What to do if you're still running Windows 7

The legacy OS has an end date of 14 January 2020, so it's time to move on

Windows 7

Windows 7 has been much loved among IT departments and casual home-users alike, but its status as a secure and reliable OS is coming to an end; come 14 January 2020, extended support will be no more.

A decade after its release, Windows 7 is still popular, with 36% of all PCs in active use still running it, not far behind the 43.6% running Windows 10.

However, with 14 January 2020 now only round the corner, it's high time Windows 7 users looked at that inevitable upgrade.

Why does this mean an upgrade is needed?

When January 2020 comes along, support will stop for Windows 7. That doesn't mean PCs running the OS will stop working, but it means there will be no more security updates or patches, and no technical support.

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That might not sound too bad, but running an unsupported version of Windows leaves individuals and businesses wide open to security risks.

Continuing to use Windows 7 without patches and updates will leave systems vulnerable to new exploits and malware as they emerge. AV-Test.org registered 67.7 million new strains of Windows malware during 2018, and the situation is only likely to get worse, as some security experts believe that malware developers are holding potential Windows 7 exploits back, ready to unleash them as soon as support ends.

For some businesses, running an unsupported OS isn't even an option, as it will compromise basic due diligence and compliance standards.

For those companies resistant to change either due to economic reasons or technological-preferences, or for those who have simply been caught unawares by the deadline, Microsoft is presenting several options that do allow support for WIndows 7 to continue. These options range from the free to the explicitly monetary.

Customers of Azure can use the Windows Virtual Desktop on the Azure service, which allows an additional three years of extended support as part of the package. Though this comes at no additional cost to existing Azure customers, initially migrating to the cloud service does unsurprisingly yield overheads.

Otherwise, customers can pay for Extended Security Updates, something that Microsoft has offered in the past to good feedback. The cost of the updates reflects their status as a temporary solution, existing for companies who have missed the January 2020 deadline. According to Microsoft, "Customers with active Software Assurance or subscription licenses can purchase Extended Security Updates for approximately 75% of the on-premises license cost annually." For more details on pricing, contact your Microsoft account.

It should be stressed that such options should only be viewed as a method to ease transition, rather than a way to stave off migration altogether.

But January 2020 is still far away?

To some, the arrival of Q4 may seem like Christmas is still an age away; to IT decision makers, however, January 2020 is a rapid turnaround, a mere blink of the eye. That's because IT project deployment can be painstakingly slow. Dale Titcombe, head of IT at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, tells IT Pro that it's "definitely not" too early to start work.

"It cannot be assumed that remedial work won't be required in order to transition between OS versions and that 'projects' within the migration project may likely present themselves, that require prioritisation and resourcing," says Titcombe.

He argues that the process of upgrading the machines to a new OS is the easy part, which often can be done in a matter of days with the right provisioning. "The harder part is making sure you have identified any issues you have in your environment and planning the project," he adds.

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And the larger your organisation is, the more likely it is that you'll need to start working on this project immediately.

"Established businesses and institutions have been here before, so hopefully lessons have been learned," says Richard Edwards, distinguished research analyst at Freeform Dynamics. "Large enterprises aren't usually the fastest movers, so less than a year should signal a degree of urgency."

Businesses risk being left behind

With Windows 7 still proving quite popular, despite its looming end date, a significant number of desktops are set to become vulnerable unless changes are made, and "criminals will be ready to strike as soon as they end of support date arrives," explains Titcombe.

Titcombe also points out that organisations that stick with Windows 7 will become out of touch, and that's where the move to Windows 10 is an opportunity. He says any organisation or individual making the move to Windows 10 will "be amazed about how much faster and more dynamic your environment becomes with the upgrade to Windows 10 and its supporting software like Office 365 and Windows server 2016".

So, making the move to Windows 10 can be a lever to taking a fresh look at IT more generally, which was also true of BCS' own migration.

"As part of our move to Windows 10, we have pushed the organisational IT policy forward with moves to more cloud operations and SaaS solutions," explains Titcombe. "Our new Windows 10 environment is much more dynamic than our previous pre-Windows 10 thick-client environment."

Even without taking that broader approach, there are software compatibility reasons to see the move as a good thing rather than a chore. Much of the draw of Windows 10 is the greater range of features it provides, and newer software and hardware are frequently designed with Windows 10 in mind, with no guarantee of the same experience on Windows 7.

"In the same year that Microsoft gave us Windows 7, Apple gave us the iPhone 3GS and Google shipped Android 2.0, clair," says Edwards. "How far has Microsoft Windows come since then? It's time to move up or change course."

Slow and steady wins the race

Starting the move away from Windows 7 with plenty of time in hand means it's possible to think carefully about the whole IT setup, and maybe do a much needed general spring clean both on the hardware and software sides. But with just under a year to go, it's a vital time to make a fundamental shift.

Richard Edwards' advice is to "understand why you're upgrading and don't do it blindly".

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"There are other ways and means out there if Windows 10 doesn't appeal. Look at these alternatives seriously, including Windows 10 in S mode, and remember that the tools we use shape the way we do things. PC hardware can run a variety of operating systems. Maybe take a look at (Google-backed) CloudReady from Neverware as an example."

Wherever an organisation goes after Windows 7, upgrading should be done in a measured and controlled way, not rushed at the last moment.

"This is essential if you want a smooth upgrade," explains Titcombe. "You'd much rather have a few weeks/months to spare after planning than realising you didn't leave enough time and need to finish off the entire project/deployment in a week."

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