Microsoft is ending support for Windows Server 2003 on July 14, 2015—colleges and universities should start planning now if they need to upgrade, experts say


An estimated 39 percent of all installed Microsoft Server operating systems worldwide are the 2003 edition.

Microsoft’s decision to end support for its Windows Server 2003 edition next July means the clock is ticking for colleges and universities that continue to use this older server platform, industry experts say.

If institutions don’t upgrade their server infrastructure by July 14, 2015, they risk exposing their networks to critical security risks.

That’s the date Microsoft says it will end all support for Windows Server 2003, meaning the company no longer will issue security updates or non-security “hotfixes” for the software. Free or paid support options and online technical content updates will not be available after that date, either, Microsoft says.

Microsoft’s announcement also means third parties will be unable to support Windows Server 2003 security updates as of the July 14 cutoff date—and “any third-party claims otherwise are inaccurate,” said a Microsoft spokesperson.

Microsoft was unable to say how many higher-education customers are still using Windows Server 2003—but figures cited by Microsoft Research in July suggest an estimated 39 percent of all installed Microsoft Server operating systems worldwide are the 2003 edition.

Colleges and universities currently running Windows Server 2003 will need to identify which of their applications will be affected and “move forward with migration planning,” Microsoft said.

The IT consulting firm Insight Enterprises suggests that campus IT leaders shouldn’t delay, because the transition from Windows Server 2003 is “more time consuming and complex than the end of support for Windows XP,” which affected many customers who were unprepared.

(Next page: What’s involved in upgrading—and advice for campus IT leaders)

A key challenge involved in upgrading from Windows Server 2003 to the newest version, Server 2012, is that the 2012 edition is built on 64-bit architecture, said David Mayer, director of Microsoft solutions for Insight Enterprise. That means older, 32-bit software won’t run on the new server platform.

Mayer recommends that campus IT leaders check with their software vendors to make sure they have versions that will run on Windows Server 2012. If not, installing Windows Server 2008 edition might be a “fallback option,” he said, because Server 2008 will run some 32-bit applications.

The first step in transitioning from Windows Server 2003 is to undertake a thorough audit of your IT systems to understand which servers and applications are currently running on the platform, Mayer said. Then, you’ll need to create a migration plan that aims to eliminate downtime.

Insight can help colleges and universities with this process for a fee, and Microsoft also offers resources that can help. “We have seen customers trying to make the move themselves, but this can lead to unintended consequences,” Mayer said.

Paige Francis, chief information officer for Fairfield University in Connecticut, said it’s important for colleges and universities to support their IT teams in being proactive, as opposed to reactive, with technology upgrades.

“I’ve found the longer you put the inevitable off, the more difficult the task becomes,” she said.

Fairfield University has been migrating from Windows 2003 to newer platforms for the past two years, said Bryan Skowera, director of network infrastructure. The university’s Information Technology Services department has replaced or retired most of its Windows 2003 servers already and plans to remove the remaining Windows 2003 servers from production “in the next few months.”

If your campus IT department is stretched thin and you notice delays in migrating to newer systems in a timely manner, “talk to your technical team and ask if they need outside assistance in getting the ball rolling,” Francis advises. “I think we’ve all seen valuable staff leave over less than a confusing, last-minute, reactive and mandatory migration.”