The End of Bliss, or, Why You Should Think About Upgrading from Windows XP

If you are trying to find Bliss you may want to start your search at 3050 Fremont Drive, roughly halfway between the towns of Napa and Sonoma, California. Subconsciously I think most of us know exactly what Bliss looks like — a lovely, vivid, green meadow on a perfectly rolling hill, lying under a deep blue sky dotted with just the right number of fluffy clouds. You can see it, can’t you?

Bliss is the default wallpaper for Windows XP.

“Bliss.” [Image copyrighted, used under fair use.]

If not, I must have done a pretty poor job of describing it, as “Bliss” was the default desktop image for Windows XP, and as such, may be one of the most recognizable photos in all of history. You see it now, can’t you? Alas, Bliss ain’t what it used to be. Apparently Bliss hill is now covered with much less serene and somewhat scraggly grapevines. One of my favorite songs says “cambia, todo cambia,” or “changes, everything changes,” and certainly this sentiment has never been truer than for technology in the last few years.

This is what Bliss looks like now.

This is what Bliss looks like now. [Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

Microsoft introduced Windows XP in 2001, nearly an eternity ago in the age of computers, and continues to support it through today. Arguably it is the most successful operating system (OS) ever, and even today, after the release of two other major OSes by Microsoft, it is still used by about 30% of the world’s computers. To put this into perspective, this is still a larger market share, excluding Windows 7, than Windows 8.x, Mac OS 10.x, Linux and all other computer OSes combined! It’s quite likely that a smaller but a significant percentage of you reading this article personally own a machine running XP. Here at W&M, machines running XP fortunately now only account for roughly 5% of the College-owned machines. Why “fortunately?” Let me explain.

The End is Nigh for XP

Since 2008 Microsoft has issued more stays of execution for XP than any death rower could ever hope for. Still, by all accounts as of February 8th, 2014, Windows XP computers will no longer be “supported.” This means that Microsoft will stop issuing patches of any kind, including security updates, for these computers. So, as of April next year this means that hackers, et al. will be able to target a huge population of “undefended” computers, with potentially less than ideal results for both institutions and private owners. It’s even likely that sometime soon after this date, institutional users of XP will see their network access curtailed or modified to prevent security problems to both themselves as well as other on the network.

The reasons for which users have stuck with Windows XP are numerous, but generally seem to fall into three distinct camps:

  1. Why Upgrade – Windows XP does what I need, and keeps (my generally older) hardware running along happily. I don’t want to, or cannot afford to upgrade my computer hardware, just to run a new OS.
  2. Can’t Upgrade – I need XP to run important or mission critical applications that will not run under newer OSes. Therefore I cannot upgrade my computer to a newer OS.
  3. Really, Really Can’t Upgrade (Not very common outside of the sphere of the “sciences”) – My computer is attached to very expensive hardware that is not compatible with any of Microsoft newer OSes, so I cannot upgrade from XP.

Options for Avoiding Problems Come February

If you find yourself in one of situations described above, and want to avoid possible (likely?) disruptions in your workflow – even if you have done fine until now, within the next six months you should consider either upgrading your computers to a newer and supported OS, or modifications to how your systems are configured so as to reduce your risk.

For the purposes of this blog post I’ll only address options for institutionally-owned machines here, but some of the “solutions” are likely to apply to personally-owned machines as well.

In the same order as covered above here are options to consider:

Why Upgrade - While XP and/or older computer hardware may have served you well up until this point, security is very real concern, and one that you cannot afford to ignore. Running an unsupported OS is a bad practice, and running the most common unsupported system (aka the juiciest target for hackers) is a very poor idea indeed. Here are a few things to consider:

  • If you have an older, non-leased, XP computer that would have to be replaced with either your own or departmental funds, keep in mind that new computer hardware is less expensive than it has ever been. I think that for nearly everyone the possible risk of work disruption and/or data loss due to running XP beyond April 2014 should outweigh the cost of purchasing new hardware that should last at least 3-4 years.
  • If this is still not an option, contact your academic technologist and see if you are eligible for our extremely affordable AVE program which allows you to get a previously leased, updated, and checked-out computer system for a period of two years for less than $200.

Can’t Upgrade – Just because your important or mission critical application could not run on Windows Vista or Windows 7 (both of which will continue to be supported) when you first checked, that does not mean that is still the case.

  • Many applications have been updated to be fully compatible with the newer OSes (free of charge or not). Now is a fantastic time to check to see what options are available for you to update this software so it’s not holding you back.
  • If no upgrade path is available for your specific software, you should contact your academic technologist to see if there are alternative software solutions available.
  • In some cases, the best solution may be to isolate your computer from the network and continue to run your application using XP. Another possibility may be to create a virtualized copy of your old computer and applications that runs on a new machine with a current operating system.

Really, Really Can’t Upgrade – In some rare cases on campus, computers requiring XP are critical in either controlling or collecting data from very expensive scientific instruments or other hardware. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Regardless of anything else you do related to the expiration of XP, PLEASE remember that in many cases the computers being used to run these systems are often very old, and thus very likely to suffer hardware failures – including data loss. Also, in many cases new computer hardware is not compatible with I/O systems needed to interface with your instruments. Therefore, it is very is important to have a failure recovery plan that takes these facts into consideration.
  • If your XP computer does not need to connect to the network to either run or monitor your instruments, the simplest solution to avoid risk might be to disconnect it from the network completely. You’ll need to find a way to move data on and off the computer.
  • If, on the other hand, your XP computer must remain connected to the network after the expiration of XP, please contact your academic technologist sometime in the next few months to see what options might be available that still allows network access while maintaining security.

And remember … cambia, todo cambia.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.

Comments

  1. Andrew Bauserman says:

    Great post, Pablo.

    Definitely time to retire XP. I’ve been seeing more articles like this one arguing that cyber criminals are “banking their Windows XP zero-day vulnerabilities until after Microsoft stops patching the aged operating system next April.”
    http://gosystems.com.au/windows-xp-end-life-8th-april-2014-several-security-analysts-perspectives/

    I recently switched my teenage daughter’s old netbook from Windows XP to Ubuntu Linux – which gave the aging hardware a needed performance boost :) Still trying to light a fire under my wife’s employer and my father to move on…

    As a final note, the default web browser for Windows XP is Internet Explorer 8. Newer versions of Windows support IE 9, 10 and now 11. As a web developer, I can say that *many* of us are planning to end support for IE 8 when XP is retired, as it is a time-consuming process to continue making modern web sites compatible with an outdated, and not standards-compliant, browser.

    Keep up the good communications!


    Andrew

  2. Really nice article, Pablo. I never even thought of the Bliss desktop as a real place. Good luck to everyone out there who still depends on an XP machine…I’m right there with you, as my home PC is venerable. (Are you listening, Santa?)