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Migration options for Windows Server 2003 IT shops

IT shops only have months to go before Windows Server 2003's end-of-life, and getting off the aging software could mean reaching into wallets.

With Windows Server 2003 nearing its end-of-life point, many IT shops are looking for ways to migrate away from the software -- without enduring downtime or hefty costs.

Microsoft will no longer guarantee security fixes for Windows Server 2003 after the middle of 2015, making companies still using it vulnerable to attack. That looming threat makes it imperative for a business running important or mission-critical tasks on the aging OS to give serious thought to migration.

Microsoft positions Windows Server 2012 R2, which is the latest version of its server operating system, as a key piece in its so-called Microsft Cloud OS initiative. Organizations migrating to a newer Windows platform would see benefits in several key areas.

There's network virtualization, for instance. This software-defined networking feature reaches across private and service provider data centers. Virtual machine performance and portability improvements also bring benefits, complete with hooks into the Microsoft Azure service.

Windows Server 2012 was the first OS to allow the pooling of disparate hardware storage devices. In Windows Server 2012 R2, the company enhanced the feature with write-back cache, storage tiers and rebuilding if a physical disk fails.

Administrators find this option enticing. In fact, 39% of North American respondents to the Protiviti 2015 IT Priorities survey plan to migrate to Windows Server 2012 R2.

An inflection point for cloud

One option for Microsoft shops is Azure. The cloud service's initial costs are far less expensive than investing in new hardware. This point is critically important for organizations running Windows Server 2003 because that OS ran on 32-bit chip architecture; newer software requires 64-bit systems.

Going to the cloud means less data center infrastructure to manage. Billing is done in small intervals, and costs are more closely tied to actual usage. Also, workloads are scalable, without the need to invest in more physical storage.

However, cloud services come with concerns. Costs will accrue over time, and there's a good chance organizations will eventually spend more on the services than on the hardware itself. Downtime is a potential issue for some, as no provider has demonstrated a perfect track record when it comes to maintaining cloud services. As with any service provider relationship, customers are at the mercy of the cloud provider. So, if Microsoft decides it wants to deprecate, change or remove an Azure feature, it can do so at any time.

Still, it's a compelling option for businesses that want to stay ahead of the curve. And an increased number of businesses are considering it: 19% of North American respondents to the 2015 IT Priorities survey plan to build a private cloud this year.

One aging platform to another -- Windows Server 2008

Windows Server 2008 R2, an x64 operating system released in 2009, is an OS organizations are considering in the interim. It is a stopgap option for companies that need to move off Windows Server 2003, but don't have the hardware to support the latest and greatest.

Companies that choose this path can reap a number of benefits. In virtualization, Hyper-V has expanded capabilities, including Live Migration and Cluster Shared Volumes using Failover Clustering. Also, Active Directory added a recycle bin feature.

Still, Windows Server 2008 is a burning platform -- mainstream support ends in 2015, and extended support expires in 2020.

Due out in 2016, the next version of Windows Server is expected to contain a number of improvements.

Storage was one of the main areas that Microsoft focused on in its new release. While storage pools were introduced in Windows Server 2012, Microsoft is adding Storage QoS -- it allows admins to control storage performance for Hyper-V virtual machines. Storage Replica, another new feature expected in the new version, allows block-level data replication from one machine to another.

"Microsoft is really hitting hard on the storage providers with better storage solutions," said Gene Laisne, an IT pro and vice president of Windows Boston Meetup. "While it isn't happening quite yet, it wouldn't surprise me if SAN started to go the way of the dinosaur."

Microsoft also added rolling upgrades to Hyper-V VMs, which allow for less downtime.

"The rolling upgrade will be great," Laisne said. "I don't think it will get rid of change windows anytime soon, but it is getting close. How to make a billion IT pros happy? Get rid of change windows."

Since the new OS isn't expected until 2016, IT shops migrating to it directly from Windows Server 2003 may have to go a few months without security updates -- something Microsoft strongly recommends against.

Next Steps

Move away from Windows Server 2003 before it's too late

Manage Windows Server updates with WSUS

This was last published in February 2015

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Essential Guide

A guide to Windows Server 2003 end of life

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How is your business preparing for the end of Windows Server 2003?
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We have until July 14th, 2015 to make that decision. We intend on taking this time to weigh our options and select the best possible route.

We run Windows Server 2003 on five different computers. We don't think the high cost of additional support from Microsoft is worth it. We believe this would be around $3,000 for support on all five PCs.

Our current plan is a migration to Windows Server 2012.
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IT shops should have already been changing over their 2003 servers to 2008 or 2012. This should have been in their budgets long ago.
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