Building a business case for Windows Server 2003

A recent survey on theITportal found that a third of organisations are still relying on Windows NT Server (NT4) as their primary operating system. With life support for NT4 ending this year, and with many of these businesses still undecided on their upgrade path, we look at the business case for moving to Windows Server 2003.

Throughout December and January theITportal ran a survey looking at your attitudes to your current Windows server operating system and your views on Windows Server 2003.

As expected, Windows NT Server (NT4) machines still retain an important role in a significant number of your businesses. For a third of respondents, NT4 remains the primary operating system, whilst two thirds still have NT4 machines hidden somewhere in the dimly lit corners of their organisation.

This poses Microsoft with somewhat of a problem. Just like any company, Microsoft will only support a product for so long and the life support for NT4 will run out at the end of this year. Microsoft wants NT4 users to move to a newer Microsoft platform but some organisations are proving surprisingly reluctant.

Our survey found that despite the impending support deadline, over a third had ruled out, or were still undecided on, moving to a newer Microsoft platform. Running unsupported software is not without significant risks so what is fuelling this reluctance?

The obvious answer would be to blame the attraction of various “free” flavours of Linux, and whilst 13 per cent of NT4 users cited the lure of open source as a serious barrier to adopting a newer Windows platform survey, there are currently other more pressing concerns.According to our survey, the main problem for companies is that they simply don’t have the budget at the moment, whilst many of those surveyed simply failed to see a justifiable business case for migrating to Windows Server 2003.

Microsoft must work hard to persuade users that, like any IT investment in today's economic climate, Windows Server 2003 offers a return either via cutting costs or bringing new business opportunities, as well as an overall lower cost of ownership.

Less is more

With budgets tight, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, IT managers are being forced to do more with less and that means tapping unused processing power and reducing the server administration costs that typically come with a heterogeneous server environment.

The experience of K2 Sports, a US manufacturer of skis, skates and bikes, is typical of a company that, during its expansion, saw servers added to meet short term needs rather than as part of any long term strategic plan. The result was a network consisting of a mix of different operating systems, from Novell Netware through to Windows Server 2000 and NT4.

By consolidating servers onto a Windows Server 2003 platform, K2 Sports claims to have saved 50% of its annual allocated hardware budget to the tune of $14,000, and significant server administrative savings of 30 per cent ($42,000) over the year.

Ease of consolidation on Windows Server 2003 will receive a boost when Microsoft finally ships Virtual Server later this year - it is currently in beta. Virtual Server will allow administrators to host several virtual NT environments on one server: a vital tool for businesses that want to move forward and consolidate their servers but are still tied to NT4 with legacy applications.

Improving reliability

Consolidation is, however, a double-edged sword, requiring savings on hardware, maintenance and administrative resources to be weighed against the needs of greater system availability and minimal downtime.

As you consolidate a large number of small servers into a small number of large servers the impact of downtime on your business increases as you have more users and applications running on each server.

Here the message coming from Microsoft is that whilst NT4.0 is up most of the time, Windows Server 2003 is up all of the time. Speaking from personal experience, when our web server ran on NT4 reliability was a continual problem, requiring a reboot at least once a month if not more - not great if the machine goes down at midnight and the problem is not picked up on until 8.00 am.

Microsoft claims that Windows Server 2003 reduces unplanned downtime by a factor of eight over Windows NT 4, a claim supported by analysts the Yankee Group who describe the new OS as an 'an order of magnitude' more reliable than NT 4. According to our survey, increased stability and reliability was viewed as the major benefit of moving to the latest version of Windows.

One of the key areas Microsoft has focused on is driver reliability. Device driver resiliency stops users installing drivers that are known to crash or hang the OS. Windows

Server 2003 also lets a user rollback to the previously installed version if the new device driver causes instability on the server. Microsoft has also made core feature changes to allow certain hot fixes and upgrades to be made without the need for a server reboot.

Whilst running on NT4, CROP, a leading firm of accountants in the Netherlands, was struggling to make a mission critical information system available to employees over its intranet.

The server was unable to cope with the demand, frustrating users who were unable to logon. Since moving to Windows Server 2003 and IIS6.0, the company claims a near 100% uptime helping both staff and IT administrators become more productive.

According to CROP’s IT manager, Arno Douze, “Windows Server 2003 with IIS 6 is incredibly stable” and “has reached the point where it beats our existing Novell servers in reliability.”

Increased stability and reliability should also impact on the quality and cost of running your IT help desk. Associated Building Services, a top ten company in the US building service contracting industry, found that by switching from a network based on NT 4 to Windows Server 2003, it was able to reduce out of hours calls to the company’s internal help desk by 50 percent.

Helpdesk costs can be reduced further by the use of Volume Shadow Copy that allows open files to be backed up and gives end-users the ability to restore lost documents.

When you consider that, as far back as 2001, Gartner was estimating that the cost of resolving the average help desk call was £17 the cost savings could be quite significant.

The security question

Along with reliability another ‘must have’ for any IT manager is security. Windows Server 2003 is the first release since the launch of Microsoft’s much trumpeted 'trustworthy computing' initiative.

According to a survey in 2002 by the network security body Computer Emergency Response Team Coordination Center (CERT), 95 percent of breaches were due to errors in equipment configuration.

Windows Server 2003 provides a role manager that helps administrators configure the security and operational characteristics according to the function of the server.

In fact, there are now more than 20 services that are switched off by default in Windows Server 2003, including the lockdown of IIS 6.0.

Hackers have a smaller surface area to attack, whilst the responsibility for securing the OS before putting it into use is taken away from your overworked administrators.

However, for many organisations staying on top of patch management remains one of the most important and complex of Windows related security issues.

Whilst security experts may be quick to blame vulnerabilities on administrators failing to keep patches current, the fact remains that patch management it is a difficult and complex task, particularly in large organisations.

Identifying, testing and installing updates and patches on NT 4.0 servers is both costly and difficult, although Microsoft has attempted to mitigate this by moving to a new monthly patch release cycle, with the exception of critical releases.

The free Software Update Services (SUS) technology, which works with Windows Server 2000 and 2003, can help businesses stay on top of updating servers and clients and provide centralised management, something that is lacking from Windows Update.

The concept behind SUS is fairly simple. Your administrator is notified when a patch is available and he or she then decides whether to accept the patch or service pack. Servers and desktops then take their system updates straight from your SUS server as opposed to from Microsoft’s site.

Montgomery County Hospital in Iowa has used SUS to help with patch management. According to Chief Information Officer, Ron Kloewer, “We weren’t keeping our service packs current. Now I don’t have to worry about it all. We were very security minded but it was a big gap in our security.”

Taken with the further centralised security management that is possible with the new Group policy Management Console in Active Directory, Microsoft has made significant strides in helping administrators secure their networks.

Microsoft cannot, however, afford to take its eye off the ball. There are still too many security alerts for users liking, reflected in our survey that put security well down the list when we asked you to rate the main benefit of moving to Windows Server 2003.

Security may not be solely a Microsoft problem, with Linux the subject of some recent high profile vulnerabilities, but although the software giant is in the right track, there is still has a fair way to travel.

Cost of management

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments for moving to Windows Server 2003 is the improved manageability of the new OS. There are more command line tools, task-based administration tools, headless server mode - enabling access to the server remotely without the need for graphical remote control, command line access to WMI (Windows Management Infrastructure), and emergency server access, which lets you access the server when the keyboard and mouse won't work.

Whilst a number of organisations still running NT4 will have looked at Active Directory (AD) in Windows Server 2000 and been scared off by the complexity, Microsoft has attempted to address this issue by making AD in Windows Server 2003 easier to install, administer and adding more flexibility to allow AD to change as your organisation does.West America Mortgage is a medium-sized company with around 260 full time employees. From 2001 until 2003 the company experienced rapid growth placing great strain on the network with many servers running on NT 4. Administrators, meanwhile, were having severe headaches adding workers with different types of roles and permissions.

The company has since migrated to Windows Server 2003 and claims to have reduced network administration costs by 23 per cent, with Active Directory providing the ability to manage, monitor, and administer the network, servers, desktops, and users using a single set of administration tools.

The company also claims to be able to support 20 per cent more clients, whilst still using the same hardware, by combining Active Directory and Terminal Services to manage servers and thin clients, without the need for a physical visit.

Clearly there is a lot consider here and the decision to move to a new operating system is no snap decision for any IT department. However, with the support deadline for Windows NT4 looming large, those organisations that have yet to decide on an upgrade path need to be weighing their options carefully.

No doubt the lower up front costs of Linux will prove attractive to certain organisations. However, with Windows Server 2003, Microsoft has demonstrated its commitment to providing a secure, reliable and high performance server operating system with an ease of management that offers the potential for organisations to make longer term savings and reduce the overall cost of ownership.