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Long Live XP?

February 13, 2014
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Is the demise of Windows XP greatly exaggerated?

It’s the operating system that seems to never die!  A couple weeks ago Microsoft announced that Microsoft will “continue to provide updates to our (Microsoft’s) antimalware signatures and engine for Windows XP users through July 14, 2015!”  Previously, Microsoft had announced an end to all support in April, 2014. 

For healthcare vendors and providers, this potentially offers some breathing room, as many applications and platform infrastructure continue to operate on Windows XP.  This represents a potential major infrastructure upheaval for many providers, so the prospect of more time to make a conversion would seem like good news! 

Having lived through my own personal conversion off of XP (seems like a long time ago!), I can appreciate the level of effort to update the infrastructure, let alone applications.  Unlike in the past, an XP to Windows 7 upgrade requires a complete reinstall, as applications cannot be preserved and must be reinstalled as well.  To complicate the situation, it seems as if some vendors have been slow to support newer versions of Windows.  Again, from my past experience, I can see why, as a new operating system must be thoroughly tested with each configuration of an application, including the nuances of compatibility with other applications running on the same machine.

The announcement applies to Microsoft’s antimalware products only, and other third-party application providers will have to decide themselves whether to also extend support.  For example, if a provider relies heavily on Symantec’s Norton antimalware product, and Symantec decides to end support for XP, it may be just as much of an issue for providers to convert to an alternative antimalware solution as it is to upgrade the operating system!  

Oftentimes an application provider does not itself provide antimalware protection, relying on the user organization to install and maintain the antimalware option of their choice.  This can be problematic if the antimalware of choice is not one the vendor has tested for compatibility, or consistent across vendor applications. 

Similar issues exist with Microsoft Office suite products.  Suppose a vendor has developed an application that relies on Microsoft Office 2007, and the site wishes to update its infrastructure to Windows 7 and Office 2010.  Unless the underlying application happens to also be compatible with Office 2010, there are likely to be compatibility issues!  This forces the user to review all applications for compatibility before determining if it is safe to update – a daunting and time consuming task.

Microsoft has something called the “Microsoft Compatibility Center” that can address consumer and business oriented applications, but specialized applications such as those in healthcare most likely are not on the list.  Fortunately, Microsoft incorporates something called the “Compatibility Troubleshooter” in their operating system that will allow specific applications to run in “compatibility mode” with an older version of Windows, so it may be possible to update the core operating system and still use legacy applications.

The bottom line is that there is no easy answer to sustaining system compatibility across the enterprise.  Moving off of Windows XP will be positive in the long run – it’s just not an easy task.