After several years of happy usage your hardware as well your Win OS are due for a refresh? You have already postponed it for a year or three, but the day has finally come where you definitely have to say goodbye to your old working environment? Why don’t you take it with you onto your new system? It is easier as you may think!
With an armada of applications and my complex installation of a typical web worker it literally takes me months to bring a new machine to a point where I can do at least some 95% of my work with it. And the old machine with its keyboard and mouse usually keep blocking space in my office for another year until it is finally safe to send them to retirement.
With virtual machines (VMs) you can avoid all this. You can easily transfer your complete old working environment with large system and data partitions and even with multiple monitors into a VM that is running in a window (or full screen) on your new machine – side by side with your new environment which can slowly evolve and take over. Some old tools may never make it into the new machine but it feels good to know that they are available in case you should suddenly need them.
The needed tools are all free for non-commercial use. If you use them commercially, please consider buying the commercial versions. The only requirement that you must meet for this transition is that you have the product key for your old Win XP installation at hand. You will find the sticker (the Certificate of Authenticity) on the back side of the original Windows booklet or on the CD envelope or (as with my old Dell Dimension) glued to the case of your old machine.
Now, here is how to do it:
Which virtualization software?
Win 7 comes with Microsoft Virtual PC, a virtualization solution which MS has acquired from Connectix. My recommendation: Forget about it. It is a typical MS product: Substandard, bloated, slow.
I recommend to use VMware, the market leader in virtualization. You need two tools of VMware which both are free (for non-commercial use, see above!):
- VMware vCenter Converter
… to convert your old machine into a VM image. This is done on the old system.
- VMware Player
… to run that image on the new system.
Create the VM image
Download and install VMware vCenter Converter on the old Windows system. The process of converting your old system into a VM is self explanatory:
- choose the running system as the source
- choose a target type:
Virtual VMware Workstation…
- choose a VMware target product:
the latest VMware Player offered in the dropdown – you can later reconvert to another product type if it should be necessary
- choose a target filename and drive:
you can store it on the old machine and copy it to the new machine later (if you have enough disk space left), or you store it directly on the new machine using a network connection. As you have to transfer the files to the new machine anyway it is best to store them there right away. This also speeds up the conversion as otherwise the converter will copy all the content of your old hard disk to a file on the same HD (slow due to constant HD head repositioning).
- change options to your liking:
you can deselect drives that you do not need later, change the memory that is used by the VM (I have given 2 Gb of the 16 Gb on my new machine) and you can even deactivate system services that should not run on the new machine (I kept them all).
The process of creating the VM can take several hours depending on the size of your hard disk(s). You will end up with two files: A small control file (*.vmx) with all the settings for the VM (you can open it with an editor) and a large data file (*.vmdk) that holds the content of your HD(s).
Install the VM player
Now download and install VMware Player on the new system.
Start the VM
Make sure the *.vmx and the *.vmdk file are both located in the same folder on your new system and simply double-click the *.vmx file. VMware Player will start up and will boot the old system in a VM window.
Hint: If your host system uses some older processor generation, the latest VMware player may refuse to start, telling you that the processor does not meet its requirements. If this happens you can try to install an older version of the player (e.g. VMware Player 3) which is less demanding. If you do so, you will also have to convert your VM image to match that older version. To convert your existing VM image use VMware vCenter Converter and choose the image as the VM source.
Reactivate the OS
After logging in to Windows in your VM you will face a message that your hardware has changed and that Windows needs to be reactivated. Choose the online reactivation. This is where you will need to re-enter your product key. As said above, you will find the sticker of the Certificate of Authenticity on the back side of the original Windows booklet, on the CD envelope or (as with my old Dell Dimension) glued to the case of your old machine.
On my first trial to activate the OS, Win XP tried to create a dial-in Internet connection (which understandably failed with no modem available). When I tried again, the existing LAN connection was recognized and the reactivation took place without any problems.
Install VMware Tools
When you finally can log in to your old system in the VM, you will be presented with a messages about new hardware found. This is due to the fact that the emulated graphics and network adapters differ from those of the original hardware. Do NOT try to search and install any drivers! Cancel the dialog(s) and read on.
VMware Tools is a software that can (and should) be installed on the guest system in the VM to improve the cooperation between the guest and the host. It also adds the needed drivers for the emulated hardware. You are not forced to use it, but I strongly recommend it. You get:
- Optimized graphics and network drivers
- Mouse sync with the host so that you don’t have to release your mouse pointer from the guest to go back
- Copy and paste between the guest and host
The player detects whether the tools are installed and offers you to do so if they are not. This automatic installation process failed for me. The reason could be that the player tries to mount an ISO CD image to install the tools, and I had 4 drive letters blocked by hardware. The simple solution was to burn the ISO image to a physical CD on the host system and install the tools right from that CD. The ISO image is located in the player directory on the host (e.g. C:Program Files (x86)VMwareVMware Player) and is named windows.iso. I used the built-in Win 7 image writer (right-click the ISO file and choose “Burn disk image”).
After the tools are installed you have to reboot. With the tools finally in place you can set your display resolution to your liking and even activate a two-monitor setup (which is displayed in one large player window that you can position to span both of your physical monitors).
Reactivate other software
I found that not only the Win OS is aware of the changed environment and requests reactivation. My Office 2003 and 2010 versions both requested an online reactivation when I started them for the first time in the VM. This was accomplished by a simple button-click – no need to re-enter any product keys.
Enjoy (even the speed)!
Done! So far my old system does anything in the VM that it did in its original habitat – at least as long as the required hardware is available (e.g. my fax software wont work without its ISDN card).
The system appears in the network neighborhood under the same name as it did before (but with a different IP address assigned through DHCP in my router). So take care if you start the original system at the same time as the VM clone: You will get a warning that a system with identical name already exists in the network. A simple solution is to change the name of one of the two incarnations using Control Panel –> System Properties –> Computer Name.
You might think that the VM is slower than the original system. Well, I was amazed:
On my new system with SSD hard disk caching (Z68 chipset with Intel SRT) my old working horse is much faster than it has been on its original bare metal. It is impressive how the old software does fly on that new hardware base, even with a VM simulation layer in-between!