Microsoft wants customers to upgrade to Windows 7, and most IT managers say they plan to do just that.
But actually making the move won't be so easy. One tricky problem is ensuring support for applications as they move from an old copy of Windows to the new version – and this includes numerous applications that only run on the archaic, insecure Internet Explorer 6 browser.
Believe it or not, IE6 is still more widely used than IE7 and the newest version of Google Chrome, according to data from Net Applications.
IE8 is the most-used browser version, and Microsoft is enticing customers to move to Windows 7 in part by denying IE9 to users of Windows XP.
But IE6 will not go away, both among casual users who haven't gotten around to upgrading and among businesses that rely on IE6 to run old applications.
"From 2001 to 2006, Microsoft was very successful at getting organizations and independent software vendors (ISV) to write applications using features unique to IE6," Gartner analysts Michael Silver and David Mitchell Smith write in a new report titled "Solving the IE6 Dilemma for Windows 7."
"Many home-grown, browser-based applications and ISV applications fail to run on IE8 or third-party browsers," the analysts continue. "Inventorying and re-mediating IE6 applications is extremely time-consuming, was not part of the promoted migration plans and tools from Microsoft, and is delaying Windows 7 migrations."
Businesses can't hold on to IE6 forever, though. Gartner offers several pieces of advice to those who need to move away from the 9-year-old browser. The best move is to fix or replace the affected applications so they can run on modern browsers that comply with Internet standards – but this is "potentially the most difficult solution," Gartner says.
MED-V not the answer for all
Further options include running IE6 on a terminal server or hosted virtual desktop to offer at least temporary access. There's also Microsoft's Enterprise Desktop Virtualization [MED-V] package, but that can be quite expensive.
"Gartner clients report that Microsoft commonly advises them to run Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) to resolve these issues, which requires licensing Windows Software Assurance and Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), and outfitting each PC with a Windows XP virtual machine (VM)," the report states.
MED-V and MDOP together could cost upwards of $50 per PC per year, and require additional RAM and computing resources.
MED-V could make sense if a company needs to run multiple applications that require Windows XP, but the current version of MED-V is causing performance problems and likely isn't worth it in many cases.
"Running a whole Windows XP VM (or hundreds or thousands of them) would seem to be counter-intuitive to solve a problem with a browser, which is supposed to be a very lightweight way to access applications," Gartner writes. "For many organizations, the cost of deploying, running, supporting and securing MED-V on the percentage of their PCs that need IE6 access is exorbitant."
Application virtualisation may also provide a path to running IE6 on Windows 7. Microsoft has said the beta version of MED-V 2.0 will allow further compatibility, in part by redirecting legacy IE6 applications to different domains or ports.
However, Gartner believes Microsoft is giving mixed signals on the legality of virtualising IE with third-party virtualisation software.
"While we have not heard of any formal legal action by Microsoft toward vendors or customers of application/IE virtualisation solutions, Microsoft's position is that it violates its licensing terms," Gartner writes. "According to Microsoft, IE is only licensed as an integrated component of the OS (either originally or via updating earlier versions of IE on an OS) and IE is not licensed for use on a stand-alone basis."
If customers really want to pursue virtualisation of IE on Windows 7, they should seek amendments to license agreements with Microsoft to specifically allow such activity. In addition to examining legal risks, customers must also consider the technical risks of running virtualized instances of IE on Windows 7. These risks could add to the security problems already inherent in running an out-of-date browser.
"Microsoft support for IE6 will end 8 April 2014, the same day Windows XP support ends," Gartner writes. "If Microsoft releases any security fixes for IE6 before then, the IE 'bubbles' may have to be rebuilt to be secured, and there is the possibility of new problems being introduced. Organizations that continue running IE bubbles after the end of support may similarly be vulnerable to security problems."
In general, Gartner says customers should not standardise on one browser, to avoid problems such as these. But the analyst firm also says Microsoft may be acting against its own interests in throwing roadblocks in the way of IE6-using businesses.
"We believe Microsoft must do more to help organisations with their IE6 problems that Microsoft helped cause," the analysts write.