Microsoft has a monopoly share of desktop operating system sales and can pretty much call the shots when it comes to support. By contrast, software publishers with smaller market shares tend to take a more benign view of customers that want to keep their older products running unchanged.
Sun Microsystems, for example, has an official policy that offers support, paid and otherwise, for its Solaris operating system for at least five years after a particular version stops being sold. Microsoft's five-year mainstream period begins the first day its products ship.
|(click image for larger view)|
Sun's product-support lifecycles run for at least five years after an operating system ceased shipping, not when it started shipping.
According to Chris Ratcliffe, Sun's director of Solaris marketing, the Santa Clara, Calif., company is actually still supporting users of version 2.6. That product is more than 10 years old and hasn't been commercially available since 2002. But Sun's "vintage support" period means the operating system is fully supported through 2007, Ratcliffe says.
Even after 2007 ends, it isn't curtains for the older technology. "After the end of vintage support," Ratcliffe explains, "we're prepared to go into negotiations with customers on an individual basis." For instance, Solaris version 2.5.1, which first shipped in 1995, is continuing to be supported by Sun on a case-by-case basis, he says.
Why do companies want to keep using such old software? One big reason is that newer software, besides the labor cost of testing and installing the changed code, often demands more expensive hardware, as well. It's cheaper in many cases to let the old stuff keep running.
Other companies simply don't feel any need to tamper with important systems that are working as desired. "People who are shipping hundreds of thousands of packages a day tend to build scanning solutions," Ratcliffe says, by way of example. "You build 'em and you leave 'em." Financial firms also tend to rely on the same software year after year.
Many users of Windows servers, Ratcliffe says, are switching to Sun and other providers to get more predictability and stability. One typical customer recently replaced all of its Windows-based file and print servers with machines running Solaris 10, he says.
Microsoft's lifecycle support policies are well defined. If you can live with the Redmond company's five-year horizon, when much of the support for its products ends, you can persevere. If not, other vendors can offer you a much longer window.