Don't face an XP rerun: Businesses should prepare for Windows 7 end of support now

Do you care if your employer is running Windows 7 without patches in 2020?

Many workers will have moved on from their current roles by 2020, but if organisations want to avoid being stuck on Windows 7 without security updates, they should start preparing now.

Following Microsoft's warning last month that it would stop providing free security updates to Windows 7 in 2020, analyst firm Gartner is telling CIOs to begin preparing for the end of support for the OS now — that is, if they want to avoid the headaches that many organisations continue to face after Microsoft cut off support for Windows XP this April .

"While this feels like it's a long way off, organisations must start planning now, so they can prevent a recurrence of what happened with Windows XP," said Stephen Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner.

Microsoft's Mainstream support, which includes feature and security updates for Windows 7, ends in 2015. However, its extended support, which includes free critical security updates, ends on 14 January 2020. The same goes for Windows 7 Service Pack 1.

Windows 7 hasn't achieved the 80 percent share Windows XP did at its height, but with 51 percent share today, according to NetMarketshare, it's still the world's most widely-deployed desktop OS. As such, Microsoft could extend the deadline as it did with XP.

That said, it's probably not wise to gamble on Microsoft moving its goalposts, nor leave migration plans too late, given the complexities of dealing with the interdependencies between Windows 7 and browser-based enterprise applications.

According to Kleynhans, the main obstacle to an OS upgrade away from Windows 7 will be application compatibility. "The biggest compatibility issues in terms of applications not working will continue to be those that require specific releases of Internet Explorer," he said.

Organisations still stuck on Windows XP will likely be familiar with this issue if they'd built line of business applications that were dependent on Internet Explorer 6, which itself was tied to XP. 

With slow uptake of Windows and around a 10 percent share of the desktop today, Windows 8 and 8.1 haven't proved to as popular as Windows 7. But, said Kleynhans, the newer OS does offer benefits to the enterprise and should be on their menu.

"Microsoft has moved to a more fluid approach to releasing and updating Windows. In the 18 months since its release, Windows 8 has had two significant updates, and we expect more during the next year," he noted.

"Organisations that have already deployed some Windows 8 PCs, or that decide that Windows 8.1 Update 1 provides an attractive platform, should not shy away from deploying new devices with the OS."

Other organisations running applications that need to be supported and validated by ISVs "may find skipping Windows 8 for most devices makes sense".

One strategy organisations can consider is to deploy Windows 8 on newly-bought PCs, which offers a way to phase Windows 7 gradually.

Another would be to skip Windows 8 and try Windows Threshold or a subsequent release, which Gartner reckons will be the choice most opt for at the expense of still running some Windows 7 after 2020.

A third option would to be replace all Windows 7 devices with Windows 8, but Gartner doesn’t recommend this without a solid business case.

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