Ensuring that older 32-bit software works in a 64-bit environment is challenging, says Leon Barnowski of Norwich, Conn.

How to Prepare for the End of Windows XP

It’s not too late to learn from others and move to a modern, secure operating system.

The city of Norwich, Conn., established a nice rhythm in upgrading its 230 PCs from Windows XP to Windows 7.

"We did an inventory of all the software we use, including all our proprietary software — anything odd — and contacted all of our vendors," says Leon Barnowski, the city's LAN supervisor. "We told them exactly the platform we were going to and asked for assurances that their software would work. And if it wouldn't, we asked how we needed to change the installations on our new computers."

As IT professionals know, on April 8, Microsoft will cease all support for the Windows XP operating system, including security updates. While Norwich was already on pace to migrate its PCs to Windows 7 by then, it recently received an extra incentive. "We just found out that the software that runs our police department won't support Windows XP after next April," Barnowski says. "That's 50 of the 230 PCs right there."

Microsoft Windows XP enjoyed a good run, especially in government, where budget constraints over the years kept many from upgrading OSs or replacing older PCs. But now the clock is ticking. Although researchers expect that up to 25 percent of all enterprise PCs may still run Windows XP after Microsoft ceases support, most state and local governments are at least somewhere down the path toward putting their XP machines out to pasture.

Here are some lessons they've learned along the way.

Get a Handle on Inventory

It's hard to upgrade hundreds or thousands of PCs without a good idea of what you have. As Missouri surveyed its installed base, the state found 10-year-old machines in some agencies.

"When we started down this road, we were surprised how many XP machines we still had," says Tim Robyn, Missouri CIO. "We didn't have a good way to track our inventory, so we looked at this as an opportunity to improve our processes, do a better job of tracking our assets and improve customer service."

Software makers such as Microsoft offer tools for conducting inventories of hardware and software assets. Missouri, which is on course to migrate 28,000 PCs from XP to Windows 7 by April, implemented an enterprise self-service tracking system to allow staff to report their IT assets.

Image Is Everything

Once an organization has settled on a desktop computing environment, it needs an efficient way of loading it onto new and existing systems. "We standardized our desktop image," says Robyn. "We've essentially gone from hundreds of images to one for the agencies we support." He's quick to point out that a standard image doesn't mean homogenization across disparate agency users; it just means starting with a common desktop environment and customizing apps and settings according to need.

$190,473

Miami's annual energy savings after migrating PCs to Windows 7. After the upgrade, the city applied new Windows 7 Group Policy preferences that forced PCs into sleep mode after a predetermined period of inactivity.

SOURCE: City of Miami

Consolidating desktop images may mean revisiting Windows licensing agreements, however. Dieter Klinger, chief operating officer for the Department of Technology Services in Montgomery County, Md., says that one of the first things his department did when it began migrating the county's 9,000 PCs to Windows 7 was to enter into a new enterprise licensing agreement.

"With previous versions, we could use our favorite imaging software to replicate the environment," Klinger says. "Microsoft tightened that up a bit with Windows 7."

Remember the Back End

Not only must organizations test existing desktop applications to ensure they'll run in a new operating environment, but they can't neglect server resources.

"When you're putting your enterprise applications on new Windows 7 boxes, you have to make sure they're compatible with the back end," says Barnowski. "The 64-bit OS has different database interfaces. If your whole shop is XP 32-bit, and suddenly you're putting in 64-bit Windows 7 boxes, you need to make sure they can hit those Oracle and SQL databases with no issue."

And for agencies running web-based applications, browser compatibility may prove an ongoing issue. The city of Miami has upgraded nearly 2,300 desktops to Windows 7, and Network Administrator Marco Sanchez says one of the remaining challenges is tweaking Internet Explorer versions to work with the city's web programs. "We find that some run well in IE 9, but not in IE 10, or vice versa," he says. "And now we're rolling out some Windows 8 machines, which come with IE 11. Often, we just run our web applications in compatibility mode."

Seek Help for Sanity's Sake

With April 8 looming, public-sector agencies that haven't started migrating from Windows XP are frankly behind. Whether they have 200 systems or 2,000, it's wise to bring in service providers.

"This late in the game, unless you're fortunate enough to have an abundance of in-house resources, I would recommend you use outside vendors to get the upgrade job done," says Lea Deesing, chief innovation officer for the city of Riverside, Calif. "This will allow your service desk staff to focus on application testing for potential compatibility issues with the target operating system."

Riverside began migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7 more than a year ago. It has upgraded nearly 1,300 systems and plans to finish 800 more before the April deadline. So far, all of the upgrades have been performed manually, "but we are looking at using Microsoft System Center to deploy the remaining upgrades over the network," Deesing says.

Mind the Apps

"One of the biggest issues with migrating from Windows XP to Windows 7 or 8 is application compatibility," says Michael Silver, research vice president and distinguished analyst for Gartner. "Governments need to figure out what works and what doesn't."

Missouri had about 28,000 Windows XP–based systems at the start of fiscal 2013. It has since upgraded nearly half to Windows 7. The early going was slow, in part because the state had to get its hands around the number of Windows XP applications in the field and what to do about them.

"We started with 100 or so applications that required XP," says Missouri CIO Tim Robyn. "In some cases, we could retire the application. In some cases, we could migrate users to a shared service. Sometimes, we could make a minor update; sometimes, it was a major update." Robyn says that as a last resort, when users still need to run a Windows XP program after migrating to Windows 7, they can run it in Windows XP compatibility mode.

Alternatively, agencies may consider Windows XP Mode, which creates a virtual desktop within Windows 7 for running XP programs. In order to run Windows XP Mode on a Windows 7 system, agencies must ensure several things are in order:

  • The system must be running Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise or Ultimate.
  • The system must have loaded Windows Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode.
  • The system's CPU should be capable of hardware-assisted virtualization.Microsoft offers a free download to detect whether a PC supports this. If the PC doesn't, it can still run Windows XP Mode, but the agency will need to install a Windows 7 update.
Christopher Navin
Jan 14 2014