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The End of Life for Windows 7

On 14th January 2020, Microsoft will officially ‘end the life’ of support for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 (including 2008 R2); a change that will pose a significant challenge for many businesses throughout the UK.

Not only does 2020 mark the beginning of a new decade, but it also commemorates the end of an era for Windows 7 and Server 2008. Not so long ago, these trusted operating systems were one of Microsoft’s most popular, so much so, that many businesses still use them on a daily basis.

But what exactly does end of life mean for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs)? Well, if you continue to use these operating systems after support has ended, your systems will still work, but will become considerably more vulnerable to security risks and viruses. As SMEs represent 99% of all businesses in the UK, there’s potential for a significant number of companies to be effected.

Assessing the Risks

In a nutshell, this rather significant operating system end of life means no more bug-fixes, security patches or new functionality. In addition, Microsoft customer service will no longer be available to provide technical support and related services will also be discontinued over time.

This considerable change, therefore, may cause concern for existing users as the risk of running systems beyond 14th January means that computers and data can become vulnerable to exploitation, hackers and bugs, to name but a few.

Vulnerabilities can be very dangerous as attackers can more easily comprise unpatched systems. Once compromised, the attacker can gain control of the system to steal information and potentially launch further attacks on other IT systems within an organisation’s network.

When an operating system becomes end of life, the vendor will no longer release security updates or patches to remediate any discovered vulnerabilities. This leaves systems at serious risk of being compromised.

Is Your Company at Risk?

It’s vital to assess the risks to business before deciding what action needs to be taken – and, in this case, both the likelihood and impact need to be determined. To achieve this it’s essential to consider the following:

  • Does the system contain business-critical and/or confidential data?
  • Does the system contain any sensitive data such as personally identifiable information?
  • Does the system support a business-critical process?
  • Will running an end of life operating system be in non-compliance of:
    • GDPR
    • PCI
    • Supply chain agreements
    • Insurance policies
  • What would the cost be to the business if the system was compromised?
  • Would the reputation of the business be damaged if the system was compromised?
  • Is the system exposed to the internet, if so, can this be limited or removed completely?
  • Has the user(s) of the system received adequate security awareness training?
  • Do we have the capabilities, including the skills and knowledge to manage the risk?

Once the likelihood and impact have been determined, it’s then about calculating the risk. If the risk is low, it should then be recorded in a risk register and treated to reduce the likelihood of it occurring.

Managing the Risks

At CYAN, we believe that the best option and one that should always be considered before anything else is to terminate all risks by upgrading operating systems to a supported operating system before the end of life date. Which in this case, is 14th January.

However, in some cases, it may be necessary to run a system with an operating system beyond its end of life date. This could be due to several reasons, from budget constraints to a dependency on a legacy application that requires a specific version of an operating system version in order to work. If this is the case, the risk should be assessed and treated to reduce the likelihood of the system being compromised.

But it’s important to note that this should only be a short-term measure while measures are put in place to upgrade to an updated operating system. We know that business survival during a huge change such as this requires having a strong IT security strategy in place.

Effectively Treating Risks

At CYAN, we balance our intricate knowledge of IT with a personal approach to understanding the businesses and people that use it every day. And so, to reduce the likelihood of the risk occurring when Windows 7 or Server 2008 reach end of life, multiple techniques and controls can be applied to treat the risk. There are a number of ways in which this can be done:

Reducing the Attack Surface

Removing all unnecessary applications from the system and only allowing signed and trusted applications to run can effectively reduce the risk. Additionally, isolating the system to a tightly controlled security zone and limiting exposure to the internet can also help to decrease the attack surface.

Applying Patches

First of all, it’s important to know what patches are in the IT realm. A patch is a set of changes to a computer program or its supporting data designed to update, fix, or improve it. So, by applying the final update and security patch from Microsoft, as well as continually keeping all required applications up to date, can significantly treat risks.

Implementing Strong Technical Controls

Use a comprehensive endpoint security solution to protect against malware and unauthorised access and harden the system by disabling unrequired services and system features. Not sure where to start? Speak to us for expert help and advice.

Control Access

You can also prevent access by removing unused accounts and restricting access on a need to know basis. Using strong passwords and multi-factor authentication can also be highly effectively when it comes to watertight access control.

Backup and Event Logging

Regularly performing backups as well as enabling event logging to a safe, secure and restricted location is vital to contain, eradicate and recover from a security breach.

Security User Awareness Training

Within a business, it’s vital to practice safe clicking and carry out regular security awareness training and measure its effectiveness with all members of the team. This is of the utmost importance when it comes to the end of life of operating systems such as Windows 7.

The Next Steps…

While end of life operating systems will continue to work after their end date and additional techniques and controls can be applied to reduce the likelihood of the system being compromised, it’s best practice to terminate the risk by upgrading the system to a supported operating system before the end of life date.

This means the end of regular security updates which puts any system running Microsoft Windows 7 or Server 2008 beyond 14th January 2020 at serious risk. Businesses that use these systems and that have failed to update to newer systems are at risk of severe and very dangerous security breaches.

Skill and Knowledge for The Steps Ahead

It’s worth noting that to manage the risks involved in such a drastic change will require skilled resources and additional time and effort, which isn’t always something that can be carried out within a small or medium sized business. And much like any massive business change, the cost of managing the risk should be weighed up against terminating the risk by upgrading the system to the next available operating system. You might just find that it’s more cost-effective, and ultimately, will be far safer for the business to simply upgrade the operating system.

At CYAN, we have seen security threats from outdated operating systems, unpatched vulnerabilities, and various other security breaches. The longer your company waits to update systems, the bigger the risk becomes of a potentially costly and nasty attack. Please don’t wait any longer, get in touch to find out more about how we can help you with a safe and speedy upgrade.

Wherever your organisation goes after Windows 7, upgrading should be done in a measured and controlled way, and certainly not rushed at the last moment without careful consideration of the impact to business.

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