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June 2012
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Decision time

BY DAVID ZOELLER dzoeller@paducahsun.com

Microsoft's recent decision to stop supporting its Windows XP operating system has been keeping local information technology professionals busy helping customers cope with the change.

The computer giant officially stopped providing technical assistance for Windows XP, including automatic security updates, or patches, on Tuesday. Microsoft has supported the operating system for the past 12 years, but indicated via its website, that "the time has come for us, along with our hardware and software partners, to invest our resources toward supporting more recent technologies."

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, more than 10 percent of computers used in government and corporations worldwide still use Windows XP. The number of desktops running the operating system rises to nearly 30 percent when factoring in personal computers, the Journal reported.

"We've been busy for months (dealing with Windows XP upgrades)," said Charles Lindsey, general manager of Systems Solutions of Paducah. "And we will continue to be in the foreseeable future."

According to Lindsey, the Windows XP issue is of particular concern to businesses and industries under specific regulatory control when it comes to system security, such as health care, finance and transportation. One of the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), regarding individual health information, is that medical providers have operating systems that can receive the latest security patches.

"Windows XP was a major advance from the earlier versions of Microsoft Windows in security, stability and efficiency," said Lindsey, in explaining its popularity. "It was the most widely used operating system until August 2012 when Windows 7 overtook it."

IT technicians at KeeFORCE have also been busy upgrading and evaluating Windows XP systems, according to David Morse, director of marketing. KeeFORCE has health-care customers who have already been upgraded or are now in the process of upgrading. Users in the health-care industry will likely be given a grace period and not immediately be in violation past April 8, Morse said, unless and until there is some risk that is developed by a new threat to security.

There is no one solution that will take care of every Windows XP user's needs, Morse said. "Obviously, the fix is not the same for everyone," Morse said. "Business people (running Windows XP) need to talk to someone who is a professional IT person to help them find the right fix."

The most common upgrade would be to Windows 7 or 8, Morse said, but businesses need to evaluate which upgrade would be most compatible with the other type of (industry) specific software they use.

Dr. Butler & Associates, 2603 Kentucky Ave., is among the health-care clients KeeFORCE has been working with on system upgrades.

"We had several workstations that used Windows XP," said Amy Dotson, office manager at Dr. Butler & Associates. Scanning software and charting software also had to be adjusted, she said. The process went fairly smoothly.

"We have a great staff. They're pretty computer savvy," Dotson said. She added, however, "We are all creatures of habit. There is always an adjustment period when you upgrade."

Lourdes hospital in Paducah has been preparing for the end of Microsoft's support of Windows XP for some time, according to David Simmons, director of marketing and communications.

"We are taking appropriate steps to ensure that all necessary security is in place by the (April 8) deadline, Simmons said earlier. All computers at Lourdes hospital will be upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7 by the end of the year, according to Simmons. "Security is of paramount importance to Lourdes as we carry out our important mission of serving the community."

The City of Paducah has about 300 computers, which includes those in police cars, fire trucks, and desk workstations, according to Greg Mueller, director of information technology.

"We do have a few running Windows XP," Mueller said. The city has a replacement program in place, and most of the upgraded computers are operating on at least Windows 7, he said. Among the computers being replaced and/or upgraded from Windows XP are the Mobile Data Terminals inside the police cruisers.

Because they have to operate in sometimes extreme conditions, the MDTs have to be more rugged in their design. They are also more expensive to replace, at about $4,000 per unit, Mueller said. "In order to alleviate some of the cost we've moved to standard laptop computers," he said. Officers will then un-dock their computers from the patrol car and take them with them after their shift, to help lower the overall replacement costs.

Anyone still operating Windows XP on their computer will not necessarily have problems immediately, say local IT professionals.

"April 9 was not doomsday (for Windows XP users)," Lindsey said. "But every day past that date puts your security further in doubt. The very first month that Microsoft releases security updates for supported versions of Windows, attackers will 'reverse engineer' those updates, find the vulnerabilities and test Windows XP to see if it shares those vulnerabilities."

The cost of upgrades will vary from business to business, depending on the number of computers involved. The average home computer user can upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 (home version) for about $69, Morse said. The professional version, with more advanced features, can be ordered online for approximately $109. The capacity of the computer to operate the upgrade also needs to be taken into consideration, according to Morse.

"One thing home users need to consider is whether or not their computers will support it (the upgrade)," Morse said. Windows 7 or 8 may take up more memory, and slow the computer down so much they might be better off spending buying a new laptop with the operating system already installed on it, he said.

Whether they are upgrading one computer or 100, Windows XP users need a plan on addressing the security issues going forward.

"If you haven't already, whether for business use or for personal use, begin to development a replacement strategy," said Lindsey. "It may be painful but the consequences of ignoring this advice could be much worse if your data is breached."

Some Windows XP users may be putting off addressing the operating system issue out of financial necessity, procrastination, or simply believing nothing bad will happen to them, Lindsey said.

"Some people (still using Windows XP) may say, 'All I do is surf the web, or go on Facebook,' " Lindsey said. "It's kind of like saying, 'I'm aware I'm driving on bald tires, but all I do is drive to the grocery store.' As long as you're aware of the risk," he said.

Contact David Zoeller, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676.

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