Microsoft Extends Service Periods

Windows 2000, XP, SQL Server 2000 get a few more years of support added on
The life expectancy for Microsoft's products just grew by three years. Citing a trend among businesses of keeping their IT systems and software in place longer, Microsoft said last week it will begin providing technical support for most of its business products for 10 years. Under its previous policy, support expired seven years after a product was introduced.

The change reflects the hard-to-ignore fact that many IT departments, under continuing budget pressure, are stretching the time between PC and server upgrades, skipping entire generations of Microsoft products, or both. "We looked at the customer issues and determined we needed to make some changes," says Peter Houston, Microsoft's senior director of servicing strategy.

The new policy, which goes into effect June 1, means companies can use Microsoft's business products and development tools an extra three years without the security risks of running unpatched software or the costly alternative of a custom support contract. Among the products covered by the extended warranty are Windows 2000, Windows XP, and SQL Server 2000. "Customers are asking Microsoft to support these products until they're satisfied they've gotten the value out of them," IDC analyst Al Gillen says.

The changes don't apply across the board: Microsoft's Business Solutions division has its own, generally shorter, support plan. The new policy doesn't apply to consumer versions. And Microsoft decided against including Windows NT 4.0 under the longer policy. That's significant because NT 4.0's support is due to expire at the end of this year, which has many systems administrators scurrying to upgrade computers that run the 8-year-old operating system; IDC estimates millions of PCs and servers still run Windows NT 4.0

Despite those caveats, some customers welcomed the change. "Having longer life cycles can be very advantageous," says David Chacon, an IT manager with golf-club manufacturer Ping Inc. Chacon says it can be hard to keep pace with Microsoft's constant product upgrades.

For the past two years, Microsoft had been providing mainstream support--consisting of troubleshooting and repairs--for five years, followed by two years of extended help for a fee. Under the new policy, extended support is available for five years. In addition, Microsoft will support product "service packs" for two years.

Bill Conati, director of information systems with Maax Spas Arizona, a distributor of backyard spas, calls Microsoft's decision a "good move." But he realizes that a business can hang on to a Windows system for only so long before some desired new feature forces upgrades in other places. For example, Conati decided to deploy business-portal software that was included with his company's Great Plains applications, sold by Microsoft Business Solutions. But the portal software ran only on Windows Server 2003, so an unanticipated upgrade was required. "They introduce a new technology and you have to buy other products that work with it," Conati says.

Speaking at Microsoft's TechEd conference in San Diego last week, CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged that IT budgets are still constrained. "The pressures on cost, on IT, because of the tight economy over the last several years are absolutely as tight as they've ever been," he said.

Microsoft's answer to that challenge has been that customers need to "do more with less." Now, it seems, they can do that even longer.