A tough sell: NT 4.0 fans speak out

It’s no secret that Microsoft Corp. will direct a special marketing pitch at Windows NT Server 4.0 users when the company releases its Windows Server 2003 operating system this month, just as it did for Windows Server 2000. And its announcement of the phase-out of support for NT Server 4.0 certainly caused hordes of users to sit up and take notice.

Yet despite the Redmond, Wash.-based software vendor’s pushing and prodding, there are legions of Windows NT Server users who aren’t ready to move or haven’t finished their migrations.

Bob O’Brien, group product manager in Microsoft’s server division, estimates that 35 to 40 per cent of the installed base for the Windows server operating system is using NT 4.0. He bases that in part on a year-old report in which Framingham, Mass.-basedmarket research firm IDC predicted it would be 33 per cent at the end of last year.

Tom Bittman, analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. thinks the number of NT Server users could be higher. Bittman says he stands by 60 to 70 per cent, based on client anecdotes and information from Microsoft.

Whichever figure is closer to the truth, one simple fact is clear: there’s still a lot of Windows NT Server 4.0 in use. Period.

Microsoft knew that when it decided to extend key support options for NT 4.0 through 2004. Its aging operating system was scheduled to slip off the support charts at the end of 2003. But Microsoft couldn’t afford to risk damaging relationships with its precious corporate customers, particularly the really large ones that were getting anxious about running an unsupported operating system.

O’Brien says today’s NT Server 4.0 users are divided into three camps: those who have a policy to run an operating system for five to seven years, those who have key business applications and file-and-print services running on NT, and those who are too cash-strapped to do frequent upgrades.

Like any vendor, Microsoft would prefer that customers leap to new products as soon as they hit the market. But users that have stuck with NT 4.0, which has been available since July 1996, often have the following pragmatic reasons for holding out.

1. Big moves take time

KeyCorp had 1,800 non-Unix servers running Lotus Notes, file-and-print services and some business applications. The Cleveland-based financial services company wanted to stay in sync with or slightly ahead of Microsoft’s support phaseout, so it devised a two-year plan to go to Windows 2000, said Wade Tolman, executive vice-president of enterprise technology operations.

“The biggest challenge just becomes planning, when you talk about touching that many servers and employees,” said Ann Louis, vice-president of enterprise technology operations at KeyCorp.

KeyCorp’s IT department upgraded 450 servers – some from NT 4.0 and others from Provo, Utah-based Novell Inc.’s NetWare – to Windows 2000 during the past year. Originally, the plans called for the remaining 1,300 Windows NT and 50 NetWare servers to be done by year’s end, but competing projects are intervening, and the migration is expected to extend into 2004.

The delay will open the door for a new option, Windows Server 2003, which is due this onth. But Tolman said he doesn’t feel a sense of urgency to change the existing migration plan, since support for Windows 2000 will last for many years.

KeyCorp might instead consider skipping the Windows 2003 release and wait for its successor, code-named Blackcomb, which Microsoft claims will be out in 2005 or 2006, Tolman said.

2. apps were built for NT 4.0

Farmers Insurance Group purchased Version 6 of Siebel Systems Inc.’s software, the core application of its claims division, in 2000, said Sherry Porter, distributed systems manager at the Los Angeles-based company. The application was built to run on NT 4.0, and because Siebel didn’t add support for Windows 2000 to that particular insurance version until the end of last year, Farmers didn’t gain the option to move from NT 4.0 until recently.

As many users are well aware, vendors don’t always rush to certify their older applications to run on newer operating systems.

“They won’t necessarily certify it unless you have enough clout or they have some compelling reason,” Porter said.

Siebel was seeing so much Windows NT among its customer base that it released Siebel 7 in November 2001 on both Windows 2000 and Windows NT 4.0, even though the newer operating system had already been out for 21 months, a spokesperson for San Mateo, Calif.-based Siebel said.

When Microsoft announced that support for NT 4.0 would end, Farmers could have upgraded to Siebel 7 on Windows 2000. But the insurer didn’t find the new features useful enough to justify the expense, Porter said.

Another major consideration was that Farmers’ Siebel 6 application was so heavily modified with custom code that an upgrade would have been “a dramatic amount of work,” Porter said. So the IT department is drawing up a plan to move its Siebel 6 application to Windows 2000.

However, some companies don’t get that option. They have to upgrade to a new application on a new operating system, stick with the old application on an unsupported operating system or buy a support contract for NT from a Microsoft partner.

3. NT 4.0 works just fine, thank you

Companies that have upgraded to Windows 2000 Server may be impressed with its improved stability and performance, but many others that are still running NT find that the older OS has reached a solid enough state to meet their needs. CE Franklin Ltd. has 16 Windows NT 4.0 servers running file-and-print, mail, intranet and terminal services. The six terminal servers may get upgraded this year, but there’s no upgrade plan for the rest.

“NT is the beast we know,” said David Curran, manager of IT at the Calgary-based oil field supply company. “We know what it takes to keep it alive and healthy, and without a real strong business case to move to Windows 2000, we haven’t been able to justify the expense.”

The end of support may create the case that pushes Curran to consider a “grudging upgrade.” But he said he doesn’t think it would be dangerous to run NT unsupported. “For the most part, these servers are stable,” he says.

Curran says he’s intrigued by the notion of skipping Windows 2000 Server in favour of Windows Server 2003 so he can extend the life cycle of CE Franklin’s server operating systems and defray licensing costs.

“You not only have to pay for server licenses; you have to pay for hundreds of client-access licences, and that just drives the cost through the roof,” says Curran.

4. Upgrades disrupt the business

Like many organizations, Navy Exchange Service Command in Virginia Beach, Va., has a heterogeneous mix of servers. The retailer, which employs more than 16,000 people in 108 dispersed locations, runs its most critical applications on 100-plus Unix boxes. But it also has a collection of Novell and Windows NT servers.

“We don’t see anything that’s going to drive us off NT Server in a rush,” said CIO Bill Finefield. “Usually by the time something like that gets to the end of its supported life, it’s pretty stable. And we don’t do anything exotic with it. If it’s running today, chances are it’ll be running tomorrow.”

Finefield says it’s the end of support for an application, not for an operating system, that drives upgrades at his organization. “It’s not the operating system that’s so important to your business,” he said. “It’s the applications that run on it.”

One reason Finefield is reluctant to upgrade server operating systems is the disruption it would cause to Navy Exchange Service’s business. Finefield cites the time that would be needed to stage, configure, test and deploy both the new operating system and any application that runs on it. Plus, new operating systems typically require more memory, processing power and storage.

“It starts a ripple effect, requiring you to invest in additional hardware and training and resources to keep up with it,” he said. “After you’ve gone through all that, you just don’t want to touch it for a while.”

5. Where’s the ROI?

Metropolitan Health Corp. in Grand Rapids, Mich., has 54 Windows NT 4.0 servers running health care, financial and supply chain applications, databases and various utilities. CIO Bill Lewkowski said that with so many applications, it’s hard for his organization and its application vendors to keep up with Microsoft’s new releases from a time and budget standpoint.

Also, it’s hard to calculate a huge return on investment from an infrastructure upgrade in comparison with projects that directly affect end users, noted Lewkowski.

So Metropolitan Health plans to wrap its server architecture decisions in high-level business goals, said Randy Truax, manager of technical services.

Truax wants to tie the operating system upgrade to a server consolidation project, since Metropolitan, like many companies, runs one application per NT server – often because its application vendors wrote them that way.

Metropolitan Health will also try to cost-justify the operating system upgrade by clustering servers, because Truax wants the IT department to be able to patch machines without having to take them off-line, so end users who are expected to increasingly rely on computer systems instead of paper won’t lose access to their applications. “I want to drive the cost of the infrastructure as low as I can – but not give up stability or scalability,” Truax said.