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Windows 7 : Deployment Dilemmas

It’s worth investigating how to preserve your users’ Windows settings when you upgrade to Windows 7. They’ll be happier and more productive right off the bat.

Jorge Orchilles

Adapted from “Microsoft Windows 7 Administrator’s Reference” (Syngress, an imprint of Elsevier)

When deploying Windows 7 across multiple systems, as in an enterprise environment, there are several different ways to go. These include an in-place upgrade, a new installation, a refresh or replacement. Each has its strengths and weaknesses in terms of preserving existing user settings.

In-Place Upgrade

The upgrade scenario lets you upgrade an installation of Windows Vista SP1 or later to Windows 7 while preserving the user state and all transferrable settings and files. You can also maintain existing applications.

Because there’s no direct upgrade path for Windows XP, you need to use the refresh method (which keeps files and settings, but not installed applications) for older installations. The Windows Compatibility Wizard assesses this method, and helps determine if you need to address any components individually before performing the upgrade.

Performing an upgrade may be one of the easiest and least complex methods for deploying Windows 7. There’s a certain risk, however, as all settings are imported “as is” from the earlier version. You don’t have much control over what gets transferred. Unless you know the state and condition of the system, it may be preferable to choose a scenario that allows for selectively preserving settings.

New Installation

The new installation involves deploying a clean copy of Windows 7 on the target computers. You must ensure the hard drive and system volume have been properly partitioned and formatted. This type of installation will deliver the most consistent result because all settings are either defaults or set by you.

Refresh Scenario

Similar to a new installation, the refresh scenario performs a clean setup. The difference is that the target computer already contains Windows, for which files and settings will be preserved (installed applications are not taken into consideration). This scenario is especially useful in the event that preserving the user state is a priority. It still leverages the consistency benefits that come through a new installation. You can automate this scenario with the latest version of the User State Migration Tool (USMT 4.0), which will collect pertinent data for each user state found in the system, and restore it after the clean installation is performed.

Replace Scenario

This is similar to the refresh scenario, except the target system is a new computer that does not yet contain any files or settings. The scenario consists of conducting a new installation on the target computer, and then using the USMT 4.0 to transfer files and settings from the old computer. You can run this scenario side-by-side with an older system running Windows XP or Windows Vista.

Understand the Setup Process

Compared to Windows XP, there are numerous differences in deployment technologies now available with Windows 7. New and improved tools have been developed based on technologies that were first introduced with Windows Vista.

Before Windows Vista was released, Microsoft didn’t have robust tools to facilitate mass deployment. If you’re unfamiliar with Windows Vista or your organization passed on it altogether, you might as well unlearn everything you know on Windows XP deployment and start from scratch.

Before you can prepare for volume deployments of Windows 7, it’s important to understand the underlying processes of the installation so that we make the best use of the tools. There have been significant changes to the way the Windows OS is now deployed. Here are the factors that have changed in deploying Windows since the days of Windows XP:

  • Booting Windows installation occurs through the Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE), which replaces any DOS-based boot disk/media.
  • Windows Setup is now a file-based image deployment.
  • Installation source files may be 2GB or more.
  • You need to activate all Windows installations.
  • The Boot.ini is no longer used for boot configuration.
  • Setup.exe is now the new command that launches the Windows installation process, replacing winnt32.exe.
  • Windows installation is independent from the Hardware Abstraction Layer.
  • Windows 7 is not language-specific, whereas for Windows XP, Windows 2003 or earlier, each language had its own build of the OS. Languages are now separate packages.
  • The Windows 7 DVD contains the source Windows Image (WIM) file containing all editions of the OS. The installer determines which product to install based on the license key.

Installing Windows 7 is now conducted through file-based images. What comes to mind when discussing “imaging” is what the industry more commonly refers to as sector-based imaging. Sector-based images copy indiscriminately sector-by-sector at a low level from a hard drive to build a snapshot of storage volume. File-based images, such as WIMs, are captured by taking snapshots at a higher level of files and folders.

The bottom line is that even though sector-based images are very flexible because they can ignore the type of file system in use, they’re somewhat unpractical to maintain and manage. In order to modify and edit a sector-based image, you have to deploy the image, make the changes and recapture it. In the case of WIM files, you can modify and update the images instantly by “mounting” the captured image, applying the changes at the file-system level and then immediately committing the changes.

Jorge Orchilles

Jorge Orchilles*  began his networking career as a network administrator for the small private school he attended. He is currently a security operating center analyst, and recently completed his Master of Science degree in management information systems at Florida International University.

©2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Printed with permission from Syngress, an imprint of Elsevier. Copyright 2011. “Microsoft Windows 7 Administrator’s Reference” by Jorge Orchilles. For more information on this title and other similar books, please visit*