What to do during the XP phase-out

XP’s end of sales date may be a non-issue to large, US-based enterprises. But in Canada, pro-grade products and automatic downgrade rights aren’t necessarily the status quo. What’s a Canadian small business to do next? If XP is currently up and running smoothly, your first option is to wait Microsoft recently announced it will offer extended XP support, providing security and critical updates, until 2014.

“It is a mature product, the code base is stable and it is unlikely new issues will come up with XP unless they are security-related and Microsoft will continue to do the security fixes,” says IDC analyst Al Gillan in an interview with Network World (US) John Fontana. Also, as XP is a mature product, say Gillan, companies already know how to support it.

The pending release of Windows 7 in 2010 gives small businesses another reason to wait. “I’m willing to bet that most companies will skip Vista and embrace Windows 7, assuming there’s no major bugs or issues with it,” says Ted Ristau, senior systems analyst at Crestline Coach Ltd. “So I would bet by 2011, we’re looking at a migration off of XP.”

“If I only need to wait for a year and a half before going over to Windows 7, why would I buy Vista?” says David Martin, systems analyst at Nylene. “Why would we go through the whole hassle of converting everything over just to convert it all over again? It’s just extra cost.”

Cost continues to remain the reason Canadian small businesses are slow to embrace Vista in the first place. In addition to funding the software, businesses must have the budget for hardware upgrades and training. “We run on a four-year refresh cycle,” says John Meeuwse, CIO of West Nipissing General Hospital. “Half of my systems will not be able to run Vista because of the hardware requirements.”

Large companies don’t have the budget for Vista, Meeuwse continues. “It requires more horsepower than XP. The security set-up is a headache. Licensing has gotten worse…so is reinstalling software.” Meeuwse says the hospital has no plans to roll out Vista and predicts large companies won’t start looking at an upgrade until 2012.

Your second option is to move forward with Vista

Utilize your “downgrade rights” if you can’t yet say goodbye to XP. XP Professional will continue to be available as a downgrade option with the purchase of Vista Business or Vista Ultimate, as long as the PC offers the downgrade option. Companies currently agreeing to the downgrade include Dell, HP, Lenovo, NEC and Sony. Businesses will also qualify for download rights if they are part of a Microsoft Volume Licensing Program.

Many companies don’t want to introduce a new system until their staff are trained, says Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft, an independent organization devoted to studying Microsoft. Downgrade rights are helpful in this case, as you can continue to use XP until your staff are comfortable switching over to Vista.

“Don’t pick up XP because you heard bad things about Vista,” says Cherry. Part of the problem with Vista is resources. If you buy new hardware with new software, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Brian Cuthbertson, senior systems analyst at Arcelor Mittal, admits his first impression of Vista wasn’t good. “Nothing worked,” he says. Forced to use Vista a second time around after a recent laptop purchase, Cuthbertson reports his thoughts have changed. “I haven’t had problems,” he says. “I find it to be handy, now that I’m used to it.”

Vista may also provide a smoother transition to Windows 7. As Meeuwse points out, “They don’t say it will be easy to move from XP to 7, only from Vista to 7. We may end up in the same boat as we are now.”

Third, consider your alternatives

While Cuthbertson let go of the grudge, he has yet to install Vista on his desktop and says his company has no plans to roll out Vista on their machines. “The issue is money,” he says. Arcelor Mittal is considering moving to Linux instead.

Switching to a Linux-based system will expose the same training, security and resourcing headaches that are preventing you from embracing a Vista overhaul, but at a lower price. On the other hand, options for support may be limited. “I’m not sure there is the same knowledge base for Linux as for Windows, says Cherry.

Apple is an attractive option, says Cherry. But make sure the applications you need to run will be available for it.

Cherry divides the business market into two categories — large and small — and determines this with one question, “Do you have a dedicated IT staff?” If the answer is no, says Cherry, you are a small business.

In this case, you should look for something stable. Don’t think about tweaking the system. Purchase a machine with the operating system pre-installed and leave it alone, he says. If a new version of the OS comes out, don’t upgrade. Just stick with what it came with.

Too much emphasis is placed on the operating system, says Cherry. Whether you are looking at Windows, Apple or Linux, the questions should remain the same: Can I leave it alone? Can I get adequate support for it?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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