by Liam McNaughton

And so farewell Windows XP. Already dying, the final nail will be hammered into its coffin in April 2014, at which point Windows XP moves out of even Microsoft’s extended support. “So what?” I hear you ask, “I still have machines running XP, can’t I still use it?” Well yes, you can, and no doubt thousands will. But without any patches being made available, XP will be a security nightmare; it will be unsupportable and unsafe to have on your network. It is very doubtful whether continuing to use XP after that point would be compliant with your responsibilities under Data Protection Legislation, and other regulations and guidelines (such as Information Governance).

Statistics on virus infections would suggest that you are already at least six times more likely to have an infection on a Windows XP machine.

And you don’t just have to take my word for it. Statistics on virus infections would suggest that you are already at least 6 times more likely to have an infection on a Windows XP machine now, let alone when support ends next year. See this article. After support ends, you simply won’t know how long you can trust the Operating System - the platform on which your IT runs - as it becomes only a matter of time until Windows XP vulnerabilities are exploited. See this article for a technical explanation for those interested.

“It works fine, why fix it?”

“But I like XP”, “it works fine”, “I don’t like Windows Vista/Windows 7/Windows 8” I hear you cry. All of this may be true, but this does not mean that retaining XP on the network is any more tenable. Actually, although Vista wasn’t very popular with end users or IT people in general, it is a very capable operating system; its unpopularity stemmed in large part from the lack of support from hardware and software vendors, many of which took far too long to support it, if ever.

Windows XP Boot Screen

By way of example, by the time major software suppliers Software of Excellence and Carestream (previously Kodak/Practiceworks) actually got round to officially supporting Windows Vista, Windows 7 was already out… this was shoddy on their part, given that, as software developers, they have access to pre-release versions of each new Windows Operating System well before it goes on general release. Windows 7 on the other hand is well supported, and is (currently, at time of writing) the typical and preferred upgrade choice for a migration from the Windows XP platform. Migrating to Windows 8 at this stage would often be problematic, with patchy third party hardware and software support for it.

What's the Bad News?

Some hardware and software will not work with Windows 7 full stop, and never will. Then there is the problem of 32/64 bit (see I) In the digital imaging arena, the manufacturers’ response to operating system upgrades has been very poor indeed. It is, in my view, shameful not to develop drivers for the latest operating systems, for dental medical hardware that is costly, and designed as a relatively long term investment. Many earlier generations of OPG/OPT machines were sold with dedicated, custom capture cards that were fitted inside the acquisition PC (that’s the PC that attaches to your OPG/OPT machine). I have yet to come across one of these, that has had Windows 7 drivers made available for it. This leaves practices that may have bought the machine new for tens of thousands of pounds, as recently as 5 years ago, unable to operate the machine with anything other than a Windows XP machine. Practices should look at manufacturers’ long term support commitments to a machine, before investing money in them.

Some software will never work, and cannot be reinstalled to a Windows 7 computer, or requires a lot of hacking about to get it working: early versions of Quickbooks or Sage Accounts, Microsoft Quicken, some camera software (from Canon or Kodak), various earlier versions of Digital Imaging software such as Dental Eye, or Schick CDR, the list goes on and on. Before considering an upgrade to Windows 7, an audit should be made of your current software in use, and research carried out, to determine what third party software and hardware will be affected, and which will require replacement or upgrade.

Current Machines

Can they be upgraded to Windows 7, or is it better to just replace the whole machine? This depends very much on the age of the machine, of course – but also its build quality and original specification. Although you can in theory install Windows 7 to a Pentium 4 or Pentium D machine, I wouldn’t countenance it, and would only ever recommend reinstalling Windows 7 onto a machine that had a fast dual core processor, at least. I would also not bother reinstalling Windows 7 onto generic, poor quality hardware – as these tend to have a limited lifespan anyway. Only decent branded machines (HP, Dell, Fujitsu Siemens) should be considered. Finally, some RAM upgrade may be required – Windows 7 runs much better with at least 4GB of RAM – many machines of 2-5 year vintage will typically only come with 2GB, and will require upgrade.

There is some good news for customers who bought machines within the last 3 or 4 years that were sold as “downgraded”, or were downgraded by the IT supplier, as there is a chance that the hardware actually has Windows Vista or Windows 7 OEM license stickers on the case. Where this case, it is simply enough to reinstall the machine with Windows Vista or Windows 7 at no additional licensing cost.

The final consideration we always point out to customers is Microsoft Office; many dental practices are still using the “free” version of Office 2007 made available under the enterprise licensing agreement Microsoft had with the NHS. This ended some years ago, and this software should not be on the machine at all, let alone reinstalled to a new machine or Operating System. So unless you have recent retail licenses for a recent version of Microsoft Office (2007 or newer) that can be reinstalled to Windows 7, you may need to allow for the costs of the latest version of Office (2013) for each desktop machine you reinstall.

For a comprehensive audit and migration plan regarding your network, contact Dental IT.

I - Since Windows Vista there have been mainstream 32 bit and 64 bit versions of Windows, with the latter being more prevalent on new machines, as the 64 bit version of the Operating System is able to handle far more maximum RAM on the machine (32 bit machines are limited to less than 4GB RAM) so has much greater performance potential. Again, manufacturers’ support for the 64 bit versions of the Operating System has often been poor – much Schick hardware, for example, will only work with 32bit versions of Windows 7 – meaning having to reinstall the Operating System on a brand new machine before you deploy it in practice.

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