Why CIOs need to reshape desktop IT for Windows 7 end of support

With a year to go before Windows 7 reaches end of life, IT departments have more than just the operating system upgrade to consider

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Almost half of UK and US organisations surveyed by market research firm Censuswide are still using Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system (OS)

The survey of 160 UK and 160 US organisations, carried out on behalf of software-defined delivery specialist Kollective, looked at the potential costs and security threats of staying on Windows 7 beyond Microsoft’s support deadline of 14 January 2020.

After that date, Microsoft will no longer issue operating system patches unless organisations purchase custom support contracts. In the largest enterprises, with 10,000 or more terminals, the fee for such a service to Microsoft could exceed $1.4m a year, according to Kollective.

The research found that nearly a fifth (17%) of IT departments were oblivious to the support deadline, while 6% were aware of support ending but had yet to start planning their migration away from Windows 7.

It also found that 16% of IT professionals admitted to still running Windows XP and Windows Vista on some of their machines, despite support for those operating systems having ended more than three years ago.

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) warned of the risk of not upgrading in a blog post: “Windows XP went out of support in 2014. It wasn’t long after that before exploitation of the final version of the platform became fairly widespread. Malware can spread much more easily on obsolete platforms because, without security updates, known vulnerabilities will remain unpatched. As a result, it’s crucial to move away from them as quickly as possible.”

Windows 10 drives hardware upgrades

Gartner’s latest market share data for PC shipments suggests that the support deadline is driving enterprises to upgrade ageing desktop and laptop PCs. In 2018, PC shipments totalled 259.4 million units, a 1.3% decline from 2017. The decline was due to lower consumer sales, but enterprise PC shipments were stronger.

“Malware can spread much more easily on obsolete platforms because, without security updates, known vulnerabilities will remain unpatched. As a result, it’s crucial to move away from them as quickly as possible”
NCSC blog post

“The market stabilisation in 2018 was attributed to consistent business PC growth, driven by Windows 10 upgrades,” said Mikako Kitagawa, a senior principal analyst at Gartner.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, Gartner analyst Ranjit Atwal said that since 2016, PC sales have been lifted by businesses getting ready for Windows 10. This first began in the US, then picked up across Western Europe in 2018. “Windows 7 support expiring at the start of 2020 should provide an incentive for businesses and even governments to upgrade to Windows 10,” said Atwal.

In the past, especially with the end of support for Windows XP, Microsoft extended the support deadline. However, Atwal warned that Microsoft was unlikely to extend the Windows 7 support deadline “due to its investments in Office 365 and Windows 10”. Atwal said he expected Microsoft to use Windows 10 as a way to sell more of its software.

Diversity in desktop IT

The enterprise is no longer solely Windows-based. Business users connect to corporate networks from IoS, Android and MacOS devices, and the user interface for many enterprise applications is delivered through browser-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) products or as native apps.

While it is feasible to use Windows 7 end of support as a catalyst to rethink the delivery of desktop IT and where Windows fits, Atwal said many enterprises lacked options in terms of migrating or even supporting additional platforms, due to the inability of third-party software providers to support non-Windows platforms.

“Many IT departments are dependent on third-party applications. Often these are not being rewritten for other operating system platforms,” he said.

For Atwal, Windows 10 ticks all the boxes across the enterprise IT environment, which means there is no financial reason to move away. One of the biggest benefits, but also potentially the most disruptive for enterprise IT, is the fact that Microsoft takes charge of updating the Windows 10 OS environment. In effect, with Windows 10, Microsoft becomes the outsource provider for keeping the operating system fully patched.

In the past, application compatibility has been the biggest challenge facing IT departments when rolling out a new Windows operating system. “Whereas compatibility was previously a concern for organisations upgrading to a new version of Windows, Windows 10 is compatible with most hardware and software capable of running on Windows 7 or later,” Microsoft wrote in a document published in September 2018.

Service updates

Microsoft has introduced the concept of service channels that enable IT departments to decide how quickly updates are deployed, claiming these channels allow customers to designate how frequently their individual devices are updated.

“An organisation may have test devices that the IT department can update with new features as soon as possible, and then specialised devices that require a longer feature update cycle to ensure continuity,” the company said.

“Once businesses are on Windows 10, they will need to continuously update their systems as part of Microsoft’s ‘Windows as a service’ model”
Dan Vetras, Kollective

Users on the Windows Insider Program get the latest updates immediately, but the majority of users are likely to be on the Semi-Annual Channel, where devices get the latest Windows 10 updates in March and October.

Microsoft also provides a Long-Term Servicing Channel, where new features are released every two to three years. It recommends the Long-Term Servicing Channel for use only on specialist devices, such as medical equipment, that typically do not run MS Office, but IT departments which are not in a position to entrust the updating of desktop Windows to Microsoft could potentially choose this channel over semi-annual updates.

The issue of Windows updates breaking the operating system was highlighted during the roll-out of the October 2018 Windows 10 update. Microsoft had to suspend the October 2018 release following a spate of reports of users’ files disappearing.

Whichever route IT departments select, once the organisation is on Windows 10, it will be Microsoft – not the internal IT department – that ultimately controls updates.

“Once businesses are on Windows 10, they will need to continuously update their systems as part of Microsoft’s new ‘Windows as a service’ model,” said Dan Vetras, CEO of Kollective. “This means distributing increasingly frequent updates across their systems – something many IT departments will find impossible due to outdated infrastructure.”

According to Kollective, a potential issue for IT is that if updates all happen in March and October, the corporate network could be overloaded as Windows 10 updates are pushed to every Windows device.

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