Earlier this year, a major fuss was made over the number of Windows XP PCs still in use, not just by individuals who hadn’t concerned themselves with upgrading their home PCs in 10 years or more, but in companies and organisations across the world, such as Biffa and Kingfisher.
In some cases, versions of Windows XP are even still powering cash machines and point-of-sale systems – with predictable results – and with support for the operating system being stopped, such machines would be increasingly wide open to cyber attack.
But what about Windows Server 2003? Microsoft is discontinuing support for the once-popular server operating system in mid-July 2015, and organisations that want, or need, to shift their applications onto more secure current platforms before support runs out will need to start the migration process ASAP if they are not to leave their systems exposed.
“There’s somewhere between 10 million and 20 million servers worldwide still running Windows Server 2003,” says Tim Loake, director of Dell Services UK. “When that platform goes out of extended support next July, it will leave many organisations with a significant challenge, just through the sheer volume of work that will be required.
“A typical migration for a small and medium-sized enterprise with less than 50 workloads would be a minimum of 100 days to complete, and many more for larger organisations. It’s a significant piece of work,” says Loake.
It is for this reason, says Microsoft that organisations were given more than five years to prepare for the day that extended support ends – first announced in September 2009.
With the increase in microprocessor power over the past 10 years, organisations should also have the opportunity to consolidate workloads on fewer (old) servers, as well as using virtualisation to improve hardware utilisation.
On top of that, though, the majority of servers running Windows Server 2003 will be 32-bit iterations, limited in terms of the memory they can address and, hence, the power of the applications they can run.
“The bigger challenge is whether the 11-year-old application code can run on a modern operating systems in the way that it handles procedure calls, accesses the data and so on… the application platform is so significantly different in terms of its memory architecture procedure calls and so on,” says Loake.
That means that migrating applications, in particular, might require some re-writing and will certainly require extensive testing.
But migrating to Windows Server 2012 will also provide a number of advantages – it’s not just about security or server consolidation. For example, if Windows Server 2003 boxes are being used as routing and remote access servers, Windows Server 2012 not only does it better, but will add SSL encryption for virtual private networking and DirectAccess, providing a much better (and more secure) service to end users.
“The workloads we are seeing can be broken down into three broad categories. The first is what I would call ‘core infrastructure’. That would be domain controllers, Microsoft Exchange servers, network services and so on. Many of those are still out there running on Windows Server 2003. Typically, you can just deploy the new version, as long as you manage the change appropriately,” says Loake –
For example, shifting Microsoft Exchange from Windows Server 2003 to 2012, buying a licence for the latest version of Exchange, will simply mean migrating the profiles over, not the whole application. Alternatively, some organisations might consider deploying Office365, Microsoft’s cloud office suite, which includes email, instead.
“Other commercially off-the-shelf applications that may or may not exist in a more modern version have made up the bulk of what we’ve been seeing. Very often it’s the case of installing the software on the new platform, testing it with a tool like Changebase to make sure it’s working okay, and to migrate that way,” says Loake.
“The final one is those applications that have been custom-coded to work on Windows Server 2003, and those represent a very unique challenge. How do you migrate those? That depends on how the application was written, how much interaction it has with the operating system.
“More often than not, an even bigger challenge migrating those types of applications is the fact that they were written for [even] older versions of SQL Server or other back-end systems that are no longer supported.”
In other words, a Windows Server 2003 migration could, in many instances, open up a very technical can of worms. If installations are running bespoke applications, there’s a possibility that it won’t just require a server operating system migration, but new back-end databases and other software (with, potentially, the costs of licences for new software, if the organisation eschews open source) and some re-writes to the application’s code, too.
That will raise further questions of documentation and in-house skills – was the application well documented? Where is that documentation? Do current in-house staff have the skills to be able to make the changes necessary? And, how much will it all cost, and what might be the alternatives?
Indeed, there might be more appropriate software out there capable of doing the task, or open-source projects and applications that could be deployed instead to save on costs.
On top of that, some organisations have been using Windows Server 2003 migration as an opportunity to shift some applications to the cloud. The most obvious, of course, will be shifting from running Microsoft Exchange in-house to Office365, but there might be others.
Costs and benefits
While this may sound like a costly exercise – it is – there are also savings that can be generated, says Loake. Even a simple, but thorough discovery exercise can uncover unnecessary servers running services that could either be switched off or absorbed by other systems.
“Even the most well run IT department will have up to 10 per cent of servers that can be decommissioned. Many organisations we have worked with have had more like 20 per cent – servers they don’t know they still had, but they were maintaining, just in case,” says Loake.
“By doing discovery appropriately, we were able to find out that those services could be turned off. That makes a material impact in power consumption, overhead and the costs of running the infrastructure,” he adds.
A Windows Server 2003 migration might also be good practice for organisations still running workloads on Microsoft Windows 2000 and even Windows NT 4, which was introduced in 1996. Microsoft claims that migrating from these old server operating systems to new makes sounds sense in terms of the extra security that running these ageing operating systems without support requires.
“Businesses will need to pay dramatically for improved security systems to isolate unprotected Windows Server 2003 systems, as well as the costs for maintaining ageing hardware,” a Microsoft spokesperson commented. Furthermore, there comes a point when old operating systems simply won’t work on new hardware – without the use of virtualisation software to support them – and the cost of maintaining the old hardware becomes prohibitive.
“We wouldn’t recommend taking your Windows Server 2003 workload and simply virtualising them,” says Loake, “because that doesn’t deal with the core problem: you are still ultimately running an unsupported operating system, you’re just removing a dependency on the [old] hardware. You still need to go through that re-platforming.”
However, the length of time it can take to safely and methodically migrate from one server operating system to another, testing the applications as they are shifted, means that time is already running out for organisations looking to migrate from Windows Server 2003. Loake says that organisations should expect it to take about 100 days for a server running around 50 workloads – and that’s just for an SME.
So organisations that haven’t already started really should start ASAP.
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