Enterprises: Brace for a Rocky XP SP2 Road

Analysts said that the expected Service Pack 2 update will provide needed security enhancements that could compel future enterprise migration to XP. But it also could come at the expense of easy service pack deployment.

As Microsoft Corp. prepares to release a beta of the next update to Windows XP, enterprise users need to get ready for what could be one of the most complicated service packs to deploy, analysts said on Tuesday.

Service Pack 2, expected in beta this week, will be packed with new security features—everything from an improved firewall to the blocking of pop-up ads—that might convince XP holdouts to move to the newer operating system but also could impact desktop settings and enterprise policies for current XP users.

"This beta is not just patches and fixes but fundamental changes to the security settings of your systems," said Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC, based in Framingham, Mass.

Enterprises, for instance, need to be clear on how Microsoft default settings for it redone Windows Firewall in the Service Pack 2 beta will affect other firewalls that are installed or how pop-up blocking will affect a companys intranet sites, Gillen said.

While enterprise XP users prepare for a major service pack, a majority of enterprises have yet to migrate to Windows XP. By the end of this year, IDC predicts that Windows XP will account for half the Windows installed base worldwide for both businesses and consumers, Gillen said.

Meanwhile, a separate report from AssetMetrix Research Labs found that 80 percent of the companies surveyed were still using, on some machines, Windows 98 and/or Windows 95. Windows 98 was among the products Microsoft last week said it was retiring.

Gillen said it is too early to tell how the latest service pack will influence migration decisions, but others say that the focus on security could help solidify or even push up some plans to move to XP once the new service pack features are integrated into the OS.

At Canadian Pacific Railway, the IT security team is closely watching the XP security enhancements to see how they will impact the companys plan to move from Windows 2000 to Windows XP in late 2004 or early 2005, said Ed Chillak, manager of development services in the companys business systems group.

"It would be more compelling from a timing perspective," he said of the security enhancements.

Canadian Pacific Railway, based in Calgary, Canada, is planning to migrate because XP is needed in order to use features in other Microsoft products and because the company wants to take advantage of bolstered security in the newer OS, Chillak said.

Microsoft, for its part, has said little about its plans for Windows 2000, while focusing its security improvements on XP, said Joe Wilcox, an analyst at New York-based Jupiter Research, a division of Jupitermedia Corp. While deployment concerns with Service Pack 2 might slow more immediate enterprise migration plans, in the longer term the updates security focus is likely to push enterprises toward XP.

"Why MS is on a slow road to Longhorn?" he asked about the XP successor. "Businesses are taking their time to move to XP…Microsoft really hasnt said much about what it will do with Windows 2000, so the meaning is that if you want the most-secure version of Windows you need to get on XP."