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IT Strategy - Managing Your Windows 7 Migration

By David Strom

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Many businesses who thankfully skipped Vista are now considering upgrading their aging XP desktops to Windows 7. And while there are some crude tools from Microsoft to help with this transition, there are better choices from third-party vendors that can mass migrate desktops while preserving some of the existing user information.

There are at least six different products as shown in the table below. Prices range from $50 per desktop to enterprise-class appliances for five figures that can handle thousands of PCs.

windows 7 migration tools summary chart

If you buy a copy of Windows 7, you can do an in-place upgrade (meaning preserving your apps and user settings) from Vista but not from XP. Each of these tools gets around this limitation in a different method, and some work better than others. There are two basic groups of products: ones that are used on single PCs at a time (PC Mover and Zinstall) and automated deployment tools that can be used on a massive scale. There are reasons to choose one or the other.

Zinstall is more elegant, preserving your entire XP desktop inside a virtual machine that runs underneath Windows 7, and you have access at the touch of a button. PC Mover is more reliable. (In our tests we had trouble getting a stable machine with Zinstall in that our disk wouldn't boot up after we were finished.) PC Mover also makes the in-place migration permanent to Windows 7, so you no longer have access to your original XP environment once you are finished.

The pain threshold is at ten desktops: fewer and you are probably better off using the single PC tools. This is because the four mass migration products require some learning curve and experimentation, particularly if you have a diverse hardware base of PCs ― and who doesn't have a diverse hardware base these days?

There are also two tools to help you assess whether your PC inventory will be more or less ready to migrate to Windows 7, including a free systems management utility from Viewfinity and Microsoft's own Upgrade Advisor.

The four automated deployment tools all work with broad similarities. Basically, you aren't really keeping XP around, just the hardware it is running on. The trick is preserving enough of its user footprint to make it feel like home. The entire machine is reimaged with Windows 7. The tools start out with a fresh copy of Windows 7 as a master image.

Next, they stir in the particular applications that you want to deploy across your enterprise. This gives you the opportunity to clean house and create a more managed environment, which may not be what your end users want to hear. Each tool has ways to deal with the variety of hardware configurations that you place the image onto. The Kbox from Kace (now a part of Dell) is an actual rack-mounted appliance that is used to create the master image, the others are software utilities that can run on standard Windows PCs.

Which of the four makes the most sense will depend on several circumstances:

As you can see, there are a lot of choices for migration to Windows 7, and depending on your circumstances and how much time you want to invest in learning how to use these tools can save you a lot of time and effort in the process.

David Strom is a freelance writer living in St. Louis and the former editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, DigitialLanding.com, and Tom's Hardware.com. He has written two books and numerous articles on networking, the Internet, and IT security topics. He can be reached at david@strom.com and his blog can be found at http://strominator.com.