Top 5 tips for Windows 7 migration

Virtualise apps, get your licensing straight and plan ahead before migrating to Microsoft's Windows 7.

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The move to Microsoft's Windows 7 will be one of the biggest technology migrations in years, so it's important to get it right. "This is a once in a decade movement," IDC analyst Al Gillen says. "People that move to Windows 7 can expect to be on Windows 7 for a pretty long lifecycle, much like we have with XP today. So whatever you do, and whatever decisions you make are decisions you're going to have to live with for a long time."

But many organisations face problems because of insufficient planning. According to a Gartner report, most organizations undergoing Windows migrations "underestimate how long it will take them to [test applications and fix problems] don't build a business case or properly track the benefits of their projects [and] allocate insufficient time for their pilot."

There are probably too many Windows 7 migration issues to list in a single article. But here are five tips to help you on the path to Microsoft's latest operating system.

1. Virtualise applications and user settings

Desktop virtualisation commands much of the attention in the IT market today, with some vendors saying the technology will ease migration to Windows 7. But this isn't the only type of virtualisation that can make Windows 7 upgrades and future OS migrations easier than they might otherwise be.

Two technologies to consider are application virtualisation and user virtualisation. Nik Gibson, the enterprise desktop practice leader at Forsythe, a technology consulting firm, has worked with many large enterprises on virtualisation projects, and says it's often easier to virtualise applications than desktops. "We see that a lot. It takes longer to virtualise the desktops than the applications," he says. "The desktops are more unique," with various use cases depending on the employee.

Gibson says "virtualise your applications" is the first tip he would give to customers planning a large Windows 7 migration. "And that just makes sense," he says. "If you can decouple your applications from the base operating system, it's going to be easier to migrate that operating system."

Application virtualisation will not only aid the current move to Windows 7, it will also make future upgrades to Windows 8 easier too, IDC's Gillen says.

Application virtualisation isn't exactly new, but has undergone a bit of a marketing makeover in the past few years. What Citrix used to call its Presentation Server product for application streaming is now referred to as XenApp and labeled a "virtualisation" technology. VMware's ThinApp, based on technology acquired in 2008, is another option in this market.

But application virtualisation won't help move each user's personal data and settings from one OS to another to another. That's where user virtualisation comes in. Software such as VMware's RTO and AppSense's user virtualisation product will take a user's profile, data files and settings, and move them easily from one machine to another, for example from a Windows XP computer to one with Windows 7, Gibson says.

User virtualization is still maturing, though. Although VMware acquired RTO technology, it has not yet integrated the software into its desktop virtualisation product.

Microsoft itself offers a User State Migration Tool to ensure that user settings and files survive OS upgrades. AppSense technology is on the market, and can be used for Windows 7 migrations both on physical PCs and in conjunction with virtual deployments. Another user migration toolkit is available from Tranxition, which can also be used for migrations involving either physical or virtual desktops.

2. Test applications to prepare for potential incompatibility

In a Gartner report titled "Pitfalls to Avoid on the Road to Windows 7 and Office 2010 Migration," analyst Michael Silver says organisations need to test applications on Windows 7 to make sure they will run and also determine whether the makers of the applications will support them on Windows 7.

"Most organisations have more applications than they know about that users consider to be important or critical," Silver writes. "Many organisations that have tested applications for Vista believe that these programs will run with Windows 7, but ISVs often limit support to specific versions."

For critical applications, which may carry financial and legal risks if they fail, "lack of ISV support may represent too much risk to move to Windows 7," he writes. A decade ago, "Windows 2000 Professional broke a lot of applications," Gillen says.

With Windows XP, Microsoft created some compatibility tools to run earlier applications. But if an application made it onto XP only because of the compatibility tools, there's no guarantee it will run on Windows 7, Gillen says. Complicating matters even further is that some customers use web-based applications that work only on Internet Explorer 6, an out-of-date web browser that is two releases behind the IE8 that comes preinstalled on Windows 7.

Some companies are spending money to buy new applications or upgrade existing ones so they will work with Windows 7 or new versions of Internet Explorer. Although expensive, this is often the best long term approach.

"Our research tells us customers are very much looking forward to Windows 7," Gillen says. "They realise it's not going to be a completely smooth transition. The lifecycle is over on XP and customers get that."

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