Kayenta Township's need for an ERP application forced Shonie De La Rosa to migrate PCs from Windows XP to Windows 7.

Great Migrations

For state and local governments, upgrading to Windows 7 isn't a question of if, but when.

When Microsoft released Windows 7 in fall 2009, Shonie De La Rosa wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to get his hands on it. As IT administrator and webmaster for the Navajo Nation's Kayenta Township in Arizona, De La Rosa had been down the Windows upgrade path before, and it was always bumpier than advertised.

Like many IT leaders, De La Rosa chose not to upgrade to Microsoft Vista when it was released, instead sticking with the township's aging roster of 30 desktops and notebooks running Windows XP Professional.

"When a new operating system comes out, there are always a lot of bugs, glitches and complaints," he says. "I'd used Vista at home, and I was not too happy with it. So we wanted to stick with XP as long we could -- everybody knew it, and it was very concrete and reliable."

The problem? His finance department needed to run Microsoft Dynamics NAV, an enterprise resource planning solution (ERP) that required both Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010 in order to work. So De La Rosa bought 10 new Windows 7 machines as part of a hardware refresh and manually upgraded the other 20, department by department.

It took him only a week to finish the migration. Despite having to start essentially from scratch -- upgrading from XP entails wiping out the old OS and installing a fresh copy of Windows 7 -- he didn't encounter any application compatibility issues. Aside from a few old documents that would not open inside Office 2010, the migration was painless.

But for most state and local agencies that avoided Vista, upgrading from XP to Windows 7 won't be as seamless. That's because many legacy apps that ran well under XP require special treatment to run under Windows 7 -- if they run at all. Browser-based apps built to operate inside Internet Explorer 6 are an especially tough nut to crack, says Michael Silver, vice president and research director at Gartner Research.

"The first three pieces to the Windows 7 migration are app compatibility, app compatibility and app compatibility," says Silver. "Among our clients, we've seen up to a 40 percent failure rate, especially among IE6-based apps that were developed internally. IE6 is a very nonstandard browser that Microsoft is really trying to forget."

Blending Old and New

For Indiana's Office of Technology, which began replacing its 28,000 XP Pro machines with Windows 7 boxes last March, the biggest hurdle has been ensuring that legacy software such as FoxPro, Microsoft Access 97 and IE6-based apps would work on the new systems, says Dewand Neely, a tier 3 services manager. IOT relied on the Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit to figure out which apps needed help to operate properly.

In some cases, Neely says, they were able to tweak an app's group policies and browser settings so that it always opened in IE8's compatibility view, allowing it to run without a hiccup. In other cases they used the compatibility kit to create "shims," or bits of code that sit between the app and OS to sidestep problems -- for example, allowing the app to bypass Windows 7's stricter user account settings.

Conversely, Oklahoma City is hoping that upgrading to Windows 7 will add a few more years of useful life to its aging roster of 4,000 XP machines, says Shamra Noakes, a systems administrator for the city. "We're finding our older hardware runs better under Win 7 than it does under XP," she says.

Again, though, application compatibility is key, and migrating older apps can be time-consuming. Using ­Windows Installer to create MSI transform files that allow the city's line of business software to be installed under Windows 7 can take one to two weeks per application, says Noakes. Automating that process using Flexera Software's AdminStudio Enterprise Edition cuts the time needed to under an hour.

When all other migration strategies fail, agencies may be able to fall back on virtualization tools such as Windows 7's XP mode or MED-V, VMware ThinApp or Citrix XenApp to run older apps.

The End Is Near

The other problem agencies face is time. Microsoft has ended mainstream support for XP and will release no security patches beyond April 2014.

The percentage of organizations reporting a performance boost after migrating to
Windows 7

Source: Symantec 2010 Windows 7 Migration Study

"Beyond compatibility, there's the timing issue," says Silver. "There's not all that much time to get off XP and onto Windows 7, especially if you're hoping to do the upgrade via a hardware refresh. That can really extend the timeline for your migration, which also means you'll be running a mixed environment for a longer period."

For agencies that plan to migrate by refreshing a certain number of systems each year, the clock is already ticking.

"If you haven't already started by now, you're late," adds Silver. He recommends performing an inventory of your PCs, what apps are running on them and how important they are, then planning when you'll start, how your organization will test applications and how long the migration will take.

Migrating Without Migraines

Moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 can be challenging, especially when it involves hundreds or thousands of machines. Fortunately, a number of free tools available from Microsoft can help ease migration pains:

  • Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit helps you figure out which legacy apps will work under the new OS and develop mitigation strategies.
  • Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit makes it easy to inventory your hardware and identify which machines are Win 7–ready.
  • Windows User State Migration Tool lets you transfer user settings and features from old PC apps to the new environment.
  • Windows Automated Installation Kit simplifies the process of installing Windows 7 across multiple machines.
  • Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2010 Update 1 helps IT shops create "zero touch" installations across large-scale deployments.
  • Windows Deployment Services allows for automated deployment of Windows 7 from a centralized location.

The key to migration success? Test early and often, says Jonathan Feldman, director of IT services for the city of Asheville, N.C. "You want to pound on your apps early. You'll need a long runway so you have time to work with your software vendors to mitigate problems."

Kyle George
Dec 23 2010