The good news? Microsoft has published a standard product life cycle policy so you no longer have to read tea leaves to determine when Redmond will pull the plug on a popular server.
The bad news? There are still plugs, and Microsoft will keep pulling them.
Knowing how long a product will enjoy "the mother ship's" support may not make an IT administrator feel any better, depending on a company's individual situation. Deadlines for when each product will lose general or extended support will be posted on a Microsoft Web site for all to see, leaving no doubt about when [Microsoft says] will say it's time to upgrade.
"Right now, I think Microsoft is looking for a commitment from customers that they are moving up," said Steve Kleynhans, a vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc. "I don't think they wanted to give customers an excuse not to go."
Of course, this means that support will drop off for some products before people are ready.
"The original products were not designed to be supported for seven years," Kleynhans said.
With this general road map, Microsoft revealed that one of its most popular products, Exchange Server 5.5, will receive mainstream support only through the end of next year, though customers may buy extended support through the end of 2005. Only about 30% to 40% of enterprise customers have moved to the company's latest version of the messaging server, Exchange 2000, company executives have said.
Many companies, such as La-Z-Boy Inc., have plans to move to Exchange 2000 but are hampered by limited time and money. Although the company will have begun its migration to Exchange 2000 by the end of next year, knowing that mainstream product support will cease at the end of 2003 means La-Z-Boy might have to purchase extended product support, said Mark Richards, a principal consultant at the Monroe, Mich.-based furniture maker.
"[Microsoft] has a right to not support products, but it makes it difficult for the rest of us trying to ramp up on a product," Richards said.
Microsoft's new policy, which takes effect immediately and affects most products, bases support on the age of a product. Business and development software will be supported for a minimum of five years from the date of the product's general availability.
Customers will also get the option to buy extended support that lasts two years beyond the end of general support, provided the customer is using the latest service pack, Microsoft said. Most products will get eight years of general online, self-help support.
In addition, the company is providing a Web site with a timeline for each product.
For most customers, the policy makes the job of figuring out Microsoft's product plans -- while keeping a budget in line -- less of a struggle. Customers are often running blind with respect to what vendors are doing, and they welcome anything that assists in the planning process.
"If [Microsoft] has clear documentation, helps us plan our workflow and our product life cycles," said Sal Chiovari, chief information officer at Smith & Nephew, an Andover, Mass., medical equipment supplier. "Something like this can make a lot of difference.
"Rather than leave us guessing, we can predict our upgrades and make better maintenance choices, plus decide if we need off-cycle support."
Even customers who impose their own strict product life cycles are glad to see the standard policy. At Danvers Savings Bank in Danvers, Mass., product life cycles usually never extend beyond 48 months for software and usually about 24 months for hardware, even though as Jim Allen, vice president of technology, acknowledges, not all enterprises have the money or resources for such frequent upgrades.
Still, Allen said it's important to have a support strategy that is "clearly defined" so customers can make more informed decisions. "It's nice to have an idea of what the life cycle is," he said.
Meta Group's Kleynhans said that Microsoft's support policy establishes a precedent, and it's possible that other vendors may follow suit.