How Microsoft's support lifecycles affect you and your business

Microsoft says it's shutting down Mainstream support for Windows 7 next January. Should you be worried?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

Every piece of Microsoft business software ships with a EULA, a copyright notice, and an expiration date. Every time you run Windows or Office or any of a gazillion Microsoft-branded on-premises server products, the clock is ticking relentlessly down toward that end-of-support date.

That interval between the debut of a software package and its formal retirement is called the Microsoft Support Lifecycle, and if any of those Microsoft products are part of your IT infrastructure you need to know how those deadlines work.

The subject comes up this week as Microsoft sounds the warning bell about a few key support milestones that are on the near horizon.

On January 13, 2015, mainstream support ends for the following products:

  • Windows 7 (all editions)
  • Windows Server 2008 and 2008 R2
  • Windows Storage Server 2008
  • Microsoft Dynamics C5 2010, NAV 2009, and NAV 2009 R2

As it turns out, the end of mainstream support is not that big a deal for most Microsoft customers. The transition from mainstream to extended support doesn't signal a greater risk; it simply marks the point where Microsoft says "We're no longer adding features to this product, but we're still updating it with fixes for security and reliability issues."

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The other milestone this week is much more meaningful.

On July 14, 2015, extended support ends for Windows Server 2003. That's more than 12 years after the operating system debuted, and just as with Windows XP earlier this year, it's a hard stop. After that date, you cannot count on any security patches or reliability fixes for Windows Server 2003.

It's frightening to imagine a business continuing to run on Windows XP on some of its desktop PCs after Microsoft has pulled the plug on security fixes. But it's horrifying to imagine any business continuing to run an unsupported server OS, which will be the case when Windows Server 2003 passes its end-of-support date.

So, what's the difference between mainstream and extended support? This is a topic I cover regularly. Here's the Cliff Notes version:

  • Microsoft offers a minimum of 10 years of support for Business and Developer products. Most products also receive at least 10 years of online self-help support.
  • Mainstream Support lasts for five years, or for two years after the successor product is released), whichever is longer.
  • Extended Support continues for five years following the end of mainstream support or for two years after the second successor product is released, whichever is longer.

Even in the Extended Support period, all products continue to offer paid support options, security updates, and product-specific information on the Microsoft Knowledge Base and at the Microsoft Help and Support site for that product.

So what goes away with the end of the Mainstream Support phase?

  • Microsoft no longer supplies non-security hotfixes unless your company pays for an extended support agreement.
  • All warranty claims end.
  • Microsoft no longer accepts requests for new features and design changes.

That's it.

(You can revel in the geeky lawyerly prose of the Microsoft Support Lifecycle Policy FAQ by yourself if you like that sort of thing.)

And on a separate note, it's worth calling out the differences between the Sales Lifecycle and the Support Lifecycle. Those dates are separate for a practical reason: It makes no sense to have hardware partners selling an operating system or application that is months away from reaching its end-of support date.

So, under normal circumstances, OEM sales of a Microsoft operating system end two years after its successor appears on the market.

But that policy was tweaked earlier this year when Microsoft announced it would extend the right of OEMS to sell PCs with Windows 7 Pro indefinitely.

That results in the odd situation where Windows 7 PCs can be sold next summer, with Microsoft's blessing, more than six months after mainstream support for that OS has ended.

Chalk it up to another awkward transition between Windows versions, but don't burn too many brain cells worrying about the calendar mismatch. Windows 7 will be in the Extended Support phase until January 14, 2020, which means you have five full years to use those Windows 7 PCs before they hit the same wall that Windows XP collided with this year.

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