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The End of an Epoch

COLIN MCCRACKEN

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All good things come to an end. For many x86 board users, Windows XP Embedded has been the Rock of Gibraltar for a decade or more. Ever since MS-DOS 6.22 anyway. While small form factor (SFF) suppliers and customers are ever vigilant of born-on dates and end-of-life (EOL) dates for silicon, sometimes we’re blissfully ignorant that software faces lifecycle limits too. And for once, you and your IT person are now faced with the same news: End of support for Windows XP and XP Embedded.

In the hardware realm, we like our PCNs and EOL notices. We appreciate our suppliers who give us a last time buy opportunity with a year to take deliveries. We don’t like them quite as much when they decide not to notify us until we’re trapped into placing a huge order for several years’ quantities, because they didn’t give us enough time to qualify and certify the replacement board, theirs or a competitor’s board.

What does EOL mean for software? After all, these are just bits and bytes, numbered in the billions. A software image can be copied onto new media indefinitely. Well, for starters, there’s a little thing called a license sticker. It’s not so much a consideration for the growing number of Linux users, but this is a big deal for the proprietary OS market. There is a last ship date for license stickers. Equally important, if not more so, is the last support date. Support comes in several flavors: tech support and software updates. Tech support may not be needed at this late stage of a particular embedded system’s deployment. Updates include new or improved device drivers, OS libraries, and most importantly for desktop Windows users, service packs, security patches—all the SPs. For within the Windows ecosystem lurk many hackers and troublemakers who have nothing better to do than invent newer sneakier ways to deliver viruses to unsuspecting e-mail and browser users.

While viruses bring even the most Goliath gaming PCs and server motherboards to their knees, they are usually far removed from the reaches of ultrasound machines, robotics, avionics control systems, and most embedded devices that don’t need to update themselves.

April 8 was the last day for support for XP and XP Embedded. Desktop users will no longer receive automatic updates, and Microsoft warns that even if you have antivirus software, your PC will still not be fully secure. Embedded license stickers are still available until January 2017, but it’s time to start designing next generation devices. ISVs and IHVs are moving on to the new OSs. This train is leaving the station; last call.

As if on cue, Intel is also in the process of housecleaning, affecting the popular Core Duo/945 platform and the original Atom Z510/530 “Menlow” family. Users of SBCs can find replacements with some differences in the expansion bus connectors and the I/O block. ETX users can find Intel- and AMD-based replacements; COM Express type 2 users can as well. Most type 1 users can go to type 10. The computer-on-module (COM) form factors are plug-and-play with minimal disruption to the carrier board and its connectors. The replacement modules are much better situated to running power-hungry desktop operating systems, with dual core and even quad core processors now available in these form factors.

Migrating to a new product necessarily requires an appropriate product to migrate to. In some cases, your SBC or COM will run Windows 7 or its embedded counterpart. This is likely the case if Windows 7 was released around the time the processor became available. The further back you go to older processors, the less likely you will find chipset drivers. In addition, there’s a concern about how much additional hardware resources are required just to run newer OSs—CPU horsepower, RAM, disk space including swap/cache space, and so on. There has always been a foot race between the processor manufacturers who increase performance and the OS vendors who gobble it up. A bigger leap forward to Windows 8 or Win 8 Embedded may be out of the question with old hardware. Very loosely paraphrasing, Microsoft gives three steps for that migration: “buy a new PC,” followed by “buy a new PC,” and finally “buy a new PC.” Win 8 was not designed to run on old hardware. Your embedded hardware manufacturer will say the same thing… almost. You might also hear about the various other operating systems that their new boards support as well.