How to plan a Windows XP to Windows 7 upgrade

Learn how to begin planning for an upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 in this tip for CIOs.

Windows 7 is poised to save organizations from the quirky Vista and an ageing XP, but there are strategic options to consider before you make the move. For those who skipped Vista, the migration will have a few more challenges and risks -- including increased risk of data loss -- but will also alleviate potential problems associated with the security flaws in XP.

While many organizations won't migrate to Windows 7 until early 2011, after the 12- to 18-month period it takes to traditionally prepare for a new operating system deployment, it's important to understand where you are now as you plan ahead.

There probably won't be the big-bang IT overhauls of Windows 7 anytime soon, because the economic climate will limit many wholesale upgrades to Windows 7, according to Michael Cherry, vice president of research operating systems at consultancy Directions on Microsoft. Current hardware may not support Windows 7 and customers will more likely migrate to Windows 7 only on machines purchased in the last year and slowly integrate it that way.

A lot of newer machines are not Windows 7-ready, according to Rob McWalter, senior vice president of ConverterTechnology Inc., a company providing software to help with Microsoft migrations. "I have two relatively new laptops at home, and neither one of them are on the Windows 7 compatibility list," he said. "You can still upgrade if the computer meets all the space and memory requirements, but you can get a lot of messages that are going to seem scary if you aren't confident about what you're doing."

Cherry said midmarket CIOs should first ask themselves how long they can afford to stay with XP. Take into consider the challenges that come with running an 8-year-old operating system -- such as Microsoft putting all of its resources behind Vista and Windows 7, known security flaws and the loss of application developers who will design for XP.

Also , don't let Microsoft's decision to extend XP support until 2014 unduly influence you, "because you don't get much with that support," Cherry said. You can report a problem when you have support, but Microsoft still chooses whether or not to fix it.

So decide how comfortable you are with XP, how long you can stay on it and when you should aim to be on Windows 7, Cherry said.

Strategy consideration: Clean install vs. custom install

Moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 is not an in-place installation because the folder structure has changed significantly from XP to Windows 7. So you have two choices -- a clean install or a custom install. As with other operating system installs, a clean install will format the drives and all applications, custom settings, files and data will be lost. According to McWalter, a custom install can prevent some data losses because the folders on the C drive remain untouched.

For custom installs, there are tools to help keep most files and settings intact and cut back on data loss: the Windows Easy Transfer Wizard (for attended installations) and the User State Migration Tool 4.0 (for unattended installations).

But Cherry said not to shy away from a fresh install because there are some benefits to starting from scratch in some cases.

For example, a clean install provides the opportunity to upgrade to a 64-bit version of Windows. Most newer computers have 64-bit processors, but many are still running 32-bit versions of the operating system.

A 64-bit operating system can better handle large amounts of available random access memory (4 GB or more) and be more responsive when running several programs at once. But in order to run a 64-bit version of an operating system, both the processor and all the device drivers need to be 64-bit. And even then, moving to the new version is a project. According to Cherry, if you are currently running a 32-bit version of Windows you can't upgrade to a 64-bit version -- you would need to back up all of your files and perform a clean installation of a 64-bit version.

Windows 7 is available in multiple versions, including the 32-bit version, but if you have the capabilities to upgrade to the 64-bit version, Cherry said to go for it.

"This is another opportunity to take advantage of what you already have because with the clean install, you get the Windows 7 and possibly the option to move into the 64 bit version of the operating system," Cherry said. "You can get more relief for your pain because there are two incentives there."

And the extra data backup steps that are necessary for a clean install should be viewed as a chance to get a good backup copy of your data -- one that you're sure can be easily restored.

But whether you go with the clean or custom installation, you will still have to reinstall your applications. McWalter said that it's important to make sure you have all the product keys and necessary materials to reinstall your apps now, so you aren't scrambling for them later. "You don't want to end up in a situation where you lose all your installed applications and then you realize you don't have the proper documentation," he said.

McWalter also recommends application discovery and application compatibility testing to figure out whether or not key application are going to run on Windows 7 so you can plan accordingly, including any re-engineering of custom apps. Packaged applications will need to be certified for use with Vista/Windows 7; custom application re-engineering can range from one to three months if you use automation, or roughly six to 12 months if you do it manually, he said.

The official migration may be a while off, but organizations shouldn't avoid strategically planning for it, Cherry said. "The age and security concerns with XP are not going away," he said. "So it's absolutely worth looking into Windows 7 now."

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