Microsoft Provides Guidance on Windows XP Mode

Microsoft released additional resources last week for IT pros planning to use the new desktop virtualization solution in Windows 7 known as "Windows XP Mode," which can now be downloaded for free as a complete product.

The XP Mode resources include installation instructions and release notes, plus a guide for deploying XP Mode and scripts. In addition, Microsoft produced a video that illustrates how to deploy XP Mode in corporate environments, which is available here.

Walk-through guides showing how to customize XP Mode in a step-by-step process, written by Microsoft MVP Shawn Brink, can be accessed here.

Microsoft describes XP Mode as useful for smaller organizations, allowing them to switch to the Window 7 operating system while continuing to run legacy Windows XP-based applications. For larger organizations that need centralized management of multiple PCs, Microsoft recommends using its Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization app, or MED-V, which is part of the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP).

Microsoft just released MDOP 2009 R2 for Windows 7. Software Assurance licensing is required to use MDOP tools, although Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscribers can evaluate it without additional cost. The new MDOP release includes MED-V 1.0, but Microsoft is working on a service pack update of this desktop virtualization app. Microsoft expects to release a beta of MED-V 1.0 Service Pack 1 by year's end, with the final SP1 version expected in "the first quarter of calendar year 2010," according to Microsoft's MDOP blog.

XP Mode works in conjunction with the Windows Virtual PC runtime engine and it only works with certain Windows 7 editions, such as Professional, Ultimate and Enterprise. Both applications can be downloaded here. End users running XP Mode will get a complete XP SP3 desktop environment, which runs on top of the Windows 7 desktop. XP Mode only supports the 32-bit version of XP SP3.

An important restriction on XP Mode is that the computer running it has to have built-in hardware virtualization turned on, which is a feature on AMD, Intel and VIA Technologies chips. Older PCs won't have this capability, but some new PCs also lack hardware virtualization. IT pros can use Microsoft's hardware-assisted virtualization detection tool to check for the capability. Even if hardware virtualization is present in the chip, users have to check that this feature is enabled in the computer's BIOS, as Microsoft describes here.

Microsoft says that some older XP applications may still run on Windows 7. The company provides the Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit 5.0 to help assess whether you will want to run a legacy app directly on Windows 7 or in XP Mode.

Another consideration to running XP mode is maintenance and security. XP Mode's desktop virtualization means that IT pros have to maintain two systems: the Windows 7 host OS and the XP Mode guest OS. Similarly, patching, updates and anti-virus software need to be applied to both systems. Microsoft recommends turning on Windows Update and enabling automatic updates for XP Mode's guest OS or using WSUS to keep the virtual machines (VMs) updated.

Some anti-virus software does not provide coverage for XP Mode's virtual machine. A possible solution is to use Microsoft Security Essentials for the guest OS, as Microsoft has said that it will work with XP Mode. This free anti-virus software was released late last month, but is purportedly aimed at just the consumer market.

IT pros should also configure the Windows firewall in the XP Mode virtual machine separately from Window 7's firewall. However, it's possible to use Group Policy to manage the firewall configurations across both OSes if "you join Windows XP VMs to the domain," according to the XP Mode guide.

XP Mode can be distributed across computers using Sysprep.inf, available with Microsoft's Windows XP SP3 Deployment Tools. IT pros should build virtual hard disk images of XP Mode and then deploy them to the PCs running Windows 7. If you don't run Sysprep, "every copy of the image will have the same security ID and the same computer name," according to Microsoft's "Deploying Windows XP Mode" guide.

The guide also recommends that IT pros not include XP Mode in Windows 7 images. Doing so produces very large images that have to be maintained with every XP Mode update. Instead, the guide recommends first installing Windows 7 and Windows Virtual PC on each computer to run XP Mode, and then deploying XP Mode to those computers.

IT pros can configure XP Mode depending on how they want to use it and can share components between the host and guest OSes. The sharing of components allows features such as file and drive sharing, as well as clipboard sharing.

Configuration of XP Mode can be done by specifying one of three modes: basic, enhanced and virtual applications modes, according to a Microsoft blog. The blog suggests that enhanced and virtual apps modes are "preferred for business desktops." The basic mode is more for developer testing scenarios and limits the integration of features between the host and guest OSes to the basics, such as shared USB, mouse and keyboard support.

Enhanced mode is the default setting of XP Mode. One benefit of using the enhanced mode is that it saves user credentials so that a user doesn't have to log in to access the guest OS. Those wanting full integration between host and guest OSes can use the virtual applications mode. One benefit of virtual applications mode is that it integrates XP Mode's applications with the Start menu in Windows 7.