Dont Miss Last Call to Ditch NT 4

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-12-02 Print this article Print

Updated: With Microsoft pulling the support plug on Windows NT 4 on Jan. 1, it's time to stop waiting and start migrating.

Sometimes its really sad to see a product die. And then theres Windows NT 4. Yes, it seemed like a good product when it came out, and maybe it was. But Windows 2000 was a much, much better one, and its been out for about five years now. Customers have had enough time to extricate themselves from reliance on Windows NT 4, and on Jan. 1, 2005, when the ball drops, Microsoft drops all support for Windows NT 4.

Dont believe me? Its very old news, but read the Microsoft policy: "January 1, 2005—Beginning on this date, Pay-per-incident and Premier support will no longer be available. This includes security hotfixes."
Then it says: "January 1, 2005 (or later) —Online support will no longer be available." You wont even have Knowledge Base articles anymore! (On December 3, 2004 Microsoft changed the date for the end of online support to January 1, 2007.)

The funny thing is, I fully expect plenty of people to express shock that such a thing has been happening. The announcements in the Microsoft document above were made in November 2001. And Windows NT 4.0 was released in 1996; a life span of nearly nine years is very long for a software product. You should feel lucky you got support from them for this long. Who else continues to provide patches for their products after so long? Very few companies.

But surely its not really an issue anymore, right? After so many years what can they find that hadnt been found before? In fact, this is the most common rhetorical excuse for not moving on from NT 4.0—if its not broken, why fix it?

Really bad idea, and news still on the front pages makes it clear why. Many, perhaps most, of the NT 4.0 networks out there rely on WINS (Windows Internet Naming Service), in which an enormous security hole has just been found.

Click here to read a story about Apple chasing Windows NT 4 customers. If a hole this serious can be found after all these years, whos to say there arent other bugs of similar severity. In fact, Id assume there are such bugs. My guess is that Microsoft will not patch this WINS bug in NT 4.0. There is just one regularly scheduled patch day left in 2004, on Dec. 14, and there probably isnt enough time, given the testing Microsoft usually puts into such patches, to fix it in time for that. And since the flaw is at the protocol level, it may be a more complicated problem to fix than a simple unchecked buffer.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, check out Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog. So to fix it, Microsoft will likely have to break their policy stated above and issue a security fix in 2005. This sounds like a bad-enough precedent that I dont expect them to do it. It is arguably, from their point of view, just another good reason for NT 4 users to upgrade, and theyd be right to say so.

Living with Windows NT 4 is like driving a car without seat belts. Its not safe, even if the car continues to run well. Dont wait for a disaster to find out the hard way.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Editors Note: This story was updated to include reference to Microsofts change of the date for end of online support.

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Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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