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NT 4 laggards get reprieve on support

Support for the server version of Windows NT 4 is set to run out this year--but customers can still get help if they pay for it.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read
Companies using the aging Windows NT 4 Server are getting some breathing room on support from Microsoft.

The software maker plans to offer custom support for the 8-year-old operating system to large-business users after its standard assistance runs out at the end of this year. On Tuesday, Microsoft said a surge of interest has led it to lower the rates it will charge for the custom service.

"We have a cost of doing it," said Peter Houston, Microsoft's senior director of Windows servicing strategy. "We are looking to share that cost across the customers that are interested."

The rate shift should help those businesses that have not upgraded from NT 4 Server to the more recent Windows Server 2003. Microsoft has come under fire for not offering long-enough support for products that are still widely used. However, it has made several moves in recent years to extend its assistance services.

Houston said that fewer than 100 businesses have signed up, but even that number was more than Microsoft had expected. As a result, Houston said, "we were able to come down on the cost for any given customer."

However, the rates are likely to be pricey enough to discourage all but the biggest companies with substantial numbers of NT 4 servers.

The software maker had heard from customers that the price it had initially planned to charge for the service was too high, Houston said. One group that expressed concern was BITS, a consortium of large financial service companies, many of which have large NT 4 Server installations.

On Monday, BITS and Microsoft put out a joint press release praising the company's NT 4 Server support. That move led some observers to assume that Microsoft was once again extending standard support for the OS for all customers.

However, Houston stressed that Microsoft is not changing the support period for NT 4 Server, nor is it offering any special pricing to BITS.

Under the custom service, the software maker will consult with individual companies on fixes and problems, rather than have a program set up to deal with them. Microsoft did not disclose pricing for the custom service, but said it would charge a fixed fee for the length of the contract, which could extend as far as December 2006.

But the company is taking pains to ensure that customers don't see custom support as a way to keep using NT 4 Server indefinitely. Clients that sign up for the service are required first to work with Microsoft to develop a migration plan, Houston said.

"We're targeting this custom support for NT 4 to give customers the time they need to migrate off of NT 4 to our newer operating systems," Houston said. "I think we've been very up front with customers in our belief that NT 4 has reached that architectural point of obsolescence."

Even signing up for custom service is no guarantee that Microsoft will update NT 4 Server to meet a business' needs. For some new vulnerabilities and bugs, for example, there is no way to patch the OS. Instead, Microsoft's programmers try to help customers find workarounds.

Microsoft is hoping to make custom support unnecessary with its revised product life cycle plan. That program, announced in May, offers mainstream support for five years and extended support for five more years after that--an increase over the previous guarantee of two years of extended support.

Some older operating systems are included in the new program, but not NT 4. Extended support for NT 4 Server runs through the end of the year.