How Windows XP's end-of-life has -- or hasn't -- affected VDI shops

On the run-up, Windows XP end of life was a big deal. Now that the OS is pushing up daisies, many shops still run it, and virtualization lets them do so without security and hardware compatibility problems.

Windows XP end of life hasn't really been a big deal in virtualization environments. Because virtualization offers improved security and hardware compatibility, companies can still run XP if they have to.

It's generally considered bad form to run unsupported tools and products, such as Windows XP, but that wasn't the only reason to find something new when its death was imminent: Windows XP end of life meant decreased security and increased hardware compatibility problems.

But organizations can adequately overcome these issues with virtualization. That means you don't need to migrate off XP if you still need it for business reasons. Virtualization is safer than the OS was in the first place, and in some cases, easier and cheaper than a migration.

Problems with XP

In spite of the fact that it is no longer officially supported, many shops continue to run XP for business reasons. The virtualization stack can effectively insulate Windows XP from some of the security and hardware compatibility issues that you would face in a physical environment.

XP was never known for being super secure. It was always prone to malware infections, and as a result, many companies looked to third parties for antivirus applications. Windows XP end of life means there are no more security patches to come, and third parties will no longer put time and money into products for the OS.

But you can achieve better malware protection than you could get in XP -- even with third-party tools --by moving to a virtual desktop environment. Virtual desktops can give you more control than you have over physical ones, and you can reset them to a pristine state after each user session. This means that even if a user downloads malware onto his virtual desktop, it will automatically be removed at the end of the session.

The other major issue that organizations have to deal with in the face of Windows XP end of life is hardware compatibility. Many PC manufacturers simply won't create Windows XP drivers for next-generation hardware. Even so, virtual desktops generally do a good job of running Windows XP, and the drivers become a nonissue when you run XP in a virtualized environment. As such, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) can effectively future-proof Windows XP by allowing it to run on next-gen hardware.

Administrators also cite cost as a reason for continuing to use Windows XP. Not only are there costs associated with acquiring new operating system licenses, there are hardware costs, too. Because the Windows XP operating system was created at a time when computer hardware was much less powerful than it is today, it has far more modest hardware requirements than newer operating systems. This means that a VDI server can host more Windows XP sessions than Windows 7 or 8 ones.

To migrate or not to migrate

Obviously, if your budget allows, the preferable option is to update to a newer operating system rather than remaining on Windows XP indefinitely. In the world of Windows, this means going to Windows 7 or Windows 8. If you already have VDI in place, however, it is important to make sure that the new desktop operating system will work with your VDI environment and that it will work with your applications set.

One option for making the transition away from Windows XP that was especially popular is a Windows 7 feature called Windows XP Mode. It works by running a fully licensed copy of Windows XP within a virtual machine and then exposing the XP applications through the Windows 7 desktop. Although Microsoft introduced this particular feature as a way of enticing customers to move from Windows XP to Windows 7, it's no longer officially supported. When Microsoft discontinued support for XP, it also stopped supporting XP Mode in Windows 7. And Windows XP Mode does not generally work in virtual environments. It's based around Windows Virtual PC, which requires hardware-assisted virtualization, and most VDI platforms don't support nested virtualization.

Newer operating systems not only have better security and new features, but also consume more hardware resources and come with some up-front costs. Windows XP on the other hand, is a tried and true operating system that seems to work especially well in VDI environments. If you need to keep running XP for business reasons, virtualization might help you do it.

This was first published in July 2014

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