Last year, Microsoft finally pulled the plug on its venerable Windows XP operating system (OS). This year, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant is at it again, but this time it's Windows Server 2003 that's getting the ax.
Windows XP was undoubtedly popular. Even today, it still clings to more than 18 percent of the desktop operating system (OS) market, several months after Microsoft ended support on April 8, 2014. On that fateful day, the company quit providing updates and patches.
"While it's true that you can keep using your PC with Windows XP after support ends, we don’t recommend it. For starters, it'll become five times more vulnerable to security risks and viruses, which means you could get hacked and have your personal information stolen," said Microsoft in its Windows XP end-of-support guide.
The End of Windows Server 2003
In less than six months—support ends July 14—small and midsized businesses (SMBs) running Windows Server 2003 will face many of the same issues. Although IT pros generally keep servers better protected than an average user's PC, some of the same risks still apply.
And good luck getting help if something goes wrong.
"Customers no longer have the ability to contact Microsoft for technical support in the event of a server problem. This becomes particularly important when a system experiences an outage and customers are unable to restore the system and recover data and applications from the stalled machine," IDC's Al Gillen, a vice president at the IT analyst firm, warned in a Microsoft-sponsored whitepaper (PDF).
Windows Server 2003 Becomes the Weakest Link
"Customers that go beyond the termination of extended support place themselves at potential security risks and potentially in a regulatory noncompliance situation," stated Gillen. "Even if regulatory compliance is not a concern, the security improvements that Windows Server 2012 R2 offers are worth adopting if just to help defend against industrial espionage."
It's no surprise that Microsoft backs the recommendation. But IT experts also agree.
James Conrad, a Windows security and training specialist, called Windows Server 2012 "probably the best operating system Microsoft has ever released," in a recent interview with Small Business Computing. And he's not always a fan of the company. "I'm hard on them if I need to be."
Windows Server 2003, on the other hand, is well past its prime. What's more, it can barely put up a fight against savvy hackers and today's advanced security threats.
Conrad teaches a security course that turns IT professionals into certified ethical hackers. "The victim we use is a 2003 server," he said. "It's so easy to hack into." A Windows Server 2003 system that remains in operation after Microsoft pulls support is " definitely the weak link" from a cybersecurity standpoint, he added.
If your business relies on a Windows Server 2003, Conrad offers the following recommendation: "Start your planning now."
Replacing Windows Server 2003: Getting Started
Microsoft's own Windows Server 2003 end-of-support website is a good place to get the ball rolling.
Scrolling past the countdown clock, visitors will find a wealth of information and resources, including an assessment toolkit, guides and free trials to Microsoft's latest server OS, Azure cloud computing and productivity software offerings. Another good resource is the company's Server & Cloud Blog over at TechNet, which is home to many informative posts, including a multi-part migration guide (parts one, two and three).
Get started with an assessment, which will reveal how many Windows Server 2003 systems you currently have plugging away in your environment. This is a crucial step, not only because it determines how to move forward, but it can also help unearth some long-forgotten servers.
"Many companies and individuals who have completed a Discovery are surprised by the number of instances that are running, and the dependencies between workloads, applications, and the servers themselves," wrote Microsoft's server and cloud platform team in a blog post. "A well-executed discovery effort will ensure accurate project scope and efficient allocation of time and resources."
The best advice? Get a clear picture now so that you don’t run into unwelcome surprises later.
Pedro Hernandez is a contributing editor at Small Business Computing. Follow him on Twitter @ecoINSITE.