Pat Pilcher: XP support ends April 8 - What does it mean for businesses?

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Windows XP's service life ends on April 8. Businesses word-wide are scrambling to migrate away from Windows XP before they're left using an unsupported operating system.

After the April deadline, Microsoft will stop supplying updates and security patches for XP. This could in theory see businesses with XP becoming increasingly vulnerable to malware and other exploits.

I caught up with Frazer Scott, Director of Marketing and Operations at Microsoft and Dave Veronese, House of Travel's CIO to get a feel for what this means for businesses who've yet to make the leap.

The burning question on the minds of many is likely to be "What does the end of Windows XP support actually mean?"

According to Scott, businesses who don't upgrade are likely to face significant disruption after the April deadline:

"For those still on XP, it basically means they're exposing their systems and data, and indeed their customers' data, to increased security risks."

The stakes are high, there's 130,000 NZ businesses still using XP powered PCs. Many also lack dedicated IT resources, making migration a daunting proposition.

Help is at hand according to Scott. Options include the Windows Upgrade Assistant, which will highlight windows 8 compatibility issues.

The pinpoint website can also help small businesses find an IT expert to assist with the migration process.

Some businesses have adopted a proactive stance, such as House of Travel, who according Veronese, decommissioned their last XP powered PC last year:

"We were planning a company-wide desktop refresh and wanted the Operating System to meet our needs for the next 4-5 years, aside from performance and security 'Touch' was a key element as we see this as one of the biggest user computing trends to affect us in the future"

While most recent PCs are likely to upgrade with few issues, older Netbooks running XP may present more of a challenge says Scott:

"the specs of netbooks may be insufficient to run Windows 8.1, and in this case it is time to go shopping for a new laptop or tablet"

According to Veronese, pre-testing older and even incompatible applications and running migration pilot programmes can make a huge difference, especially when you're an organisation the size of The House of travel with over 1,150 users:

"The project team had good rigour around application testing and data migration. We also ran a pre-pilot upgrade for a couple of stores the team used these learnings to improve the migration experience. That makes us confident that we had the technical details well covered. The only real unknown was user acceptance - had we done enough to support our staff in moving from XP to 8?"

In the end things worked out:

"our teams loved the new computers and Windows 8. By spending the time up front with our users in testing and working through the user interface/acceptance scenarios paid big dividends."

Veronse says that Staff training also played a big role in the acceptance of Windows 8

"We ran a demonstration stand at our annual group awards conference to demystify the new OS. We placed training materials on our intranet, emailed FAQ documentation on the day of go-live, had pre and post-migration Lync calls with each store and sent support staff on site to assist staff on the day of migration."

Staff acceptance is one thing, but getting older, business critical applications working under a new operating system can be a tricky proposition, in the case of House of Travel, there were 2 applications that were business critical and perhaps incompatible.

It turned out migrating from Windows XP to Windows 8 also had the side benefit of applications being made to work using a combination of code changes and the compatibility mode built into Windows 8.

These challenges aside, the risks associated with not making the move away from XP are avoidable. Upgrading any systems to a recent and supported OS plus keeping them up to date with the latest security patches is your best bet.

When asked if the demise of XP opens the door for Microsoft's competitors Scott is philosophical:

"We have always had many competitors so today is no different. I feel confident that when businesses compare what is available in the market, and the flexibility that Windows 8.1 offers around devices, form factors, security and a consistent user experience, businesses chose Windows."

Some may be reluctant to migrate to Windows 8, which since its launch has copped a bit of flak. Scott cites research showing Windows 8 received the highest satisfaction ratings of any Microsoft OS, attributing criticisms to a lack of hands on time with Windows 8:

"When I talk to people who criticise it, they usually haven't used it themselves! So there is a level of 'noise' in that conversation..."

Scott's advice to businesses looking to migrate away from Windows XP is simple.

"Get advice. IT savvy businesses may not need it, but if there is any doubt, get independent advice around how to quickly and easily move."

- NZ Herald

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