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Windows Server 2008 is future king but Windows Server 2003 rules now

Windows Server 2008 R2 is gaining momentum but eight years after its introduction many IT shops still depend on Windows Server 2003 to run their mission-critical applications.

Despite the growing acceptance of Linux and Windows Server 2008 R2 over the past couple of years, the eight-year-old Windows Server 2003 series is still the predominant server used today.

And with many IT shops that still cling to aging 32-bit applications and hardware devices, the venerable operating system figures to survive well past 2014 when Microsoft plans to end technical support.

Windows Server 2008 is catching up but virtualization is making it easier to keep an OS around a lot longer than in the past, arguably too long.

Al Gillen, program vice president, system software for IDC

Results from TechTarget’s Virtualization Decisions 2011 Purchasing Intentions Survey released this week show that among the 500 IT professionals responding, 74% still deploy Windows Server 2003 in their shops, 63% use Windows Server 2008 R2 and 35% have Red Hat Linux. Some 64.2% of respondents said Windows Server 2003 is used for mission-critical applications, with 56.9% saying Windows Server 2008 hosted missions critical applications, and 29.2% said Red Hat Linux ran their mission-critical applications.

Confirming its resiliency are market share numbers from IDG that have Windows Server 2003 with a 34.9% share of the overall server market, Windows Server 2008 holding a 25% share and Linux with 23.2%.

“It’s not too much of a surprise that it (Windows Server 2003) continues to do well. Windows Server 2008 is catching up but virtualization is making it easier to keep an OS around a lot longer than in the past, arguably too long. But this is the new reality,” said Al Gillen, the program vice president, system software for IDC.

While Windows Server 2003 has long been a stable product, what keeps many IT shops bound to the platform are the 32-bit line-of-business applications they have developed themselves or purchased from niche software vendors still critical to running their business.

“Jumping from a 32-bit platform to 64-bits is a big deal, particularly for the applications that were developed specifically for us by companies that are out of business or ended support. And recompiling 32-apps up to 64-bits? We don’t have the in-house expertise for that,” said Len Johnston, purchasing agent with a transportation company in Jacksonville, Fla.

The lack of drivers for a range of older hardware devices also prevents many Server 2003 shops from considering upgrading to more modern operating systems.

“Printing is a huge pain point. We have an (HP) Laser Jet 8000, a workhorse in the office, which isn’t made any more. There are no 64-bit drivers I can get for it, so I hang it off my 32-bit Windows Server 2003. It still runs well and we’ll run it until the day it dies,” said Susan Bradley, with Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn and Braun, an accounting firm in Fresno California.

Bradley, like Johnston, has the same issue of dealing with 32-bit line-of-business applications central to her company’s business that are difficult to replace or recompile for an all-64-bit platform such as Windows Server 2008 R2.

“We are a CPA firm and potentially we have to deal with 10 years’ worth of tax returns. I really need to have the older software like (Windows Server) 2003 and (Windows) XP, because it’s not going to run on 64-bit Windows 7, for instance, unless I virtualize,” Bradley said.

The spreading adoption of virtualization is also making it more convenient to add years to the life of older servers. The technology, particularly from VMware and Microsoft’s Hyper-V allows IT administrators to centrally manage dozens and, in some cases, hundreds of older servers that otherwise would have to be replaced with more expensive server hardware and more IT support staff to support them.

“About a year ago I had a box running (Windows) Server 2003 that up and died. At first I thought, ‘well, that’s an unexpected expense,’ but then I thought that’s what my virtual server box is for. So we virtualized the image of the down machine and avoided that expense,” Johnston said.

Let us know what you think about this story; email Ed Scannell at

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