Automated test systems, especially those used in manufacturing, often have long lives. That's particularly true for military and aerospace components and systems, which can remain in production for 20 years or more. Thus, test systems often run old computers and operating systems long after consumers and other businesses have upgraded. The end of Microsoft's Windows XP support presents test departments with a dilemma: Upgrade or not?
To find out, we at EE Times ran a poll to get a feel for Windows XP use in engineering applications. While the most votes (28.59%) came in from those who have already upgraded, those who answered "The cost of upgrading production and test systems is too high; we're staying with XP for now" was second and not far behind (23.53%).
Other than the cost of new equipment, there are other reasons for not upgrading. For example, you might have to halt production during the transition; the cost of that can easily exceed the cost of new equipment. Then there's the software support issue. It's possible that the people who wrote that original code are long gone, which could force you to write entirely new code even when the existing code still works. Another issue arises with test systems that aren't networked, and thus IT departments may have no jurisdiction over them. Off-network computers present no security risk to corporate networks. In my experience, however, many automated test stations are networked for data storage and analysis.
"Unfortunately, the test and measurement world has been slow to transition from Windows XP," wrote Robert Cromwell and Peter Blume of Bloomy Controls in "What the End of Windows XP Means for Your Test Systems." Cromwell and Blume go on to explain why you should upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, but not Windows 8: "Windows 8/8.1 is typically not a good choice for running older software because of driver availability and a new user interface that can confuse operators." You can read about upgrading in the link above, but I had a few questions that go beyond the article.
Q: My test system is not networked. Tell me why I should or shouldn’t upgrade?
A: If the system is not networked and you will not need to use any new hardware or software with it, then it may not be critical to upgrade. If it's running Windows XP, however, it's probably running pretty old hardware -- what is your backup plan when the hardware dies?
Q: EE Times just ran a poll on what engineers have done or are doing about XP. A high percentage say the cost of upgrading is too high. What’s your response to that?
A: As with most IT upgrades, it's the cost of not upgrading that you need to consider. A virus attack, stolen IP, system downtime, etc., can be extremely time consuming and expensive.
Q: How much longer will Microsoft support Windows 7? Will I be in the same position in a few years when support ends?
A: Extended support for Windows 7 ends in 2020, so you still have a few years before you need to upgrade again.
Q: Other than continued support (for now) with Windows 7, are there any advantages of upgrading to Win7 when my XP-based systems are working just fine?
A: The main benefit of upgrading to Win7 from XP is the security updates, but Windows 7 also has a lot of additional features such as system restore, performance improvements, and 64-bit support. Also, there are a lot of applications that no longer run on Windows XP.
Windows 7 is still available on new PCs, and, given the fiasco I described yesterday in Hard-Drive Crashes: Life's Third Inevitable, there's a real possibility that I'll be buying a Windows 7 computer soon. If it runs until the end of Windows 7 support in 2020, I'll consider that a good investment.
—Martin Rowe, Senior Technical Editor