Why Windows Server 2003 Will Be Around A While Longer

Hello, Everyone.

It’s been just over a year since my last post on my blog.  Things got really interesting last year both on the professional and personal fronts.  As time moves on, I’ll discuss many of those things here.  To start off 2015 with blog posts, I thought I would cover something I’m seeing a lot of that we saw last year:  The end of support for a major Microsoft product.  Last year it was Windows XP.  This year, it’s Windows Server 2003.

There have been lots of articles on the web recently about the end-of-life of Windows Server 2003.  Like its little brother, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 is to have support completely and permanently removed by Microsoft unless you are willing to pay Microsoft some additional money to extend support.  For more information on the Windows Server 2003 lifecycle, as well as the lifecycle of other MS products, visit the Microsoft Product Support Lifecycle page.  The problem I have with most of these articles is they generally fall into two categories:

  • People just don’t want to move; therefore, are being irresponsible.
  • It’s the economy, stupid!

But there is a third reason that I have seen and this third reason is more prevalent that any of the previous two mentioned above, in my opinion, as to why so many are delaying their migration off of Windows Server 2003:  Because there are still lots of applications out there that still will not run on more modern versions of Windows.  Especially applications written in VB6.

Windows Server 2003 is the last server operating system that will comfortably run VB6 applications without much fuss.  Once you hit Windows Server 2008 it’s pretty much game over for those applications.  While Microsoft does offer limited support for VB6 all the way through Windows 8.1, the problem with every VB6 app I have seen is that they break so many development rules that getting them to run on any version of Windows past Windows Server 2003 is practically impossible.  More modern versions of Windows have higher security standards and so forth that just won’t allow an errant application to do whatever it wants.  I realize that Microsoft has tools available to help with these things, but the point stands that getting many older applications to run on newer versions of Windows is painful, expensive, and the application may yet run less stable than before.

Some of you may wonder aloud why a company would still be on an application written in VB6 or, at the very least, old enough to not run on later versions of Windows.  Because moving line-of-business applications is HARD.  I’ve done this before, am in the process of doing it now, and I can tell you it is HARD.  Please consider the following:

  • Many line-of-business applications today are much more expensive than they were years ago.  A great example is the healthcare arena.  Practice Management and Electronic Medical Record systems that cost ~$5,000 10 years ago are well over ~$20,000 today.  That’s a big jump and most certainly hard to swallow.  One can’t help but wonder how many other applications cost more today than they did yester-year.
    • Along this line goes lack of expertise.  Just because you are on version 1.x of a software and need to go to 12.x doesn’t mean it’s easy.  You may need to phase your upgrades across virtual machines and so forth.  For example, what if the line-of-business software requires a different version of a database when going from Server 2003 to Server 2012 and you have to convert data?  What if the line-of-business application changed databases entirely (e.g. going from Advantage database to SQL Express)?  Who is going to handle all that?  Consultants with that kind of skill can cost a lot of money.  Congratulations, you just doubled the cost of your upgrade.
  • Moving to a new version of a line-of-business application may involve massive re-training.  With new features and changes to the user interface, staff may have to learn their way around all over again.  A good example is the big change from Office 2003 to Office 2007 with the advent of the Ribbon.  Personally, I love the Ribbon in MS Office, but nonetheless it required lots of retraining.
  • Your line-of-business application vendor may not exist anymore.  A lot of companies have gone bankrupt thanks to the housing crash of 2008.  Your company may have to switch line-0f-business application vendors entirely and that is a whole new ball of wax.

I could go on but you should see my point by now.  Even companies with very strategic plans on handling IT and software deployments are finding themselves in a crunch with Windows Server 2003.  Microsoft may find itself selling some extended contracts for many.

It may be time to be a bit more forgiving towards those that are still on Windows Server 2003 for a bit longer.  And, if you are a consultant familiar with older technologies and their newer counterparts, it may be time to start a new advertising campaign.


The Dangers of Giving Vendors too much Power

Back in the 90’s I worked for Sonoco. The capital project I was on was to install a new maintenance management software in an entire division of the company in order to, mostly, bring down the cost of spare parts inventory. During this project, many ideas for costs savings came up. One of them was that vendor reps should maintain parts usage history and stock the parts we bought for them in the parts room for us. I voice my concerns but since I was just a kid in my 20’s at the time with no college degree, I was promptly ignored and told to shut up.

This turned out to be a monumentally horrible idea as I predicted. Here’s why:

  • Let’s assume your vendor is a good guy. He’s only out for the benefit of you, the client and he wants to keep you as a client. Well, obviously, the last thing he wants is for you to run out of parts otherwise your machines will go down and you’ll yell at him. So the vendor may decide that, just to be on the safe side, he may need to stock a few extra bearings here and a few extra sprockets there because “you never know when they might have a spike in parts usage and we need to be careful and plan for those things.”
  • Let’s assume your vendor is a bad guy. He’s about $600 behind on his sales quota for the month and right now he’s not necessarily out to benefit you. So the vendor may decide that, since he’s the one stocking your parts room and you’ll most likely never notice, he may need to stock a few extra bearings here and a few extra sprockets there.

This is the danger of giving vendors too much power over your stuff. It doesn’t matter whether the vendor is a good guy or a bad guy, you’re screwed either way.


My Thoughts on BYOD

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is one of those new trends I have seen come up in the IT world over the past 2 years.  Basically, the idea is that instead of the company you work for buying you the equipment you need, you just bring your own or you and the company go in half-and-half or something.  Companies like BYOD because it saves them money in equipment.  Why buy an employee an iPad when that employee can just bring their own? 

Like everything else, however, there are some caveats that need to be taken into consideration.  Let’s look at some examples:

  • The employee is using their own laptop for work.  However, their work requires some specialty software so the employer installs this software on the employee’s laptop thereby consuming a user license for that software.  The employee is terminated and now that software must be removed from the laptop.  Because the laptop is the personal property of the employee and that employee has all her tax information and so forth on there, the employee refuses access to the laptop for removal of the software by the company’s IT support.  How does the company reclaim the license?
  • An employee has been using his iPad at the office for months now.  He turns in his two week notice and the current employer finds out the employee is leaving to go work for a competitor.  How can the company search the personal iPad of the employee to determine if he is carrying any proprietary information out the door with him?
  • An employee is using his Lumina 920 Windows Phone to field sales calls.  The employee leaves your company for a competitor that offers more money.  And you now realize that all of your clients have only that employee’s cell phone number as the primary contact for your company.  Since the phone does not belong to the company, there is no way to seize the phone number.
  • An employee has been using his laptop for work for four years now.  You know that employee has lots of company data on that laptop.  One day, the employee comes to work with a brand-new Dell Latitude laptop.  What happened to the old one with all that data on it?  Was the hard drive properly wiped using a D. O. D. compliant shredding software?  Did he just give it to this kids without cleaning off all that proprietary data?

In all the above cases, the company is at a loss.  It is difficult to just search an employee’s personal property without some type of privacy violation which could lead to bigger problems.  Furthermore, an employee who uses their own laptop/computer/smartphone/other device may not consider security at all since the employee views the device as their personal property and not as a vessel of corporate property.  How are security updates getting done, if at all?  What if the employee is allowing friends or other family to use the device to play games or for their own use?

BYOD can be a real money saver in regards to having to purchase equipment.  However, as always the long term costs must also be considered.  Devices that are not under the control of the company yet contain company information can pose true security issues and place the company in a bad situation regarding privacy.  In my opinion, BYOD is a bad idea for most organizations – especially those that are governed by some type of federal regulation such as HIPAA.

Before your company proceeds forward with a BYOD policy, you may wish to consult a lawyer.


How Windows Handles Applying Service Packs and Patches

My programming god, Raymond Chen, has written an article on TechNet Magazine about how everything is kept straight and organized when you apply security patches and service packs to Windows 7.  It’s a great read.  He doesn’t cover all the details, but he does cover some interesting bits.  Check out the article here:



R. I. P. ISA/TMG Server and SBS Server

As I’m certain many of you know, Microsoft has announced the discontinuation of Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server, which was later renamed to Threat Management Gateway (TMG) Server, and Small Business Server.  You can find those announcements here and here respectively.

I must admit I’m of mixed feelings about all this.  I had a fond love of both products.  In fact, I thought Small Business Server 2003 was one of the best products MS ever made.  You had so much cool stuff in one box. 

  • Windows Server 2003
  • Exchange Server 2003
  • SQL Server 2005
  • ISA Server 2004

While that all seemed like such a great idea all those years ago, having all that stuff on one box – especially a 32-bit box – turned out to be a bad idea.  It didn’t take much to fill up those four gigs of RAM with Exchange and SQL Server assuming you used both of them significantly.  Microsoft eventually broke SBS up into two servers with SBS 2008 and SBS 2011, however.  Another issue is that, while I knew what I was doing with SBS, a lot of other “IT Pros” did not.  It wasn’t uncommon at all for me to find an SBS box that was completely hosed and barely functioning – with the client constantly wondering why things sucked so much all the time.  The biggest issue was that most IT people attempted to manually configure all the features rather than using the wizards.  Even Susan Bradley, the SBS Diva, had something to say about that after someone posted a rogue article about configuring SBS – using the completely wrong approach.

This brings me to ISA/TMG.  Again, a great product.  The biggest problem with ISA/TMG was expense.  Today you can get Juniper’s SRX100 fully loaded for less than $1000 with great performance for the majority of small businesses.  The cheapest ISA/TMG computer I ever saw was just over $3000.  No one is going to pay that for a firewall.  Not to mention the fact that I don’t think as many people plugged into ISA/TMG via addon’s as MS had hoped. 

Lastly, of course, as to why these products are going the way of the dinosaur, is The Cloud.  Everyone who knows me knows that I am NOT a big fan of the cloud.  To me its just another round of outsourcing.  Another round of CEO’s and CIO’s stupidly expecting top notch Cadillac quality performance and service out of some people who do not work for them.  We tried it in the 90’s when we fired our IT staff and asked another company to send in theirs to run the show and we tried it again in 2003 when we sent everything to outsource companies in India.  Neither case has worked thus far – at least not to expectation.

Of course, the only thing we know for certain is that the only constant is change.  It’s time to grab some new skills and move forward.  The glory days of having 2 – 3 dozen or so small business clients using SBS 2003 and making a decent living off of them by providing customized service at a great price are long over.  Today we have the “one size fits all” Cloud.  Today, we move our stuff to big servers hosted by faceless people that have no idea who we are or what we need.  Today, we move back to the mainframe. 

Welcome to the future.


Visual Basic 6.0: The COBOL of Our Time

I remember back in the 90’s when those in the technology industry were decrying COBOL and how much of our infrastructure ran on that aging platform.  This, of course, was exacerbated by the Y2K bug as the rollover to the year 2000 really put a face on just how old COBOL really was/is (2000 put that face on many other things as well).

Enter Visual Basic 6.0 – also known as VB6.  VB6 was released by Microsoft in 1998 as part of Visual Studio 6.0.  VB6 had several shortcomings.  Among them:

  • Not a fully featured object-oriented programming language.  VB6 did not fully implement inheritance, for example.
  • Not a stable programming environment.  VB6 would sometimes crash costing the programmer hours of work if it was not already saved.
  • VB6 allowed many dangerous programming habits.  For example, the way it treated NULLS and its implicit type casting.

Despite all these failings, VB6 was used by tens of thousands of programmers for projects ranging from small calculator programs to software that, even today, runs major businesses – including banking.  Because of its simplicity and the way it hid so many of the more difficult aspects of programming, VB6 allowed people who never would have given programming a second thought the chance to create major software.  In VB6, you were never expected to handle pointers, do recursion, or do your own garbage collection.  VB6 hid all those things from you.  With such ease-of-use that allowed even mediocre programmers to develop complex programs with user friendly graphical user interfaces, it is no wonder that there are probably millions of lines of code written in VB6 running today.  It was cheap and easy to get otherwise hard stuff done. 

But, like all other things in the computer world, life moves on – very quickly.  VB6 was replaced by Visual Basic .Net in 2002.  Today, Visual Basic 2012 is about to be released in a couple more months.  Looking at Visual Basic 6.0 side-by-side with Visual Basic .Net is like looking at night and day.  Visual Basic .Net is a fully object oriented programming language with all the modern bells and whistles that come with that title.  Indeed, VB .Net is right on par with other languages such as C++, Java, and C#.

However, what about all those programs written in VB6?  Many of them – too many – are still here.  Major corporations such as Corning, Guildford Mills, General Motors, etc. still have entire sections of infrastructure based on VB6.  Those sections of infrastructure have been in use for years and years.  It’s very difficult to incur expense in the form of not only new programming talent, but also in the form of downtime to replace these sections of infrastructure that have been running for years and years.  Not only that, but in many cases the original programmers aren’t around anymore.  They’ve either quit, retired, or gotten laid off and refused to come back when the company realized the mistake of letting them go.  So now we have entire sections of infrastructure to maintain, and try to replace, yet those with the experience on how it all runs are no where to be found. 

The same thing happened with COBOL.  And, yes, COBOL is still in use today.  VB6 is truly the COBOL of our time because it was good at what it did.  It allowed people, even those that weren’t good programmers, to come up with simple solutions to hard problems without breaking the piggy bank.  Something tells me that in the year 2020, VB6 will still be here.


Paul Thurrott and Raymond Chen

Paul Thurrott is one of my favorite authors and I do follow his blog religiously.  Paul has written books such as Windows 7 Secrets which can be found on Amazon.com here.  He is also currently working on Windows 8 Secrets, his book about the new Windows operating system due later in 2012.  Be sure to check out his site – I have the link on the right.

Raymond Chen is my programming god and I also follow his blog religiously.  He is a developer at Microsoft on the Windows Shell team which is Windows Explorer, the Start Menu, and desktop.  He also has a book at Amazon.com, The Old New Thing, which is a must-read for all Windows developers.  Do check out his blog, The Old New Thing.  Again, link on the right.

A few years ago, I was not able to go to one of the big Microsoft events of the year after spending a lot of time planning to go.  However, Paul and Raymond were going.  So, I got brave and emailed both of them, explaining my plight, and I requested a picture of the two of them together.  I honestly did not expect a response so imagine my surprise when they both responded and made plans to meet each other!  They even kept copying me on the email exchange – including sharing phone numbers!  I barely expected them to respond, but to actually charge me with that kind of trust was shocking to say the least. 

I found the picture digging through my files so I thought I would share.  Raymond Chen (left) and Paul Thurrott (right).