Microsoft’s Windows XP is hot! Read why.

This article was originally written as a guest blogger for intense School IT educational services. This may sound a bit weird to some, but Microsoft’s Windows XP is hot! Perhaps not as hot as it was when it was first released, but it’s not far of. Unfortunately not in a good way. Next year, in April 2014 to be exact, Microsoft Windows XP will no longer be officially supported. During this article I’d like to explore the end of life concept, what we can do to prevent potential issues and have a look at some of the possible migration and or upgrade scenarios we have at our disposal. Is it time to dump those fat clients? Adopt VDI? DaaS or Hosted Shared Desktops perhaps? Let’s see what’s out there.

Lifecycle fact sheet

Microsoft has something called the Windows Lifecycle Fact Sheet, it holds all end of support and end of sales dates regarding Microsoft’s client operating systems, I’m sure there’s one for server OSs as well. Have a look here: http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/products/lifecycle you’ll probably notice that the 8th of April 2014 is on top of the list and marks the end of extended support for Windows XP. Although this might be hard to imagine for some, for a lot of companies this date is kind of an important one (yes, there are still hundreds, if not thousands, of companies still running Windows XP). If you’re one of them, now is the time to act, get rid of it, upgrade, migrate, do something! When extended support ends, Microsoft will no longer provide any (hot) fixes, patches, security updates, service packs etc. Viruses, spyware, and other malicious software will once again become a serious threat and there’s not much we can do about it except to dump XP.

Time to innovate?

In theory this all sounds simple, replace XP with Windows 7, or 8 even, not much more to it. In practice, however, this isn’t always as easy as it may seem. Application and hardware compatibility, 32 vs 64 bits, end-user training and acceptance are just a few of the issues you might run into along the way. And what about you current infrastructure? Still using fat clients, standard images and Microsoft SCCM to handle your application installs? Don’t get me wrong, if the business case fits, this might be the right solution for you. I’m just saying that  this might be a good time to think things over, perhaps renew, or innovate even, give this some thought! And since you’re still running XP, there’s a pretty good chance that your current hardware needs to be updated as well, so you need to invest anyway. The only question is, which solution is right for you? Not only financially, but perhaps even more important, which solution best fits your users and organization as a whole, given that the price is also right of course. And because there’s no real ‘one size fits all’, this may take some time to figure out.

What are our options?

Naming and listing our options is the easy part, which one to pick the hardest. A lot will depend on your needs as an organization and, in the end, the acceptance of your users, this will make or break your project all together, and that’s a given. It simply isn’t up to IT alone to decide which route to take, It’s very important to involve your working staff from the beginning, hear what they have to say. We need to sit with our users to inventory and discuss their daily routines, what do they like about their current work environment, what not, what, according to them could or should be changed etc..? During these kind of intakes you might even come to the conclusion that, in some cases, they haven’t been working as effectively and efficiently as you perhaps thought they were, now is the time for change. But again, think things through, don’t just go with VDI because it sounds sexy! You get my point, right?

Another thing that could be helpful, or is, is trying to categorize your users, for example: Task Workers access a small set of applications but at the same time they interact with customers, partners and employees. As a result they have access to critical data. Hosted VDI or Hosted Shared desktops (perhaps DaaS) might be the best solution. Another example, so called Road Warriors need access to their applications and desktops from anywhere, here a local Virtual Machine (XenClient for example) might do the trick. The HR department employees all come in the office each morning and thus require less flexibility when it comes to accessing their desktops and or applications, so again I’m thinking; Hosted Shared Desktops or published / streamed applications will suffice. Or maybe your existing fat clients, with locally installed applications, will support Windows 7 in combination with SCCM or HP OpenView for example, if it feels right, works like it should and fits the bill, why not?! You can also categorize your users as light, medium or heavy for example, just give it name and make sure everybody involved has their say in the matter.

Going mobile

Another thing you need to think, or perhaps worry, about is how to cope with mobile device and application management. Your users will probably tell you that they also want to use their personal, or corporately owned, iPad, Android tablet or iPhone when they might be on the move and have no other alternative to few, edit and send out documents or emails. I mean, it’s fine that we’ve set up our backend systems to hand out hosted or VDI based desktops, stream Windows and or mobile applications and allow remote document editing at the same time to assist our users during their daily routine, but what about the physical device itself? Is the connection to our datacenter secured, does potentially confidential data gets send out, and handled, secure, can data be stored on the device locally, do the applications (personal and corporate) on the mobile device have the ability to exchange information between each other? What happens when a device gets lost or stolen? And the list goes on.

At this point I’d also like to point out my article on Citrix’s XenMobile; BYOD… Beyond the hype. You’ll find it here: http://basvankaam.com/2013/08/08/byod-beyond-the-hype/ It will give you a good idea on the possibilities and possible pitfalls when it comes to mobile device and data management  in general.

Even when mobile devices like iPads, other types of tablet devices, Android and iPhones are not involved, but, for example, laptops are, you still (might) have to deal with some sort of mobile security and application availability. Be aware that remote workers, using laptops, often need to be able to work offline as well, meaning (cached) streamed applications, locally installed applications (here we go again) or perhaps a more advanced solution like XenClient (give it a Google).

Mix it up

No matter what we implement, I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t going to be a one size fits all solution. There will always be exceptions, and in some cases perhaps more than we would like. Try to think of it this way, what can we do or implement so that the bigger part of our organization will benefit from it. And not the other way around by choosing a solution which might seem beneficial for everyone at first, including our exceptions, but, in the end, will probably double or even triple the total TCO and will also add more complexity than needed. Inventory your exceptions and address them accordingly, it’s a fine line between functionality, costs and user acceptance! At this point I’d also like to throw in a term I picked up recently, and that’s: KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid, I guess it pretty self explanatory right?! Check out: www.ingmarverheij.com as well, great resource!

Fortunately for us there is a product that does offer the kind of flexibility mentioned earlier, and with this I mean being able to provision not only hosted shared desktops, streamed virtualized applications and virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI’s) but also locally installed VM’s which can be remotely managed and more, and all this from one product. You probably guessed it already, indeed, it’s XenDesktop 7. It even includes several tools from which you can provision hundreds of VDI based VM’s and or application / hosted shared desktop servers with just a few mouse clicks. All this by leveraging Citrix Provisioning Services and or Machine Creations Services which is one of main infrastructure components of XD7.

Make it personal

No matter what kind of solution you implement, user personalization is alway going to be a challenge, an important one I might add. I already highlighted the importance of involving your users, throughout the design / decision making process. The same goes when it comes to data personalization, it’s imperative that you consult with your users, letting them explain what they need or want. Task workers for example, they probably won’t need to install any applications, developers or IT admins on the other hand, might. Basically the difference between pooled and dedicated / persistent desktops. And what about performance, you don’t want your users to experience slow logons due to large roaming, and possibly corrupt, user profiles, to name one. Preferably, during logon, you want to separate all user related data from your user profiles, speeding up the process.

Hybrid

Today there are several products on the market offering us so called, hybrid user profile solutions. Simply put, user profile data is stored separately in a file  (which is bound to a specific user) somewhere on a fileshare in combination with standard (small and fast) mandatory user profiles. When the profile loads, the rest of the personalized (HKCU registry related information) user data gets read from the file on the fileshare separated from the logon process itself. As you probably know, when a user logs off all (changed) user data gets written back into the user profile. When using roaming profiles, which is still used a lot, this basically means that during logoff all changes made to the HKCU registry hive (primarily), while the user session was active, will get written back into the index.dat file of the user, and vice versa during logon.

How it works

The same goes for hybrid solutions. During logoff all altered user data (again, all changes made to the HKCU registry hive) gets written to the user bound profile file on the fileshare. The best thing is, although this can take some time to figure out, using a hybrid solution IT admins get to decide which data gets written back. So maybe you want to save, and thus write back, all personalized changes made to the Office application suite, including one or two in-house build applications related to your core business, and that’s it, nothing more. No problem. In fact, you can also pre-configure applications, export the accompanying registry settings from the HKCU registry hive (other locations are possible as well) and import them to the personalized profile file. Because the read and write actions of the personal user data is completely isolated from the logon and logoff process, as with roaming profiles for example, this will speed up the entire process immensely. Not to mention the fact that you’ll probably won’t see any more corrupt user profiles for a while!

Conclusion

The end of Windows XP is approaching, fast. It’s a fact that thousands of companies worldwide still use Microsoft’s most successful client operating system up to date, and with good reason I might add! But… everything has to end at some point, and if you haven’t made any plans to upgrade, migrate or to implement a new (VDI / Hosted Shared / Virtualized Apps, or whatever) infrastructure than you might want to start yesterday. Sure, there’s a lot of work involved, it takes time, effort and money, but imagine that you do nothing and a few months from now (extended) support will end giving hackers and all other types of virtual looters free play. Can, or do you want to imagine what might happen? And perhaps even more important, how much work, time, effort and money will be spend then? As mentioned before, the time to act is now! Good luck and if you feel there’s anything I left out, please let me know and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as possible.

Bas van Kaam ©

Reference materials used: Microsoft.com

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