To upgrade or not? NT users consider their options

As Microsoft's Windows NT Server 4.0 nears the end of its lifespan, users decide whether to keep it, upgrade now, or wait.

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NT 4.0 reaches the end of its lifespan July 1, 2003, at which time Microsoft will no longer offer free support for the operating system. That leaves NT-based organizations with three options: 1) remain on NT 4.0 and risk higher service fees, 2) choose to migrate to Microsoft's Windows 2000 Server, a 3-year-old operating system, or 3) take the risk of upgrading to brand new code by installing the next release of Windows, Windows Server...

2003.

Going directly to Windows Server 2003 from an NT environment is one option. Although this option will be complicated and costly, some enterprises may find it worthwhile, experts say. Still other organizations, especially those that have recently migrated to Windows 2000 or are in the process of doing so, may be content to stay put rather than invest more money in an upgrade.

The effects of the economic downturn also can't be overstated, says Laura DiDio, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. Of 1,500 information technology organizations surveyed by the Yankee Group, 20% had begun a network migration within the last two years, only to halt it because of lack of funds.

DiDio says she frequently hears from organizations -- both large and small -- that aren't yet sold on the new Windows Server 2003 product. Many are planning to ride their existing architecture until it's no longer practical to do so. "Because of cost and complexity, lack of funds and lack of skilled staff, companies are making due with what they have until they can adequately and comfortably move," she says. "We've seen a lot of outmoded, creaky infrastructure."

Customers aren't being forced off NT 4.0, but after the July deadline they'll be required to pay extra fees beyond those spelled out in standard agreements to get Microsoft support, says Paul Hernacki, strategic solutions manager with Extreme Logic Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting company.

"If you have a great application that runs well on NT 4.0 and meets your business needs, then carefully consider whether to upgrade," Hernacki says. "Although significant performance, reliability, stability and security are achieved by migrating, there must still be a cost justification and consideration of needs and risk."

One consideration is the degree of skill your IT staff has in implementing Active Directory, says Don Jones of Carson City, Nev.-based Braincore, a computing design and architecture firm. Active Directory is Microsoft's directory system, designed to give network administrators better control in mapping file permissions to individual users. "A lot of shops have Windows 2000, but many of them are still running NT domains. That really is the big issue: the huge switch from the old NT-style domains to Active Directory," Jones says.

Despite its purported advantage, DiDio says, the highly complex Active Directory is a low priority. "On a weighted average, 55% of organizations [surveyed] said they were going to train their applicable IT staff on Windows 2000 Professional or Windows XP Professional," DiDio says. "That dropped to 45% who planned to train for Windows 2000 Server and about 33% for Active Directory. As the complexity went up, fewer organizations were getting their IT workers trained."

Don Awalt, president of RDA Corp. in Timonium, Md., says server consolidation is an important consideration for many enterprises deciding between Windows 2000 and Windows Server 2003. For some enterprises, moving from NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 may make the most sense. Windows 2000 has had three years to prove itself as an operating system; it allows for server consolidation and is a good interim step between NT and the forthcoming Windows Server 2003.

But just as Windows 2000 provides advantages in server consolidation over NT, Awalt says, Windows Server 2003 can provide the same significant advantage over Windows 2000. "Kerberos is more tightly integrated, there are better domain administration tools, and the Windows Server 2003 framework is integrated now," Awalt says. "So companies might be able to say, 'here are a dozen things that we're not going to have to do anymore, so maybe we can shrink the number of administrators and have fewer servers next year."

A number of security enhancements are featured in Windows Server 2003, including the default disabling of Internet Information Services (IIS). The IIS previously has been a prime entry point for crackers. Default file permissions also were changed so that not everyone can write software code to an application, a huge difference from the "everyone full control" setting of previous Windows server operating systems. Awalt says Microsoft designed Windows Server 2003 with "the orientation that ease of use is not as significant as security."

Moving first to Windows 2000 makes the most sense for moderately sized enterprises, says Hernacki of Extreme Logic. A later migration to Windows Server 2003 would be far less difficult and costly than a migration from NT 4.0 directly to Windows Server 2003. Says Hernacki: "Windows Server 2003 is something many companies should begin exploring, getting trained on, and developing pilots for. Windows 2000 is what you should be running your business on."

More on this topic:

>> Submit a question to Windows 2000 migration expert Paul Hinsberg

>> Check out the SearchWin2000.com Best Web Links on migration

This was first published in January 2003

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