Microsoft offers flat-fee support for NT, Exchange 5.5

Microsoft will offer custom support options on a flat-fee basis to users of Windows NT 4.0 Server and Exchange Server 5.5 when the standard support phases for those products end.

The extended support period for Windows NT Server is due to expire at month's end, and the new custom support program will run for two years, through Dec. 31, 2006.

Microsoft announced the NT Server support plan on Friday, the same day it unveiled plans to offer two years of fee-based custom support for Exchange Server 5.5 after that product's extended support period ends on Dec. 31, 2005. The program is expected to operate similarly to the Windows NT 4.0 Server program.

Microsoft's product support life-cycle policy -- last updated in May -- calls for a minimum of five years of mainstream support followed by five years of extended support. Mainstream support provides for no-charge incident, warranty and hot-fix support, plus various paid options. During the extended support phase, users continue to receive security updates for free, but they must pay for nonsecurity hot fixes and their product warranties no longer apply.

Since the updated life-cycle support policy applied only to software products released during the previous five years, it didn't cover Windows NT 4.0 Server and Exchange 5.5.

Peter Houston, senior director of Windows serviceability, stressed during an interview that the "end-of-life dates" for Windows NT Server and Exchange haven't moved, and Microsoft will no longer provide security fixes free of charge once the respective extended support phases for those products expire.

Instead, Windows NT users who opt for the custom support program will have to pay a flat fee to get security fixes for vulnerabilities classified either as critical or important. But the flat fee will cover all of their NT machines, Houston said. The minimum subscription period is three months.

Houston said the custom support fee is annual, but customers typically pay on a quarterly basis. If they complete their migrations to a newer Windows operating system before the year is up, they don't have to pay for the remaining quarters, he said.

"This is a way for customers to save money if they finish early," Houston said. "It was in direct response to feedback from customers."

By opting into the custom support program, customers also retain the right to request nonsecurity hot fixes, Houston said. The fee will be based on the time required for the fix to be made.

Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC, said Microsoft is adding the custom support program to address the needs of customers with significant NT installations who are having difficulty moving off the aging operating system. He noted that migrations require significant effort and can be disruptive to an enterprise. He added that some applications cannot be moved "cleanly" and compatibility problems arise.

An IDC report released in April projected that 17 percent of the total installed Windows server base would still be using Windows NT 4.0 at year's end. The projection for the prior year was 31 percent. The statistics are based on an analysis of vendor-side research from a variety of sources, according to Gillen.

Gillen said the rate of decline for Windows NT 4.0 Server is moderately slower than he expected it would be based on the operating system's age and the impending support end date. "The fact that it's staying on pretty strong is an indication of the challenges customers face in getting off the product," he said.

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