Expert Reference Series of White Papers
Windows 7 and
Windows XP Mode
Windows 7 and Windows XP Mode
Glenn Weadock, Global Knowledge Instructor, MCITP, MCSE, MCT, A+
It’s probably inevitable that at some point during your organization’s transition to Windows 7, you’re going to encounter an application that doesn’t run properly with the new operating system, no matter what hoops you jump through. If you discover that such an application is considered essential by management, then you are in the same boat with many other IT pros.
For such situations, Microsoft has provided a way for Windows 7 users to run a Windows XP virtual machine in which the recalcitrant program can be executed, alongside native Windows 7 applications. This virtual machine (VM) is also handy for running legacy device drivers that you may need for specific hardware. (I use Windows XP Mode at home to talk to old scanners and cameras that still work but that don’t have Windows 7 drivers.) This solution goes by the name “Windows XP Mode” and it’s an evolution of the special VM that Microsoft made available for Windows Vista that was basically an XP virtual machine outfitted with Internet Explorer 6. (That special VM is no longer freely available.)
Understand that while Windows XP Mode is fine for business users (it’s not supported on Windows 7 Home editions) who have occasional needs to run a legacy OS in a virtual machine, it’s not a “managed” solution. For that, you may want to take a look at MED-V (Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization), part of the MDOP (Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack)—if, that is, you’re a Software Assurance customer.
This white paper introduces Windows XP Mode and includes the following topics. • Do You Need Windows XP Mode?
• How Can You Get Windows XP Mode? • Requirements
• Core Features
• Implementing Windows XP Mode • Managing Windows XP Mode • Challenges
Do You Need Windows XP Mode?
Before you decide that you need Windows XP Mode, always spend time trying other ways to get your apps to run under Windows 7: haranguing the vendor to provide updates, tweaking the EXE’s compatibility settings, and/or spending some quality time with the (free) Microsoft Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT). Also, try running your problematic applications with different User Account Control (UAC) settings; sometimes that can help.
If you do decide to use virtualization to solve short-term compatibility problems, Windows XP Mode isn’t the only virtualization technology that can help. You can have users remote in to centrally hosted VMs, instead of running VMs on their own local workstations, in a strategy Microsoft calls VDI, for Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. The VDI approach relies on Hyper-V and Remote Desktop Services.
How Can You Get Windows XP Mode?
This is fairly easy. Although Windows XP Mode doesn’t come “in the box” with Windows 7, it’s a free download from microsoft.com. Actually you’ll get three files, as follows.
• KB 958559, which is the main Virtual PC program
• KB977206, a Virtual PC update, which removes the requirement that the hosting PC supports hardware-assisted virtualization (but not everyone should install it; see caveat in the next section)
• WindowsXPMode_en-us, the Windows XP Mode software, including virtual machine preconfigured with XP Service Pack 3 (note that this file is approximately half a gigabyte in size)
Windows XP Mode is only available with Windows 7 Ultimate, Professional, and Enterprise (either 32-bit or 64-bit versions). Sorry, Windows 7 home users, you’re left out in the cold on this one. More seriously, Windows Vista users are, too. That seems a little strange to me, given the many architectural similarities between Windows 7 and Vista. There are, after all, lots of Vista shops out there, and they have the same issues with legacy XP ap-plications that Windows 7 shops have. Sure, a Vista shop could use Virtual PC 2007 to host apap-plications in an XP VM, but you lose a lot of the nice integration features offered by Virtual PC 2007.
As noted in the previous section, Virtual PC no longer requires hardware-assisted virtualization (HAV) although HAV does have a significant positive effect on performance. If you’re not sure whether a given machine supports HAV, Microsoft offers an HAV detection tool you can download (havdetectiontool.exe) that will tell you (see Figure 1). The tool will also tell you if your PC supports HAV, but it is not enabled in the BIOS.
Why should you care? Well, Microsoft actually recommends that you do not install the KB977206 update to Virtual PC if the hosting PC does provide HAV.
Figure 1: Discover whether a given PC has HAV.
What about licensing? Good news here: you don’t need a separate license for Windows XP, to run Windows XP Mode. (That’s not true, by the way, for MED-V, the managed version of Windows XP Mode.)
Virtualization Engine. Windows XP Mode uses the Virtual PC engine, also known as “Virtual PC 7,” a fresh-ening of the Virtual PC 2007 product that Microsoft acquired back in 2003 from Connectix
Note that this is not Hyper-V, the server-based virtualization software Microsoft is trying to position as a viable alternative to VMWare. Virtual PC is slower than Hyper-V, largely because it sits on top of a host operating sys-tem (that is, Virtual PC is a “type 2 hypervisor”). Also, Virtual PC doesn’t emulate multiple processors or 64-bit guest environments, and it doesn’t do snapshots. However, Virtual PC doesn’t require 64-bit host hardware as Hyper-V does, and it doesn’t turn off hibernation and sleep capabilities as Hyper-V does. Virtual PC also isn’t Virtual Server, Microsoft’s older IIS-based virtualization platform.
User Interface. You can run “Windows XP Mode” applications in so-called “seamless” mode (that is, just the application window) or in a full virtual machine desktop. To perform the latter, just choose Start > Windows Virtual PC > Windows XP Mode (see Figure 2). To perform the former, navigate to Start > Windows Vir-tual PC > Windows XP Mode Applications (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Windows XP Mode applications will run without the XP desktop.
One of the best features of Windows XP Mode is that when you choose to run an application without the entire desktop, the legacy app looks just like any other application window on the Windows 7 desktop (see Figure 4) albeit without the Windows 7 “chrome” around the edges, and the user doesn’t have to interact with the XP desktop. (This technology, embodied in the vmsal.exe process, derives from the RemoteApp capabilities of Termi-nal Services. “VMSAL” stands for Virtual Machine Seamless Application Launcher.)
Figure 4: A vintage-1997 application running without the XP desktop.
When you run the “full desktop” Windows XP Mode, you’ll see a special toolbar that you can use to perform functions such as popping into a full-screen view, putting the VM to sleep, restarting, changing VM settings, performing a true system shutdown, managing USB devices, and so forth (see Figure 5).
Figure 5: The Action, USB, Tools, and Ctrl+Alt+Del operations.
It’s also possible for users to access their Windows 7 profile folders from within a VM; this can be performed, for example, by assigning the host system’s Documents folder as a drive letter on the Windows 7 host, so that it appears as a host-based drive in the XP virtual machine’s “My Computer” window.
Windows XP Mode users can also use the clipboard between the virtualized app and host apps, and print from the virtualized app to a host-based printer (although the user has to install the printer driver from within the XP VM). And, as with earlier iterations of Virtual PC, users can access host-based optical drives. Finally, audio support exists, and you can choose whether to redirect audio output to Windows 7’s audio drivers or use an emulated soundcard.
Mouse integration and time synchronization are provided automatically between host and guest operating systems. Users can enable or disable specific integration features via the VM’s “Tools” menu (see Figure 6).
Figure 6: Users can modify specific integration features.
Implementing Windows XP Mode
Windows XP Mode was designed to be configured on a machine-by-machine basis. You can mitigate that dis-advantage to some degree by installing Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode on your standard corporate desktop image (if you have one), or by deploying these pieces through System Center, Group Policy, or other software
Choosing a password. The built-in user account for Windows XP Mode, XPMUser, needs a password, and, of course, the temptation is to use the same credentials that the user uses to log onto Windows 7. That, however, would be a mistake! Host applications, including evil ones, can access the credentials stored for Windows XP Mode. This makes it important to choose a different password for XPMUser. You can have Windows XP Mode remember it, but even that’s better than using host credentials.
Installing applications. Applications that you’d like to run in Windows XP Mode need to be installed while running Windows XP Mode. Once that’s done, the application will show up on the Windows 7 Start menu, and can be run directly without the intervening XP desktop. The application will also show up within the VM if you run the full XP desktop.
Configuring networking. Virtual PC in Windows 7 supports three types of networking for VMs: “internal network,” which means that VMs can see each other but not the host; “bridged mode,” named after the specific network adapter, in which the VM connects through the host network adapter and appears on the network as if it were a non-virtual machine; and “shared networking (NAT)” in which the VM shares one TCP/IP connection with the host and can, for example, access the Internet without appearing on the internal network as a separate machine. Windows XP Mode uses the “shared networking (NAT)” method by default.
User training. Organizations should plan for some user training if Windows XP Mode is going to be used with any frequency. In order to make things work without annoying error messages, users need to be disciplined about exiting their virtualized apps and closing their VMs before relaunching applications.
Managing Windows XP Mode
Managing Windows XP Mode is largely a manual affair. What responsibilities IT departments might shoulder will be a decision every organization has to face. Virtual XP machines need backing up, patching, virus, anti-malware, etc. just like any workstation OS. And software running in Windows XP Mode may also be subject to license management.
To take backing up as an example, you can take at least three different approaches. • Use an XP-based backup program from within the VM
• After shutting down (not just hibernating) the virtual machine, back up the Windows XP Mode VM files, including “undo” files, from Windows 7 (these are normally in C:\Users\<name>\AppData\Local\Micro-soft\Windows Virtual PC\Virtual Machines; you probably won’t need to worry about the parent VHD file in the C:\Program Files\Windows XP Mode area because it doesn’t usually change)
• Make sure all data gets saved to the user’s Windows 7 profile and don’t worry about backing up any data on the VM
Patching is a bit more convenient, in that the Windows XP Mode setup wizard prompts you to turn on automatic updates for the XP virtual machine, and it’s recommended that you do so. However, don’t forget all that other stuff that needs installing and patching – Adobe Acrobat Reader, Flash, and so on.
Now some typical management chores might not be as significant in Windows XP Mode as in the native OS. For example, keeping applications updated may not be as big an issue, given that if updates were available, it may not have been necessary to use Windows XP Mode in the first place. Also, the management time horizon might be considerably shortened if Windows XP Mode is being used as a temporary solution while an organization waits for updates or new applications that will run natively on Windows 7.
Be very careful when you remove Windows XP Mode from a Windows 7 system. Doing so will delete all associ-ated virtual hard disks and any data they might contain. Note that this behavior is different from the default behavior of the Virtual PC program running separately from Windows XP Mode.
Organizations should expect some Help Desk calls if users will be doing their own application installs and VM configuration. The possibility of machine-to-machine variance is also a factor that could affect support and troubleshooting efficiency. So, while Windows XP Mode is undoubtedly handy, the extra administrative burden of managing a non-centralized tool has to be considered in the list of pros and cons.
Challenges of Windows XP Mode
This section identifies some of the challenges facing administrators who are attracted to the Windows XP Mode concept but have to evaluate its real-world appeal.
No central administration. Microsoft provides no tools for deploying, updating, securing, or retiring applica-tions running in Windows XP Mode. If you need those, you should look at MED-V, although as of this writing, MED-V is based on Virtual PC 2007, not Virtual PC.
Imperfect integration. No virtualization system I’ve ever seen has perfect integration. For example, Micro-soft advises that some hardware devices accessible to native Windows 7 applications may not be visible from XP virtual machines. For another, you can’t conveniently access the XP VM’s file system from the Windows 7 host, although you can see Windows 7 disks while running in a VM.
Performance. Virtual machines are slower, generally, than physical machines. No big surprise there. When a VM starts, it can impose a fairly lengthy wait. Microsoft has tried to ease the pain somewhat by making the default shutdown mode “hibernate,” so the subsequent “resume” will be quicker than a boot from scratch; but even so, you’re likely to feel some performance lag. You’ll also see performance problems with graphics- and video-intensive applications (test this with a computer game and you’ll see what I mean). Furthermore, net-working via the default “shared netnet-working (NAT)” method is noticeably slower than native network access.
Vendor Support. Some application vendors may elect not to support their products running in Windows XP Mode.
Windows XP Mode is clearly a band-aid solution for software and hardware incompatibility issues. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; sometimes a band-aid is just what you want.
I doubt that many organizations will use this capability for extended periods of time, due to its underlying com-plexity, lack of management features, and performance penalties. But as a way to bridge that awkward transi-tion between operating systems, Windows XP Mode is a good tool to have in your toolkit. Just be aware that it’s likely to require a certain amount of user training and some ongoing attention from the support staff. And while you’re using it, keep pressuring those application vendors to update their products for Windows 7, so you can get away from Windows XP Mode sooner rather than later.
Learn more about how you can improve productivity, enhance efficiency, and sharpen your competitive edge. Check out the following Global Knowledge course(s):
Administering and Maintaining Windows 7 (M50292)
MCITP: Windows 7 Enterprise Desktop Administrator Boot Camp MCITP: Windows 7 Enterprise Desktop Support Technician Boot Camp MCTS: Windows 7 Certification Boot Camp
Planning and Managing Windows 7 Desktop Deployments and Environments (M6294)
For more information or to register, visit www.globalknowledge.com or call 1-800-COURSES to speak with a sales representative.
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About the Author
Glenn Weadock is a long-time instructor for Global Knowledge and teaches Windows 7, Vista, Server 2008, and Active Directory (but no longer Windows XP!). He has recently co-developed with Mark Wilkins two advanced Server 2008 classes in the Microsoft Official Curriculum. Glenn also consults through his Colorado-based com-pany Independent Software, Inc.