Windows XP Mode is a simple, single-user virtualization solution that allows users to move to Windows 7 and still access old, incompatible applications. Here are five setup secrets and five gotchas to watch out for.
One of the hidden gems in Windows 7 for corporate customers is the inclusion of a fast, reliable, well-integrated virtualization environment. For the Windows 7 editions commonly found in enterprise settings—Professional and Enterprise—there’s an extra benefit as well: a full license of Windows XP Professional that can be installed in Windows Virtual PC. The package is called Windows XP Mode, and it offers two main advantages: It allows businesses to continue to support legacy applications and hardware that would otherwise require expensive upgrades and testing to work with Windows 7, and it allows developers and IT pros to test apps in a virtual “sandbox” without compromising the integrity of the main system.
Windows XP Mode is one of several virtualization solutions that Microsoft offers for Windows 7 customers. It’s not appropriate for use in highly managed Windows environments, where tools like Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V) and Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V) are more suitable. It’s best suited for situations where a few trusted users need access to a virtual environment.
In this post, I’ll share tips on how to use XP Mode and warn you away from problems.
- Keep it up to date. The virtual machine (VM) included with the Windows XP Mode executable consists of Windows XP with Service Pack 3. After completing installation, you still need the latest round of updates from Windows Update. You also need to set up Automatic Updates within the virtual machine.
- Use scripts to deploy customized virtual machines. If you want to add custom applications or corporate settings to the XP Mode VM, you can use the same tools you would use to set up a physical computer: Sysprep and the Windows Automated Installation Kit. Detailed instructions are available in a Microsoft-supplied whitepaper, Deploying Windows XP Mode.
- Install drivers for USB devices. One of the most useful features of Windows Virtual PC is the ability to attach an external USB device to a VM. If you have a network of branch offices that use expensive scanners or other devices that aren’t supported in Windows 7, you can install the drivers in a VM and continue to use the devices in virtual mode.
- Turn on Undo disks. If you’re using virtualization to test applications in a “sandbox,” turn on Undo disks. That allows you to roll back to the original settings after the testing is complete.
- Check your local network settings carefully. The default network setting for a virtual machine creates a shared network that allows access to the host machine with no access to your LAN. For security reasons, that is the right default, but you understand the risks and want an XP Mode VM to be fully networked, you’ll need to change the setting as shown here.
Sounds simple? It is, mostly. But there are a handful of gotchas that any administrator should be aware of before diving headfirst into XP Mode.
- Is your hardware compatible? Windows Virtual PC requires hardware-assisted virtualization (HAV) support. Virtually all AMD processors manufactured in the past three years include this support, but a number of current Intel CPUs don’t. In most PC configurations, HAV is disabled by default in the BIOS and must be turned on before Windows Virtual PC can be installed. In enterprise settings, HAV support should be a checklist item for any new PC purchases.
- Lock down Internet Explorer! The default browser in Windows XP is Internet Explorer 6, and the IE8 update is deliberately hidden in the pre-built XP Mode virtual machine. If you’re installing XP Mode to enable compatibility with a web application that requires IE6, you’ll want to lock down that insecure browser to ensure that it isn’t inadvertently used for casual web surfing. Crank the Internet Explorer security settings for the Internet zone to high, and add the address of your web app to the Trusted Sites zone.
- Be aware that the default user account is an administrator. Most older apps with compatibility issues assume that the default user is an administrator, so this setting is logical. It’s also potentially a security problem. If your XP Mode scenario will work with a Standard user account, you can modify the default XPMUser account.
- Don’t overlook training. For nontechnical users, the shutdown and restart options in XP Mode are potentially confusing, especially when switching between the full virtual machine and a seamless window. You’ll need to train users to understand the difference between the two environments and to switch without losing data.
- Be sure to add security software. The XP Mode virtual machine includes the built-in Windows XP Firewall, but it lacks any antivirus software, and protection in the host machine doesn’t extend to the virtual machine. If your virtual machine has access to the Internet, you’ll need to make sure it’s adequately protected and that automatic updates are turned on.
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