End of Support for Microsoft Server 2003 Puts Heat on K-12 Districts

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Cross-posted from the Digital Education blog

When a company as big as Microsoft ends support for an operating system with as big a footprint as Windows Server 2003, it isn’t just businesses that are forced to adjust. School districts get caught up in the technological changeover, too.

Just how many school districts? That’s a bit fuzzy.

But it’s widely understood that schools that keep using the servers after Microsoft’s support ends—and it ended this week, on July 14—face potential security risks, viruses, and the possibility that over time, the software they’re using won’t run as smoothly, or at all.

Some observers who work on education technology issues say the challenges and potential pitfalls facing schools are as great if not greater than those that came with the end of support for Windows XP, which Education Week wrote about a couple years ago.

Windows XP was an operating system for desktops. For many schools, upgrading meant buying more up-to-date systems, or buying a new stock of computing devices.

Windows Server 2003 is the operating system for the server itself, the kind of infrastructure that most teachers, administrators, and policymakers never think about because they don’t see students “using” it, said education consultant Douglas A. Levin. Even so, server systems are critically important for devices and software to function properly, he noted. 

Amy Perry-DelCorvo, the CEO of the New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education, said in an e-mail that she hadn’t seen firm estimates of the number of schools using Windows Server 2003. But if schools haven’t made upgrades yet, it’s “not for lack of timely warnings,” she said.

“[I]f they have not already migrated or at least have a plan, they should be worried,” said Perry-DelCorvo, New York chapter leader for the Consortium for School Networking.

Microsoft itself says it doesn’t have a current estimate of the number of K-12 systems using Server 2003. Even so, the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant has for years been urging school districts, like businesses, to take steps to protect themselves from security risks and other headaches by taking a bunch of steps, including upgrading to new, and possibly cloud-based operating systems.

The company says that the advice it would offer districts is quite similar to the guidance it gives businesses about upgrading to Server 2012, Microsoft Azure, or 365.

“[W]e live in a mobile-first, cloud-first world and virtualization is the default model,” Microsoft said in a statement to EdWeek. “By migrating from Windows Server 2003, organizations can take advantage of modern technology to protect their environments, use virtualization to reduce server sprawl, take advantage of hybrid and public cloud options for their applications, and reduce IT burden with Office 365 and other services.”

Switching Servers, Weighing Options

Specifically, schools need to catalog all software and workloads operating that are running on Server 2003; assess the apps they have based on “type, criticality, and risk”; and figure out the operating system where they’re going to place apps after their upgrade.

While it’s difficult to exactly know how much of a presence Server 2003 has in the nation’s schools, Levin said he’s willing to bet its use is “disproportionately high,” given K-12 districts’ habitually slow pace in adopting new technologies, and scraping up the money to pay for upgrades.

For many districts, making an upgrade from XP, or moving from one type of computing device to another, is a relatively simple, if costly fix, one that school officials and the public can easily grasp, Levin said.

But making decisions about replacing servers or moving to the cloud typically require a lot more expertise among district technology staff. Making a big mistake, such as moving to a server that cannot handle the district’s needs, can be “potentially catastrophic,” said Levin, who leads a consulting company, Ed Tech Strategies.

Districts need reliable, up-to-date servers so they can protect data privacy, authenticate authorized users, and make sure that all of the tools and systems teachers and students count on continue to run, he said. 

That said, districts today have good options for upgrading, he noted. Levin thinks some districts are planning or have already made upgrades to server systems that aren’t necessarily the newest, but which still give them the functions they want and have the benefit of being similar to what they have in place now.

Others are moving to cloud-based systems, though districts need to know that they have adequate bandwidth before making that leap, he noted. The recent increase in funding and support for school connectivity through the E-rate program could help, he said.

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