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Windows XP: End of Support – End of an Era?

24

Sep

The Digital Ship magazine recently spoke to our technical director about Windows XP becoming end of life and how it might effect shipboard IT systems. Below is the full article which was published in Octobers edition.

Microsoft support for Windows XP is coming to an end, with the operating system having played its part in more than a decade of corporate IT infrastructure development. In the maritime industry XP has been an extremely popular platform, particularly on board ship – so what should users do know, asks Gary McDonald, IT@Sea

As many involved in IT will no doubt be aware, support for the popular Microsoft Windows XP operating system ends on 8 April, 2014 (support for Microsoft Office 2003 ends at the same time).

What might this mean for shipping companies and how might ships’ IT systems be affected?
Windows XP and, to a slightly lesser extent, Microsoft Office 2003 are still prevalent on ships today. As recently as last month I was requested to downgrade a new computer destined for a ship from Windows 7 to Windows XP, for several reasons – XP was explicitly trusted, the software being installed to run on the system was originally designed or XP and, above all, it was the specific Windows user interface that the ship’s users were familiar with.

The version of Microsoft Office selected was 2007 for two reasons: it was the corporate standard for the shipping company as a whole and also the minimum version required for the Microsoft InfoPath-based eNOA/D solution in use on the ship.

The Windows ‘eXPerience’

Windows XP, codenamed ‘Whistler’ prior to release, was originally launched in August 2001 and despite some initial criticism (mainly regarding security) it soon became clear that the operating system was going to be popular.  One fundamental reason was that XP was built using the foundation of Windows NT – a platform previously only used for server versions of Microsoft operating system.  Microsoft released the first major service pack (SP1) for XP in 2002 and the second (SP2) in 2004. It was the second service pack that many believe contributed most to the continued popularity of XP because it contained what were widely acknowledged as significant improvements.

Service pack 3 for XP was released by Microsoft in 2008. It is now highly likely that SP3 will be the last service pack for XP – i.e. it is not believed that Microsoft will ‘wrap up’ all individual updates issued since SP3 to create SP4 before support for the product ceases.  It’s not difficult to understand why such ‘legacy’ perating systems and application suites are still deliberately selected by shipping companies – especially Windows XP, which was Microsoft’s latest client-oriented operating system for longer than any of its predecessors. It was not superseded until 2007 when Microsoft launched the Vista operating system.  Unlike XP, Vista was not widely accepted in the maritime industry and this is likely one of the reasons why XP has continued to be prevalent in our industry to this day – some 12+ years after its initial release.  For shipping companies that now accept and deploy Windows 7 it seems that, for them, Vista simply never existed (which is probably subject matter for an entirely separate article!).

So the question is – will the industry be forced to replace XP, for example with Windows 7 or Windows 8? As much as it makes sense to ‘stay current’ I envisage seeing computers on ships running XP long after the support from Microsoft ceases. For shipping companies that do not have a specific policy to upgrade the standard environment on their ships (in terms of keeping them current) I’m sure XP will only fade away as ageing hardware is replaced and the replacement system vendors do not provide the option to downgrade to XP.  The vast majority of vendors ceased providing the Windows XP downgrade option with the advent of Windows 7 in 2009.

Outlook Express

A related subject sometimes overlooked when considering migration from Windows XP is Microsoft Outlook Express.  This is also still used on many ships as the standard e-mail client so the fact that it only exists (by default) as an optional component of Windows XP needs to be considered.
When Microsoft launched the Vista operating systems Outlook Express was superseded by Windows Mail – based on Outlook Express, it was the optional builtin e-mail client of Windows Vista.  When Microsoft subsequently launched Windows 7 many were surprised to discover that it had no such optional / integrated e-mail client.
Some months separated the launch of Windows 7 and the launch of Windows Live Mail, which effectively superseded Windows Mail. However, Windows Live Mail differed from its predecessors in that it was not shipped with the operating system (by then already launched) – i.e. it had (and still has) to be installed separately.
As it seems unlikely that Microsoft will ‘wrap up’ XP with a fourth service pack there is potentially another problem.

If you have recently installed Windows XP SP3 and then invoked ‘Windows Update’ you probably know how this story ends. During my last such build (mentioned above) the system downloaded and installed 153 updates (these being mainly security fixes individually issued by Microsoft since 2008 / SP3) over a period of approximately 90 minutes.  Several of these updates were required before approximately 40 more could be detected, downloaded and installed.
Ironically, one of the updates caused the Microsoft ‘Windows Update’ software to cease functioning. After spending far too much time determining which particular update caused the problem it was removed and I was finally able to reach the point where no more updates were required.

I will not be surprised to see unofficial (non-Microsoft) fourth service packs for Windows XP in 2014 – and therein lays another problem. Who knows what these might contain and what they might do to a previously well-functioning operating system?
Destroying an operating system in an office or home computer is one thing – destroying an operating system on a ship is something else entirely, especially in the absence of a ‘real’ broadband connection.  For Windows XP it seems that the nails might already be going into the coffin.

Migration

When Windows 7 was released most maritime software manufacturers faced only minor problems adjusting their software, originally designed for Windows 2000 and Windows XP, to run correctly with Windows 7.
For example, some only had to consider the impact of the new ‘User Access Control’ which was initially renowned for displaying what appeared to be ‘stern warnings’ to users about what software applications were doing and asking those users if the activity should be permitted.

A user electing to ‘take the safe option’ and prevent the activity (which might be nothing more than the software creating a file to store user preferences for the first time) suddenly found that their choice caused the said application to crash.
Most system builders preparing Windows 7 systems now routinely disable ‘User Access Control’ in much the same habitual way as they would disable the ‘Windows Firewall’ when preparing a Windows XP system.

Windows 7 not only provides ‘Compatibility Mode’ options (such that applications can be specifically run via a built-in real time XP emulator), it also ships with a free licence for ‘Virtual Windows XP’. If an application designed specifically for XP refuses to work correctly via real time XP emulation then there is a very good chance that it will work correctly inside the included ‘Virtual XP’ environment.

For shipping companies considering replacement of systems on ships previously running Windows XP, Windows 7 would seem to be a safe bet, although it is worth considering that the operating system has two distinct variants – 32-bit and 64-bit.
Although the components of the 64-bit operating system should take care of 32-bit applications and, to some extent, drivers, it is well worth checking with individual
application vendors.  They might not have created 64-bit versions of their applications (this is very common) but they should have at least verified that their applications work properly on 64-bit operating systems such as Windows 7-64.  We have experienced many issues with older shipping applications which were never designed to run on 64-bit systems.

These applications might not be a known entity until you find yourself on the ship and discover that the application just doesn’t run.
This is what ‘XP Mode’ within Windows 7 Professional is intended for but that can also be far from easy to get up and running given that it’s also an optional, downloadable add-on.

Windows 8

By default new personal computers are now supplied with Windows 8 and we recommend always trying to buy new computers with Windows 8 Professional edition.
This includes downgrade rights to Windows 7 Professional – in our opinion worth the extra expenditure.
I’m often asked about Windows 8 for ship systems and my initial reaction (having already met many of the Captains) has sometimes been “Open the youtube.com website and search for ‘using Windows 8 for the first time’.”  For many ship staff used to Microsoft’s ‘traditional’ user interfaces the default user interface of Windows 8 is quite a departure. Conversely, for others it is naturally intuitive – especially on ships equipped with VSAT (or other non payas-you-go systems) where ship staff already use touch-screen devices running Windows 8, or non-Windows operating systems, to access the internet.

If you happen to watch any of the youtube.com video clips and recognise the behaviour then fear not – rumour has it that Microsoft are reinstating the infamous ‘Start Button’ in Windows 8.1, scheduled for release later this year.  If previously running Windows XP, similar considerations apply when moving to Windows 8 as to Windows 7. An important difference is that Windows 8 is considerably younger than Windows 7 so it is even more important to check that software originally designed for Windows XP works properly on a system running Windows 8.

IT Overhaul?

Many ships have peer-to-peer networks comprising computers running Windows XP. Many ships have dedicated Windows Servers, Windows Domains and networked computers running the Professional Edition of Windows XP. Both are perfectly good, stable solutions.

For shipping companies operating fleets predominantly running Windows XP the announcement of its effective ‘end of life’ has invoked a mixture of responses. For some it’s a case of “it’s not broken so don’t fix it.” For others, having to replace ageing hardware, supplying direct replacement computers running Windows 7 or 8 is the preferred solution.

For those having a total rethink it’s not too long before the advantages of ‘thin clients’ and ‘virtualisation’ or Linux are being considered.  I am probably not alone in saying that I will miss the ‘Windows eXPerience’.  When confronted with an on board installation ravaged by viruses and malware it was often quite amazing what could be achieved by re-applying Service Pack 3.  Very often it would totally restore a system that was otherwise on the brink of complete reinstallation. That is not something that can be donewith, for example, Windows 7. Once the operating system has detected that a service pack has previously been applied it will not, by default, subsequently allow it to be re-applied – which is shame.

Whilst I will certainly miss the ‘old workhorse’ I look forward to experiencing the advantages of what I believe could replace it – e.g. ‘virtually indestructible’, virtual operating systems on the ship’s workstation computers.  Perhaps the retirement of Windows XP will result in increased deployment of such platforms which provide major benefits in terms of resilience, security and relative ease of management.  The benefits of thin client platforms (such as Microsoft Desktop Services and VMWare Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, to name but two) are primarily described in contexts relating to remote or branch offices which is why they are equally applicable to ships.  The ship’s main server hosts the applications and / or the client’s entire interactive user interface (e.g. Microsoft Windows).  The client systems can be bespoke terminals or standard computers providing only that they support the remote protocol of the server (e.g. the Remote Desktop Protocol in the case of Microsoft).

A key advantage is that by deploying a single server with a single suite of applications all clients use the same versions of those applications and, perhaps more importantly, each client’s individual data is centrally stored.
With hardware redundancy factored into the central storage system, and automatic backups of that centrally stored data being made, data is secure and there is no need to consider which users are storing what and where – and how (or if) that data is being backed up.  Another key advantage of the architecture is that the server systems normally provide powerful remote management and multiple site deployment options. This potentially enables not only remote management of individual ships but also remote management of the fleet, thereby significantly reducing IT administration overheads.

As more of our terrestrial IT environments are ‘entering clouds’ and maritime bandwidth availability continues to broaden (albeit at a significantly slower rate than terrestrial bandwidth availability) it’s not too difficult to imagine a future where terrestrial clouds play host to ship systems, to some extent.
In the meantime, however, a more immediate future with each ship’s server effectively acting as a ‘remote micro-cloud’ would seem to be the favoured option.  As ship system designers and builders still face the inevitable question “How is that scenario affected by the ship losing internet connectivity?”, a remotely managed client / server environment seems to be a sensible option – at least for now…

With these new options and improving technologies on the horizon, the transition from XP may in fact be seen as a necessary kick start to move today’s ships into tomorrow’s IT environment. While the transition might be challenging, the potential benefits should make the effort worthwhile and provide stability in shipboard infrastructure for many years to come.

About the author

Gary McDonald is technical director of IT@Sea UK, a company specialising in all aspects of IT and Communications for the shipping and offshore sectors. Mr McDonald has worked with a number of major shipping companies during his more than 15 years in the industry, including BP Shipping, Chevron, BG Energy, Andrew Weir and Bibby Ship Management.