Apologies for the length of this post by fellow HBNer and client, Gareth Howell of Agdon Associates, but it is full of information for anyone considering migrating to the new, all singing, all dancing offering from Microsoft.  It also clearly demonstrates Gareth’s knowledge and passion for helping small business.

Moving to Windows 7 from XP is painful: reduce it with virtualization.

It’s old news that Windows 7 is now available and the response has been pretty positive. In fact, far from the response being “well, at least it’s not Vista!) respectable people have been singing its praises. However, there is a sting in the tail: it’s not possible to upgrade directly to Windows 7 from XP (at least not in the sense of being to upgrade and then carry on working).

The upgrade path from XP requires a clean installation and the preservation of your personal files only: no applications are migrated across.

This is a major problem for anybody who chose to avoid Vista, relies on a PC for their day to day business and doesn’t have a spare. Re-installing applications can (literally) take days if one includes the inevitable upgrades and service packs that have been released since you bought the installation media. Of course, this also assumes that you have the original installation media. Oh, and the license codes.

Take heart though, if you follow my (fairly) easy to follow sequence of steps, you can migrate to Windows 7 without losing productivity.

In summary, we’re going to use virtualization technology to preserve your XP environment in the new Windows 7 world and disconnect the process of re-installing applications from that of upgrading Windows. What we will do is:

  • Buy a new, larger, hard disk
  • Clone the old XP installation on to the new disk
  • Boot from the new disk and upgrade to Windows 7
  • Create a Virtual Machine to contain the original XP installation.

Once you have gone through this process you can choose when to re-install specific application on Windows 7 because you will still have access to them on XP from day one.

At the end of this process you will have a clean Windows 7 environment plus seemless access to your XP environment; using the excellent “Unity” feature in the latest VMware Player

So, in more detail

Step 1 – Buy a new, larger, hard disk

Buying a new disk makes this all so much easier, though there is a gotcha if your machine is a laptop. I’ll get to that later.

The chances are that you will need a larger disk anyway. In my case my T60 had a 120GB drive, of which about 80GB was used. That means we need at least 80GB of free space on the Windows 7 environment in which to store the Virtual Disk that contains the original XP environment.

In my case I bought a 320GB Seagate drive. This was bigger, faster (7200RPM rather than 5400RPM), quieter and more power efficient. All for £48.00 !

The gotcha!

This only applies to laptops that have space for only a single hard disk. The point is that in a while we will need to have two bare hard drives attached to the computer, and most laptops allow for only one. There are two ways around this. One involves using a third external hard drive (either USB connected or network connected), the other requires a USB connection kit with which you can connect a bare drive to your computer.

As I already had one of these adapters, I went for the latter, but I will cover both options.

Step 2 – Clone the existing XP installation on to the new disk

There are a number or ways to do this and your choice will depend on whether you have the appropriate software and how the new drive is attached to the computer.

Option 1 involves using your backup system (you do have a backup system don’t you !). Option 2 uses a technology such as Norton Ghost to image one drive to the other.

Option 1: Using your backup System

I use Windows Home Server to backup all the computers in the Howell household, so I knew I could use this to move to a larger disk.

  • First, I made sure I had a full backup on the Server (it happens automatically every night, but there’s no harm in forcing a manual backup just to be sure).
  • Second, I swapped the new drive for the old and booted the T60 from the Home Server Restore CD.
  • Third, I followed the wizard to restore the last image from the Server and rebooted. In the wizard, I chose to create a 200GB partition for XP as I intend installing Windows Server 2008 in the other.

At the end of this I had the original XP environment running from a larger disk with plenty of free space.

Option 2: Using Norton Ghost

Caveat: Although I have used Ghost to clone disks before, I did not use this approach this time because I was upgrading a laptop and needed USB drive support. This is not available by default in DOS. I know there are solutions to this, but I decided to take the line of least resistance.

With this approach, you attach both disks to the machine, then boot the machine into MS-DOS and use Norton Ghost to clone the disks.

If you are working with a Desktop where both hard disks are internally attached via ATA or SATA, and you can get the necessary software, then this approach is much faster as it avoids the need to restore from a backup. There are several resource on the Net that can guide you: try entering “Clone disk with DOS GHOST” into Google.

Step 3 – Upgrade to Windows 7

Despite your not being able to do a true upgrade from XP to Windows 7, you can still buy the Upgrade version of Windows 7. It just means that the installer checks for a valid XP installation before installing Windows 7. Upgrading is just a matter of running the setup program from the Windows 7 DVD and opting for an Advanced Installation. You will be warned that all your files will be wiped: hence the need for a full backup.

Don’t forget to choose the correct partition if, like me, you opted to create two partitions on the new disk.

Incidentally, I didn’t elect to install all the updates as part of the installation process. I probably should have but I was in a bit of a hurry. Instead, I ran Windows Update straight after the installation was complete.

One point to note was that I gave the T60 a new machine name so that the backup process preserved the old XP installation as well. Also, you will want to have both “computers” on the network at the same time. At the end of this, you will have a clean installation of Windows 7 with no applications installed.

The next immediate step in my process was to install the Windows Home Server connector and perform a backup. Note: you will need to ensure that Windows Home Server Power Pack 3 has been installed for this to work properly.

Step 4 – Create a Virtual Machine for Windows XP.

At this point we have a functional Windows 7 environment and we have a known good backup of the old XP environment. We also have another hard disk with the original XP environment installed on it. What we now need to do is virtualize the XP environment.

Virtualization is the process by which a single computer (called the Host) is able to run a number of Virtual Machines (called Guests). By the wonders of virtuallization, each Guest believes it has complete control of a physical computer. In fact it can only see virtual devices that are then mapped on to the physical resources of the Host computer.

Once again, you have a choice of how to do this as well as choices over whose virtualisation software to use. Both Microsoft and VMware Corporation have excellent desktop virtualization products. Personally, I have been using VMware Desktop since version 1 and I know it’s very good. In this case, luckily, we don’t need the (paid for) power of VMware Desktop, we just need the less capable, but free, VMware Player.

We also need another VMware utility called VMware vCenter Converter. Converter converts a physical machine into a Virtual Machine [VM]. Physically, the VM comprises a collection of files located on the filesystem of the Host computer. When VMware Player is run, it loads the files for a particular Guest computer and causes the Guest computer to run, interact with the screen, network, printers etc and access a virtual filesystem on a virtual disk.

You need to decide where you are going to store the converted VM. Eventually it needs to reside in the Windows 7 partition on the new hard disk. Whether or not you can go straight there or have to go via a third disk depends on your computer. If you can have both the old and new hard disks installed at the same time (true for most desktops), then you are OK. If not, true for most laptops, you can either:

  • Use the drive adapter to connect the new bare disk to the laptop, or
  • Use another external USB drive of suitable capacity as a temporary home.

Either way, you are going to create a new VM containing the XP environment.

  1. Replace the original hard disk.
  2. Either connect the new hard disk via the USB adapter, or connect the third external USB drive.
  3. Boot into Windows XP, then download VMware vCenter Converter from the VMware website (it’s a free download but you will need to register).
  4. Use the Converter software to create a VM on the external drive (or on the second internal drive in the case of a workstation).
  5. Shut down and install the New Hard Disk for the last time.
  6. Boot into Windows 7
  7. Go back to the VMware site and download VMware Player, then install it.
  8. If necessary, copy the newly created VM from the external USB drive to a suitable folder on the Windows 7 environment. I have mine stored in C:\Virtual Machines

Another Gotcha!

I hit a gotcha at step 4. Running Converter is a simple case of follow the wizard’s prompts, but I did get a confusing error message about not having the appropriate SysPrep files on the computer. After some digging I found that I needed to download the Windows XP Service Pack 2 Deployment Tools from http://snurl.com/tscop, Open the CAB file with WinRAR and copy the files to the folder designated in the error message.

Now, you you should be able to run VMware Player and use it to run the XP Virtual Machine.

NB To avoid getting errors, you need to run Player in Administrator mode. You do this by Right-clicking on the desktop shortcut and selecting “Run as Administrator”. To avoid having to do this everytime, you can set this option in the applications preferences; which are accessible from the Right-click menu.

Also, because the SSID of the vrtual machine has changed, you will need to re-enter your XP license code and re-activate.

Et voila, you have a working Windows 7 environment complete with a virtual XP environment containing your original machine.

Make sre you install anti-virus software on Windows 7 straight away. Once the XP VM is running, enable “Unity” mode on the VM menu in the Player window so that a new XP menu bar appears on the Windows 7 desktop.

Now, at your leisure, you can install applications on the Windows 7 machine to replace those on the XP machine. Over time you will gradually use the XP machine less and less until you either stop using it altogether, or it is reduced to running a rump of applications which cannot be migrated to Windows 7 or are not worth being so.

One Last Thing, keeping the data in sync across the two machines.

Bearing in mind that you now have two computers, how do you keep the filesystems synchronised?

I use Windows Live Sync for this, but I adopted a divide and conquer strategy: partly because of the 10,000 file limit imposed by Live Sync for any single synchronisation point.
Before doing anything, I considered the contents on my XP machine. Some files I would definitely need in Windows 7, some I would not. Some were in the “My Documents” hierarchy, others were not.

Windows Live Sync works by defining synchronisation points on multiple computers. Live Sync then keeps the folders and files beneath each set of synchronisation points in sync with each other.

In my case, under “My Documents” I have a folder hierarchy called “Shared” containing folders and files I definitely want synchronising. I have another called “Development” and then several others; including a couple outside of “My Documents”. Each of these is defined as being a Synchronisation Point in Live Sync. It is then a simple case of following the Live Sync wizards to create equivalent sync points on other machines.

Provided you are connected to the Internet, the files will be kept in sync. Changes are queued if you are not connected to the Internet.


I hope that you have seen how you too can move from your existing XP based computer to a clean Windows 7 environment whilst maintaining access to you old XP applications, and how (relatively) easy the process is. By following this process you will reduce the time you are without a functioning PC to in the order of 2-3 hours, rather than the 2-3 days that might otherwise occur.

I hope this process proves useful to you. If you have any questions or clarifications based on your specific experience, please share them as comments to this post so that all can see them.

Gareth Howell
Agdon Associates – IT that works for you, all the time
t: 01480 476 297 | m: 07748 905 545 | twitter: garethhowell | aim: garethhowelluk

The information provided in this blog illustrates my opinions and experiences, it does not constitute advice and I do not accept responsibility for any actions taken or refrained from as a result of reading this post.

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