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Businesses scramble to upgrade computers as support for Windows XP ends Tuesday

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With security support for Microsoft’s venerable Windows XP operating system ending Tuesday, businesses are scrambling to secure from threats the huge number of computers that run on the 12-year-old platform.

Municipal infrastrucute operated by local governments using Windows XP could be vulnerable to security threats after the date, but most ATMs that use XP software will continue to get security updates.

Computech, 22111 Route 11, Watertown, has been swamped with business from companies seeking to upgrade Windows XP software over the past year, said owner Jordan R. Durant, who launched the small business two years ago. The majority of businesses and residents across the north country still operate under the Windows XP platform, he said, and many are still reacting to news of its demise. He said the business is upgrading about nine computers a week to run on the Windows 7 platform, which Microsoft actively provides security updates and patches for to safeguard its network from viruses and hackers.

After Tuesday, any health care business that stores patient records under the Windows XP will be in noncompliance of the Health Insurance Privacy and Portability Act’s Security Rule. In addition, any business that conducts credit card transactions using computers with Windows XP will be in noncompliance of Payment Card Industry standards.

But businesses that use Windows XP for other tasks at the workplace don’t need to rush yet to replace the operating system. Any third-party anti-virus software that receives real-time support could be used to provide security in Microsoft’s absence, Mr. Durant said.

“It’s like a game of cat and mouse, because now that Windows XP is no longer supported with security updates or patches, you’re going to see companies that offer virus protection support Windows XP,” he said.

Mr. Durant estimated that, among computer owners across the north country, about 70 percent still use Windows XP, with the remainder using Windows 7 and 8 platforms. But he believes that ratio will quickly reverse as Microsoft XP becomes even more outdated when compared with today’s Internet technology.

Many municipalities and government agencies have made sure to upgrade or replace their Windows XP systems — used to operate water, sewer and electric systems — in advance of Tuesday’s deadline set by Microsoft. The Development Authority of the North County, which oversees the operation of municipal infrastructure systems across seven counties, made sure to replace all of its Windows XP software over the past several years to run under the Windows 7 platform, said Timothy R. Field, the authority’s information technology director. The Microsoft platform is used to operate everything from accounting software to water treatment facilities and for telecommunications.

“It was about a year and a half ago when I saw this was going to take place, and anything that I ordered came with Windows 7,” Mr. Field said Thursday. “Everything system we have is running on Windows 7 or greater, except for one of our systems that is used to weigh trucks at the landfill that is running with XP. But we have plans to upgrade that in the next few days.”

Mr. Field said the authority was not willing to take any chances of being exposed to hackers or viruses by using Windows XP unprotected. Starting in May, many of the security patches that Microsoft creates for Windows 7 and Windows 8 would still apply to Microsoft XP, because those systems use a similar code. By using reverse engineering methods, hackers are expected to use security updates for protected versions of Windows to hack into Windows XP, making the platform vulnerable to threats.

“I definitely feel bad for companies that haven’t been prepared for this,” Mr. Field said. “I definitely don’t feel comfortable playing Russian roulette — it’s just not worth it in my opinion.”

Northern Credit Union operates its ATM machines with Microsoft XP Pro software, but it won’t be exposed to threats because Microsoft will continue to offer security updates for that platform through 2016, said Nathan P. Hunter, vice president of accounting and financial services. Otherwise, computers used for accounting are equipped with Windows 7 software at the credit union, which has locations across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

“In the long term, this will impact us because we’ll have to upgrade our ATM machines with the new Windows application, and we’ll do our full upgrade in 2015,” Mr. Hunter said. “But in the short term, there is no impact because our ATMs will continue to be supported by Microsoft.”

Johnson Newspaper Corp., which owns the Advance-News, The Journal, Daily Courier-Observer and the Watertown Daily Times, has been preparing over the past year for Microsoft’s abandonment of Windows XP by buying replacement computers that use freeware programs downloaded at no cost, said Jill Van Hoesen, the corporation’s chief information officer. The corporation still has about 20 computers that operate under the Windows XP platform, which will be replaced this year.

During the past year, about 50 used computers were purchased by the corporation from Syracuse University at $50 apiece, Mrs. Van Hoesen said. Freeware programs installed on those computers include the Linux Mint operating system, LibreOffice, an office suite, and Mozilla Thunderbird, an email client.

“You’re going to spend anywhere from $300 to $400 to install Microsoft office on computers, so this has cut costs,” she said. “We started using these freeware products a couple of years ago, and it’s working well. It’s taken us off the Microsoft umbrella, but we are protecting our network using anti-virus software from McAfee and Barracuda.”

Computers used in the corporation’s newsrooms are equipped with Windows 7 operation systems. But Mrs. Van Hoesen said the company has no intention of upgrading or purchasing new computers to replace them under the Windows 8 platform. Microsoft’s support for its Windows 7 platform will expire in 2020.

“I just don’t see us using Windows 8 here, because I see us moving over to become a mobile workforce,” she said. “We are operating in an environment that’s changing quickly, and our advertising and editorial workforce is going to be much more mobile. Reporters and staff will be using tablets and smartphones — that’s where we’re moving.”

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