IT departments are addicted to Windows 2000, says study

Despite the end of mainstream support for Windows 2000, the Microsoft Corp. operating system continues to have a strong following among corporations.

So says AssetMetrix Inc., an Ottawa-based IT trend-tracking firm. Last month the company released a report describing Windows 2000’s enduring high status.

AssetMetrix said Windows 2000 “remains a widely deployed operating system in corporate IT environments, losing only four percentage points in popularity from 52 per cent in Q4 2003 to 48 per cent in Q4 2005.”

Microsoft ended mainstream support for Windows 2000 on June 30.

Asked why he thinks companies are holding on to the operating system, Steve O’Halloran, managing director of AssetMetrix’s research labs, said it comes down to three themes: past reluctance, current stability and fear of the unknown.

Under the first theme, reluctance, O’Halloran puts the IT economy’s dip of 2002. Companies weren’t purchasing new computers, making it hard for Microsoft to seed an install base for its then-new OS, Windows XP, via the common market-penetration method. “The infusion of Windows XP via OEM purchases was not happening,” O’Halloran said, noting that as a result, Windows 2000 maintained its place as one of the operating systems of choice for the average enterprise.

Regarding stability, Microsoft did a fine job of securing Windows 2000’s continued success, O’Halloran said. The firm “encouraged the marketplace to embrace Windows 2000 with certifications, effective management and support policies, and effective…support products,” such as the Systems Management Server for pan-enterprise PC configuration, and hooks for Active Directory, the policy deployment platform.

All of these things further entrenched Windows 2000 in the enterprise IT infrastructure. Concerning the last theme, fear, there was a certain amount of that, plus “uncertainty and doubt” about Windows 2000’s successor, O’Halloran said. XP was “perceived as not being secure” when it first arrived. Application compatibility issues and bugs in the code plagued early versions.

“If you’re the IT guy and you keep hearing (problems about) XP…maybe you’ll hold on to Windows 2000 until everything settles down,” O’Halloran said. These days, Windows XP has proven itself, judging by AssetMetrix’s numbers. Whereas just 6.6 per cent of businesses employed XP in 2003, 38 per cent use it now.

O’Halloran said Windows XP’s late popularity comes at the expense of earlier Microsoft operating systems like Windows 95 and Windows 98, both of which lost serious ground over the last couple of years. AssetMetrix said that in 2003, 28 per cent of companies used at least one of those programs, but in 2005 less than five per cent of businesses employed the older OSes.

Leigh Popov, manager of technical infrastructure and capital planning at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ont., said the tenacity of Windows 2000 is no surprise. He mentioned the seven-year gap between this OS’s introduction and that of its predecessor, Windows NT, unveiled way back in 1993.

“Such a big time period went by between Windows NT and Windows 2000 that there were a lot of technological advancements” in Windows 2000, he said. For instance, “setting up a network in NT was not trivial. Microsoft made it as easy as they could, but the operating system wasn’t created around that. With Windows 2000, networking was native to the operating system.

Setting up PCs on the network, having them connect…it all works so much better on Windows 2000.” XP represents another step forward, Popov said. His organization has switched most of its former-Windows 2000 desktop PCs over to the more recent OS. Credit Valley Hospital has about 1,400 end-user computers. XP is “easier to support; it’s easier to troubleshoot,” he said.

Elliot Katz, Microsoft Canada’s Windows client product manager, said that with the end of mainstream support, Windows 2000 users no longer get free incident management and installation help, although users still get free access to security updates for another five years. O’Halloran said companies should upgrade their PCs, if not for the operating system, then for the associated hardware improvements.

He said companies should purchase new PCs that sport 64-bit microprocessors. These chips offer quicker computations compared to the 32-bit machines of years past, so they could help companies become more efficient. Many new computers come with XP built in, so the enterprise would garner an OS upgrade alongside the hardware boost.

And should the enterprise care to employ Microsoft’s newest operating system in 2006, currently code-named “Longhorn,” the business would be well positioned to do so. Longhorn is said to operate at its best when coupled with a 64-bit substructure. In effect, a company that purchases 64-bit PCs today offsets the cost of upgrading whole hog, software and hardware, when Longhorn comes along, O’Halloran said.

He presented a challenge for Windows 2000 holdouts: “Justify the existence of Windows 2000. Are you retaining Windows 2000 for business-critical reasons? Do you have an application outsourced that’s making specific Windows 2000 calls? If the answer’s yes, figure out how long it’s going to take to get it fixed and fix it,” lest your business-critical app ends up stuck on an outdated and unsupported platform.

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