Ready for Windows 7? Here's how to deploy it right

From hardware to licensing, you need to make the right choices to smooth the transition and get the most out of Windows 7.

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Note that Microsoft has many types of licenses for Windows and other products. When upgrading to Windows 7, be sure not to confuse the volume license with the Enterprise Agreement, Enterprise Subscription Agreement, or Software Assurance (SA) programs. The two agreements are essentially maintenance agreements that include the SA program, which lets you upgrade to a new version of Windows at any time during your agreement period, in exchange for a per-system annual fee.

Given Microsoft's slow OS update schedule and the lack of transferability of SA coverage to new PCs, this insurance-type plan has ended up costing businesses more per desktop than simply purchasing upgrade licenses for old PCs and getting the OS included with new system purchases.

Migrating your PCs to Windows 7

You have probably already heard the news that XP cannot be upgraded in-place to Windows 7, so your applications and data are not migrated. On a single system, that may be frustrating (although you could upgrade to Vista and then upgrade to Windows 7), but larger businesses don't do in-place upgrades anyway.

For corporations, in-place migration from XP is a nonissue, at least for the OS and the apps. Where there is an issue is migrating "personalities" -- the user settings and data -- from the old computer or image to the new one.

To aid that "personality" migration, Microsoft provides the User State Migration Toolkit (USMT) 4.0. It supports two migration scenarios. One is moving the data off a PC before Windows 7 is installed, then moving the data back afterward (called a PC refresh). The second -- and depending on the age of your current desktops, possibly the more important scenario -- is moving the files and settings to a new computer (called a PC replacement). USMT pulls information from the hard drive, the registry, and other Windows data and restores it to the refreshed or replaced system.

Part of working with the USMT involves the use of the Windows Automated Installation Kit (AIK) for Windows 7. This kit includes the USMT; the Windows System Image Manager (SIM), to create unattended XML answer files; the ImageX tool, to capture and apply images; the Deployment Image Service and Management (DISM) tool, to manage your images by adding and removing drivers, language packs, and patches; and the Windows Preinstallation Environment (WinPE 3.0), to create the OS image you want to deploy.

Microsoft Deployment Image Service and Management

The Microsoft Deployment Image Service and Management (DISM) tool. Click to view larger image.

Note that Microsoft bills the Windows System Image Manager as being able to manage distribution shares, which it technically can manage, but the better tool for doing this is Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) 2010. Also, note that Imagex is not the right tool to manage or modify Windows 7 images. DISM (shown at right) is a better choice, but DISM cannot capture or apply an image; only ImageX can do that.

Also note that these migration tools -- especially AIK -- are difficult to use, so you may need to bring in a migration consultant.

You can deploy Windows 7 images over the network if you use Windows Server 2008 and combine MDT with the Windows Server 2008 service called Windows Deployment Service (WDS). MDT and WDS are usually thought of as competing deployment tools, but in fact they can be used together, as Rhonda Layfield, a consultant who is also a Microsoft MVP for Deployment and Desktop Deployment Product specialist, explained to me.

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