IT managers at The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America knew that support for the company's Windows NT 4.0 servers was due to end on 31 December. But they hoped that Microsoft would relent and continue to provide security fixes free of charge, as it has sometimes done in the past.

Not this time.

Microsoft announced on 3 December that it will continue to provide fixes for NT Server for security vulnerabilities classified as critical or important - but that users will have to pay a flat fee as part of a new two-year custom support program that the vendor will launch on 1 January 2005. Microsoft plans to offer a similar program for Exchange Server 5.5 after its support period expires at the end of 2005.

But in an e-mail poll of 23 former and current users of NT Server last week, only one - New York-based Guardian - said that it plans to purchase the custom support option. Five of the respondents said they had completed migrations off of NT. Another 11 said that 10 per cent or fewer of their servers are running NT, so they see no pressing need to pay for support.

Dwindling numbers"Any server that is important enough to warrant maintenance should already have been upgraded," said Scott Campbell, director of IT operations at First American Title Insurance. Campbell said First American will probably run its dwindling number of NT servers, which handle small and lower-value applications, in an unsupported mode.

Bob Mathers, second vice president of IT operations at Guardian, declined to disclose the cost of the custom support program. But he said it's "pricey," particularly since he hadn't budgeted for the expense. He also noted that Guardian must submit a Windows Server 2003 migration plan to Microsoft to gain approval for participating in the custom support program.

But 370 of Guardian's 1,100 Windows servers are NT-based and support domain controllers, homegrown business applications and the distribution of software updates to insurance agents in the field. So custom support is a "necessary evil" to enable an orderly transition to Windows Server 2003 next year, Mathers said.

Microsoft's support life-cycle policy, which was last updated in May, calls for a minimum of five years of "mainstream" support followed by five years of "extended" support. However, the updated support policy applies only to software products released during the previous five years, thereby excluding Windows NT 4.0 Server, a 1996 release, and Exchange 5.5, from 1997.

Microsoft wouldn't disclose the custom-support price on NT but said the flat fee is the same regardless of the number of servers a company has. Peter Houston, senior director of Windows serviceability at Microsoft, said the program was designed to help the largest customers stay secure.

The fee is an annual one, but users can pay quarterly, according to Houston. Customers that migrate off of NT before a year is up won't have to pay for the remaining quarters, he said.

Two large customers with between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of their Windows servers still on NT said they won't purchase Microsoft's custom support. One, a UK-based financial institution, has already negotiated a separate support deal, while Peter Schleidt, CIO at Danske Bank in Copenhagen, said its NT servers will run unsupported only for a short time until a migration is done.

In April, researcher IDC projected that 17 per cent of the Windows server installed base would be using Windows NT 4.0 Server at year's end. "The fact that it's staying on pretty strong is an indication of the challenges customers face in getting off the product," IDC analyst Al Gillen said last week.

About 15 per cent of Oregon State University's Windows servers still run NT, hosting low-priority specialty applications. Jon Dolan, associate director of network services, said it's unlikely the Corvallis school will buy custom support.

"We've been migrating off 4.0 for some time and will use this as a reason to either upgrade the remaining servers or drop them off the network," Dolan said.