Millions Of NT 4.0 Systems Face Phaseout

Today, June 30, Microsoft will stop providing free support for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, ending a program that for the past eight years has given customers a steady flow of

June 30, 2004

3 Min Read
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Today, June 30, Microsoft will stop providing free support for Windows NT 4.0 Workstation, ending a program that for the past eight years has given customers a steady flow of software fixes and other improvements. Six months from now, Microsoft's standard, no-cost support for Windows NT 4.0 Server dries up, too. Many businesses are scrambling to replace the operating system, but not everyone's going to make it.

Introduced in 1996, Windows NT 4.0 still runs on millions of PCs and servers. The installed base is so large that market research firm IDC estimates that 17% of all Windows servers in use at the end of this year will still be powered by Windows NT 4.0. "These systems are hanging around longer than we expected," says Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC.

Microsoft is offering custom contracts that, for a flat fee, will keep the phone lines open between Windows NT 4.0 systems administrators and Microsoft support personnel. But the vendor isn't saying how much those contracts cost, and, to qualify, businesses must submit Windows NT 4.0 migration plans to Microsoft. The contracts are aimed primarily at companies with many Windows NT 4.0 systems, company officials say.

FMC is working to upgrade 250 Windows NT computers, says Powers, director of advanced technology and architecture.

For others, the options are to seek third-party support or go it alone, neither of which is particularly appealing--or even safe--as newly discovered Windows vulnerabilities continue to serve as a magnet for hackers and worms. When Microsoft stops providing regular security fixes, "it puts you in a much more exposed mode than you want to be," says Rich Powers, director of advanced technology and architecture at FMC Corp. The chemical company is more than halfway through a project to upgrade 250 Windows NT computers.

Under a life-cycle-support policy introduced in May, Microsoft provides software troubleshooting and repairs for five years on all its business and developer products, followed by five years of more-limited support. But company officials decided against including Windows NT 4.0 in the 10-year policy. "Windows NT 4.0 has reached its point of architectural obsolescence," says Peter Houston, Microsoft's senior director of servicing strategy. "We needed to be realistic about the need to migrate off NT 4." After the support deadlines pass, Microsoft will assess and fix Windows NT 4.0 problems only on a case-by-case basis.BITS, a consortium of financial-services companies, and Microsoft last week issued a joint statement saying they agreed to "parameters" for custom support contracts available to BITS members and other companies. Ann Patterson, director of BITS, says more member companies than expected have signed those contracts.

"That's an indication that there are a lot of enterprise customers relying on NT 4.0," Patterson says. She declined to reveal just how widely Windows NT 4.0 is used among BITS's member companies or to discuss details of the contractual terms that were negotiated.

There's hope that obsolescence will make the operating system a smaller target for hackers and virus writers, what Gillen calls "security by obscurity." But with support about to expire on millions of NT 4.0 computers, those systems are neither secure nor obscure.

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