Dead techs still roam IT’s living world

When a vendor announces the “end-of-life” for a product, those words don’t necessarily ring true for some enterprise users.

The old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” applies to any company still hanging on to discontinued software and hardware like Microsoft’s FoxPro, IBM’s OS/2 or HP’s AlphaServer.

“If you’ve got something that’s working, unless somebody can persuade you that there are some opportunity costs to do it another way, there’s the temptation to keep doing it the same way,” William Zachmann, president of Canopus Research, said. “This is especially true for organizations that don’t manage technology very well in the first place.”

According to analysts, a future “dead tech walking” that could be very widespread long after its end-of-life announcement is Microsoft’s Windows XP.

“XP is going to have support for a long time, as users are still very invested in the platform,” Crawford Del Prete, analyst at IDC, said. “You can still see a significant amount of shops that are still on Windows 2000.”

Microsoft has stated it will terminate retail sales of XP next January. But many experts believe consumer demand could extend this deadline. Paul DeGroot, analyst at Directions on Microsoft, said that the software giant has often changed its mind when deciding to end support for its operating systems.

“For example, the NT support lifecycle just kept on getting extended and extended because there was such a large installed base,” DeGroot said.

Historically, Microsoft has often been criticized by enterprise users for forcing upgrades too fast. “If you remember, they launched Windows 98 and on the business side they had NT 4.0, then they had Windows 2000, Windows ME, Windows XP, and it really seemed like every two and a half years there was a new OS coming out,” Vince Londini, analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, said. But according to Zachmann, the determining factor that pushes new software and hardware — and causes older technologies to slowly become obsolete — is a vendor’s need to innovate and stay ahead of its competition.

“In the very competitive world of software, there continues to be substantial improvement and innovation,” Zachmann said. “Although a company like Microsoft has quite a dominant position, they work fanatically to try and make better products, because nothing guarantees them that dominant position. As long as there are opportunities for innovation, they have to capitalize on those opportunities.”

Zachmann said that because not everything a vendor brings out is necessarily meeting a need or getting initial acceptance, consumers are often justified in waiting to upgrade.

“I recently helped somebody out with an old computer running on Windows ME,” Zachmann said. “The damn thing is faster than my computer running Windows Vista Office 2007 with dual-processors and everything else.”

Here’s a look at five old technologies which, despite being killed off by their vendors, continue to have varying degrees of success in the enterprise.

AlphaServer (1994-2006)

HP’s AlphaServer systems — a series of server computers originally produced by HP

The Obit: Many industry experts say that the AlphaServer’s demise was the by-product of HP’s need to consolidate and create its own identity. HP’s plan to move customers to its new Integrity server line dates back to the HP-Compaq merger.

“HP is a company that inherited a lot of maintenance contracts over the last 10 years from three companies, Digital-Compaq, HP and Tandem,” Jean Bozman, analyst at IDC said. “So, that is a large installed-base that the company had to manage.”

The Afterlife: According to Lloyd Cohen, analyst at IDC, his latest data gathered in 2005 had 135,000 Alpha systems installed worldwide. He estimates that between 60,000 and 90,000 are out there today.

Hugh Couchman, physics and astronomy professor at McMaster University, said most programs running in his department are HP applications which keeps the older Alpha’s useful. “We consolidated all of our Alphas into one system to try to prolong its useful life,” Couchman said. “The system currently has around 450 processors and that is compared with over 6,000 processors in our new systems. The old stuff is still perfectly useable, however.”

Cohen on server life: “Systems tend to move from a mission critical type of workload to a second tier type of workload. So, they end up having a longer life than a lot of people think.”

Verdict: Alpha systems will continue to be found in companies over the next decade or so, with most users following HP’s roadmap and moving to the Integrity server family. Support site: Encompass — and This long-time HP-Compaq user group offers mailing lists, a calendar of events and even Webcasts for all types of HP technologies.

FoxPro (1982-2006)

Microsoft’s Visual FoxPro 9.0 — a database and development programming tool

The Obit: Originally known as FoxBASE and developed by Fox Software in 1984, the company was purchased by Microsoft in 1992. According to many FoxPro users, the product was doomed at this point.

FoxPro directly competed with Microsoft’s own SQL Server, but unlike that product, FoxPro’s use of open .dbf file format made it impossible for Microsoft to raise the price. “They weren’t making any money off of it,” Mike Yearwood, president of the Toronto Ontario FoxPro Users Group, said. “Also, there are no royalties on development. So, I can build whatever I want and sell as many copies as I want without giving a dime to Microsoft, so of course, I can see why they got rid of it.”

The Afterlife: “The community group is probably the biggest reason the product still exists and it’s probably the biggest reason the product will continue to exist,” Yearwood said.

Andrew MacNeill, a Kanata, Ont.-based FoxPro developer, said that the community group is even creating amazing add-ons for the product, which is making up for the fact that Microsoft is not releasing another version.

“What can Microsoft add on to the product?” MacNeill asked. “I can think of about 100 different things, but I could also know that many of those things are already being done in the community. And in some ways better than if Microsoft did it.”

IDC’s Crawford Del Prete on FoxPro’s continued popularity: “FoxPro was a product that out-of-the-box, required a fair amount of customization for people to work with it and create their own database environments. This means that these people had to invest a fair amount of time in making that successful, and that’s the kind of thing that gets people very invested emotionally and builds communities as well.”

OS/2 (1987-2005)

IBM’s OS/2 — an operating system, initially created by IBM

The Obit: Many industry experts have argued that OS/2 was a product with a lot of potential on paper, but turned out to be very clunky. But Kim Haverblad, founder of Sweden-based and a former project manager for OS/2, said the product failed mostly due to its poor marketing campaign.

“IBM pushed out Warp 3 for example, to compete with Windows 95, and Microsoft’s campaign for that was way slicker than what IBM was putting out,” Haverblad said. “It all boils down to marketing, because at the time early versions of Office existed on OS/2, PageMaker by Adobe existed on OS/2, and many other applications were available as well.”

The secondary reason for its failure, according to Haverblad, was the lack of choice for many customers, as IBM was the only vendor that offered the OS in a shipped computer.

The Afterlife: Interestingly, OS/2 was the system of choice for many banks and financial institutions in the mid-90s. In fact, up until recently the majority of ATMs in the world were running on OS/2.

Haverblad said that banks and insurance companies continue to use the OS in Europe, but it is fast approaching death in North America. But, Haverblad said, many users including himself continue to use OS/2 for personal use even despite the fact that its features have been frozen since 1996. “If you want to use OS/2, there are quite a lot of tools available,” Haverblad said. “I would say the past few years in particular have been quite prosperous for OS/2 in the number of community projects.”

Canopus Research’s William Zachmann on OS/2’s failure: “OS/2 was like the cow that sort of gives this wonderful milk, but somehow manages to kick the pale over before you take it away.”

Verdict: Big Blue’s long abandoned OS is hanging on by life support and is in very limited use. But, OS/2’s dedicated community group has worked to keep it alive for consumer use.

Support site: OS/2 World — Continuously updated with OS/2 hardware- and software-related news. A bounty system where money is given out for highly requested OS/2 features and add-ons. The highest award on the bounty list offers US$320 to any user who develops an OS/2 native port of Java 6.

SAIT (2003-2007), SDLT (2001-2007)

Sony’s SAIT and Quantum’s SDLT tape drives — two midrange proprietary half-inch tape formats

The Obit: Both these tape brands will be discontinued this year because of the success of Linear Tape-Open (LTO) storage technology. LTO currently allows for up to 800GB capacity native, with transfer rates of up to 240 MB per second in the latest generation of the product. Future incarnations of LTO look to have data capacity of 1.6 TB and 3.2 TB. Both Sony and Quantum are licensed manufacturers of LTO.

Heidi Biggar, analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group, said she isn’t surprised at the discontinuation of either format.

“Given current marketing conditions, and if you look at the number of library vendors that supported these formats versus LTO, the writing has kind of been on the wall,” Biggar said.

The Afterlife: Both of these formats, as well as the tape market in general, have seen a major decrease in demand since the arrival of disk space backup products. However, Biggar said that the demise of these products doesn’t indicate the end of the tape drive.

“There’s a whole lot of tape out there,” Biggar said. “People have made huge investments in tape library and I think that this announcement doesn’t necessarily speak to the demise of tape. It just speaks to the success of LTO.”

Biggar said that the move to LTO will keep tape format alive and help the changing role of tape as a secondary storage device.

Biggar on tape’s future: “There’s something to be said about having removable tape. Plus, it meets a lot of regulatory requirements for having data off-site, so there’s value in that. I think over time, we’ll see tape being used for deep archival purposes, or as we say it, ‘that doomsday scenario,’ where something catastrophic happens and your last resort is tape.”

Verdict: While the SAIT and SDLT are on their way to being obsolete, the LTO format will keep tape storage alive for the future.

Support site: Quantum — Vast searchable database called the Quantum Knowledge Base contains help articles for Quantum storage products.

Windows NT 4.0 (1996 to 2003) Microsoft’s Windows NT 4.0 — a 32-bit operating system released in 1996 The Obit: NT 4.0 wasn’t necessarily killed, as it was and slowly phased out. The OS had a fairly large installed-based up until 2003 and become officially unsupported in December 31, 2004.

Info-Tech’s Vince Londini said that with the advancements in security, any company still hanging on to NT 4.0 should probably look to move forward as soon as they can.

“NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 are both out of their support lifecycles now,” Londini said. “Windows 2000 is in an extended support period and NT 4.0 you can just forget about it.”

The Afterlife: The financial limitations for small organizations is one of the few reasons NT still has the little installed-base it does. Michael Butkus, IT coordinator at the South Bound Brook School District in New Jersey, said he switched over from NT 4.0 to Server 2003 earlier this year. He said a corrupted hard drive forced the move and allowed Butkus to get the funding for the software.

“If I had the money to do it earlier I would have switched because nothing was running on NT anymore,” Butkus said. “Just recently, we had a database package where teachers could identify a child in need. Even that simple package wouldn’t run on NT.”

But despite the problems, Butkus said NT’s reliability allowed it to run for as long as it did.

“I never had it shut down on me; I never had any wacko error messages or blue screens,” Butkus said. “It just kept going.”

Directions on Microsoft’s Paul DeGroot on NT’s longevity :“The Navy continued to use it after the support period ended. One reason is because it’s kind of hard to do an IT upgrade on ships that are only in port occasionally.”

Verdict: NT 4.0 was a reliable OS that served users well for nearly a decade. However, as the release of Windows Server 2008 draws near, it’s unsurprising that NT is all but extinct.

Support site: Microsoft — Information on instructor-led classes which can help users in upgrading from NT. Classes can be found in some major Canadian cities.

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