In August, SAP is planning to drop support for R/3 versions 3.1i, 4.0b, 4.5b and 4.6b, while support for the widely used Windows NT 4.0 is due to end after December 31 2004.

Microsoft said it was concerned that many users have not given themselves enough time to migrate to the supported Windows 2000 platform.

Long-term support in the client server computing market has not, in the past, proved a major issue with suppliers. Products have been developed thought annual or biannual release cycles.

In the main, users have had little choice but to upgrade. Now, many of the products have improved to an extent where users are quite happy with what they have - a stable release of the software. But suppliers appear to be still insisting on forcing upgrades.

Support in the mainframe world is handled in an entirely different way, according to Julie Ann Williams, chair for the working group on large systems at Guide Share Europe, an IBM mainframe user group.

"When IBM released its mainframe operating system in 1964 it made a commitment to support backwards compatibility," she said.

This has meant users have been encouraged to upgrade to the latest operating systems platform, but they did not have to upgrade their applications in the process. "We are used to running very old programs," she said.

Users' preference for upgrading their mainframe operating systems while often sticking to unsupported legacy software is down to risk and the way their systems are being used, said Williams.

For example, she said, in many small installations, such as a local authority accounts system where the mainframe is not being fully used, the user might decide there is no reason to upgrade. "If you've been running a system for 15 years, the likelihood of finding a problem are a lot less."

Users may prefer stability but the software industry is promoting change to survive. "Suppliers are forcing users' change management processes," warned Meta Group analyst Rakesh Kumar.

Even a simple software upgrade where new functionality is not exploited can take between six to 12 months for a business to complete, according to Kumar. And it is worrying, he said, that there would be some installations where a user finds they need to upgrade not only their Windows NT Server, but also SAP and Oracle.

As users mull over their choices one thing is clear - they need to raise any concerns on support for older products with their suppliers as early as possible. Generally, the industry will only support a product for five years. But user pressure has forced both Oracle and Microsoft to extend support.

Ultimately all organisations need to upgrade their software, but businesses should work to their own change management procedures and agenda and not have change driven by the software industry.

Read more on IT suppliers