Is application virtualization the answer for users of XP?

As Microsoft winds down support of the Windows XP operating system, suppliers of application virtualization solutions are ramping up their marketing messages. While it is true that encapsulating Windows XP applications can make it possible for them to run on Windows 7 or 8, is that the answer?
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor

Microsoft has announced that support for both Windows XP SP3 and Office 2003 will end April 8, 2014. This has been coming a long time.

Microsoft has urged its customers to upgrade as soon as possible. It is not the first time that Microsoft has issued dire statements in the hopes of getting customers to purchase an upgrade. The upgrade target has changed over time from Windows Vista to Windows 7 to Windows 8 to Windows 8.1.

Customers, happy with what Windows XP and its supported software have chosen in large numbers to stay right where they are. If it is not broken, they would say, don't fix it.

It appears, however, that Microsoft is not going to back down this time by extending support Windows XP and Office 2003.

Suppliers present application virtualization as the answer

Suppliers of application virtualization technology, such as AppZero, Citrix, Moka5, SpoonVMware, and even Microsoft, have long been talking about the day that Windows XP would die and suggesting that their application virtualization products could make the transition easier. To a company, they suggest that Windows XP applications can be easily and smoothly moved over to a new operating environment without requiring changes to the applications themselves.

As with all technology, the reality is that application virtualization address some, but not all, of the issues customers will have in the process of retiring an operating system they've used for so long.

What does application virtualization do?

As pointed out in my O'Reilly Media book, Virtualization a Manager's Guide, applications can be "encapsulated" so that they can run in an artificial environment that makes it possible for applications written for one version of an operating system, say Windows XP, to happily execute on another version of the operating system, say Windows 7, 8 or 8.1.

The application virtualization technology surrounds the application and intercepts all calls for outside resources and transforms those requests into something acceptable to the new host operating system. So, the application can continue to function without change in the new environment.

Is application vitalization really a panacea?

In a word, no. Application virtualization can make it possible for an older application to run on a newer operating system. The technology doesn't have the ability to address all compatibility issues. Here are a few situations that aren't helped by the addition of application virtualization:

  • The application provider's software license or terms and conditions prohibit the use of application virtualization. While the technology may work, customers would not be able to obtain support in this environment.
  • The application provider may not support the old application on the new operating system. If the application supplier still exists, it may require a version of software designed for and tested with the new operating system.
  • The application may require a specific device or set of devices that are not supported by the new operating system. A graphics application might be tied to a specific printer or graphics adapter and the devices do not have device drivers for the new operating system.
  • The user interface will still look like it did under the older operating system and that may look strange in the new environment or not work well.
  • Customers will still need to know how the new operating system works. Gestures, commands and keystrokes that invoked functions on Windows XP may either not be supported at all or may invoke unwanted functions. Users will need to be trained on the operating system even though specific applications may still appear to work.

While application virtualization can be a wonderful solution and simplify the transition to a new operating system, it can't be considered a panacea. There are times that it would be wise to start over with tools and applications designed for the new operating system. It may also be wise to consider moving from Windows XP to a different operating system entirely.

Mac OS and Linux could be a better solution for some than Windows 7, 8 or 8.1.

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