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Microsoft is breathing more life into older versions of its products by offering businesses extended coverage for fixing security problems and bugs.

Large companies running old favorites Windows NT 4.0, Exchange Server 5.5 and Windows XP Service Pack 1 can expect at least three more years of support from Microsoft after it decided to update the Custom Support Agreement (CSA) program. There is even the suggestion support will go beyond three years.

Microsoft said it is updating CSA to help as customers migrate to newer versions of its products. This is the latest wrinkle to the Microsoft product lifecycle program introduced in 2002 and revised in 2004 to extend product support from seven to 10 years. Microsoft has also made more minor tweaks along the way such as January 2006 when it pledged to wait until regularly scheduled monthly security updates have been released to end support cycles rather than ending support at the close of a month or quarter.

CSA itself was introduced two years ago to extend Microsoft's existing product support lifecycle. Under this lifecycle, customers get free security updates and non-security hot fixes for five years after their product shipped and for a further two years after its successor has shipped under "mainstream support."

After that, customers only get security updates and pay for other updates for a further five years after the original product shipped under "extended support." After 10 years, you're on your own, as Microsoft provides internet-only support.

Windows NT 4.0 and Exchange 5.5, launched in 1996 and 1997, have already left mainstream support. Windows XP SP 1, which appeared in September 2002, is due to expire next month - thanks to the licensing intricacies associated with SPs.

Updates to Microsoft's support terms should come as little surprise, as big customers have proved notoriously slow to move to new versions of Microsoft's software. Gartner found in early 2005 that 61 per cent of US and 36 per cent of European companies had migrated to Windows XP SP 2, which shipped in September 2004. Microsoft has also had a hard time convincing users to adopt newer versions of Exchange Server.

The latest updates will see Microsoft proactively provide security hotfixes for "critical and important" vulnerabilities and let customers request non-security hotfixes for new bugs for an additional fee. CSA will be charged per device rather than use a flat fee.®

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