Article by Kevin Savetz

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Copyright © by Kevin Savetz


Few things are as frustrating to a computer user as being told that the OS (operating system) he uses every day is obsolete. Millions of Windows NT 4.0 users were chagrined to learn that Microsoft would no longer provide technical support or software patches for their OS. WinNT 4.0 is dead in the water.

Cynics will probably tell you that the reason for WinNT's demise is that Microsoft wants users to upgrade to Windows Server 2003. There's certainly some truth to that. But there are other reasons: some legal, some technical. Microsoft agreed to discontinue sales of WinNT 4.0 in a settlement with Sun in a dispute over its implementation of the Java Virtual Machine. On the technical side, Microsoft said it couldn't fix a security flaw discovered last year due to WinNT 4.0's architectural limitations.

Despite these problems, WinNT 4.0 is still used far and wide. In fact, it is used on 13% of desktop PCs, according to technology consultant AssetMetrix. Browse any Web site's log files, and you'll see that about 3% of Internet users are running it. WinNT 4.0 is generally seen as a stable platform for enterprises. It is an inexpensive workhorse that many businesses and advanced home users are not ready to give up.

Despite its stalwart users, WinNT 4.0 is no longer for sale, and its regular support channels have been shut down. Pay-per incident and premiere support will be available only through the end of the year. Most importantly, online support, including downloadable service packs and security patches, may not be available after Dec. 31, 2004.

Prepare For The End

The end is near. If you are still happily using WinNT 4.0, you should prepare now for the day the WinNT 4.0 support Web site shuts down. This means doing two things: updating your system with the final security patches and making an archive of all the software and patches you'll need should you have to reinstall the OS from scratch.

If you use Microsoft's other aging OSes, you can rest easy a little longer. Technical support and patches for Windows 98/Me will continue through 2006.

Preparing for the end of support for your OS is like building a bomb shelter. You want to stock it with enough rations to get you through, assuming that you'll have no help from the outside world. In this case, your rations are the software that supports WinNT 4.0: service packs, other software patches, and your application software. One day, you may need to reinstall WinNT 4.0, and updates will no longer be available from Microsoft's Web site. With some preparation today, you can be sure that you'll have the software you need tomorrow.

If your original WinNT 4.0 installation media becomes damaged or your product keys are lost, getting replacements could be difficult. (A product key is the serial number that you must enter when you install WinNT 4.0. You can usually find it on the back of the CD case or in the front of your manual.)

Find your WinNT 4.0 installation discs and the accompanying product keys. Make backups of the installation discs--whether they're on floppy or CD-ROM--and keep the discs and product keys in a safe place. The same goes for any driver disks that came with your motherboard, printer, video card, and other hardware and installation discs for WinNT 4.0 applications; back them up, secure the product keys, and keep them safe.

Next, you should build an archive of service packs, patches, and the other essential software you'll need should you need to reinstall WinNT 4.0.

Save Service Pack 6a

In 1999, Microsoft released Service Pack 6a, the final service pack (a collection of important fixes and updates) for WinNT 4.0. Service Pack 6a includes changes all previous service packs made, so there's no need to download or install earlier versions. (You may see references to Service Pack 7 on Microsoft's Web site. Ignore them; it was never released.)

Point your browser to http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/nts/downloads/recommended/SP6/allSP6.asp Two versions of Service Pack 6a are available: Express Download and Network Download. Download the Network version, which contains the entire distribution in one 34MB file.

If you can't download such a large file, you can order Service Pack 6a on CD from Microsoft for $19.95 (http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/nts/downloads/recommended /SP6/ordercd.asp). It contains the same software as the downloadable version, plus Internet Explorer 5, updated hardware device drivers, symbol files, and the Windows NT Security Configuration Manager. For most users, the downloadable version will be just fine.

In addition, you'll need to download the Security Rollup Package, a collection of security patches Microsoft released after Service Pack 6. You can download the 14MB file from http://www.microsoft.com/ntserver/nts/downloads/critical/q299444/default.asp.

Chances are your WinNT 4.0 installation disc includes a frightfully old version of IE. While you're in this downloading frenzy, don't forget to grab a copy of the latest version of IE from http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/downloads. Also, download a fresh copy of any other software you may need to rebuild your system from the ground up, such as an unzip utility, obscure hardware drivers, and other essential software.

Save It For Posterity

Burn it all--the installers for Service Pack 6a, the Security Rollup, IE, and any other software that you want to save--to a CD-R (CD-recordable). Save some trouble by making yourself a note now. Write down the order in which you should install these upgrades: Service Pack 6a, the Security Rollup Package, and then IE. Store the disc with your WinNT 4.0 installation media.

If you don't have all of those patches installed on your system, now is the perfect time to upgrade. Run the installers one at a time, and remember that you'll have to reboot after running each installer.

To find out which service pack you have installed, open the Windows NT Diagnostics utility (go to Start, Programs, Administrative Tools [Common], and Windows NT Diagnostics). Under the Version tab, you'll see which service pack is installed. If it shows any service pack older than 6 (version 6a is shown simply as 6), you should install it.

Download System Patches

Even with Service Pack 6a and the Security Rollup, a fresh WinNT 4.0 installation needs more updates. After releasing the final service pack, Microsoft switched to a Web-based system for delivering patches called Windows Update.

When you point your browser to the Windows Update Web site, it will show a list of OS and Web browser updates that are not yet installed on your PC. You can download and install the patches you don't have, and the download is automatically erased afterward.

To install patches with Windows Update, point IE to http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com. Click the Product Updates link. You will see a list of all available patches. Select the checkboxes next to the updates you want to download. Be sure to select all of the critical updates. It is also a good idea to select the recommended updates and peruse the software in additional Windows features, too. Remember, this software may not be online the next time you need it. If you think you may ever need Vietnamese language support, download it now. Once you've chosen the patches you want, click the Download link at the top of the page. You may have to reboot the system after the patches are installed.

Consider Cloning Your Hard Drive

There is a significant problem with Windows Update: All it can do is download and install. Under WinNT 4.0, there is no way to save those patch applications and burn them to CD. If and when Microsoft stops supporting WinNT 4.0 in Windows Update, reinstalling those patches will be impossible.

To work around the problem, you can install all of the relevant patches now, and then use a third-party application such as Norton Ghost ($69.95; http://www.symantec.com/sabu/ghost/ghost_personal) or DriveImage ($69.95; http://www.powerquest.com /driveimage) to make a complete backup of your patched system. Then copy that backup to CD-Rs.

If you ever need to reinstall WinNT 4.0, you will be able to use that backup to quickly reincarnate your fully patched system. As a bonus, all of your applications and drivers will be replicated, restored to exactly the way things were the day that you made the backup. Restoring the system this way can be faster and less wearisome than manually installing the WinNT 4.0 discs, service pack, security upgrades, drivers, and applications.

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Ex Post Facto Support

If you've been running that aging version of WinNT 4.0 for this long, chances are you don't need much technical support, which is good, because you aren't going to get any from our friends in Redmond.

Microsoft hasn't said exactly when its WinNT support Web site will disappear; the company has so far hedged its bets with the phrase "on or after Jan. 1, 2005." Chances are that Microsoft will leave the software and support sites online for a while past Jan. 1. Live technical support is expensive; leaving the support Web site online costs the company nothing. But the company isn't making any promises, so don't wait until the last minute to get the software you need.

We all need help from time to time. If you need assistance with WinNT 4.0, turn to other Web sites for help. Experts Exchange (http://www.experts-exchange.com) is a great site with plenty of WinNT 4.0 help in the OSes forum. You can ask a few questions for free but may want to become a paying subscriber if you have a lot of tough problems. Also visit the free support forums at Computing.Net (http://computing.net), which are bustling with questions and answers about WinNT 4.0. Finally, don't forget about the helpful community in the Web forums of Smart Computing (http://www.smartcomputing.com) and our sister magazine, Computer Power User (http://www.computerpoweruser.com).

If your WinNT 4.0 computer has an Internet connection, it is essential to put it behind a firewall. Some of WinNT 4.0's vulnerabilities, the ones that Microsoft said it couldn't fix, have to do with network exploits. By blocking outside access to your system, you can prevent outsiders from crashing it.

The Upgrade Option

You're happy with WinNT 4.0, so we will not pressure you to upgrade. However, we will casually mention that there are good reasons to look for a new OS. In addition to WinNT 4.0's unpatchable security flaws, its hardware support is lacking. Support for USB (Universal Serial Bus) is meager, and there's no support at all for FireWire, serial ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment), or wireless networking. WinNT 4.0 also lacks support for Active Directory, encrypted file systems, and command-line system management.

We will also mention that upgrade options include Windows Server 2003 (Microsoft has a WinNT 4.0-to-Server upgrade guide at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/upgrading/nt4) or Linux running Samba (http://www.samba.org), an open-source file and print server for Microsoft Windows clients.

However, Windows Server 2003 may not run on some PCs that have been running WinNT 4.0 for years. For the standard version of Server 2003, Microsoft recommends a 550MHz CPU, 256MB of RAM, and 1.5GB of hard drive space, specs that a legacy WinNT 4.0 box may not be able to live up to.

In The End

If you're not ready to upgrade to today's new technology, stick with your old copy of WinNT 4.0 for a few more years. As you do, just remember that you're flying without the safety net of upgrades and support from Microsoft. So make sure you have the tools--knowledge, a software archive, and a firewall--to keep it running until you, not Microsoft, decide that it's time to upgrade.

Reprinted with permission from Smart Computing magazine.


Articles by Kevin Savetz