Windows 7: Seven Tips for a Smooth Migration

Thursday Jan 28th 2010 by Gerry Blackwell
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If you’re thinking about migrating your small business over to Windows 7, we’ve got the lowdown on making the transiton as easy and painless as possible.

Are you thinking about migrating to Windows 7? It’s not hard, but due diligence and good planning are paramount for a successful migration. You need to follow best practices, which includes tapping into Microsoft’s readily available — mostly free — tools and resources.

To start you off on the right path, our top seven tips will tell you everything you need to know for a smooth transition to Windows 7.

1. Determine which of your existing PCs will support Windows 7

Many small businesses will wait until they’re ready to buy new PCs before migrating to Windows 7. But if you’re considering upgrading to or installing Windows 7 on existing PCs, then you need to know which of your machines have what it takes to support the new operating system.

Microsoft offers two different tools — both free and downloadable — to help you make the determination.

If you have only a few PCs, you will probably want to use the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. You download and install the software tool on each individual PC. It analyzes the resources available — processing power, memory, etc. — and tells you if the computer will support Win7. Or the Advisor may recommend a memory or hard drive upgrade to bring the computer up to minimum specifications.

If you have many PCs on a client-server network, consider using the Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit for Windows 7 Enterprise. It automatically and remotely probes your computers over the network to determine Windows 7 readiness.

“It surveys all the computers on your network and tells you which ones are ready and which ones are not,” says Mark Tauschek, a lead research analyst at small-medium enterprise IT research firm Info-Tech Research Group Inc.

2. Determine which of your applications will run under Windows 7

This is a critical step. While Windows 7 supposedly offers improved backward-compatibility compared to previous operating system versions, there will be some programs and device drivers for hardware peripherals that do not work or do not work properly. You need to know before you begin a migration.

Microsoft again provides tools for both small businesses and enterprises. But any size company can use either tool, notes Sandrine Skinner, a senior director in Microsoft’s Windows client group.

If you have relatively few applications and devices to worry about, and few PCs, consult the Windows 7 Compatibility Center, an online database of products and applications that have been tested and certified to work under Windows 7. It’s updated in real time — as new products are certified, they appear immediately.

If your product does not appear, it doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work. Custom-built programs — and many small firms build their businesses around custom applications developed for them by consultants and value added resellers — will never appear, for example. A product’s absence from the list might also mean the testing and certification have simply not been completed yet.

And if your product really doesn’t work under Windows 7, the new operating system does provide a “safety net,” Skinner notes. Windows XP Mode will allow you to run older applications that don’t work properly under Windows 7. Note, however, that XP mode requires use of virtualization technology — freely available from Microsoft — which only works on PCs built in the last couple of years.

If you have many computers and applications, and especially if you don’t know all the applications and devices your employees use, you could download and run the Windows 7 Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.5. Like the MAP tool, it works over the network, probing computers and detecting applications and devices. It then compiles a list and cross-references them against the database of products certified for use under Windows 7.

“That is a good first step,” Tauschek says of this kind of application review. “But you will want to also test all your applications pretty thoroughly before you migrate — just to make absolutely sure there are no surprises.”

In particular, he says, test any browser-based program. Windows 7 only supports Internet Explorer 8, which may cause problems with some Web-based applications.

3. Decide which version of Windows 7 is right for you

Windows 7 comes in a few different flavors. It’s available in versions that use 32-bit processing or 64-bit technology. And it’s available in Premium, Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise editions, each priced differently. You should establish at the outset which you’ll use and, if possible, go with one choice across all your computers.

“You probably don’t want to mix and match,” Tauschek says. “If you did, even in smaller enterprises, it would almost be like having to support two different operating systems.”

The processing architecture — 32-bit versus 64-bit — is a decision that will be determined partly by the hardware you’re using. Most PCs built in the last year and a half to two years can support 64-bit processing. Computers older than two years, generally cannot.

The other consideration is that the 64-bit architecture will not support older 16-bit applications developed under earlier versions of Windows. If you have such applications — ask your IT consultant or trusted advisor if you don’t know — and intend to continue using them, you will have to go with 32-bit Windows.

Decide which edition — Premium, Professional, Ultimate, Enterprise — based on the features you think you’ll need, and your budget. To help you make that decision, you can use Microsoft’s handy Win 7 feature-comparison chart.

4. Assess the tasks involved and how you’ll manage the migration

The complexity of your migration will depend in part on whether you’re upgrading computers at the same time or using existing PCs. If it’s the former, you’ll likely buy hardware with Windows 7 pre-installed — in which case, skip to the last step. If it’s the latter, you have some decisions to make.

First, are the existing computers currently running Windows Vista or Windows XP or earlier? If they’re running Vista, the task is much easier because Windows 7 is based on the same software architecture and you need only “upgrade” the operating system. This means no manual migration of user settings or reinstalling applications. All Vista settings and user data will be preserved.

If the existing computers are running XP or earlier — more often the case in small businesses — you need to back up all the user settings and data, find the program discs for all applications and device drivers (or download the latest versions from the Web) and then do a “clean” install — also referred to as “wipe and load.” You basically clean out the hard drive on the computer and install Windows 7 from scratch.

For step-by-step instructions on what’s involved, use the resources at Microsoft’s Web site. If your company doens’t have a dedicated IT staff, start off at Microsoft’s Windows 7 Help & How-to page. Small businesses with an IT department will want to use the myriad resources at Microsoft TechNet.

If you have only a few PCs, and especially if you’re not planning a company-wide migration, you can do the upgrading or installing as the occasion arises — when you buy new hardware (if it isn’t pre-installed) or when an employee has some downtime.

If you have ten or more computers and want to do a more organized migration, you need to decide whether you’ll do it on your own, or hire a consultant or value added reseller (VAR) to do the job for you. You can supply a VAR with a program disc that you buy from Microsoft, along with program keys for all the computers you’re going to install, and instruct the VAR on which user settings and applications must be re-installed.

“You’ll pay a few extra dollars,” Tauschek says. But if you have no dedicated in-house IT resources and you have more than 10 or so PCs, it will make the process much less painful.

5. Perform a test run with a pilot group

The more PCs you have, the more fraught with possible complications the process will be. Even if you only have a few, you will need to install Windows 7 on at least one to test that applications you rely on do actually work under the new operating system – before you commit to upgrading the rest of your computers.

If you have more than 25 PCs and are planning a mass migration of existing equipment, begin with a pilot group — logically, the IT department if you have one — to test the migration procedures you’ve worked out along with all the applications and devices.

6. Migrate in stages

Whether you’re doing it manually or in automated fashion — an option for larger companies — do it in manageable steps. 

Tauschek suggests mid-size SMBs convert five computers at a time over a couple of months. That’s as many as a small IT shop — in-house or outsourced — could do in one day. Do it overnight or over a weekend if possible; the less time your people are without computers, the better.

Tauschek estimates that it will take a couple of hours for each machine, including time for testing. That last step is crucial, he notes. “You want to be careful about not screwing people up for a day because everything isn’t working properly.”

For larger companies with 100 or more computers, Microsoft offers an automated tool for performing upgrades over the network. Tauschek doesn’t recommend it for smaller firms. And even if you do use it, you could not reasonably do more than 20 or 30 computers at a time, he says.

7. Train your employees 

The new operating system will require some relearning of basics, especially for employees who were using Windows XP. Most of the enhancements to the user interface — the new task bar, the organization of user data in libraries, etc. — are all positive, but it will take some reorientation.

Tauschek suggests that a 30- or 60-minute one-on-one session — or even a group seminar as each group of employees moves to Windows 7 — will be sufficient. “It’s probably not a huge stretch for most people,” he says. You can also refer them to the Microsoft’s Windows 7 Help & How-to page, which includes links to excellent how-to videos.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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