In about five months, Microsoft will discontinue support for the second most popular operating system of all time: Windows XP, which is second only to Windows 7. After April 8, any organization that wants continued support for Windows XP or Office 2003 will be required to pay a per computer yearly fee with a minimum buy-in of $500,000. With an estimated 31 percent of all computers in the world running Windows XP, it’s unlikely that every device will be transitioned to a modern operating system in time for the deadline. And with hackers now saving newly discovered XP vulnerabilities until after the deadline, intrusions are expected to peak in the spring for those who haven’t upgraded.

While many governments have moved to Windows 7 or Windows 8, many organizations are still reliant on XP for mission-critical applications and basic functionality. The Japanese government reported that it cannot afford to upgrade more than 200,000 of its systems off XP, which it projected would cost about $2.4 billion. In addition, in the U.S., it’s likely that at least a few unwitting or underfunded governments will get left behind and become vulnerable to attack.

Technology reseller Softchoice recently analyzed the market and concluded that not all organizations will transfer to a safe operating system by the deadline. In its sample, Softchoice found that 68 percent of organizations were using XP in September 2012, and that figure declined only to 58 percent by September 2013. Microsoft estimates that transitioning to a new operating system can take 18 to 32 months, which means large organizations that haven’t started their migration yet are already in a bad spot.

Government is just as vulnerable as the private sector if not more so because of government’s tendency to adapt new technology slowly, said Keith Groom, director of Microsoft solutions at Softchoice. “We are very confident there will be a significant population of customers who will not shift off in time and they will do other remediation activities, whether that’s a move to virtualization, whether they live with it as status quo,” he said.

While newer operating systems are more efficient and can allow for better user productivity, security is the main concern for those who don’t upgrade, Groom said. “Our view is it’s a terrible move,” he said of organizations that decide to stick with XP past the deadline.

There’s no single solution, Groom said – the best way to migrate will depend on each organization's characteristics. If there’s an app compatibility issue, then either virtualizing the app or rewriting it might be the best decision. But if the issue is a lack of knowledge or manpower to migrate the systems, then it might be a matter of finding the funds to hire the job out, he said.

In Los Angeles, an organization of about 24,000 desktops, moving off XP is a concern because about 15,000 machines are still running on the old software. Not moving off XP isn't a choice for the city, said Steve Reneker, general manager of Los Angeles' Information Technology Agency. “As you can imagine, we try to assess the seriousness of what’s coming up on April the 8th and so we’ve got a dashboard, meeting with departments and coming up with a deployment strategy,” Reneker said.

Reneker broke down the organization in terms of readiness to upgrade: About seven departments saw this coming and are ready or almost ready for the upgrade. About 50 percent of city departments are in the process of getting the funding to upgrade, and another 20 to 30 percent of the city reported that making the upgrade would be financially difficult.

Reneker said he told those departments to adjust their priorities and find a way to upgrade. Microsoft discontinuing support for software like Office 2003 is one thing, Reneker said, but the city can’t run on a compromised operating system. And while Reneker’s office is strongly advising other departments what to do regarding XP, there’s not much more it can do beyond that.

“It’s an uncomfortable question because departments haven’t budgeted for it,” he said. “All we can do it assist them to have a contract vehicle to replace their PC or laptop and also assist from a labor standpoint.”

The IT agency's recommendation is that departments buy Windows 8 licenses and then downgrade to Windows 7. That way, Reneker explained, they will have stable Windows 7 support with a cost-effective upgrade option to Windows 8 if that becomes something the city decides to do in the near or mid-term future. Los Angeles hasn’t made a big investment in Windows phones and slates, Reneker said, so there’s not yet much of a need to move to Windows 8.

In terms of costs, Reneker said the $500,000 minimum investment for keeping XP doesn’t make any sense because many of L.A.'s systems are near end-of-life anyway, so his office is recommending that departments buy new systems and new Windows licenses. Overall, it’s a $13.5 million impact, he said.

It might be a little tight, but he expects to get the city upgraded in time. “If you’re addressing it now, you’re probably in good shape, but if you wait until the first of the year, you’re not going to be in a very good situation at all,” he said.

Riverside, Calif.'s IT organization is ready too, said Chief Innovation Officer Lea Deesing. XP’s impending death has been on the city’s radar for at least two years, Deesing said, and about one year ago, Riverside began the migration to Windows 7. There’s no real need for Windows 8 yet, she said, because most of the city's apps are stable on 7.

“It’s always been a given that we would upgrade to Windows 7,” Deesing said, adding that staying with XP past the deadline was never considered a real option. The upgrades are part of the city’s enterprise agreement with Microsoft, and the main struggle, Deesing said, is the manual labor required. “We’ve been trying to use the Microsoft System Center but in the meanwhile until we have that really mastered, we’re doing a lot of them manually."

A few of Riverside's applications are having small compatibility problems with Windows 7, and for those the city is considering either using Windows XP emulator mode on Windows 7, or similar workarounds.

The city has already upgraded about 1,300 machines and has about 800 more to go, but Deesing expects to be completely migrated by spring.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com