Last month, Microsoft announced it will end support for Windows 7 in 2020, giving customers three years to upgrade their systems to Windows 10. In the short term, computers running Windows 7 will still work, and Microsoft will still share security updates for the operating system. The latter is good, especially as most cyber attacks today target Windows 7 simply because it’s one of the most popular operating systems.
Attacks on Windows 7 typically rely on vulnerabilities in the OS, and each time a vulnerability is found, Microsoft works to develop and release a patch. However, in January 2020, once Windows 7 reaches the end of its life, any new vulnerability found and reported will not be patched. Thus, in a few years, Windows 7 will become even more vulnerable.
Attackers are taking note of the latest news and will soon begin to look at Windows 7 as even-lower-hanging fruit — much as they did with Windows XP over the last couple of years. As you'll recall, support for Windows XP ended April 8, 2014, but the vulnerabilities in the old OS remain (not to mention, XP still has millions of users globally).
For myriad enterprise users of Windows 7, three years to get everything transitioned over to Windows 10 is actually not that long. After all, it's not just the changing of some application; rather, it requires installing a new operating system and making sure that the upgrade doesn't cause current applications to break.
If you’re planning to make the move, note well: it will be costly. First, there’s an actual cost of an upgrade — from the cost of the license to the IT used to support the installation and testing. Second, those enterprises that don't hit the public deadline might need to pay additional fees for customized extended support programs. These customized extended support licenses were offered by Microsoft when XP expired. In fact, enterprises (ironically, budget-tight organizations including the US government) have admitted to paying millions of dollars for XP extended support because they needed more time to transition.
The sad reality for those planning to pay for an extension is that this type of support is effective only against very simple attacks. For example, bypasses are now a common technique in the attacker's toolbox to navigate around Enhanced Mitigation Experience Toolkit (EMET), Microsoft's freeware security toolkit for Windows.
Here are some tips for staying secure while tackling the upgrade process:
- Segment the network by cutting off critical devices from others in the network. Take it a step further and remove any unnecessary devices from the network.
- Ensure that security controls on the devices are turned on (believe it or not, they're not necessarily enabled).
- Place third-party solutions on these devices to close the gaps on legacy systems and ensure that data is protected.
Before you get too overwhelmed by the task of upgrading, note that this won’t be nearly as complicated or expensive as upgrading from XP. Windows XP still supported old DOS applications while DOS was pretty much obliterated since Windows 7, thus expiring legacy applications that were still functioning.