Managing Windows XP at scale: Some lessons learned moving to the cloud

CentraStage migrated its primary remote device management platform to Amazon Web Services (AWS) in September 2011. One of the key advantages that it offered us was the ability to scale; a single platform that could accept hundreds of thousands of new connections daily without us having to procure and provision new kit constantly.

That elastic scale has contributed massively to winning many of our larger corporate clients; sign today and roll out to 20,000 devices tomorrow. As well as seamlessly accommodating new connections, that ability to scale also allows us to increase storage requirements as required - and turn it into a real competitive advantage. Our response to the impending end-of-life for XP is a great example of how we leverage this to benefit our customers.

Regardless of your opinion of Microsoft’s Windows XP, it’s been around long enough to have the wrinkles ironed out, and for ISV’s to have built many of their key apps specifically for it. For that reason it still makes up close to 50 per cent of the devices we see under management with CentraStage. In other words, end of life or not, it’s not going away any time soon. So how do you best manage XP now that we’re unlikely to see many more security patches for it? Leveraging massive storage and big data is certainly a credible option.

As part of our standard service, we allow our customers to collect information about every service and process running across every device under management. With 50 per cent of those devices being XP we’ve managed to build up an accurate baseline of what a healthy (or unhealthy) XP desktop looks like.

So while we currently support XP, we are also encouraging our customers to get their upgrade plans in order. XP itself has weathered well, but the same cannot be said of its dependent applications. Internet Explorer 8 is a cracking example: XP users cannot upgrade beyond IE8 which leaves them open to a number of well documented security and compatibility issues.

The growing popularity of cloud services has elevated browsers from being tools we use to "surf the net" with to the primary application interface, that makes browsers major targets for security attacks. By not upgrading to a more modern browser, system administrators are increasingly exposing their organisations to security threats. The problem is that the browser upgrade is being held back by the XP upgrade hesitation. It's a perfect storm waiting to happen.

Creating a best practice guideline from the millions of daily metrics being submitted allows our customers to accurately detect errant process and trends. AWS allows affords us the scale to do this at a price point that makes sense for our customers. We make use of EC2 and RDS for indexing and analysis, and DynamoDB and S3 for large file storage. This means we can flex our ability to both collect and analyze data as required, without making long term infrastructure commitments.

True elastic scale not only allows us to offer this benefit in the first place, but also keeps our costs in line with demand, only paying for what we need at any time of the day or week, and passing those savings on to our customers. For those customers not ready, or willing, to perform a complete desktop refresh, baseline analysis and trend spotting provide a genuine and robust strategy for sweating your XP estate just that little bit longer.

Ian van Reenen is the co-founder of CentraStage, an integrated IT management cloud platform, and the CTO responsible for product development and delivery.