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Recommendations for Windows 7 based industrial automation system users

At one time, the idea of running an industrial application using Microsoft Windows would not have been entertained. However, when Microsoft introduced their Windows XP operating system more than two decades ago, industry sat up and took notice. Windows 7 as successor of Windows XP provided the stability, flexibility and functionality needed by many industrial users and soon appeared in every imaginable type of application.

Microsoft’s successful and very popular Windows 7 operating system is now well over a decade old. While about 35 percent of Windows users worldwide still rely on Windows 7, an operating system as old as this cannot be supported forever.

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Questions raised by the end of Windows 7 support

As all good things come to an end: on January 14th, 2020 the Windows 7 era will conclude when Microsoft support for the product will cease. Of course, Microsoft have given ample notice and companies had been preparing for the switch for some years. Yet many questions had to be answered:

  • Could a standalone Windows 7 system continue to run unaffected?
  • What would happen if the Windows 7 system was integrated into another system?
  • Would new hardware be needed and what would be the cost of this across the entire organization?
  • What would the budget for the switch likely to be?
  • Could virtualization fix the problem?
  • What support would be available to migrate over onto a new system?

The answers to these questions were not always straightforward and easy, and it became clear that there were indeed significant issues raised by the end of Windows 7 support. The most significant issues can be grouped into four major categories, of which, security issues are the most critical.

Microsoft will cease the Windows 7 support on January 14th, 2020. This means there are no new security updates, no new patches and no active support. The effect of this is that Windows 7 will become unsecure, unreliable and incompatible with most newly released IT hardware, such as PCs, PC components, network equipment and printers. In other words, the end of the Windows 7 era is affecting many industrial applications and requires a proactive response from users.

Issues requiring proactive response from industrial users

Security

From examples below it is apparent that the industrial automation environment is quite vulnerable enough – and without critical Windows 7 security updates, PCs are wide open to attack by viruses, spyware and other malicious software that can steal or damage business data and information.

Antivirus software no longer provides full protection for Windows 7 systems. Any devices remaining with Windows 7 can be used by attackers as an entry point into IT networks. This means that even computers running supported operating systems can then also be compromised.

Hardware

Most manufacturers of PC hardware, printers and network equipment have already stopped supporting Windows 7 on new hardware. This means that the software drivers required to run Windows 7 on such new hardware are, in most cases, no longer available – ie, there will be no Windows 7 drivers for new hard disks, printers, graphic cards, network equipment, etc.

Buying a replacement Windows 7 computer will not be easy or cheap. Windows 7-based hardware will become obsolete and hard to find. Unplanned shutdowns caused by unavailability of hardware components will become more frequent.

Compliance

Businesses that are governed by regulatory obligations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States, may find that they are no longer able to satisfy compliance
requirements if they remain with Windows 7.

With so much personal and private data now stored on servers, data security is a very significant concern.

Lack of independent software vendor support

Many software vendors no longer support their products that run on Windows 7 as they are unable to receive Windows 7 updates.

For example, the new Microsoft Office package takes advantage of the newest Windows and is not released on Windows 7.

Examples of malicious attacks

What to do

With so many issues to be overcome, what course of action should be taken? The recommendation made by Microsoft and all cyber security companies is to upgrade to Windows 10. This includes distributed control system vendors with control systems running operating systems with Windows 7 and older.

Remaining with Windows 7 is a high-maintenance undertaking and requires tools and support from experienced cyber security companies.

Windows 7 upgrade strategy for distributed control systems

Windows 7

Controller

Windows
8.1
 Windows 10
800xA <= 5.1 All => 800xA 6.0 6.0.3
6.0 6.1 6.1

   
Freelance <= 9.2 All => Freelance 2016 SP1
2019
2013
2013 SP1
2016
2016 SP1
2019
Composer Harmony 5.1 - 6.1
=> S+ Engineering
2.2
Harmony Gateway Software 5.1 - 6.3   => Harmony Gateway Software    7.1 embedded with S+ Engineering 2.2
Harmony OPC Server 5.0 - 6.1   => Harmnoy OPC Server    7.0 SP1
             
Third Party DCS System Evolution

Modernize your distributed control system with ABB

DCS Evolution paths


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