NT 4.0 users face platform’s swan song

When Microsoft released Windows 2000 to much fanfare, it did so with its large NT 4.0 install base firmly in mind. This, Microsoft was telling them, is the upgrade platform you’ve been waiting for. But uptake was slow, so when the company released Windows Server 2003 last March, not long after Microsoft announced that support for NT 4.0 would soon come to an end. Now the message sent to those same users was clearer, and more firm – it is high time to migrate.

That not everyone has followed Microsoft’s wishes is no secret. But finding out exactly how many is difficult. Microsoft itself won’t release any hard numbers. At the time Windows 2003 was made available, industry analysts at IDC estimated that as many as 40 per cent of all current Windows users were employing NT 4.0 in their environments. One Gartner analyst estimated that it could even be as high as 60 per cent.

Twelve months later, a dent has appeared in those numbers. Warren Shiau, a software analyst at Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd., said Microsoft’s efforts have brought the Canadian Windows NT 4.0 install base down to about 35 per cent. In fact, he noted, the big migration Microsoft has long been banking on is finally underway.

But concentrations of NT 4.0 are still high, “and more so (in Canada) than anywhere else in the world,” said Akos Sandor, vice-president of enterprise solutions with Windows migration specialist Winzero Custom Solutions in Vancouver. It’s especially prevalent in government, where the migration policies are often engraved in stone, he added.

All this may seem surprising given how long Microsoft has been signaling its intentions. Windows NT was officially retired in Sept. 2001, although support continues to be available via special contract. But the cessation of security patches is set for Dec. 31, 2004, making its continued use after that date a potential business risk. Despite this, a NT 4.0 holdout community remains likely.

Some have come to rely on applications that were originally tuned to NT 4.0. Others have been putting off the cost and hassle of a migration project. But at IntraWest Corp., the question of how long to hold out turned out to be easy to answer. Several years ago the Vancouver-based international resort operator, which employs 8,500 people full-time – and as many as 20,000 when temporary workers jump on board at its 11 resorts during peak holiday season – made the decision to migrate off its NT 4.0 platform.

The reasons were two-fold, noted Philip DeConnick, systems architect at IntraWest. One was manageability – NT had become a difficult platform to manage and work with. There was a “mish-mash” of trust issues, and too many separate server domains – 37 in all.

Support was also a factor. “That was another big issue,” DeConnick said. IntraWest opted to move to Windows 2003 – the company had debated moving to Windows 2000, but the latest version of Windows, and Exchange, had become available just as talks to migrate became serious. Today the project is still ongoing, but DeConnick said the rollout of Active Directory has enabled IntraWest to shave roughly 135 domain servers down to 50.

Those advancements in Windows, particularly the server consolidation features in Windows 2003, combined with a clear migrationpath make the platform the smartest choice, said Michael Quartarone, national director of software solutions with integrator NexInnovations. As well, many enterprise customers have signed on to Microsoft’s Value Assurance licensing program, meaning they’ve already paid for the move.

“There’s definitely an interest in 2003. There’s a whole number of reasons why you’d want to move,” Quartarone said, amongst them the security risk of using an outdated platform. Even the “die-hards” who intend to hang on to NT 4.0 – and although NexInnovations doesn’t recommend it, it may be viable in some cases – will find difficulty adding applications down the road.

That interest may mark a subtle turning point for Microsoft, according to Tony Fernandes, vice-president of technology infrastructure at Inventure Solutions, which provides IT services to VanCity, a 40-branch credit union, and Canada’s largest. VanCity is currently in the midst of a large-scale migration off its Windows NT 4.0 platforms to Windows 2003 “A lot of it is…you look at Windows NT versus 2000 versus 2003, it’s getting better and better all the time. We have a level of confidence,” Fernandes said. “Would we have run…mission-critical, enterprise-wide systems on a Microsoft-Intel platform five years ago? Probably not. Today, it’s a different story.”

Inventure had originally planned to move to Windows 2000, but opted, in part, for 2003 because of its Active Directory feature. The decision to move wasn’t forced, Fernandes said. Rather, Windows NT 4.0 suffered from a lack of functionality compared to what was currently available. For instance, because each branch operated with its own LAN, when a VanCity employee shifted from branch to branch, his or her ID couldn’t follow them. Thus a new identity was created on the new server adding needless work.

Plus, with so many operating systems in the mix, a strategic decision was made to concentrate on only two or three. The company is phasing out NetWare, although it uses HP-UX for central applications, SCO Unix for some legacy systems and Sun Solaris for its IVR application. Today VanCity is about a “year’s work” away from moving entirely off Windows NT 4.0

One worry for Microsoft is that Windows NT 4.0 users are proving to be an irresistible temptation to IBM Corp., which recently announced a program aimed at migrating them away from Microsoft altogether – and on to Linux. The worldwide program includes free classes and discounts on a wide array of products and services. And the timing of the announcement, made only days before the start of the LinuxWorld show in New York, was no accident. According to IDC Canada, the Canadian NT 4.0 market is potentially vulnerable to Linux encroachments.

Experts point out that much of NT 4.0 in use today is in the low-level server arena, such as file and print. That terrain has been the most successful for Linux in the corporate setting. Also, Microsoft recently opted to extend the life of Windows 98 support, officially because it didn’twant to put undue pressure on users in developing countries, but also, say observers, because it was clear that a large chunk of users still weren’t ready to move, making them vulnerable to alternatives such as Linux.

But when it comes to more crucial lines of business applications, even migrating within Windows, let alone to another platform, is difficult enough. And it’s for that reason Winzero’s Sandor doesn’t expect Linux to make big inroads in Canada. While Linux and Windows 2003 on a technology basis compare “like apples to apples, that part doesn’t count,” he said “You have to look at it from a business point of view.”

With Microsoft’s massive install base and software partner community, as well as its willingness to “hold your hand” when it comes to upgrading, the safe business decision is more clear-cut. “I see people doing testing with Linux. I don’t see them in production,” Sandor said.

In fact, he said the size and scope of Microsoft’s support network means that, “in the long run, the Microsoft product is actually cheaper,” given the training and software development Linux would require.

“I would say with our customer base there’s an intent to stay within Windows,” confirmed Michael Quartarone, national director of software solutions with integrator NexInnovations. He too points to the barrier of finding and retaining the right people to make Linux work.

IBM Canada Ltd., however, says looking for Linux talent is not as simple as tallying the number of MCSEs currently in the job market. Younger workers are now entering the workforce with ample, if undocumented, Linux knowledge. As well, IBM argues, a working knowledge of Unix goes a long way in the Linux world.

While IBM shies away from “polarizing” the two operating systems – it notes that the two can and do co-exist in many corporate environments – Chris Pratt, manager of e-services strategic initiatives at IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., says users are also growing tired of what he calls today’s “monoculture” software world. “I would struggle to find anyone who couldn’t benefit from Linux,” he said. “(But) the decision is based on a number of factors – Where is your skills base? What do you want to do with it? And what does your total cost of ownership model look like?”

Fernandes said VanCity looked at the viability of other non-Microsoft platforms – Linux included. Several of the company’s business partners have a strong Linux investment in their Web server farms. But in the end, he couldn’t establish the business case. “Again, it’s watering down your staff expertise, and where are the real costs? We don’t see the huge benefits of Linux,” he said.

DeConnick said IntraWest’s migration project involved a lot of heavy lifting. But had IntraWest looked at Linux – which it didn’t, although it runs “a few” Linux servers today – that job would have been much bigger. He said that the time an effort of moving coupled with finding the appropriate talent to make it possible would have been an equally large challenge.

“We didn’t consider moving off Windows,” he said. “That wasn’t even a consideration. Right now, today, we’re really heavily invested in Microsoft…(And) we have a lot custom-developed applications. (The cost) would have been astronomical.”

SIDEBAR: The view from Redmond

Support for Windows NT 4.0 Server is due to cease at year’s end, but the many users of the aging Microsoft Corp. operating system will find plenty of options for help as they plot migration strategies. IBM recently announced it would offer free migration classes and some discounts on software and services for those who opt to move from Microsoft products to IBM enterprise software running on Linux.

Not to be outmarketed, Microsoft responded by promoting improved migration tools, prescriptive guidance, discounted training, a freely available “online concierge,” and services for file and print, directory, e-mail and database migration. It also touted a total-cost-of-ownership assessment tool that has been extended to allow customers to evaluate Windows against competitive systems.

Many of those options have been available for two years, but Jim Hebert, general manager of the Windows Server product management group, also spotlighted previously unpublicized hands-on labs that were introduced in November to help customers move from NT Server to Windows 2000 Server or Windows Server 2003. In an interview with Computerworld (U.S.), Hebert talked about Microsoft’s plans.

CW: Linux is drawing much more attention today. Will Microsoft need to do more?

Hebert: We are doing more. … We’ve been continuing to invest in our tools and making sure that we’ve got partners. And the most important thing for most of our customers when they’re thinking about potentially moving platforms is whether the software they need to run their business, not just the operating system, is available to them on that platform.

CW: Is there any chance that support for NT Server will be extended beyond the end of the year?

Hebert: No.

CW: What was the impetus for the free hands-on labs?

Hebert: One of the things that many IT organizations have to face when they’re doing any kind of migration is, “Gee, how hard is this going to be? How much is this going to change from what we used to do?” By putting in place these hands-on labs, our customers can go and actually dry-run what their environment might look like, what the installation might look like, so that they can make a decision without actually doing the work.

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