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End of an Era: Will your IT estate survive post Windows XP?

Sir Alex Ferguson’s recent resignation from Manchester United witnessed even his most fierce critics (namely supporters from rival clubs) mark the move as an end of an era. Having spent over 25 years at the helm of one of the most celebrated teams in football history, many are now questioning how the club will continue its success.

Indeed, the end of any era sees many of us reflecting on past successes, lamenting failures and most importantly planning for a better future. It therefore came as a surprise for me to learn how in a recent survey Avanade commissioned of UK CIOs and IT leaders that more than half (52 per cent) do not have formal plans for how to deal with the fast approaching end of Windows XP in April 2014.

As Windows XP has been a mainstay for over a decade in many businesses and is still used in 43 per cent of desktop infrastructures in the UK, it is no surprise that a lack of business case to date has prevented most from moving towards a more modern platform. This is partially understandable. ‘If it ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.’ The problem is that after April 2014, if it breaks there really will be no way to fix it. The ‘wait and see mentality’ also carries a far greater risk as legacy, migration is about more than the platform – it’s about taking an entire ecosystem of applications along on the journey.

Low flying Apps

The success of XP has been fuelled in part by the IT department’s aversion to Windows Vista, but also sustained by a vast number of business critical applications. The common misperception is that these business critical applications are those provided by third party vendors who will be able to support successful migration to a new platform. The harsh reality is that a large portion of business critical Windows XP applications have simply not been visible to the IT department.

These ‘under the radar’ applications could be something as extensive as a global supply chain system that started life as an Excel spread sheet enabling an employee in one country to better manage stock inventory. Right now these applications may not be broken, but in a year’s time the risk will increase significantly, especially because the scale of the problem in most organisations is not fully understood.

A number of these applications escaped the attention of IT, as users did not have the skills to assess their impact and develop a policy for managing them. Others join a list of projects created by a developer who left the company many years ago, and took with them deep technical knowledge into the inner workings of said application. In this instance, cost and risk can become exponentially higher. For example, we are already seeing the cost of specialist skills for Visual Basic and C++ increasing. At the same time, as is the case with legacy infrastructure, there is also general shortage of skills available.

What is the shelf life of an app in Windows XP?

Risk from Windows XP end of life can also vary from sector to sector. For instance, in some industries such as financial services, failure to migrate could lead to hefty fine from regulators and damage to the brand if there is an application outage.

The challenge for any business thinking about the impact of Windows XP end of life is how to determine the shelf life of an app, and then work out whether it can be migrated onto a modern operating system. Another often overlooked factor is getting the end users on board to understand what it means for critical applications that will no longer be supported – and then disclose what they are using.

In fact, migrating from Windows XP actually offers a great opportunity to rationalise the applications that are out there, develop governance around how they’re used and ultimately reduce the cost of licensing. Once this complexity of applications is worked out, only then can the business determine what will be used in what we could call the ‘new world’.

Start of a new era

When probed on the issue of application migration, Avanade's study revealed that 80 per cent of IT leaders are concerned they will still have a large volume of unsupported apps post Windows XP. With less than a year to go, the risk is only increasing alongside the cost of addressing the challenges of Windows XP migration.

In the new era where cloud, mobility and even social technologies are coming to the fore in the workplace, business success will be dependent on IT strategies that are able to embrace change. Windows XP migration should be viewed as an opportunity to let go of the past and reposition IT as an enabler of business transformation.

Paul Marsh is senior director of technology infrastructure at Avanade UK.