Windows NT Heads Quietly into the Night--Now What?

Last week, I discussed Microsoft's plans to extend the support life cycle for Windows 98, giving businesses worldwide some breathing room as they plan desktop upgrades and migrations. But in the same way that Win98 is still widely used on the desktop, servers based on Microsoft's Windows NT 4.0 systems are still widely distributed on small and midsized servers, and NT is set for retirement on December 31, 2004. Coincidentally, just as last week's issue of Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE hit the streets, Microsoft announced plans for migrating its remaining NT customers to newer versions of Windows Server. So I spoke with Microsoft's Jim Hebert, general manager of the Windows Server Product Management Group, and Troy Zaboukos, product manager of the Windows Server Product Management Group, to discuss NT migration scenarios.

As the men noted, a lot has changed since Microsoft first released NT 4.0 in 1996. Back then, most enterprises used high-end, proprietary server systems based on UNIX; many small and midsized businesses used Novell NetWare or ad-hoc peer-to-peer networks. NT machines were popular with businesses of all sizes because they were inexpensive and leveraged the PC pricing model that Microsoft rode to fame and fortune with its Windows-based products. On the low end, companies rolled out NT openly, embracing the low-cost, easy-to-use solution. Higher up the IT chain, however, NT found a foothold in larger companies literally through the back door, with many NT boxes installed outside of corporations' centralized IT departments. Today, Linux enjoys this sort of grass roots support in various companies, and it will be interesting to see whether that platform later enjoys mainstream support similar to that which NT (and Windows 2000) fostered.

During Win2K's active lifetime (2000 to 2003), Microsoft was somewhat surprised to see many companies choosing to keep their NT 4.0 servers in place rather than upgrading them to Win2K. The upgrade was often complicated and expensive, and NT performed well enough to keep pace when Win2K arrived. When developing Windows Server 2003, Microsoft decided to make the NT 4.0 migration easier, so the company shipped that product with several migration and upgrade tools, prescriptive guidance, and other documentation. By the time Windows 2003 shipped in April 2003, many of the old arguments for NT were beginning to wear thin as those servers fell further and further behind the times, and Windows Server became more powerful and feature-packed. By 2003, NT customers were starting to move away from the old OS in appreciable numbers.

So what does the NT 4.0 migration and upgrade picture look like today? "Companies are saving 20 to 30 percent of their total cost of ownership \[TCO\] when moving from NT 4.0 to Windows 2003," Hebert told me, "so the migration actually pays for itself in most cases." He said that typically, customers see their costs returned in 6 to 18 months. These costs are offset in many ways, including server consolidation, in which the jobs of numerous aging, single-purpose NT servers can be combined into one easily managed and more available multiprocessor Windows 2003 box; increased productivity; reduced security risks (Windows 2003 has a 60 percent smaller "attack surface," in Microsoft parlance); and through better migration tools and documentation. And in the near future, Microsoft will finally ship its Virtual Server product, based on technology acquired last year from Connectix. This virtualization solution will let administrators host several virtual NT environments on one server box, giving them the benefits of centralized management combined with the 100-percent compatibility that comes from running crucial software in a true NT environment. Virtual Server is, in my opinion, one of the major missing pieces of the package that Microsoft needs to deliver to truly offer a complete upgrade strategy for NT.

To aid customers migrating from NT 4.0, Microsoft is providing customers with a wide range of deployment tools and prescriptive guidance, and partners are providing end-to-end services that can help smaller companies plan and implement their NT migrations and upgrades. Until recently, learning about all these resources and where to find them was difficult, so Microsoft set up a new Upgrading from Windows NT 4.0 Web site (see the URL below) that provides links to these resources, along with customer success stories and other online tools.

Microsoft's goal is to get as many NT 4.0 holdouts as possible to move to Windows 2003, Win2K, or Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 by the end of 2004, when support for NT Server 4.0 ends. According to market researchers at IDC, this migration is already under way: The installed base of NT Server 4.0-based servers dropped from 2.6 million units in 2002 to 2 million in early 2004 and could drop to 1.3 million units by the end of 2004. If you're in the middle of such a migration or simply planning one, you should take advantage of Microsoft's admittedly self-serving programs, tools, and documentation. As with the Win98 installed base I discussed last week, I'm interested in hearing from anyone facing an NT migration and the reasons why this migration is--or isn't--happening. I'll discuss the feedback from both articles next week.

Upgrading from Windows NT Server 4.0

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