Why 2015 is the year SMBs could transform IT from a hindrance to an advantage

2015 could just be a sink or swim year for many UK small and medium sized businesses (SMBs). Employing 15.2 million people with a combined turnover of £1.6 trillion, SMBs are providing the jobs, stability and innovation to power Britain’s economy.

For many of these SMBs, IT is often seen as an expensive inconvenience that gets in the way of their business. Yet in just over two months’ time, IT may slowly creep to the top of the agenda as hundreds of thousands of SMBs face unforeseen security breaches, data losses and potential damage to business and reputation caused by an out-of-date IT infrastructure that puts themselves, their customers and their partners at increased risk.

Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 (WS2003) has been the mainstay of many a small business’s IT system for years. On 14 July 2015, the extended support period for WS2003 and Small Business Server 2003 (SBS) will end. There are an estimated 23.8 million instances of WS2003 still running across 11.9 million physical servers worldwide.

In the UK, a Cloud Industry Forum (CIF) survey found that 61 per cent of organisations across a broad and representative cross section of industries are dependent on this platform.

The end of support for WS2003 and SBS means that Microsoft will no longer develop or release any updates or patches. In recent years, Microsoft has released around 40 critical annual updates for WS2003. Whilst seemingly invisible to most businesses, these updates have offered quiet protection to businesses and their data. Although it’s unlikely there will be disasters overnight following the July deadline, outages, downtime, glitches and bugs will gradually start to take hold.

Worse still, SMBs could face security threats. Businesses that continue to operate WS2003 will increasingly be at risk without any protective updates. If an SMB is still running WS2003, they could be placing their larger clients at the risk of hackers finding a weakness and exploiting it.

Data protection could also be a problem. For example, credit card companies require businesses to comply with their security regulations on supported IT systems. Those still running Windows Server 2003 after the July deadline will be liable to foot the costs of financial losses to cardholders due to security breaches.

For those companies looking to move on, there are a number of solutions that can be considered. SMBs can purchase a scaled down enterprise product, sign up for an all-cloud solution – or a collection of different ones - or build and manage their own IT. All these options require SMBs either to compromise on functionality, security or control, or invest upfront capital.

For some SMBs, simply maintaining the status quo as much as possible may seem like the pain-free solution, by shifting from Windows Server 2003 to Windows Server 2012. Yet – of course - upgrading to a new OS will eventually lead to another end-of-life experience, sooner or later.

Meanwhile, some think that the end of WS2003 support will drive SMBs to a pure cloud model. However, research from CIF has found that although adoption of some cloud services amongst SMBs has risen to 75 per cent, a hybrid model of cloud services mixed with on-premise IT has become the preference.

Hybrid cloud offers SMBs the comfort and control of local IT, combined with the subscription economics and flexibility typically associated with public cloud services. Analysts have argued that “hybrid IT environments (combining on-premise and cloud) will remain the foreseeable norm”. A growing trend in the move to hybrid IT is the increase in organisations taking IT as a service. Indeed, this trend is likely to grow, driven by the rapid pace of technology innovation and the pressure to unshackle precious IT resources from maintenance activity.

Against this backdrop, the next big trend - especially for SMBs - may very well be the rise of managed services to deliver a holistic solution for customers – where their IT infrastructure is kept up to date 24/7 and fully managed, freeing them up to focus on their business.

As the end-of-life of Windows Server 2003 forces a step change in their IT systems, SMBs now have a unique opportunity to future-proof their IT platform and bring about the ‘end-of-life of end-of-life’ technology within their organisations.

With the adoption of systems like hybrid cloud, SMBs will finally be able to stop seeing IT as a hindrance and start to run systems that deliver a competitive advantage and real business benefit.

Nick is co-founder and CEO of Zynstra.