Migrating to Windows 7 without Microsoft's help

The cornucopia of Microsoft migration tools leaves some admins seeking easier alternatives

Although there is no direct upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7, that doesn't mean there is a shortage of tools on Microsoft's part to help you migrate. But -- perhaps due to the abundance of Microsoft's tools combined with the complexity of using each tool (or learning how to use the tools in the correct order) -- some IT pros have decided to seek alternatives. And there are plenty to consider.

Note: If you aren't aware of the bevy of migration help from Microsoft, check out my article "Ready for Windows 7? Here's how to deploy it right," which covers tools like the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit (MAP 4.0) and the Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT 5.5); the latter includes tools such as the Standard User Analyzer (SUA), the User State Migration Toolkit (USMT 4.0), the Windows Automated Installation Kit (AIK) for Windows 7, and the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT 2010).

[ Read J. Peter Bruzzese's analysis "Is Windows 7 really worth the investment?" | Keep up with the latest trends in Windows with InfoWorld's Windows Pulse monitoring service. ]

So what can you do to make this migration smoother for yourself (the decision maker) and your users? There are a handful of important factors to consider, including the following:

  • Can your existing hardware support Windows 7, or will you be moving to a new system completely?
  • How to handle the personality move (desktop background, personal files saved locally, settings) of the desktops?
  • What is the application support (or lack thereof) between XP and Windows 7?

I'm not endorsing one option over another here, as this isn't a side-by-side product comparison. These are just a few tools and solutions that are worth investigating, and by no means an exhaustive list. With those caveats, here are non-Microsoft tools to consider in your Windows 7 migration that may be easier than Microsoft's options.

Zinstall XP7: The coexistence migrator
This one really intrigued me. The idea is simple: If your system can be upgraded to Windows 7, do the installation and let the upgrader create the Windows.old file (which is what happens when you try to upgrade XP to Windows 7). Zinstall will then create a virtual XP on the Windows 7 system that mimics your old XP to the letter. The entire system is transferred to the new one. Applications, files, background settings, and so on are all pulled into this alternate "channel" to which you can switch back and forth with an icon in the system tray. The two channels keep Windows 7 clean from potential harm from the old system's files and components that might otherwise cause system instability.

Users get a brand-new Windows 7 system (which folks love like the smell of a new car) but with the crutch of their XP systems virtually running all their comfort-zone apps, files, and so forth. Using Group Policy, you can move over those XP apps that run under Windows 7 and leave in the XP channel the ones that aren't. Users can copy over their data when they are ready (it is a simple cut, or copy, and paste from XP to Windows 7).

If you wanted to migrate users to new hardware, you would use an in-house server on which you install the Zinstall server software and let it handle the migration of multiple systems. Note: The engineer recommended migrating 100 systems at a time to ensure a smooth migration. Pricing starts at $80 per system and slides down with bulk purchasing.

Laplink PCmover: The time-saver
This product provides the ability to move single users (or your enterprise users with the Business or Enterprise versions of the software) to Windows 7, either by upgrading an existing system or migrating to a new PC with full selectivity of programs, files, and settings. Compatible with multiple profiles and domains, the key focus is on the user personality, which carries over completely without a worry. This includes IE settings, cookies, .ini files, ODB Connections (including ERP reporting add-ons and other client/server application add-ons), wallpapers, screensavers, and other personality items. The enterprise edition also includes some great rule enforcement and automation through the PCmover Policy Manager.

Note: You may wonder why you would spend a little extra for the Laplink PCmover tools if you can purchase a Belkin Easy Transfer Cable for about $40. While the Belkin cable works with the Microsoft Windows Easy Transfer utility and can migrate all the standard user personality aspects, Windows Easy Transfer does not support the transfer of applications or programs. For a little extra money, you don't have to go scouring through your old CDs looking for every application and every product ID. Also, PCmover works over a network (although they also have a cable similar to the Belkin), so you aren't limited by the distance of the cable as you are with the Easy Transfer Cable (which is about 8 feet long). Why put the two systems side by side if you don't have to?

Why go with Zinstall with its secondary virtual XP and not just use PCmover? It may come down to the applications you are dealing with. If they all work with Windows 7, the PCmover option may be better. However, if an application is not Windows 7-ready (and some may never be), you may need to consider reinstalling the application in a Virtual PC with Windows XP Mode (which means the system will have to support hardware-assisted virtualization) -- capabilities that only the Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions of Windows 7 support. By contrast, Zinstall works with all versions of Windows 7, including 32-bit and 64-bit, and does not require that you have PCs that support hardware-assisted virtualization.

Kace Kbox: An appliance-based approach
The Kbox appliance is offered as both a physical and a virtual appliance. The Kbox appliance is geared for midsize businesses, handling the entire Windows 7 migration process through a single tool. It of course handles user state migration, but also allows Windows 7 to be installed across a network through its K-imaging and Network OS install features. It tracks OS and software licensing compliance, handles patch management, and performs pre-migration inventory assessment and a host of other features.

I haven't spent enough time with Kbox and Microsoft's tools to pick a definitive winner, but from the work I've done with the free Microsoft tools, I can say my heart leans toward the Kbox product because its centralized administrative console allows me to do so many things at once. One of the features I especially like is the application virtualization technology through virtual Kontainers that allow you to deploy software to the OS by encapsulating applications. (I'll have to revisit application virtualization in a future column, but certainly this feature would address the frustration of apps not running on Windows 7.)

ChangeBase AOK: An application-compatibility focus
AOK automates the majority of the manual work done in relation to application packaging and management. What ChangeBase has discovered is that 40 percent of organizations it's polled indicate a desire to migrate to Windows 7 in the next year. However, 66 percent of their respondents are concerned about application compatibility. (ChangeBase has found that 60 to 80 percent of a typical application portfolio need some remediation to meet the deployment requirements for Windows 7 -- but only 5 percent of applications have a specific problem that needs to be addressed by the software vendor or programmer.) Options like Windows 7's XP Mode and Zinstall can mitigate these concerns, but ChangeBase has made it its key focus.

Knowing your options
Obviously, there is no perfect answer to Windows 7 migration. Each environment is different. What you may decide for your organization may not be valid for another. Perhaps the budget pushes you toward free tools, and you are already pushing the envelope with the migration itself. Perhaps your budget has rebounded enough to ensure a smoother migration with less stress through the use of products such as Zinstall, PCmover, Kbox, and AOK.

What are you leaning toward? Please comment so that other readers can see what direction you decision makers and IT administrators are going to make your Windows 7 migration as smooth as possible.

This article, "Migrating to Windows 7 without Microsoft's help," was orignally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in Windows and Windows 7 at InfoWorld.com.