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What to do if you're still running Windows 7

Businesses still using Windows 7 are at great risk, and should form an update plan

For those still using Windows 7, the deadline to upgrade from it has passed - it's now an unsupported operating system (OS). So unless you want to leave your laptop or PC open to bugs, faults, and cyber attacks, you best upgrade it sharpish. 

If you're reading this and haven't moved on to Windows 10 or Windows 11, it just goes to show the popularity of Windows 7. It was one of the most-loved PC operating systems, still raking in 36% of active users a decade after its initial release. That's not far behind the 43.6% running Windows 10. 

Sadly, no amount of popularity will protect your computer, so here’s what to do if you’re still running Windows 7.

Why does this mean an upgrade is needed?

This is an easy question to answer: it’s because Microsoft has said so. Support for Windows 7 ceased on 14 January 2020, a little over 10 years after its original release. This doesn’t mean your Windows 7 computer will cease functioning, but it does mean that it will no longer receive Microsoft patches for flaws, no more security updates, and zero technical support should something go wrong.

You may be thinking that you could take the risk, and get away without upgrading your system - why bother with the hassle if your computer still works just fine? An unsupported OS is a buffet for hackers, who could use it to exploit flaws that were never patched to install all kinds of malware on your device, such as ransomware or spyware, or simply to destroy the data on your system. This is far too high a risk for any business to take with its devices.

In fact, it is more than likely that at the time of Windows 7’s retirement, threat actors were aware of exploits that had not yet been discovered, and which they are now able to use against any unfortunate souls still using the OS, free from fear of reprisal by Microsoft.

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When Microsoft ended support for Windows 7, more resistant users — or those in offices who were engaged in a drawn-out OS update process — were presented with a few ways to use Windows 7 for a little longer.

Those looking to run Windows 7 in a virtual machine could do so on the Azure Virtual Desktop service, which comes at no extra cost if a business is already a customer of Azure. Custom virtual machines can also be used, if you’d like to virtualise Windows 7 yourself

Alternatively, users were given the option to sign up to the Extended Security Update (ESU) program, through which critical and important security updates continue to be provided to Windows 7, with the cost agreed between a client and their relevant Microsoft account team and partners.

It should be stressed that such options should only be viewed as a method to ease the transition, rather than a way to stave off migration altogether. Microsoft itself describes the ESU as a “last resort” option, and even the extended support provided through the program will cease in January 2023.

These options are only intended as a way to soften the switch to a newer OS, and should not be seen as a means to avoid moving away from Windows 7 .

Changing of the guard

To some, the end of support for Windows 7 might have been slow to arrive, but to IT decision-makers, the deadline of January 2020 was 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, told IT Pro that it was never too early to start work on migrating over to Windows 10 from Windows 7. 

"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," Titcombe said last year.

He argued 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 added.

And the larger your organisation is, the more likely it is that you'll have needed to start migration work immediately; even more so if you haven't started work on migration. 

"Established businesses and institutions have been here before, so hopefully lessons have been learned," said 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

Windows 7 proved quite popular, despite the approach of its end date, meaning a significant number of desktops were to become potentially vulnerable unless changes were made, and Titcombe explained that cyber criminals would be posed to strike as soon as the end-of-life deadline came into effect.

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 said 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," explained 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 and Windows 11 is the greater range of features both operating systems provide, and newer software and hardware are almost always designed with the latest operating systems 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," said 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 meant it was 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 the deadline now gone, it's imperative for businesses that haven't moved from Windows 7 to make a fundamental shift.

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

"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," explained 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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