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When the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, Microsoft will say so long to publicly supporting Windows NT Server 4.0.
With the new year, the company will bring to an end an 11-year history of the NT brand that was its first entreé into the enterprise server market.
The end of life of public support of NT Server 4.0 had been expected last year, as Microsoft urged customers to upgrade to more secure platforms.
But in response to customer demand, Microsoft extended its support. So although January 1, 2005 marks the end of public support for NT, it doesn't mark the absolute end of Microsoft support for NT.
"In response to Windows NT Server 4.0 customers who face large scale migrations and have asked for support while completing an upgrade, Microsoft has designed a fee-based custom support program that will run through Dec. 31, 2006," a Microsoft spokesperson explained to internetnews.com.
"Additionally, Exchange Server 5.5 will follow this policy, by offering a full two years of fee-based custom support after extended product support for Exchange Server 5.5 ends on Dec. 31, 2005. It is important to keep in mind that this does not mean that Microsoft is extending the lifecycle for Exchange Server 5.5 or Windows NT Server 4.0, but rather providing customers who need additional time [to] complete migrations [and] a custom support offering."
As with other end of life Microsoft products, such as Windows 98, vulnerabilities that Microsoft considers to be "critical" will have patches issued and made available free of charge. That said, Microsoft said it strongly encourages all NT users to upgrade to new software, particularly Windows Server 2003.
NT Server 4.0 is the final NT product to hit the public end of life stage. Support for NT Workstation previously ended in June of this year. Windows NT Server 4.0 was introduced in August of 1996, the final successor in the Windows NT line which was launched with NT 3.1 in July of 1993.
Still, after eight years of active service, Microsoft is retiring an NT 4.0 product that wasn't built to face the realities of today's IT security environment.
"Over the past decade, security vulnerabilities that could not have been anticipated have emerged," Microsoft's spokesperson said. "We have responded with new design methodologies, coding practices and test procedures that have introduced within new platforms, such as Windows Server 2003, a far greater level of security than is possible with Windows NT Server 4.0. Windows NT Server 4.0 was developed before the era of sophisticated Internet based attacks. It has reached the point of architectural obsolescence."
The spokesperson added: "It would be irresponsible to convey a false sense of security by extending public support for this server product."
But will every customer migrate from NT to another Windows operating system?
"I see the NT 4 transition as one of the major reasons for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's renewed assault on Linux, " Jupiter Research's Joe Wilcox wrote in his blog. "Why shouldn't companies consider converting, say, a NT 4 print server to Linux, which could cost less up front than Windows Server 2003? That's a question Microsoft probably doesn't want NT 4 customers asking."
Wilcox estimated that earlier in the year, 40 percent of enterprises were still running Windows NT 4, though he noted that figure was on the decline as the end drew near. (Jupiter Research and this publication share the same parent company.)
According to Web analytics firm Netcraft, plenty of enterprises are still running their Web sites on NT 4 servers, though those numbers continue to decline. At the start of 2003, Netcraft's Web Server Survey found 5.3 percent of Web-facing host names were running on NT 4. That number fell to 1.4 percent by November of 2004.
Research firm Gartner recently noted that it has advised clients to move away from the platform by the end of 2004. Gartner estimated that more than 20 percent of installed Windows servers and 10 percent of installed desktops were still running NT.
"Even so, a relatively small number of customers have signed up for custom support," Gartner noted. "The flat pricing model is designed for Microsoft's few hundred customers with the highest volume of NT, which means that several thousand customers will go into 2005 without security support."