It's time for action as Windows Server 2003 deadline looms

We’re a few weeks away from what is a significant landmark for businesses across the UK – 14 July 2015 – the day when Microsoft ends extended support for Windows Server 2003.

For many companies, it’s a move they are already prepared for and migrations are in progress or complete. However, for the ones that haven’t made the switch, there’s some immediate action that needs to be taken.

Recent research carried out by Avanade UK uncovered that more than half of businesses on Windows Server 2003 (54 per cent) in the UK were in danger of missing the deadline. More positively, our research highlights that 97 per cent are aware of the risks of remaining on Windows Server 2003 after the end of support, and the majority of businesses (79 per cent) are taking action to manage these risks. However, there is still a holdout of businesses that could leave their IT estates exposed as a result of inactivity.

In July 2014, when we last conducted our research, there were signs of over-optimism, with many believing that they had the issue in hand and wouldn’t stumble across the same problems experienced with Windows XP end of extended support. Our new survey shows that many organisations are mid-way through an upgrade and are unlikely to finish before the current support agreements expire, or haven’t yet started their upgrade.

Should I stay or should I go?

Worryingly, 18 per cent of businesses on Windows Server 2003 are OK with the risks, and don’t plan to mitigate against them. It can’t be emphasised enough that the implications of staying on Windows Server 2003 can be dangerous for businesses. Firstly, there will be no more security updates released for the Operating System after 14 July, so the vulnerabilities could be immediate. Depending on the industry you operate in, there could also be risks from a regulatory standpoint, which could result in fines for organisations that stick with the outdated platform.

The other option is to stay with Windows Server 2003 by getting extended support. Microsoft does offer “for-fee” custom, extended support contracts for a limited period to customers that are actively working to migrate off the platform. However, this shouldn’t be seen as a long term solution. Custom Support Agreements have a high minimum entry cost, but companies also face added costs for intrusion detection systems, more advanced firewalls, network segments and other security measures to isolate Windows Server 2003 systems from exposure to cybersecurity threats from the Internet.

If you don’t have a plan to migrate, you should start as soon as possible and put a particular focus on those applications and systems that are business-critical or expose your organisation to potential security breaches.

Should I get my head in the cloud?

Navigating all of the migration options can be difficult and time consuming. Companies must consider hardware, infrastructure as well as applications – and it doesn’t end there. It’s important to understand all the interconnections and dependencies within your Windows Server 2003 ecosystem. Moving only a component of an existing multi-component business process could cause significant business impact.

To ensure large capex equipment costs aren’t added to the mix, you should consider a cloud deployment option. It’s an effective method for expediting a migration of this kind and offsetting investments in new hardware.

It’s interesting to see more than half of businesses are using the end of support of Windows 2003 as a reason to examine their operating model. In turn, they are moving some or all of their estate to the cloud to realise cost savings, and benefit from increased resilience. This includes traditionally conservative Financial Services organisations, of whom 40 per cent have moved some of their servers to the cloud.

Some businesses remain attached to their on premise deployment because they can physically see it. However, the cloud delivers a level of security that offers peace of mind beyond what can be achieved in a datacentre. For instance, Azure backs up data to three separate physical locations in the same data centre and also to a geographically remote datacentre in real-time, which is something that most companies don’t have the resources to do themselves.

In addition, with the cloud, IT becomes an operational resource, as opposed to a capex investment. To maximise savings and efficiencies, IT managers should carry out an audit of the applications and infrastructure, which can help identify which applications can move to the cloud, and which can be retired.

Is the cloud for everyone?

The cloud is a feasible option for growing numbers of businesses, but the first step should be finding out if regulatory issues will affect the option you choose. The key thing to note is that there isn’t just one cloud. Many businesses have seen the benefits of operating a private cloud where some of their IT resources need to stay on premise because legislation dictates that it must.

Another consideration is identifying whether moving some applications from Windows Server 2003 will be problematic, regardless of whether you use the cloud or Windows Server 2012. Some legacy applications were built for the 32-bit Windows Server 2003 Operating System and will not run on native 64-bit operating systems, such as Windows Server 2012. Even if they can run on Windows Server 2012, the application vendor may no longer support this version of their software. Worse yet, the application vendor may no longer be in business. It’s therefore important to put thought into the compatibility of the applications you move across.

Companies that haven’t done so already should move with haste to ensure they aren’t leaving IT systems at risk or get stuck carrying the cost of excessive extended support fees.

For many, the move from Server 2003 isn’t just a box-ticking exercise. It’s an opportunity to evolve their company into one that is future proof, and able to withstand the challenges of today’s modern business.

Paul Veitch is Avanade UK Head of Application Development.

Image source: Shutterstock/Stas Ponomarencko