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How to Keep XP Running in a Windows 7 World

How to Keep XP Running in a Windows 7 World

Operating system migration season begins this fall, with the release of Windows 7. However, there's no need for most companies to be leading the bandwagon. If you're running XP throughout your organization and you're still pretty well satisfied with it, here are some tips for keeping it in top-notch shape for months or even years to come.

By Jon Prange
07/17/09 4:00 AM PT

With the official Oct. 22 release of Windows 7 approaching -- and Microsoft's recent announcement that business customers can start placing orders as early as September 7 -- many organizations are now facing a major decision about what to do with their PC operating system: upgrade it for all users, phase in an upgrade, or stay with their current OS.

Migrating poses challenges from equipment upgrades, to installing and configuring the new OS, to moving user data and settings. Many organizations will instead choose to stay with their current OS, which is most likely Windows XP. This alleviates the cost of upgrades, but it introduces its own share of maintenance challenges.

The good news, however, is that these challenges can be overcome with a proper maintenance plan. Follow these tips to keep your XP platform running at peak performance, and you'll have the foundation in place to squeeze every last dollar out of your XP investment.

Patch regularly. A good patch management strategy can reduce risks, costs and complexity within the IT environment. Patch management can be manual or automated, depending on how much control you want to exercise over the process. As part of its weekly schedule, Microsoft will continue to provide critical system patches for XP (with SP2) and Office 2003 until 2014. It is important to note that XP must have Service Pack 2 (SP2) or later in order to receive these system patches.

Update and test gold images. "Gold" system images should be created for all systems. These images should have all OS and application updates applied regularly. Once the images are updated, a complete test should be performed. Document an associated test plan that encompasses both the OS and applications.

Ensure software compatibility. Before downloading and installing new software, research its compatibility and known issues with the OS. Incompatible software could have an adverse impact on other components within the IT infrastructure and should be avoided.

Ensure document compatibility. It's important to manage the compatibility of Microsoft Office documents, across versions, for both internal and external users (clients, vendors, partners, etc.). Office compatibility packs allow legacy users to open/view/edit files from newer versions of the program. Be aware, however, that certain features and functionality might not be supported. Without compatibility packs, legacy users would constantly have to tell users of newer versions that they couldn't open their files.

Upgrade memory. Most XP platforms ship with 1 GB to 2 GB of memory. However, you can significantly improve system performance by upgrading to 3 GB or 4 GB. Note however, that upgrading to 4 GB of RAM on a 32-bit XP system will provide access to just 3.39 GB due to resource limitations. (It's a little better in Vista 32-bit, which provides access to 3.54 GB). In the future, consider using 64-bit, because it'll give you full memory access.

Optimize disk drive space. Following memory upgrades, managing disk usage is the second best way to increase performance. The easiest method is to uninstall unnecessary applications and remove the Windows "junk" files that are not needed. XP's System Restore (Control Panel » System » System Restore tab), by default, uses 12 percent of the total space on each disk drive partition to save restore point files and settings. Another step is to perform a disk cleanup by using the Windows built-in Disk Cleanup tool (Programs » Accessories » System Tools » Disk Cleanup) to identify and clean up files from sources like Internet caches and temporary files. After removing all of these files, the last step is to defragment the disk drives (Programs » Accessories » System Tools » Disk Defragmenter).

Load and maintain external drivers. XP has less built-in driver support, so organizations have to load external drivers for most hardware. These external drivers should be maintained with regular updates. However, be aware that many future hardware devices will not be supported on legacy operating systems.

Use the power of the Web wisely. With the ever-increasing availability of blogs, wikis, knowledgebases, etc., many issues can be researched and resolved by tapping online resources. Be specific in your searching, though, because the proper resolution is often found only by searching for the exact error message.

Download tips and tricks while they're available. Many of the current IT blogs and other knowledgebases will start to shift their focus toward Windows 7, which could make it difficult to find new information about XP. It's a good idea to search and save online information to your hard drive now, when it's easily found.

Implement Antispyware. Later versions of the Windows OS (Windows Vista and Windows 7) have Windows Defender, a built-in antispyware program. This same program is available as a free download, and it's recommended for installation on the XP OS. It is also a best practice to have more than one piece of antispyware on your PC. Increase your safety and install Lavasoft's Ad-Aware or Spybot Search & Destroy.

By maintaining XP for the long haul, organizations benefit from having a proven OS. A good maintenance plan can help keep it running smoothly, delaying extra costs and hassles until migration is absolutely necessary, which could be several years down the road if you follow the advice here.


Jon Prange is director of enterprise architecture for Interphase Systems, a management and technology consulting organization offering architecture, strategy and implementation services.


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