By Mat Clothier, CEO, Cloudhouse
A Freedom of Information request has revealed how the UK’s NHS is at threat from a dangerous dependency on Windows 7, once Microsoft withdraws support for the operating system on January 14 next year (2020).
Among the 77 NHS trusts that responded to the FOI request, more than 231,000 devices were still on Windows 7, compared with 123,000 on Windows 10. The survey also found that Windows XP is still heavily in use along with a ragbag of other systems.
Unless NHS chiefs wants a repeat of the the WannaCry cyber-attack of 2017, it’s time for them to use technology such application compatibility packaging so they can safely migrate their many thousands of applications to Windows 10 – Microsoft’s latest operating system.
The task is an urgent one. Continued reliance on Windows 7 means much of the NHS will be vulnerable to cyber-attack once Microsoft stops security patching in January. It was unpatched Windows operating systems such as Windows 7 that allowed the 2017 WannaCry ransomware crypto-worm to infect 230,000 computers around the globe, with huge impact on day-to-day healthcare operations in the NHS.
Overcoming incompatibility of legacy NHS applications with Windows 10
The nub of the NHS difficulty is the known incompatibility of legacy applications with Windows 10 and other state-of-the-art operating systems, when migrated through conventional means.
Applications built for legacy systems can frequently fail to function on Windows 10 (or in the cloud on Windows Server 16 or 19), suffering impairment from regular security updates. Understandably, NHS IT chiefs are reluctant to migrate to Windows 10 if it risks downtime in a diagnostic unit. Waiting time targets hang over everyone in the NHS as does the duty of care. Many applications will be embedded in Windows 7 and are likely to have been built for specific purposes relating to the administrative or clinical needs of individual units, trusts or groups of trusts.
The position is complicated by the extreme sensitivity of patient data, the lack of IT funding, the prevalence of long-term deals and the NHS’s poor record on major IT projects. The huge size of the NHS and its datasets adds to the complexity.
The NHS may get extended support for Windows 7 from Microsoft but that does not solve the long-term problem and will eventually become too costly.
Recoding and refactoring of bespoke applications is one route, but is time-consuming, expensive and often requires expertise. Virtualisation has also proved to be inadequate, producing applications that only perform a narrow range of their original functions. While virtualisation simplifies deployment and addresses some application-to-application conflicts, it does not resolve compatibility problems between applications built for Windows 7 and Windows 10.
The NHS needs application compatibility packaging
What the NHS should grasp is how application compatibility packaging overcomes the significant problems of migration of applications from Windows 7 to Windows 10. The Cloudhouse compatibility package, for example, will lift and shift the application from its underlying platform to Windows 10, so that if functions perfectly without recoding or refactoring. The technology isolates run times and enables 32-bit apps written for Windows 7 to be compatible with 64-bit desktop systems such as Windows 10. Applications do not conflict with other applications on the desktop.
Compatibility packaging also eliminates the need for repackaging and retesting, enabling applications to deploy to the latest, supported Windows platforms, including those in the cloud. For the NHS with the great sensitivity of its vast datasets, this is a huge advantage, future-proofing applications and workloads, and rendering them secure. Once applications have migrated to Windows 10 on desktops or in the cloud, they receive regular security patches without any compromise of anti-virus and firewall protection.
Evergreening the NHS IT
The NHS’s continued dependency on Windows 7 is a dangerous vulnerability that threatens the quality of healthcare and treatment for millions of UK citizens. Application compatibility packaging will resolve almost all these difficulties and has the potential to future-proof the entire NHS. It’s time for NHS IT chiefs to give it very serious consideration.
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I am Priya Saxena, a supermom, virtualization enthusiast and a developer by heart. I started my career 11 years ago as a passionate engineering graduate
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