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Unsupported Windows a disaster waiting to happen

Partners Healthcare System is looking to migrate off Windows 2000, but leaving some systems in place past Microsoft's extended support date during a phased-in upgrade is "untenable."

special-reportEditor's note: IT analysts at Partners Healthcare System Inc. shared their insights with on a recent internal study about how and when it will migrate from Windows 2000. Watch for coverage when Partners makes its final decision.

Most IT executives would never risk running an unsupported version of Windows across an enterprise.

But if your company is running Windows 2000, and you've thought about skipping an upgrade, think about this: If the Longhorn version of Windows is late -- Microsoft's Bill Gates recently said a release date in 2006 is likely, but others say 2007 or beyond is hardly unthinkable -- your operating system stands a good chance of being unsupported.

Since most large companies take a year or more to make a major upgrade, it might be well into 2008 or beyond before companies are ready for Longhorn.

It was in this spirit that IT research analysts at Partners Healthcare System Inc. prepared an internal study to help guide their decisions about how long they should stick with Windows 2000.

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The analysts have used their findings to frame a discussion with the health care provider's corporate directors, who will make the ultimate call.

William Henderson, a senior research analyst at Boston-based Partners not only worked on the study, but participated in the organization's previous upgrade. Several years ago, Partners began moving its 500 servers and 18,000 desktops from Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 95 up to Windows 2000, a migration that was only recently completed. That project also included building an Active Directory, refashioning security settings, drive mappings and methods of updating its software.

Microsoft's moves alter the process

In October 2002, with work still to be done on its migration, Partners, which runs a network of hospitals, began considering what would come next. And just as the analysts started putting their heads together, outside forces collided with their planning process.

First, Microsoft released its Lifecycle Support Policy later that same month, which detailed, among other things, the phases of support for the Windows operating system. Microsoft then released Windows Server 2003 in April 2003. And finally, Microsoft executives later suggested that the next server version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, might be ready by sometime in 2006, though this date would be at the earliest. The client version of Longhorn is expected in the same timeframe.

Partners' analysts wanted a roadmap for the company's IT future. And they first looked to their migration from Windows NT to Windows 2000 to see if they could glean tips on how to make their next upgrade succeed.

Lessons learned

The researchers looked at all the reasons that validated moving from NT to Windows 2000. They learned that what drove them to Windows 2000 wasn't really relevant when considering a move to Windows XP or Longhorn.

For example, one big reason to upgrade fromWindows 95 was to secure a more stable operating system platform. Today, Windows 2000 offers improved stability by orders of magnitude compared with Windows 95, so stability is no longer something that will drive a move to XP or Longhorn.

The move from Windows 95 to Windows 2000 was expected to yield better overall performance and take better advantage of the organization's hardware. Three years ago, Partners also guessed that making an upgrade would bring better memory management and more uptime. Those too are no longer issues that will necessitate a move to XP or Longhorn. Improvements to Windows 2000 are satisfactory on both counts.

Some considerations included losing patch support for Windows 95 from Microsoft, as well as a lack of support for Windows 95 from Partners' hardware vendor.

James Marra, another senior research analyst at Partners joined the company as the migration was under way. Marra said he had assumed that lack of ISV support for Windows 95 would be a motivator to upgrade, but that turned out not to be the case. "It turned out that ISVs were continuing to support their applications," he said.

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