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A hassle-free guide to migrating your business operations from Windows XP

It's the end of an era. Microsoft is withdrawing support for Windows XP, possibly the company's most popular operating system. Launched in 2001 (and therefore ancient in computing terms), it is surprising just how many organisations still rely on it. In fact, data from Ars Technica suggests that in March, Windows XP still had 29.5 per cent of the market.

Read more: 4 ways small businesses can protect themselves against the end of Windows XP

While our research shows that the majority of organisations will have at least started migration, many still underestimate the time and work necessary to complete their migration project. In the UK, only a third (35 per cent) of organisations are extremely confident that they'll be able to migrate in time for the deadline of 8 April 2014. Of the few who completed their migration at the end of last year - a mere six per cent of organisations in the UK - it had taken them between a year and 18 months to do so.

The problem is that, with no security or technical updates or bug fixes, any Windows XP device will be far more vulnerable to cyber threats, including hackers and viruses. If you are one of those organisations still clinging on to Windows XP, it's not too late to put your plans into place.

The financial burden of not migrating

There's no single reason why organisations have delayed migration. 42 per cent are concerned about the disruption it would cause to business, while over a third (34 per cent) are worried it will be too expensive to migrate. But paying for additional 'custom support' from Microsoft for Windows XP past the cutoff date, or even providing internal support, could prove to be very expensive indeed. Our UK research shows that organisations expect to spend 17 per cent of their IT budget running Windows XP after April 2014 and Microsoft will charge $200 (£121) per desktop for ongoing additional support in the first year, which is set to double for every subsequent year.

Outsourcing all the support functions for Windows XP to an IT services company is unlikely to offer a viable alternative, as the service provider will be charged the same escalating fees and will need to pass these on, plus extra cost to reflect their additional risks, to their customers.

Read more: The great Windows XP migration: What has IT learned?

The stark realisation for the majority of organisations is that ultimately, there is no choice. It's not a viable option to stay with Windows XP.

Simplifying complexity

Operating system migration is a complex task that encompasses a range of different activities, with testing and application remediation the necessary first steps. Many of the organisations that began late are still caught up in the compatibility evaluations required to make sure their applications and end-user capabilities can be delivered in Windows 7 or Windows 8. Others have completed the testing, but are yet to begin deployment.

Alongside this, user data must be backed up, the new operating system installed cleanly, applications re-installed and then all user data/settings restored. Done manually, this can typically take around four hours for each PC – that's half a day of IT effort and half a day of lost productivity for the user.

Taking a virtual approach

"The challenges of migrating all applications off Windows XP has proved to be either too difficult or not a high enough priority, as research suggests that many organizations have still to undertake this exercise," said Ovum's Roy Illsley. "Ovum believes that virtualizing the desktop represents the best option available at this late stage for those that have not started the migration project. However, the wholesale replacement of old applications remains an alternative that could still ensure organisations are not put at risk by continuing to use an unsupported operating system."

For those who have not migrated yet, but intend to do so by the end-of-support date, or simply as soon as possible, they will need to take on a centralised and fully-automated approach. One that requires zero-touch at the device, irrespective of its location on a network or configuration.

Using a centralised image management solution, such as VMware Horizon Mirage, to manage the migration process, can ensure that Windows 7 or alternative operating systems can be deployed centrally across virtual and remote desktops without added infrastructure cost. It will guarantee that applications and personal data are backed up, while minimising user downtime. Ultimately, the time spent on manual migration tasks can be greatly reduced, accelerating the migration project, while reducing IT costs.

Another hurdle is managing all the business critical apps that, for many organisations, can only be run on Windows XP. According to VMware's UK research, organisations still have an average of 24 business-critical applications in this category, including finance (58 per cent), ERP (39 per cent) and CRM (26 per cent) applications. Many of these applications will have been written or modified in-house, making them even more critical and harder to change. Disruption to these applications can affect ongoing operations, revenues, the bottom line and potentially damage the reputation of organisations.

Most commercial applications operating under Windows XP either run unchanged under later versions of Windows or are available in newer versions that do – organisations simply need to upgrade. For those mission-critical applications that this won't work for, or for in-house developed applications, virtualisation can be the answer, meaning they can also be carried forward to Windows 7 or another operating system of choice.

Going beyond simple migration

Perhaps more importantly, this centralised and 'modular' type of approach to migration will also allow more sophisticated management and delivery of PC images through their lifetime of deployment, augmenting and improving existing management approaches, as well as providing fully-automated disaster recovery across multiple devices.

As interest in BYOD, remote working and consumer cloud devices continues to rise, organisations are under pressure to deliver smarter, mobile working solutions that help them shift their focus to the applications and utility to users, rather than the device through which applications are used. With a more centralised approach to PC image management, organisations can focus on delivering a secure, easy-to-control and consistent virtual workspace to users, irrespective of the PC they are using. By combining this approach with desktop virtualisation, they can extend that focus to almost any type of device.

Read more: Bury XP or bury your data: 7 tips for a stress-free migration

Whatever a business' approach to the great Windows XP migration, they should bear in mind the following guidelines for a successful migration:

  • Automate the migration process – zero manual processes will make migration quicker, more efficient and will cost less, particularly in terms of IT labour
  • Manage the migration centrally – this will enable a rapid rollout of the new operating system across all devices, including remote users
  • Ensure backup of all data – being able to take a full snapshot of your existing Windows XP system before the migration begins means users will be quickly restored to their previous system, should a failure occur during the migration
  • Get rid of duplications – ensure you have a solution which can eliminate unnecessary duplications while protecting the latest applications
  • Minimise end-user downtime – if the migration needs to take place during working hours, ensure user downtime does not exceed more than around 30 minutes
  • App remediation – Microsoft will no longer automatically update existing apps, which means they are more liable to security threats and issues, which will be costly in the long-term. There are a number of XP applications that cannot be migrated to Windows 7, so organisations would be best to virtualise all applications so they can be ported across

Brian Gammage is a chief market technologist at VMware EMEA.