By Nick East, CEO, Zynstra

Small and medium businesses (SMBs) are the backbone of the British economy. According to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, they make up 48.1% of all private sector turnover, contributing £1,600 billion a year in revenues. However, in 2015, a huge number of these businesses face an unseen danger as the IT systems and servers they have come to rely on every day reach the end of their supported life.

There are currently around 9.1 million installations of Windows Server 2003 around the world, a product that Microsoft will no longer support after July 2015. According to a report from the Cloud Industry Forum (CIF), 61% of firms in the UK depend on the platform.

Much like Windows XP for laptops and desktops, Windows Server 2003 has been the workhorse for a multitude of applications including email, file management, CRM and line of business applications.

SMBs who fail to migrate to a newer supported IT platform will put themselves, their customers and their partners at materially increased security risks. If they don’t migrate to a newer technology, the vulnerability of those slow to adopt will increase significantly as security patches and support services cease from July 2015.

The need to refresh Windows Server 2003

Failing to upgrade is not really an option. Businesses can continue to use Windows Server 2003 but without security patch upgrades and ongoing maintenance and support, companies will soon run into problems. Even disconnecting non critical Windows Server 2003 systems from the internet and regularly backing up data still presents inherent business risks.

The rate at which technology evolves will soon leave a business struggling to deal with software variations and makes their IT environment vulnerable. So the real choice is no longer about whether businesses should refresh their systems, it’s now all about when.

Removing the dependence on Windows Server 2003 ahead of the formal end of support date will ultimately lead to a more cost efficient and operationally effective migration, and one that businesses will be in complete control of. If they do decide to wait until the July deadline, the chances are the avoidable urgency will end up costing them more, perhaps a lot more.

The risks surrounding doing nothing far outweighs the effort and costs associated with migration. To ensure organisations avoid these pitfalls, the time to act is now.

Looking to hybrid cloud solutions

For many businesses, turning to a hybrid of on premise and remote cloud IT environments as the next upgrade path is a logical step. That upgrade path delivers a step change in IT capability, a route which is being stated as the ‘new norm’ by the likes of Gartner and the Cloud Industry Forum.

As cloud has become a viable IT deployment model there is a realisation that business IT systems are going to be based on hybrid solutions. Hybrid IT is an ideal solution — organisations can use a cloud-based IT model for some services whilst retaining control and regulation over their users, data and resources for others. Applications currently running in a Windows Server 2003 environment can be migrated or replaced using a combination of current local server and remote cloud technology. The solution has the ability to leverage the best of on-premises IT and the best of the cloud. It provides organisations with the greatest opportunity to increase flexibility and scalability, whilst ensuring the business can maintain a high level of control.

Businesses are free to focus on their core operations and yet be agile enough to respond to market and industry trends. For these reasons, a greater number of organisations are using the end of support for Windows Server 2003 as an opportunity to embrace hybrid as an IT strategy in its own right.

What businesses really need is IT that not only works, but is current, patched, backed up, affordable and adapts with their business needs over time. The end-of-life of Windows Server 2003 presents a huge opportunity for SMBs to find and implement an IT system that really does meet these needs.

Unsurprisingly cloud computing has become one of the top choices for SMBs grappling with this dilemma. The popularity of cloud-based solutions has grown at an incredible rate and there's no hiding the huge impact on the way that businesses of all sizes buy, operate and manage their IT systems. It is such a problem that business consultancy KMPG called it the 'most disruptive force in business in the past 20 years'.

Moving to the future

It is easy to be cynical about the end-of-life of technology; after all, it’s a forced IT change that millions of businesses have to deal with. However, the fact that Windows Server 2003 has lasted this length of time is clear testament to its popularity and capability as the base of an IT environment.

When facing the choice of what to do next, businesses need to look beyond just the next iteration of an operating system. End-of-life provides a huge opportunity for businesses looking to step their IT into the modern age, so they need to strip everything down to their IT deployment model. By examining how they can win the battle against end-of-life systems by embracing the hybrid cloud opportunity, their IT systems will continue to support their business needs for years to come without having to face another end-of-life dilemma.