Say Goodbye To Windows XP

XP End of Support Graphic

XP Pop-up ©Microsoft


 
Those of us who work in the technology field have long been aware that Windows XP reaches the ‘End of Support’ on April 8th, 2014.  This weekend, our least technology-oriented friends and relatives are likely to learn it as well if they haven’t already.  Most users running Windows XP Home or Professional Editions with Automatic Updates enabled will begin seeing the pop-up message shown at the top of this post.  (So far, it appears that corporate users who get their updates from an internal server running Windows Server Update Services, or WSUS, will not receive the update that displays this warning.)  In addition, anyone unsure of whether they’re running Windows XP can simply visit amirunningxp.com for a quick answer.

History
Microsoft Windows XP was officially released on August 24, 2001, or twelve years and six months ago.  As a desktop platform, it’s had an incredibly long run, and a lot has happened since.  After XP, Microsoft released Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8 and 8.1, and Apple has introduced eight full versions of Mac OS X, labeled 10.2 through 10.9.  But Windows XP just kept on plugging along.  XP is good enough, and few saw a compelling reason to upgrade, often doing so only when replacing a PC with one that happened to ship with a newer version of Windows.

Today
In my day job at a medical practice, 9.14% of the people who visited our web sites and patient portal in the past month are still running Windows XP.  It’s second in popularity only to Windows 7, and roughly tied with Apple’s iOS if you aggregate versions 7.0.4 and the just-released 7.0.6 together.  Even at The Snnyc Blog, whose audience skews technical, 3.37% of readers in the past month have been running Windows XP.

What Happens Next
Microsoft releases security updates on the second Tuesday of every month, commonly referred to as Patch Tuesday.  This coming Tuesday, March 11th, Microsoft plans to push out five updates for XP, two of which cover critical flaws.  Since April 8th is also a Patch Tuesday, it’s possible that there could be one more round of updates for XP, depending on how Microsoft chooses to interpret the deadline.  After XP support is discontinued, there will be no more security patches for newly-discovered vulnerabilities.  When Microsoft releases updates for more recent versions of Windows on May 13th, the race is on.  We can expect unscrupulous hackers, security vendors and government agencies alike to reverse-engineer May’s updates and see whether XP is vulnerable to them.  From there, it’s only a matter of time until exploits are created, made available for sale, and released into the wild.  Anyone still using Windows XP on a computer connected the Internet at that point is living dangerously from a technical perspective.  Anyone still conducting business from a Windows XP machine may considered negligent, ethically, if not legally.

What To Do At Home?
If you’re currently running Windows XP on an older machine at home and can afford a new computer, now may be a great time to go out and buy one.  Jumping from XP to the current Windows 8.1 will take some getting used to, but Windows 8.1 can run many – though unfortunately not all – of your current applications.  You could also take the opportunity to try Apple’s Mac, which frankly may be more intuitive to use than Windows 8.1.  Of course this transition would necessitate all new applications as well.

Another Option
There are plenty of folks who either can’t afford a new computer, or loathe the idea of throwing away a still-functional machine due only to a software issue.  You might consider replacing Windows XP on your machine with one of the free lighter-weight Linux distributions.  Bodhi Linux, for instance, claims that it can get by on a, “300+MHz CPU, 128MB RAM, and 2.5GB hard drive space.”  Transitioning to Linux will necessitate new applications too, thought there are many free options out there that cover much of what you’re likely using your computer for now.  If you aren’t comfortable installing an operating system that you’ve never used before, now is the time to reach out to your social network for assistance.  Most extended families have that nephew or niece who is good at this stuff.  The one with little suntan; or personality.  You can also post questions here in the Comments section.

What To Do At The Office?
The pace of business application development sometimes lags that of consumer-facing applications.  For instance, our medical practice uses a digital dictation system that was incompatible with Windows 8 and 8.1 prior to a major release late last year.  Given competing priorities for our time, we’re only now planning to install the version that is compatible with Windows 8 / 8.1.  For this reason and others, businesses like ours have upgraded only as far as Windows 7 for the moment.  If your business has an internal IT team, they are professionally responsible for determining whether it’s cost-effective to upgrade your existing XP systems, or if it’s more appropriate to buy new ones.  If you have to rely on outside help and advice, hopefully you’re connected with a consulting organization that you trust to walk through the transition in an appropriate manner.

Bottom Line
Windows XP had a great 12.5 year run, creating billions of dollars in value for Microsoft, for third-party developers and for all of us who used XP productively for years.  But it’s time to move on.  As this post goes live, we’ve got 30 days and a few hours to move off of Windows XP on any systems still running it.  Make the most of it.  April 8th is one deadline that you don’t want to miss.

Back Home Again

To borrow from an old jazz standard dating to 1917, I was recently Back home again in Indiana as I  began writing this.  While this post is perhaps seemingly self-indulgent, it’s also for Denise, our good-humored IT Project Manager, and the rest of my peers at the office.

Travel
Just after noon a week ago Thursday, I arrived at the Indianapolis International Airport, having changed planes an hour earlier in Detroit.  I quickly picked up my checked bag, which, incidentally, I’d checked for free thanks to my American Express Delta SkyMiles card.  Up one escalator and down another, I was at National Car Rental, where I picked up a silver Chevy Malibu with only 185 miles on the odometer.  Within twenty minutes of deplaning, I was on the road.  I’m going to have to fly on Thursdays more often.

I drove east from the airport through Indianapolis and beyond via I70, which bisects the state horizontally.  Seventy miles after leaving the airport, I arrived at what remains of the family farm.  For the next 72 hours, I was back home.

Old Farmhouse

The core of the original farmhouse at the left above was built around the time of America’s Civil War.  There’s a framed photo on the wall of my great-great-grandparents with a date on the back, though I don’t recall the exact year from memory now.  This is the first time that I recall seeing only one grain silo instead of the usual three at the right, though I feel like one was added during my childhood.  The last remaining silo will be taken down before I’m likely to return again.

Newer House

Situated diagonally across the road from the old farmhouse is the newer house where my sister and I grew up.  It was here that I stayed while visiting.  I noticed several times throughout the stay that the only sound I could hear was birds chirping.  The grass was just beginning to grow for the Spring, and my mom mowed it for the second time while I was there.

Out back

Both houses are surrounded by farmland as is typical of the area.  While this setting might look unusual to those who have spent their life in urban congestion, it’s important to remember that an acre of land out here typically sells for less than you’d rent an apartment for just one month in Manhattan.  This is a world away from the East Coast.

Getting Down to Business
Now this is a tech blog of course, and the purpose of my trip was actually technical in nature.  My dad uses two computers in his combined business / hobby of ham radio.  The first is a Lenovo ThinkCentre PC running Ubuntu Linux, which he uses for e-mail, web surfing, and most other activities related to his business.  This system is about as stable and impervious to viruses and other support issues as he’s likely to find.  Dad’s second PC is a diminutive Mini-ITX sized, Intel Atom-based PC that he and I put together from components and which runs Windows XP.  He uses this system to perform the computing aspects of software-defined ham radio.  And as is often the case with Windows machines after awhile, this one needed help.

The little Mini-ITX PC had issues both hardware and software related.  The CPU fan had died, and the system was going into a thermal shutdown mode with extended use.  Dad had resorted to firing it up when he needed it, and shutting it down immediately afterward.  The system also had a Windows virus that I was unable to clean reliably in the limited time available on my last visit, but which dad was willing to live with for awhile.  So I’d come prepared to deal with both issues.

Hardware
Dad and I began by swapping out both the CPU and case fans in a matter of minutes using new Scythe 40x40x10mm fans that were a direct replacement for the originals.  In the days that followed, this proved to completely resolve the thermal shutdown problems and the hardware has been solid since while running around the clock.  After replacing the fans, I got started on the slightly more complicated software side of things.

Software Work Begins With Backup
Knowing that dad relies on this Windows machine extensively to test and validate new ham radio kits that he’s assembled for customers, I wanted to guarantee that I could get back to a working configuration regardless of what I encountered in the next two days.  I’d make two different types of backups before doing anything else.

I began by creating an image of the PC’s internal hard drive as-is by booting from a Clonezilla CD and writing an image copy to a portable USB external hard drive.  If need be, I could always return to exactly where I started by restoring this image.  This is a technique that I use frequently at work, though less so recently with virtualization.

Next, I wanted a copy of the individual files so that I could later scan for viruses and selectively restore data independent of any executables.  For this, I simply booted the PC from a Linux live CD, connected my USB hard drive again, and copied the entire contents of the internal hard drive to a directory on the external one.  Now I was ready to begin cleaning up the machine.

Software Reloaded
Before I re-installed Windows XP from scratch, I wanted to be certain that there was no boot sector virus in place that would survive a regular re-format.  Typically I use DBAN to wipe a disk clean before re-installing an operating system.  Dad’s machine wouldn’t play well with DBAN, so I resorted to clearing the existing partitions and partition table using the Linux utility GParted from the same Linux live CD that I’d used to copy files earlier.

Installing Windows XP was a breeze, as I’d done it roughly 100 times previously.  Immediately following the basic installation, I took these additional steps:

  • Copied the i386 directory from the source CD to the hard drive and adjusted the SourcePath variables in the registry as appropriate.
  • Downloaded and installed the various system drivers from Intel’s web site.
  • Installed all available Windows Critical Updates.
  • Installed antivirus software, in this case Microsoft’s free Security Essentials.
  • Turned on the Windows Firewall.
  • Unbound File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks from the network adapter.
  • Removed well-known, default Windows accounts such as Administrator and Guest.
  • Scanned the backed-up data files for viruses, and then copied them back to the system.
  • Re-installed dad’s software, which in this case included circuit board layout software, ham radio software and related drivers.

While it sounds simple enough, I spent a portion of Thursday afternoon, the majority of Friday, and a portion of Saturday ensuring that everything was configured properly and working to dad’s satisfaction.  As I post this summary a week later, he hasn’t reported any problems with the PC, nor any missing applications or files.  I count that a success.

Back to Reality
I returned to my apartment in southwestern Connecticut on Sunday night at 10:15 PM, just in time to turn on the TV and discover that President Obama would be making an announcement shortly regarding an operation in the Middle East.  I’d soon learn with the rest of the world that Osama bin Laden was no longer with us.