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Are You Prepared to Migrate Off Windows Server 2003?

Microsoft will drop support for Server 2003 in just under 10 months, potentially affecting 24 million servers.

Microsoft will discontinue support for Windows Server 2003 on July 14, 2015. Any bugs, security vulnerabilities or other problems users have with the software will force them either to live with a flawed product, purchase an extended support contract or migrate to a newer, supported operating system. Microsoft reports there are about 24 million active and virtual instances of Server 2003 today. Consensus among industry analysts is that many organizations won’t complete their migrations in time, but everyone should consider the move mandatory.

It’s just a fact of life, said Gartner Analyst Carl Claunch – no matter what software an organization runs, whether it’s open- or closed-source, free or paid software, everything needs to be upgraded eventually, and with large systems it takes a long time. “Really, the results of people doing these migrations by and large are free of drama,” Claunch said. “It’s just a lot of work and you have to slog through it.”

With just under 10 months of support remaining, most organizations won’t make the deadline, because it should take nine to 15 months to migrate a “decent-sized” data center, he said. Undertaking a smooth migration will be largely a matter of performing an inventory, planning which pieces of software or hardware might need to be upgraded and determining whether some services might need to have planned outages if the migration can’t be completed in time.

“The time to find a replacement system is not hours or days; it’s a long process, so if this were to happen, we’re talking an extended time where anything that was running on that system is just not going to work,” he said. One upside is that these kinds of upgrades provide organizations with an opportunity to upgrade associated software or move to cloud-based services at the same time, but with such a tight timeline, adding new elements to the migration might be an unwanted complication for many IT leaders.

The discontinuation of Windows XP support was and continues to be difficult for many government offices, but with a single-device operating system, administrators who worried about security had the option of simply disconnecting those machines from the network. “But with a server, you obviously can’t do that, otherwise it defeats the whole purpose of it being a server,” said David Mayer, practice director of Microsoft Solutions at Insight Enterprises.

Mayer agreed that most large organizations won’t succeed in meeting the support deadline, and the biggest potential negative impact of that failure will be increased security threats. “There are steps to reduce intrusion on an unsupported system, but it’s a risky practice,” he said. “You’re really rolling the dice from a security perspective if you choose to just go down an unsupported path.”

A Gartner report published in April outlines processes for managing risk beyond the support deadline, and estimates that customers budget $1,500 for each server that doesn’t get upgraded, accounting for additional support fees, management fees, and additional software.

Companies like Insight say the key to moving their customers to new systems is to be organized and thorough. “The way we work with our customers is we come in and do a very detailed discovery and project planning process with them,” Mayer said. Insight will inventory its clients’ systems, look at how everything connects and analyze who supports which systems. A thorough accounting of what’s there goes a long way, he said.

“We’ve seen that most organizations don’t have that level of detail in terms of the inventory of their data center, so there’s a value in just getting that information and understanding what are the servers that have to be moved and in what package can we do that,” Mayer explained.

After inventory, the next step is migration. “That can take a lot of different forms. It can be a straight physical to physical, where we swap out one server for another,” he said. “It can be a physical to virtual where we’re starting to consolidate onto a smaller number of physical servers by virtualizing the applications.” Microsoft reported that only about 50 percent of the world’s Server 2003 instances are virtualized, likely because the operating system doesn’t lend itself well to virtualization.

After the migration is complete, Mayer said the final step is to revisit what was done, and perform an accounting of everything so the organization can be best prepared for the next upgrade, years later.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.
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