Imagine an OS without security updates, hotfixes or support – being stuck in a world of perpetual zero days in what would effectively be open season for cybercriminals. Come April 8th 2014, this is exactly what many organizations will be facing as Microsoft withdraws it’s free support for the hugely popular Windows XP operating system.

Recent stats show that XP still represents over 30% market share, even though the infection rate is 6x higher than that of Windows 8 and 2x higher than Windows 7, with mounting cost and resource implications to support and maintain the retiring OS.

As the deadline edges closer, IT departments across the globe face huge challenges in migrating their IT estate, particularly in their attempts to follow industry best practice by implementing a least privilege environment to overcome the ‘black or white’ approach to user accounts in Windows 7.

Analysts such as Gartner agree that removing admin rights is the biggest thing you can do to improve Windows security, but before you take the leap, there are 5 important steps to consider.

1. Understand the Challenge

Before you remove administrator rights from users, it is crucial to have a plan which starts with reviewing how admin rights are actually used within your organization and how many applications rely on administrator rights in order to run.

No matter what stage of your Windows 7/8 migration plan you are in, undertaking an Admin Rights Audit to understand the scale and impact of admin rights removal is the first step to provisioning a secure and usable environment.

2. Get User Buy-In

Perhaps the worst way to go about removing administrator rights from users, in terms of communication, is to keep them in the dark.

Communication is the key, but choose your words wisely. Announcing that removing admin rights is all about locking users down and preventing them from performing certain tasks will make users feel restrained - which is not the goal.

Instead, educate colleagues on the security benefits and ensure they will have the capability to easily request access to applications and tasks they need.

3. Confront UAC Head On

One of the reasons why out-of-the-box UAC fails in the corporate environment is the confusing prompts will inevitably lead to a huge spike in help desk tickets and frustrated users.

Over time, this is likely to result in privilege creep, which means that users are gradually allocated back admin rights on a temporary or permanent basis, which then become unmanaged and uncontrolled.

To successfully implement least privilege, an alternative solution is required which allows the applications that require privileges to be seamlessly elevated when necessary. Implement custom messages using your own wording and branding, with challenge and response mechanisms such as validation codes or audited elevation.

4. Go Granular: One Size Doesn’t Fit All!

It’s quite clear that the admin vs. standard user approach to user privileges isn’t practical in the corporate environment, considering the huge diversity of roles in today’s enterprise.

The trick is to granulize user privileges by aligning policies across specific departments and roles. For example, if one developer requires access to a certain application to fulfill their duties, it can be assumed that all developers will need the same privileges, thus a policy can be made.

Create as many policies as you need based on the reports and audit you have completed and empower your users by seamlessly elevating privileges based on these rules.

5. Reporting & Auditing

Post migration, you need to ensure that the environment that you’ve deployed stays clean. Once live, your fresh environment can be under threat from automated build sequences within third party applications and even Active Directory. There is also the risk of rogue sysadmins assigning admin rights to people they shouldn’t.

In order to preserve this, comprehensive monitoring is necessary to analyze all privileged activity so that you have complete visibility of your user behavior.

Regular reports on privileged activity should be used to continually update your policy rules.

Implementing a Privilege Management Solution

All of the above points can addressed using a solution such as Avecto's Defendpoint, which uniquely combines the technologies of privilege management, application control and sandboxing to protect the operating system, software environment and user data from unknown cyber threats.

This allows IT teams to find the delicate balance between usability and security, providing users with only the privileges needed to run the programs, scripts and Windows features required.