It’s official. Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP on April 8, 2014, which means no more security updates or technical assistance. This leaves XP systems vulnerable to security threats such as cyber attacks, data theft, and viruses. Many companies believe the security threats are significant enough to mandate that Windows XP computers be removed from their networks. Unfortunately, the test and measurement world has been slow to transition from Windows XP and several systems still use it.
Forrester Research estimates that 20 percent of North American and European corporate computers run Windows XP. That number is considerably higher for test and measurement users that either depend on their equipment uptime for critical manufacturing processes, or are not under the jurisdiction of IT departments that implement upgrades on corporate computers. After 12 years of faithful service, it’s time for Windows XP to retire. Here are factors you should consider in making the upgrade.
1. Upgrading Your Hardware
If your test system is running Windows XP, there is a good chance the PC is old. In most cases, it makes sense to upgrade the PC to provide sufficient computing resources to run a new OS, reduce the risk of a hardware failure, and increase serviceability by avoiding obsolescence of spare parts. There are several special considerations for upgrading a test and measurement PC. For desktop or rack-mount PCs, make sure any plug-in PCI/PCI Express cards you’re using can be installed in the new PC; however, there are many USB-based options that may be a better alternative. For example, the NI USB DAQ and NI CompactDAQ platforms range in scope from low-cost 12- or 16-bit plug-in DAQ card replacements to high-performance 24-bit modular systems with signal conditioning for many sensor types.
If you have a PXI system running Windows XP, then now may be a good time to consider PXI Express. PXI Express integrates PCI Express signaling into the PXI standard, increasing bandwidth from 132 MB/s to 6 GB/s, and enhancing timing and synchronization by incorporating a 100 MHz differential reference clock and differential trigger lines. PXI vendors such as NI are producing many new high-performing instruments based on the PXI Express standard. To migrate your PXI system to PXI Express and still use all of your existing PXI instruments, choose a PXI Express controller and chassis that contain the correct number of PXI or PXI Express hybrid peripheral slots.
An additional benefit of upgrading the hardware at the same time as the OS is that the changes are isolated to the new hardware, while the old PC or PXI controller is left intact. If you encounter a problem, you can swap back to the previous configuration and buy time to work out the upgrade issues. Upgrade or not, make sure you do a full backup of the system prior to making any changes.
If your Windows XP system is already running on a PXI Express controller, then you only need to check that the controller has at least 2 GB of RAM and is not obsolete.
2. Choosing a Windows Version
For migrating test and measurement applications designed for Windows XP, you should upgrade to Windows 7. Windows Vista had numerous problems that are beyond the scope of this article, and 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 still have a choice between 32- and 64-bit Windows 7. If your Windows XP application is 32-bit, then the safer choice is 32-bit Windows 7. If your application is memory constrained, then this may be an opportunity to explore 64-bit Windows. You can still run 32-bit applications on 64-bit Windows, but make sure all your hardware has the appropriate drivers available.
3. Using Windows XP Mode in Windows 7
Some editions of Windows 7 include a feature that gives you the ability to run a fully licensed version of Windows XP as a virtual machine under Windows 7. This appears to be a low-risk way to move a test and measurement system to Windows 7, but there are two problems:
- Windows XP mode is also unsupported after April 8, 2014, so although you may be able to work around an IT department mandate, you experience the same security vulnerabilities as sticking with Windows XP.
- Many hardware devices and data acquisition cards do not work in Windows XP mode because of the way that hardware resources are allocated to virtual machines.
4. Getting Your Application Running Under Windows 7
In some cases, the application installs and works fine, but there’s a good chance you may need to make minor modifications to the code and recompile with a newer version of the development environment. Check which versions of the software development environment are compatible with Windows 7. As an example, here is the compatibility chart for NI LabVIEW software:
The areas most likely to exhibit problems when upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7 are:
- File and registry security. Many test applications store data and test results to folders on the C: drive and configuration information to the Windows registry. The Windows 7 security model may prevent these applications from accessing certain locations depending on the user login. In general, Windows 7 has good reasons to prevent software from accessing these locations so it is best to modify the software to store data elsewhere. If you can’t modify the software, you may be able to bypass these restrictions by running the code as administrator (although this isn’t recommended).
- Firewall/network security. Windows 7 has a built-in network firewall that is enabled by default. For tests that communicate to instrumentation over TCP/IP, it may be necessary to open the appropriate ports in the firewall.
- Incompatible hardware. Windows 7 drivers may not exist for some of your instrumentation. Typically this would apply to PCI/PCI Express cards. Most devices that communicate over a standard bus (RS232, GPIB) function normally, but drivers may not exist for older USB devices and plug-in boards.
- Multithreading and timing. Any new PC is likely to be significantly faster and have more CPUs or cores than what it replaces. This may cause old test software to behave differently. For example, threads that may have never run truly in parallel on the prior PC, because there was only 1 core, may actually execute simultaneously on a new PC, and cause race conditions. Even without race conditions, the execution speed is different, and any software routines that rely on the rate of sequentially executed steps are affected.
- Development environment. Some problems are not directly related to the OS upgrade, but rather the required development environment and/or driver upgrades. A common example is LabVIEW code that uses traditional NI-DAQ drivers instead of the more modern NI-DAQmx drivers. Newer versions of LabVIEW do not install traditional (legacy) NI-DAQ drivers by default and require that you install them separately (see Traditional NI-DAQ (Legacy) 7.5).
5. Next Steps
Even if your organization has not mandated that you replace Windows XP machines, this is a good opportunity to upgrade your test and measurement systems to currently supported technology. Before you start, do your research and make an upgrade plan. Here are some considerations:
- Do you have a full backup of the system hard drive?
- Do you have source code and installers for the test software?
- Do you have a version of the development environment that supports Windows 7?
- Do Windows 7 drivers exist for your instruments?
- Should you upgrade the PC or PXI controller?
- How much downtime can you afford, and how can you minimize it?
- How will you test the system to make sure it works after the upgrade?
- What is your contingency plan if there are problems during the upgrade?
If you are unsure about some of these steps or have more than one system to upgrade, then seek help from your instrument vendors or a knowledgeable systems integrator. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org for a consultation before attempting this upgrade.
This article originally appeared in Bloomy Controls’ newsletter on March 04, 2014.
About the Author
Robert Cornwell is vice president of operations at Bloomy Controls and has over 20 years’ experience in the test and measurement industry.
Bloomy Controls (www.bloomy.com ) is an NI Platinum Alliance Partner and winner of the Most Outstanding Technical Resources award at NIWeek 2013.