Microsoft Turns Up The Heat On Windows 2000 Users

Companies that rely on Windows 2000 face tough, end-of-lifecycle choices as Microsoft pushes upgrades to Windows Vista, 2003, and Longhorn Server.

December 15, 2006

8 Min Read
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With the recent release of Microsoft's newest potential cash cows, Windows Vista and Office 2007, the company is expecting a wave of upgrades from users seeking the latest functionality. But what if you're not looking for new bells and whistles? What if you want to keep your old operating systems, such as Windows 2000, running as long as possible?

Microsoft isn't making it easy for you. Office 2007 and the software for the company's much-hyped Zune music player won't install on Windows 2000. As other new products emerge from Microsoft in 2007 and beyond, more and more of them are likely to leave Windows 2000 out of the party. Which of these installation restrictions are caused by a real lack of capabilities in Windows 2000, however? Are any of them merely a "squeeze play" by Microsoft to convince buyers that it's necessary to immediately upgrade all PCs to Vista and all servers to Server 2003 or the forthcoming Longhorn Server?

One example of this conundrum is Microsoft's Windows Defender program. This antispyware program can be downloaded for free, but it will only install on Windows XP, Server 2003, and higher. The application won't install on Windows 2000, according to Microsoft's own product documentation.

Users have reported, however, that this is simply an artificial rule built into the Installshield package that copies Defender files to disk.

The installer contains a condition defined as VersionNT > 500. (Windows 2000 is technically considered version 5.0 of Windows NT.) Admins who've removed this condition using Orca, an Installshield editor, say Defender then installs and runs fine on Windows 2000. (For information on editing Installshield .msi files with Orca, see Microsoft Knowledge Base article 255905.)Regardless of whether Microsoft apps are unnecessarily shutting out Windows 2000, the writing is on the wall. The company has fairly strict policies defining when it stops supporting older products. In the case of Windows 2000, the end of what Microsoft calls "mainstream support" came in June 2005.To understand the concept of mainstream support, you need to understand that there are three lifecycle policies that affect Microsoft products:

  • Consumer products, such as Windows XP and Service Pack 2, get five years of mainstream support. After that, support will only be provided by Knowledge Base articles online. The "consumer products" category includes Microsoft Dynamics, a line of offerings formerly known as Microsoft Business Solutions.

  • Annually updated products, such as Microsoft Money and Encarta, get an even shorter leash. They're supported for three years.

  • Business software, such as Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003, enjoy five years of mainstream support plus an additional five years of "extended support," after which they drop into online-only support purgatory. It's this kind of software support that most affects IT organizations.

Extended support, according to Microsoft, includes the continued development of critical security patches and the availability of paid support. It doesn't include the Redmond company taking requests for new design features — a luxury that's reserved for products that are still in the mainstream-support phase.

Some nonsecurity hotfixes will also be provided by Microsoft outside of the initial five-year mainstream period. However, according to the Microsoft Support Lifecycle Policy FAQ, companies must purchase an "extended hotfix agreement" within 90 days of the end of mainstream support. That leaves in the lurch a lot of companies that didn't immediately leap to buy such a contract.Microsoft's policies can lead to some big frustrations for companies that have major investments in Windows 2000. One of the biggest headaches at the moment is the lack of a patch to update the meaning of Daylight Saving Time on Windows 2000.

The beginning and ending dates of DST in the United States will be significantly altered in 2007, thanks to an act of Congress. Various changes also affect other countries. Western Australia made an official switch to daylight time on Dec. 3, 2006. The last-minute action by a state parliament afforded IT admins in that country only 12 days to adjust their computers' time.Despite the importance of accurate timekeeping in many computer networks, Microsoft doesn't plan to release a patch that will update Windows 2000 systems to the new time-zone definitions. A patch was posted on Nov. 21 for Windows XP and Server 2003 (see KnowledgeBase article 928388). But a version is conspicuously absent for W2K.

Paul Chinnery is network administrator for a community hospital in western Michigan. With 38 servers, all running Windows 2000, and almost 300 workstations, 40 percent of which still run W2K, he's furious that Microsoft won't provide admins in his situation with such a simple patch.

"With the number of organizations in this country that are still using Windows 2000," Chinnery said, "it's a dereliction of Microsoft's duty to its customers not to put out a patch for the time-zone issue."

Patients in his hospital might not actually die if a computer's clock was off by one hour, he said. But government regulations (not to mention common sense) require accurate records for such things as surgeries and medications, where one hour can definitely make a difference.

In this case, there's a workaround that Windows 2000 admins can apply. A utility known as tzedit.exe, which is included in the Microsoft Windows Resource Kit, allows manual editing of Registry keys that define the beginning and ending of DST. (For information, see KnowledgeBase article 886775.)Chinnery says he's accepted the fact that he'll have to use the utility to fix his Windows 2000 systems. But, lacking an easily deployable patch, it means he must walk around to tweak each machine in his organization. This is a chore he doesn't feel he should face.

Other new software titles upset him as well. Chinnery wants the better reporting features that are expected to be found in Microsoft's forthcoming version 3.0 of Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). But the Redmond software giant says its new patch-management software won't run on Windows 2000. Chinnery says he might switch to Patchlink Update, a competing product that supports a much longer list of operating systems than WSUS.

Why doesn't Chinnery upgrade his machines? "If we go to Windows Server 2003 and then Longhorn Server comes out, it might be more money on top of more money," he says. "Being a small health-care organization, there's only so much money to go around."Microsoft has a monopoly share of desktop operating system sales and can pretty much call the shots when it comes to support. By contrast, software publishers with smaller market shares tend to take a more benign view of customers that want to keep their older products running unchanged.

Sun Microsystems, for example, has an official policy that offers support, paid and otherwise, for its Solaris operating system for at least five years after a particular version stops being sold. Microsoft's five-year mainstream period begins the first day its products ship.

Sensing that some of its corporate customers aren't too keen on change, Sun also maintains at least two major releases of Solaris on sale at all times. At present, Solaris is available in three versions: 8, 9, and 10.According to Chris Ratcliffe, Sun's director of Solaris marketing, the Santa Clara, Calif., company is actually still supporting users of version 2.6. That product is more than 10 years old and hasn't been commercially available since 2002. But Sun's "vintage support" period means the operating system is fully supported through 2007, Ratcliffe says.

Even after 2007 ends, it isn't curtains for the older technology. "After the end of vintage support," Ratcliffe explains, "we're prepared to go into negotiations with customers on an individual basis." For instance, Solaris version 2.5.1, which first shipped in 1995, is continuing to be supported by Sun on a case-by-case basis, he says.

Why do companies want to keep using such old software? One big reason is that newer software, besides the labor cost of testing and installing the changed code, often demands more expensive hardware, as well. It's cheaper in many cases to let the old stuff keep running.

Other companies simply don't feel any need to tamper with important systems that are working as desired. "People who are shipping hundreds of thousands of packages a day tend to build scanning solutions," Ratcliffe says, by way of example. "You build 'em and you leave 'em." Financial firms also tend to rely on the same software year after year.

Many users of Windows servers, Ratcliffe says, are switching to Sun and other providers to get more predictability and stability. One typical customer recently replaced all of its Windows-based file and print servers with machines running Solaris 10, he says.Conclusion
Microsoft's lifecycle support policies are well defined. If you can live with the Redmond company's five-year horizon, when much of the support for its products ends, you can persevere. If not, other vendors can offer you a much longer window.

Brian Livingston is the author of 10 books on Microsoft Windows and editorial director of Send story ideas to him via his contact page.

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