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If it's not broke, upgrade your server OS anyway

How do you know when it's time to upgrade your server OS? Our Advisory Board members say you're probably already overdue.

As the end of support for Windows Server 2003 approaches, some shops are faced with hard decisions. However, in a recent column, contributor Jason Helmick says, if you're still running Windows Server 2003, you've already failed. This month, we're extending the question to some of our other Advisory Board members and asking how they handle server OS refreshes and other software upgrades in a virtualized environment.

Brian Kirsch, Milwaukee Area Technical College

For many years, server operating system (OS) upgrades have been a regular cycle for IT shops. As hardware aged and fell out of service, the unit was retired and replaced with a new server loaded with the latest OS. Virtualization broke that hardware refresh cycle, since the traditional Windows server is now software and not hardware-dependent. 

This change has meant that the Window server is hanging around much longer, and as many people would be quick to comment, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." The problem with this thought process is it will never change, even if it is broken. Today, the only reason to migrate to a new OS is when the old OS runs out of service from the vendor. Keeping an OS in service too long is similar to an older car that starts to cost more to maintain than the monthly payments of a new one. The opposite side of the scale occurs when some software vendors would like you to upgrade at every version, which is often too aggressive for most organizations to keep up with. What is needed is a balanced approach. Oddly enough, we had this balance with the traditional hardware refresh cycle that is now lost due to virtualization. Many companies were on a three- to five-year lifecycles for OSes that matched the hardware platform's maintenance cycle. There is no reason that virtual machine OSes can't have the same refresh cycle, just artificially set. Putting an expiration date on a virtual machine would help the IT admin to examine the infrastructure and identify virtual servers with OSes that are aging and put in a plan to update them. The biggest challenge for IT is not setting the alarm for a server OS upgrade, but resisting the urge to press the "snooze button" when the alarm sounds.

Rob McShinsky, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

Know when it is time to let it go -- old software, that is. Too often, old versions of OSes or applications are left in service well past their expiration date. Old software is not like a good wine. It does not get better with age. It gets skunky like beer.

The next stinker close to its expiration date is Windows Server 2003. It was a great OS in its day. If you choose to keep it in services, I am not even worried about its long-term security as a server OS inside your network. Where I see its shortcomings is in its lack of performance (predominantly 32-bit only), resource capacity for modern applications, and infrastructure support is dwindling (e.g., hypervisor, SANs, drivers, etc).

Most IT professionals welcome modern software. It's what we do. I find software vendors to be the major headache in the push forward. Working primarily in the medical industry, I see that less than one year before its send off, major medical vendors are still putting Windows 2003 as their only supported platform. Most of them hide behind the FCC certification, but have failed to resubmit their solutions back to the FCC for approval with modern software updates. I know recertification has costs, but shame on them for waiting so long.

If you have an old piece of software that has been running on Windows 2003, then yes, it could be fine. But, if it is running on physical hardware, then it is only a matter of time before it dies. These IT anchors will also drag down your virtual environment upgrades. New versions of both Hyper-V and VMware due in 2015 are bound to drop support for the ageing server OS. Again, you could probably get it to work, but for how long?

Dave Sobel, Level Platforms Inc.

System upgrades are a heavily debated topic. This may seem bold, but systems that age beyond a reasonable lifetime of three to five years should be scheduled for replacement. From a business perspective, most physical IT assets are generally amortized over a three- to five-year period, giving a clear indication of the reasonable expectation of an asset's lifetime.

This translates to an IT asset's value in software as well. I believe it's part of IT's role to push a business forward, and continuing to ensure that systems are moved to current infrastructure. IT and software development continue to innovate and deliver new capabilities, offering opportunities to show value. IT departments are traditionally seen as the department of "no," and often this is due to not responding to new business needs with new capabilities. While often considered safer, holding onto systems beyond their lifetime introduces significant risk to the organization. IT needs to recognize its role as an enabler for the business and deliver new value.

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