Windows XP: The final countdown

Inside the enterprise: By the time you read this, support for Microsoft's Windows XP will have ended.Of course, most people using Windows XP computers won't notice a change. XP-based PCs will not stop working.Rather, Microsoft ending support means the end of updates and, especially, the end of software patches. Microsoft will also no longer answer support queries related to the ageing OS. (Microsoft sets out what end of life means here - albeit in an article aimed at consumers.The main risks around XP's end of life fall into two camps: security, and reliability. Over time, unpatched systems and those that have not had updates will become less reliable, as other parts of the IT systems "stack" move on.

Over time, this could leave users of XP systems facing a growing risk from hackers and cyber criminals.

Compatibility with newer versions of applications is not guaranteed, and nor is the ability to work with browsers, or add-ons such as Java and Flash. And Microsoft will no longer fix any flaws in XP code.This is inconvenient, but it is more serious still when it comes to IT security. Windows XP will no longer receive security updates under Microsoft's "Patch Tuesday" system.Over time, this could leave users of XP systems facing a growing risk from hackers and cyber criminals. There is speculation in the IT security industry that hacking groups have been storing up Windows XP vulnerabilities for use now Windows XP has come out of support.Watchful eye At the very least, companies using Windows XP should be more vigilant about their IT security, and watch older systems with care. The UK's data protection authority, the ICO, has warned that companies running XP could be more vulnerable to data breaches, and should act promptly to ensure sensitive data is secure.At the very least, IT managers should make sure that third-party anti-virus and firewall applications are installed and up to date on XP machines: third party AV software will still run. Sophos, for example, has said it will continue to provide updates for XP versions of its security software until September 2015.But this is no long, or even medium, -term solution. For some use cases, such as desktop or laptop PCs, businesses do now need to move to replace XP-based computers.If they have more complex systems, such as custom applications that run in Internet Explorer 6 a common reason for sticking with XP then it might be appropriate to look at a solution, such as running IE6 (or XP) in a virtualised environment, while working out how to update the relevant code.For "embedded" systems, and dedicated hardware or other controllers running XP, the situation is more complex still. The UK government recently negotiated a support extension for Windows XP with Microsoft, at a cost of over 5m. That is unlikely to be an option for most companies.The first port of call should be the software or specialist hardware vendors, to see if their technology can be moved to another platform Windows 7, or Linux perhaps and if not, whether there are any contingency plans for support.But businesses of all types should quickly audit where they are running XP, and move to replace it. This really is the end of the road.Stephen Pritchard is a contributing editor at IT Pro.