Death of Windows XP SP2 Support a Security Risk, Says Report

Almost 80 percent of organisations surveyed risk a security breach if the do not upgrade to SP3.

If your business is still running Service Pack 2 of Windows XP, security problems are lurking around the corner, according to new research from IT services vendor Softchoice stating that almost 80 percent of organizations surveyed risk a security breach if the do not upgrade to SP3.

Why should SP2 users fear the reaper? Because Microsoft is ending support for SP2 on July 13, a date that was established when Windows XP SP3 was released on April 21, 2008. Paid support and security updates for SP2 will no longer be available, although Microsoft has stated that Windows XP SP2 users will still be allowed to access Microsoft online Knowledge Base articles, FAQs and troubleshooting tools.

All free technical support, warranty claims and design changes for Windows XP ended in April 2009 when the OS moved from Mainstream Support to the Extended Support phase. Extended Support includes paid support (charged on an hourly basis or per incident), security update support at no additional cost, and paid hotfix support.

Companies who choose not to update their SP2 systems to SP3 could, "create unnecessary security risks as hackers continue to look for vulnerabilities knowing that software updates will no longer be forthcoming from Microsoft," according to a release about the research report.

Windows XP SP2 users can download the SP3 software package from Microsoft's support site if they want to continue receiving security updates. Microsoft will also terminate support for Windows Vista RTM and Windows Server 2000 on July 13.

The Softchoice report is based on an analysis of 278,498 corporate and public sector PCs across 117 organizations from industries such as financial, healthcare, manufacturing and education.

Softchoice's data shows that 46 percent of these PCs are still running Microsoft Windows XP SP2. In addition, it is estimated that 77 percent of these organizations have enough SP2 in their environments to warrant immediate updates.

What happens for companies that don't update? Well, an unsupported service pack means no security updates, hotfixes or assisted support from Microsoft customer service. Essentially, you will no longer receive software updates from Windows Update to protect PCs from viruses, spyware and other malware, or that improve Windows reliability, including new drives for hardware.

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While Windows XP SP2, released in 2004, was a major overhaul and therefore was delayed by many businesses, SP3 is more of an incremental upgrade, says Dean Williams, Services Development Manager for Softchoice.

"Many users rightfully delayed their SP2 deployments, but at this point there really isn't a compelling reason to delay the move to SP3," says Williams.

Windows XP SP3 is offered free of charge by Microsoft, yet the work involved in deploying SP3 will be significant for larger businesses or those that are not using systems management technology, according to the Softchoice report. Windows XP SP3 includes all previously released updates for the OS. There are only a few new features and functionalities in SP3, none of which significantly affect the Windows XP user experience.

It's worth noting that there is no SP3 for the 64-bit version of Windows XP. Customers running the 64-bit version of XP with SP2 have the latest service pack and will continue to be eligible for support and receive updates until April 8, 2014, when Windows XP will be retired completely.

The data used in Softchoice's analysis was collected between January and June of 2010.

Shane O'Neill is a senior writer at CIO.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter at twitter.com/CIOonline.

Read more about operating systems in CIO's Operating Systems Drilldown.

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