Windows XP migration: Making the move to Windows 7, 8.1 or 10? Or am I asking the wrong question?


The enterprise is changing. Web-based applications and mobile apps are becoming more prevalent and the way applications are procured and delivered is becoming more standards-based to meet today's multi-platform requirements. While this bodes well for the future, there will always be a requirement to access legacy applications, which adds untold complex processes for any organisation as it embarks upon its next Windows OS migration.

More than a year after Microsoft shipped its final update for Windows XP and just ahead of Microsoft's removal of extended support for anti-malware on 14th July 2015, a considerable number of large organisations still haven't made the move from this legacy OS. Although the number of Windows 8/8.1 PCs accessing the internet exceeded the number running Windows XP for the first time during May 2015 (16.4% and 14.6% respectively) according to Netmarketshare, Windows XP is still alive and kicking.

Many cite the headache of migrating business-critical proprietary applications, but time is running out fast: end-of-life custom support agreements can cost millions and XP organisations are far more vulnerable to malware and other malicious attacks.The latest pronouncements from Microsoft about Windows present organisations still on XP with a migration conundrum: move to Windows 7, 8.1 or 10?

There's no right or wrong answer. In fact, I'd argue that it isn't even the right question. A better question is this: what's the best way to manage application migration from one Microsoft OS to another?

As I noted in my previous article, managing a migration from XP to another Windows OS is not insignificant. But the operating system switch is the (relatively) easy part. The complexity of the application stacks today, compared to the last major migration activity around 10 years ago, makes managing the migration of thousands of applications time-consuming and expensive. Without the right approach, employee productivity can be seriously impacted and migration costs can spiral out of control.

Which OS?

But let's deal with the OS question first.

From a longevity perspective, Windows 10 is the clear leader. However for organisations in highly regulated industries such as financial services, moving to Windows 10 before Q3 2015 would be regarded as a leap of faith.

Microsoft's updated Windows 8.1 might be a good option for organisations requiring mobile/touchscreen capabilities for some employees - for example, engineers out in the field. However, from an IT perspective it is difficult to adjust the way that the interface works to ensure the OS always launches and remains in classic mode. Furthermore, Gartner has recently come out in favour of organisations skipping Windows 8.1 altogether: in its view, Windows 10 is superior in key areas for enterprises (security, management and user experience). Last but not least, a move to Windows 8.1 requires considerable investment in staff training.

For organisations wanting to avoid the retraining overhead and resultant loss in productivity, Windows 7 remains an attractive option. Although it is now five years old and mainstream support ended in January 2015, it is a proven solution with a current market share of almost 60 per cent. Also, a move to Windows 10 further down the line should be much less of an upheaval than the move from XP to Windows 7.

Interestingly, some organisations we work with are looking at a hybrid OS strategy: Windows 7 for office-based staff, and Windows 8.1 for field-based staff, such as salespeople and utilities engineers who need to update centralised databases in real time. This approach adds a layer of complexity relating to the connectivity and applications required, but this is more than made up for by improved productivity.

Application migration planning

Once an OS has been selected the hard work begins. The principal challenges for the IT team stem from the need to migrate infrastructure and applications in a short timescale, while continuing to support business services and adhering to SLAs.

Few applications have ever been deployed out of the box without a degree of customisation, adding an extra layer of complexity to any application migration project. It's no trivial task figuring out how the application has been customised and why. And what servers does it link back to? What dependencies does it have? Can the install be recreated? Where is all this information documented?

Once you know what you are dealing with, it's easier to set about simplifying your environment by rationalising your applications: removing duplicates, non-strategic applications, and applications with functionality now incorporated into other applications. Often a significant cull is possible, resulting in considerable savings in licensing and maintenance. Some of the applications within customer portfolios can simply be removed. A common discussion point relates to the addition of significant features within complementary products: for example, the ability to create PDF files from within the latest version of Microsoft Office removes the need for a separate PDF creator in many cases.

Like a throwback to essay writing at school, the key to a successful migration really is in the planning. Once the groundwork has been prepared, the process of packaging, remediating and virtualising applications can take place using industry-standard toolsets. An audit of which applications reside where, helps organisations to easily manage their software lifecycle going forward too.By adopting a methodical, proven approach known to deliver the best possible outcomes, organisations can minimise risk and avoid the dual spectres of project over-run and cost escalation.

If these hurdles seem too high, there is an alternative way to deliver business services. I'm talking of course about moving to the cloud.

The rapidly changing applications landscape provides organisations with an ideal opportunity to extricate themselves from years of technical complexity and increasing datacentre infrastructure, maintenance and refresh costs.

A procurement strategy focusing on rapidly changing business needs could be the catalyst for moving to cloud services. No longer the preserve of bleeding-edge organisations or small business users, there is now a growing appetite to migrate even core business services to a more dynamic and fluid provisioning method.

Services, infrastructure and even applications can now be "hired" by the minute, or the transaction, and the SaaS provisioning of software like Office 365 and has prompted a significant shift in the procurement and management of business applications.

Of course this is a significant simplification of the problems at hand: legacy systems still need to be maintained and accessed, and the cost of business change should not be underestimated. But the future is not going away, and it's definitely cloud shaped.

In the meantime, we need to get everyone off XP!

Damian Dwyer is Practice Director, End User Computing Practice at IT consultancy ECS

This story, "Windows XP migration: Making the move to Windows 7, 8.1 or 10? Or am I asking the wrong question?" was originally published by Computerworld UK.

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