independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Deadline looms for XP users as Microsoft shuts system support

No fixes or security patches after April 8 for companies still running 2001 system

Windows XP was released in 2001 Photo: Getty Images

It seems the message has not gotten through to thousands of Irish businesses. But Microsoft is about to shut down support of Windows XP computers. This move, which will affect at least one in 10 Irish companies, will result in PC shutdowns or ultra-pricey emergency support contracts from April 8.

Both consequences are completely avoidable. Yet thousands of Irish companies will not get their act together in time to avoid the negative consequences.

To recap: Microsoft has been banging on about its looming discontinuation of Windows XP support for several years. It has ratcheted up the warnings in the last 12 months, as have media organisations and other groups. It has made it crystal clear that it would not provide fixes or security 'patches' for any new viruses or malicious software bugs launched to attack this particular operating system.

And now the actual cut-off date – April 8 – is approaching. Companies that don't have Windows 7, Windows 8 or other alternative operating systems after that will have to take out a massively costly premium XP support contract (from Microsoft) or sit back and watch their computers crumble from the inside out.

Worst affected are small to medium sized businesses employing 250 people, according to Microsoft Ireland.

"In general, large companies are well advanced in switching," said Patrick Ward, head of Windows in Microsoft Ireland. "Where we still see less progress is in the upper end of SMEs, companies which have 250 seats upwards. When you walk into some retailers, you still see point-of-sale machines running XP. We're still trying to make them aware of the change that is coming."

Despite the early and consistent warnings, some are complaining that the move to end XP support is unfair. The Chinese government, for example, has urged Microsoft to extend its deadline. Some public sector IT chiefs – including Ireland's outgoing chief information officer, Bill McCluggage – have also aired reservations about Microsoft's move.

But the software giant has repeatedly stated its reasons for shutting XP down.

"Windows XP is 21 times more insecure than Windows 8," said Mr Ward. "I can categorically assure you that we will not be providing continued support for it after April 8."

Mr Ward said that the security threats to Windows XP have multiplied, making it a much riskier operating system to use than others.

"When Windows XP was launched in 2001, hacking and viruses consisted of individuals scoring points against big corporates. Now, what you get is organised crime and professionals seeking to do this.

"And if you're thinking that you can just beef up your anti-virus software or get your IT security provider to cover your systems more aggressively, you're in for disappointment.

"If you think about what we're talking about, it's our actual operating system," said Mr Ward. "There is no other organisation that can provide hot fixes or patches for that. So I don't see a way that another company can provide the support that you will need here. In the same vein, anti-virus is only part of the story. I would strongly recommend not relying solely on anti-virus software."

There are other risks, too. Even if you keep your Windows XP fleet of computers alive for the foreseeable future, there is a new legal burden you have (arguably) taken on. In other words, if you suffer a data breach or external attack, any customer or partner negatively affected by that incident now has more armour to pursue you with.

Why? Because you are now using a computer system officially classed as a security risk. And in a legal system that places an emphasis on a 'reasonable' duty of care on how company IT systems are run, admitting Windows XP into evidence could be a significant drawback to any defence.

So why have so many Irish businesses not switched over yet? One reason is because of the diversity of software that makes their businesses tick.

Companies often invest in bespoke software systems designed for specific, non-generic purposes. Take retailers, with their point-of-sale terminals. Some of this software is quite old, even while working perfectly well. Lots of it needs to be changed – or updated – before being compatible with Windows 7 or Windows 8.

And that is a straightforward example. Some businesses have far more complicated software set-ups. Irish public sector bodies, for example, often have software systems designed and tweaked just for them. So there is a considerable amount of time and energy required to test this custom software against the new operating system.

The suspicion must be that 'getting around' to the process of upgrading all of this machinery was constantly put off while 'more pressing' issues were resourced.

That logic could now cost companies – and public bodies – dearly. Microsoft has said that it will offer very expensive support contracts for those who want to continue running XP in the short term. It's the digital equivalent of getting a loan on credit card interest rates: you're going to have to pay it back anyway but you'll pay through the nose for your lack of organisational nous.

But don't blame Microsoft for this. They warned us time and time again.

Irish Independent

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