No NT 4.0 Support -- Should You Stay or Should You Go?

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With Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT 4.0 operating system nearing the end of its life cycle, millions of IT managers will have some serious -- and potentially expensive -- decisions to make.

After seven years, Microsoft is withdrawing support this week from Windows NT 4.0 Workstation. And the end is drawing near for the NT 4.0 Server with telephone support and new patches being issued only through the end of this year. After that, companies still using the operating system will be on their own.

And with little money in the coffers at most IT shops and even fewer workers on IT staffs, migrating from Windows NT to either Windows 2000 or Windows 2003 looms ahead as a major task. An upgrade in operating system generally means an upgrade in middleware, databases and hardware. A lot of work. A lot of money.

That will hit home with a lot of IT managers. IDC, an industry analyst firm based in Framingham, Mass., estimates that there are still more than 2 million installed licenses out there for NT 4.0. IDC analysts are even predicting 30,000 new NT licenses being sold this year -- seven years after the operating system was first introduced and several years after its predecessor -- Windows 2000 -- hit the streets.

''There's still a substantial installed base of people who have not moved to the newer product because maybe they're running an application that doesn't run on Windows 2000, or they're developing applications using tools and a run-time environment not available, or maybe they need support for a device that is not available on Windows 2000,'' says Dan Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research at IDC. ''They know how it works and it fits their environment. Good enough is good enough.''

For those people who are running along fine on NT 4.0 and don't need the new features on Windows 2000 or Windows 2003, migrating will be a hard sell. And Kusnetzky says the best advice he could give them is not to rush it.

''Upgrading an operating system usually causes a cascade of other updates that are required,'' says Kusnetzky. ''If an organization is happy with its operating system, why would they go through all of that? Consider what benefits they would get from moving. What would is cost overall -- not just for the software, but possibly replacing machines, retraining staff, retraining the help desk? Like Dominos, you knock over one thing and others start to fall over.''

But staying with an operating system after its life cycle is over, isn't always the best plan either, says Jonathan Eunice, a principal analyst at Illuminata, an analyst firm based in Nashua, N.H.

''Obviously, the system just won't keel over and die today,'' says Eunice. ''But the fact is that security problems keep cropping up. For pretty much any platform, but especially for Windows, you need a steady stream of patches and fixes for those problems. It is the most vulnerable of the Windows operating systems and the most in need for continuing patch work.''

After the new year, those patches won't be coming anymore.

''No patches. No fixes. If you're running it like that, you're swimming without a lifeguard,'' adds Eunice. ''I don't think IT managers are in trouble but I think it's a very clear signal -- go ahead and migrate, damn it.''

But Eunice agrees with Kusnetzky that migrating can be extremely costly and many IT budgets, already synched up tight, may not be able to handle the expense this year.

''When there's no money in the budget, it's a tough decision, especially for a migration that doesn't promise to improve your bottom line,'' says Eunice. ''For most people on NT 4.0, if it had been easy to move, they already would have done so.''

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