Dan's Take

Could Application Virtualization Be the Key for Windows Server 2003 Migrations?

There's not a lot of time left to find a solution.

Microsoft has announced that support for Windows Server 2003 will end July 14, 2015. The company, of course, recommends migrating to Windows Server 2012 R2, Microsoft Azure or Office 365. As with the end of support for both Windows XP SP3 and Office 2003 about a year ago, Microsoft has been urging its customers to upgrade as soon as possible.

It's not the first time that Microsoft has issued dire statements in the hopes of getting customers to purchase an upgrade. The upgrade target has changed on the desktop over time from Windows Vista to Windows 7 to Windows 8 to Windows 8.1 to Windows 10. The company has also issued dire statements about the impact of the end of support for Windows Server 2003, as well.

Thanks, but No Thanks
But some customers using these systems appear to have weighed the business benefits of these software products, foreseen the likely issues in a migration to different software and said, "No thank you."

Suppliers of application virtualization technology, such as AppZero, Citrix, Spoon, VMware, and even Microsoft, have long been talking about the day these OS platforms would die, and are suggesting that their application virtualization products could make the transition easier. To a company, they suggest that Windows applications can be easily and smoothly moved over to a new operating environment without requiring changes to the applications themselves. Is it time for companies still waiting to migrate to pay attention and take this approach?

No Silver Bullet
As with all technology, the reality is that application virtualization addresses some, but not all, of the issues customers will have in the process of retiring an OS in use for so long. Let's stop for a moment and take a breath. As I point out in my book, "Virtualization: A Manager's Guide"(O'Reilly Media, 2011), applications can be encapsulated and run in an artificial environment that makes it possible for applications written for one version of an OS -- say Windows XP -- to happily execute on another version of the OS, like Windows 7, 8 or 8.1. This also means it's possible for applications designed for Windows Server 2003 to operate as expected under Windows Server 2012 R2.

How does this work? The application virtualization technology surrounds or encapsulates the application, intercepts all calls for outside resources (such as calls to the OS) and transforms those requests into something acceptable to the new host OS. This means that the application continues to function as expected in the new environment with minimal or no changes.

What App Virtualization Can't Do
Application virtualization appears to be a good solution for those unwilling to move away from their packaged or supported applications. It isn't a panacea, though: Although application virtualization can make it possible for an older application to run on a newer OS, the technology doesn't have the ability to address all compatibility and licensing issues. Here are a few situations not helped by the addition of application virtualization:

  • The application provider's software license or terms and conditions prohibit the use of application virtualization. While the technology may work, customers wouldn't be able to obtain support in this environment. Some customers use this approach anyway, because they've experienced few or no problems with the software.
  • The application provider may not support the old application on the new OS. If the application supplier still exists, it may require a version of software designed for and tested with the new OS. As before, some customers will go ahead and use this approach.
  • The application may require a specific device or set of devices not supported by the new OS. An application might be tied to a specific printer or graphics adapter, for example, and the devices don't have device drivers for the new OS. Many application virtualization suppliers can help by changing the application configuration to use other device drivers.
  • The UI will still look like it did under the older OS, which could look strange in the new environment or not work well.
  • Customers will still need to know how the new OS works. Gestures, commands and keystrokes that invoked functions on one version of Windows either may not be supported at all or may invoke unwanted functions under the new version of Windows. Users will need to be trained on the OS even though specific applications may still appear to work.

Because of issues like this, there are times it would be wise to start over with tools and applications designed for the new OS. It may also be smart to consider moving from Windows to a different OS entirely.

Breathing Easier
Recently, I've had conversations with Kenji Obata, CEO of Spoon, about migrating desktop applications, and Greg O'Connor, CEO of AppZero, about server-side applications. Both can point to a large number of customers who have successfully made the transition and are now breathing a sigh of relief. The customers can then take their time working on a reasonable, cost-effective transition strategy rather than feeling like they're under the gun to move quickly.

If your company is facing end-of-life of a favored OS and doesn't know what to do next, it's worth checking out those companies. I suspect the solution is going to be far less painful than you may believe.

About the Author

Daniel Kusnetzky, a reformed software engineer and product manager, founded Kusnetzky Group LLC in 2006. He's literally written the book on virtualization and often comments on cloud computing, mobility and systems software. He has been a business unit manager at a hardware company and head of corporate marketing and strategy at a software company.

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