Dealing with Windows XP legacy applications

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It might not be as difficult as you think to make Windows XP applications run on Windows 7 or 8 PCs

Barry Collins
20 Jan 2014
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Supporting legacy applications is one of the biggest reasons why businesses are still clinging to Windows XP PCs. Eight out of ten CIOs and IT leaders were worried about large volumes of unsupported Windows XP applications, according to a 2013 survey by solutions provider, Avande.

“In terms of legacy infrastructure, Windows XP in particular hosts a number of business-critical applications at risk today, from those that have operated under the radar of IT, to others seen as too costly to migrate to modern platforms,” said Chris Lowndes, application development director at Avanade UK.

Yet, there are many ways of dealing with legacy applications that refuse to run on modern operating systems, some of which will cost little or nothing to implement – which is certainly cheaper than continuing to support ageing Windows XP machines or relying on expensive extended support once Microsoft drops support for the operating system in April. Here we explore some of the options.

Windows XP Mode

Microsoft has long provided a free means to run legacy applications on modern OSes in the form of Windows XP Mode. Introduced with professional versions of Windows 7, this allows you to run a fully licensed instance of Windows XP as a virtual operating system within Windows 7. It can either be used in desktop mode, where employees open a Window containing the familiar Windows XP desktop, from where they can run programs, access peripherals and save files as if they were sitting in front of a Windows XP machine; or else it can be used invisibly, to open XP applications from the Windows 7 Start menu, as if they were native Windows 7 apps.

Windows XP Mode does have its shortcomings: not all legacy applications work in XP Mode, and support for it also ends this April, so it will be exposed to the same, unpatched security holes as the regular OS. There’s no Windows XP Mode in Windows 8, although a similar set-up can be achieved using Microsoft’s virtualisation technology, Hyper-V.  Note, however, that Hyper-V users will need to make sure they have a valid Windows XP licence in addition to one for Windows 8.

Virtualisation options

There are other forms of virtualisation that can keep legacy applications ticking within your business. Oracle’s VirtualBox is an open-source virtualisation suite that’s free for business use, and allows you to run licensed versions of Windows XP on either Windows 7 or Windows 8 PCs (as well as Macs or Linux-based PCs, if you wish). VirtualBox allows you to take snapshots of your virtual machines, so if malware or some other catastrophic failure were to strike your Windows XP installation, you could simply roll back to a previous, working state.

VMware Workstation is a more powerful, paid-for rival to VirtualBox, offering more configuration options, 3D graphics support, and remote access to virtual machines. Don’t be tempted by the free VMware Player, however: that’s not licensed for commercial use.

Server virtualisation

Another alternative is to suck up all your remaining Windows XP installations onto a server, and have employees access their old installations via Remote Desktop. This can be achieved using the free Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 R2, paired with even relatively modest server hardware (the minimum system requirements are a 1.4GHz 64-bit processor and 512MB of RAM, although higher-spec hardware may be required to deliver a satisfactory user experience).

This has two advantages: all of the Windows XP “machines” are contained with one, easy-to-manage server rather than spread across numerous, ageing PCs; and it removes any emotional attachment employees may have to their old PC. Although, in all likelihood, your staff are likely to be glad of the chance to work on a modern, Windows 7/8 PC, rather than decrepit hardware.

Employees can still click a shortcut on their new desktop that takes them straight to their old installation, anyway. Another free tool from Microsoft, called Disk2VHD, converts a physical installation into a virtual hard drive which can be accessed using remote desktop. You’ll probably only want employees to run specific legacy applications using this method, however, not their entire system.

Beating the browser bottleneck

If the sole reason you can’t upgrade is that your company is reliant on a web app that demands a now defunct version of Internet Explorer, there may be simpler solutions than OS virtualisation. Browsium, for example, can be used to trick legacy web applications into thinking they’re running on Internet Explorer 8 or an older version of Java, without going to the hassle of running the application within a virtual machine.

Once the Browsium Ion add-on is installed on users’ desktops, IT managers can specify which URLs are to be run via Browsium using Group Policy or an XML file. All other websites are accessed using a modern, unmanaged version of Internet Explorer, so there are no unnecessary security risks taken by accessing sites in an unsupported browser.

Browsium support only goes back to Internet Explorer 8 on Windows XP, however, not the Internet Explorer 6 browser that initially shipped with the operating system. The company provides a free 30-day evaluation kit if you want to test whether it will work with your web apps.

Long-term solution?

Note, that all of the measures we’ve listed above are short-to-medium-term fixes that may help accelerate a Windows XP migration plan; they are not long-term solutions. A virtualised installation of Windows XP is still susceptible to the same malware a native installation is; it may be easier to recover a virtual machine, but it’s not a long-term alternative to a native application running on a modern operating system, with all the security and productivity benefits that brings.

It should also go without saying that any of these solutions should be thoroughly tested before deployment. The behaviour of virtual machines differs from native operating system installations, and while there may be performance benefits to be gained – by moving from old XP-era hardware to virtual machines running on the latest server components, for example – it’s equally likely that you may encounter unforeseen performance or compatibility issues.

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