Microsoft gives more details on Windows 7 XP Mode

Microsoft's Scott Woodgate offers up a few more details around the once hush-hush virtualization project within Windows 7 now known as XP Mode

As we discussed earlier this week, Microsoft is going to use desktop virtualization technology from its Virtual PC software to help Windows 7 users run programs that operate fine within Windows XP but not in Windows Vista or Windows 7. Instead, they could run these applications within their Windows 7 environment by installing them inside a Windows XP virtual machine, a process being dubbed "Windows XP Mode." This XP Mode sounds like it is going to operate in a similar manner to the technology found in VMware Unity or Parallels Coherence.

Information early on about the XP Mode technology was sparse. So after reading a few e-mail letters from readers, I asked Scott Woodgate, director of Desktop Virtualization and Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) at Microsoft, to clarify a few points and provide a bit more detail around the subject.

[ InfoWorld's Randall C. Kennedy calls Windows 7's 'XP mode' the right idea, wrong technology, and XP mode may not work on many PCs. | Ready to upgrade? Find out if your PC can run Windows 7 | Learn more about Windows 7's actual performance and capabilities in InfoWorld's special report. ]

InfoWorld: When is the final version of XP Mode going to ship? And will it remain an add-on that people have to download separately or will it ultimately be packaged in with Windows 7?

Scott Woodgate: A beta of Windows XP Mode is available today. Beta testers can download Windows Virtual PC and the virtual Windows XP environment. When Windows XP Mode is released to production, there will be two ways for customers to get Windows XP Mode. The easiest way will be to get it pre-installed on a PC from an original equipment manufacturer or local value-added reseller. This requires minimum configuration and delivers the most compelling experience for small to medium-size businesses. As an alternative, Windows Virtual PC and Virtual Windows XP will be available as downloads from for Windows 7 Professional, Ultimate, and Enterprise customers.

InfoWorld: To clear up any confusion, are there any differences in the way Microsoft plans to promote MED-V and XP Mode's virtual XP to small businesses? Why would they use one technology over the other?

Woodgate: Windows XP Mode and Windows Virtual PC as stand-alone features are specifically designed for small businesses and provide an unmanaged IT experience. For larger businesses looking to reduce the cost of ownership of deploying Windows Virtual PCs across hundreds of users, Microsoft provides MED-V. MED-V is one of the six components in Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), a dynamic desktop solution designed for better management and control of enterprise desktop environments.  MED-V is the management tool for Windows Virtual PC; it builds on top of Windows Virtual PC to run two operating systems on one device.  Basically, by adding virtual image delivery and policy-based provisioning, it facilitates centralized management. This is a great tool for IT pros who want to reduce the cost of managing and deploying Windows Virtual PC. There is much more here [on my blog.]

InfoWorld: With folks trying to come up with Type I hypervisors for the desktop, any reason Microsoft went with the Type II Virtual PC style?  Was it timing, or is this the right solution for the right problem?

Woodgate: Windows Virtual PC is better suited to mainstream desktop virtualization users in the application compatibility scenario than Type I hypervisors.  This is probably counter-intuitive because on servers type I hypervisors are better than Type II hypervisors, so let me explain:

  • Servers typically run virtualization for their entire work-life.  Their job is typically to run virtualization workloads.  In that context, a Type I hypervisor that is running on the system the whole time is fine because although it uses system resources it improves the overall experience delivered by the server.
  • Unlike servers, people using desktops with Windows XP mode likely use applications for a period of time and then stop using them as they use native Windows 7 applications. For example, I use my older accounting application once a month, a week, or a day, and that requires Windows XP Mode, but then I close it and work on something else.
  • Unfortunately, Type I hypervisors have performance implications and user experience implications to the PC that exist even when you aren't using them. For example battery life might be impacted as well as performance, user experience, and memory usage even if the user never actually runs a virtualized application. In contrast Windows Virtual PC takes resources when it is turned on and takes no resources when it is turned off. This means that the overall PC experience for mainstream desktop virtualization use-cases is better with Windows Virtual PC than with Type I hypervisors given the technology available today.

InfoWorld: If someone downloads the Windows Virtual PC for XP Mode, is it limited to this role?  Or can they use Windows Virtual PC  as they would any other version of Virtual PC with various VMs and guest operating systems?

Woodgate: Customers can use Windows Virtual PC independently of Windows XP Mode. We expect developers and IT professionals to do this, as they do today, and we catered to these folks by adding the commonly requested support for USB to Windows Virtual PC.

InfoWorld: Which XP apps should customers not expect to operate in this new XP Mode?

Woodgate: With Windows 7, we've worked very hard to maintain compatibility with Windows Vista applications. We have an array of tools and resources to help with application compatibility. Virtually all Windows Vista-compatible applications, as well as the majority of Windows XP applications, run unmodified on Windows 7. For those that do not, the Programs Troubleshooter in the Control Panel provides a wizard interface to employ compatibility features that allow applications to run natively on Windows 7. For IT pros, the Application Compatibility Toolkit provides finer-grained control over the compatibility features, also referred to as "shims." When an application cannot run or be natively shimmed, that's when it's most appropriate to use Windows XP Mode technology.

InfoWorld: What are you doing about graphics in this XP mode? Are you using the basic 3-D graphics emulation we are used to seeing in Virtual PC? Or have there been any advancements like what Parallels and VMware are trying to do with their Workstation products?

Woodgate: We are focused on small business applications that typically have 2-D graphics rather than gaming scenarios, which today don't run very well virtualized.

InfoWorld: And what about security? Will users have to worry about anti-virus in the virtual XP? What about Windows Updates? Or will you guys somehow tie this in to the host machine's anti-virus and Windows Updates? Users who may not be sophisticated virtualization users might not understand the second attack zone on their machines.

Woodgate: Every PC requires a degree of maintenance including but not limited to keeping the operating system and applications up to date with patches, virus and malware protection, and backup. Windows XP Mode is pre-configured with the Windows XP firewall and to apply updates automatically from Windows Update. It is not pre-configured with anti-virus or anti-malware software, which is recommended. Because of the need to maintain the virtual machine, we recommend everyone make best efforts to upgrade applications to run natively in Windows 7 and use Windows XP Mode only when necessary.

Thanks to readers for submitting your thoughts and concerns to me around Windows XP Mode. If you'd like to find out even more information, Microsoft said it has added a Windows 7 and XP Mode Q&A on the company's own Web site to keep folks informed.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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