Is everyone ready for unsupported Microsoft XP? Perhaps not. Some industrial organizations may face major challenges as a result of Microsoft discontinuing its support of the Windows XP operating system (OS) this past April. XP has been the most popular OS for industrial applications, so its deployment across plants is considerable. At the height of its popularity, XP was resident in 800 million computers -- 50 million of which were business computers.
XP has experienced a long run, in part because of its stability. Also, it was followed by the unpopular Windows Vista, which soured many users on switching to a new OS. Millions decided to stick with XP. The end-of-service for XP now leaves many computers and devices vulnerable to security issues -- whether accidental or deliberate -- which could bring operations to a halt.
In the past, these vulnerabilities were routinely fixed by a Microsoft patch. No more patches will arrive for XP. Belden Co., a firm that provides industrial network security, has noted that XP is still being used in industries such as automotive, consumer packaged goods, water and wastewater, and oil and gas.
For those still operating XP, Belden is offering a safe way out. The company can put up industrial firewalls to provide immediate cyber protection which gives companies the ability to implement upgrades from Windows XP on their own timetable. "The end-of-service had put the industrial user between a rock and a hard spot. Migrating from XP and on to Windows 7 or 8 is fairly straightforward if you're on the IT side. It takes a day or two," Frank Williams, senior manager for security at Belden, told Design News. "For industrial users, it's not as simple. The uptime of the network is critical, so it could take up to a year to upgrade.'
The problem for these companies is that they face significant risk of revenue disruption due to shutdowns. They can't flip the OS switch overnight like the office can. "The XP been working for 10 to 12 years, and plant engineers have developed apps that work flawlessly on XP. It may or may not fully work on Windows 7 or 8," Williams told us. "So they will have to do some piloting to make sure it's working. That could take two weeks or five months."
Belden's solution is to basically put a security blanket around the plant, giving control engineers the cover to make the switch-over to a new OS on a path that is the least disruptive to plant operations. "Our industrial firewalls provide immediate peace of mind when it comes to accidental malware introductions or cyber-attacks and give companies the freedom to migrate from Windows XP on their own schedule," said Williams.
Williams noted that it is midsize companies that are still working on the migration away from XP. Larger companies with deep resources have already made the change, and for smaller companies, the switch didn't involve much.