Windows Vista How-To: Moving User Profiles To Vista Systems

Microsoft has made some drastic changes in Windows Vista's support for personalization. How will this affect your move to Vista? Learn how you can mitigate the impact with built-in and

June 5, 2007

9 Min Read
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A computer is actually a highly personal device. As users, we take the time to personalize our desktop backgrounds, screen savers, shortcut placements, etc. to suit our tastes and sometimes even our daily moods. (And many workers will agree that nothing is more frustrating than working with a computer you can't personalize because everything is locked.)

All of this comes to a head when you move to a new operating system. Protecting a computer profile or personality -- data, favorites, desktop settings, application customizations, and more -- is probably the most important aspect of any OS deployment project. Anyone who has spent time installing and configuring a new computer will know just how long it takes to get everything just right. This is why personality protection is so important to end users during the migration. So how do you minimize the amount of work required to move to a new OS and, at the same time, maintain all of the hard work users put in to customizing their systems?

There are actually three steps involved. First, you need to decide what to protect or what you will capture before the migration -- and what you will restore after the migration. Next, you should look at the differences between Windows XP and Windows Vista in terms of how they manage the content that makes up a computer personality. Finally, you need to determine just how you'll protect your users' data and profiles.

1. Decide What to Protect

Windows stores personality settings inside the user profile. Each time a user logs on to a system for the first time -- whether in a corporate network through a domain, relying on an Active Directory authentication, or relying on the local security accounts manager database that can be found on every Windows system -- Windows generates a profile which is derived from the default profile found on each Windows system. The default profile contains standard settings for user document locations, a standard desktop background, a standard screen saver, and so on.

You can, of course, update and otherwise customize the default user profile so that each user gets a customized environment at first logon. Many organizations take the time to do this so that each user has a standard corporate environment when they use the organization's computers. You can store this custom default profile in one of two places: within the system image you deploy on each PC or centrally on a domain controller -- the server that provides authentication services -- so that each time a user logs onto a system for the first time, they will be faced with a common and standard user experience.

But when you move to a new OS, you won't want to maintain each profile in the network. That's because some profiles are volatile while others are permanent. For example, when you need to repair a PC and you log on with your credentials, Windows will automatically generate a new profile for you. This profile doesn't contain any information you need to preserve because, once the computer is fixed, you won't need to log back onto it.

Network Profile Analysis

That's why you need to perform a network profile analysis before any system migration. This will help you determine just what you need to protect on each PC. After all, the only profiles you need to protect are those that are in use by users and that actually contain data.

In addition, you'll want to make sure you only protect valid information from within the profile. For example, your organization won't want to use network bandwidth and central storage to protect a user's music downloads, but you will want to make sure you protect a user's documents and application settings.

On more note: Profiles contain application settings. If you choose to upgrade and perhaps even retire some applications during your migration, you'll want to capture only those settings you've decided to carry forward when you perform the profile protection. 

Here are some steps that can help determine which profiles to protect and prepare for migration:

  • Protect only profiles that belong to end users.

  • Protect only profiles that are in use. If a profile hasn't been used for six months, then chances are it is not current and doesn't need protection.

  • Ask users to clean up their profiles as much as possible before your migration. This will reduce profile sizes and require less central storage space.

  • Work with your application preparation team during the migration to identify which applications will be carried forward and include their settings when you capture user profile information. Discard everything else.

  • Move profiles to a network share when you capture them and then back them up.

  • Make a list of all of the document types you have decided to protect, then communicate this list to your end users.

  • Provide support for users to perform their own backups of anything you will not protect.

  • Be as clear as possible when you communicate your protection plan to users to make sure there are no mistakes, and then, if you can afford it, take a backup copy of their entire disk drive before the migration. This way, you'll have a back out plan if users claim they are missing critical data once the migration is complete.

There are of course, other considerations, but these guidelines should form the main crux of your personality protection policy.

2. From XP To Vista: Profile Structures

There are several differences between the profiles structures in Windows XP and Windows Vista.

First, there is location. In Windows NT, profiles were stored in the WINNT folder, which allowed users read and write privileges. With Windows 2000 and Windows XP, profiles were moved to the Documents and Settings folder structure. With Vista, this has been changed to become the Users folder structure.

In addition, the entire structure of Vista's profile folders has been modified by Microsoft. Because of this new structure, XP user profiles are not compatible with Vista user profiles. To move information from one another, you need to convert the information to Vista's new format.

3. Moving Profiles

Now that you've decided what to protect and you know how Vista changes will affect this protection, you can determine how you're going to protect user content during your migration. You could always build your own tool through a combination of scripts and batch files, but there are a lot of profile migration tools on the market, so why bother?

For example, Microsoft offers the free User State Migration Tool (USMT). The USMT is a command-line tool that relies on XML language structure to determine its operation. It lets you capture profiles from one location and restore them in another. In addition, the USMT lets you scan computers to determine which profiles exist and which you should protect.

Migration Tools

Several commercial vendors also offer migration tools. Altiris, for example, offers several migration tools (such as Altiris Deployment Solution) that not only migrate profiles but migrate the entire OS, applications as well as the profile in one smooth operation. And, everything can be automated in a few steps through the use of a wizard in a graphical user interface. The capture or restore job is packaged as an executable that can be delivered and operated in the background by the deployment tool itself.

The same goes for tools such as the Symantec Ghost Solution Suite and LANDesk Management Suite. This makes profile captures much easier and simpler to automate. In addition, it solves the issue of having to run the profile protection process under administrative privileges because that is part and parcel of the deployment tool itself.

Whichever tool you use, make sure it includes the following capabilities:

  • Inventory profiles without capturing them to support profile analysis.

  • Capture any profile, local or domain-based.

  • Capture single or multiple profiles.

  • Restore single or multiple profiles.

  • Analyze profile usage to help identify obsolete profiles.

  • Filter out unwanted profiles from the capture.

  • Filter out unwanted profiles from the restore, letting you capture profiles for backup and restore only selected profiles to target machines.

  • Filter out unwanted files and folders from the profile capture.

  • Store profiles in a variety of locations: local hard disk, network drive, burn it to CD or DVD as required.

  • Restore profile settings to appropriate locations for Windows Vista.

  • Support either x86 or x64 systems in both captures and restores.

  • Capture custom folders, for example, a C:LocalData folder for information not stored into the default My Documents folder.

  • Capture legacy application settings that may be stored in the program's directory instead of proper locations and restore them to proper locations in Vista.

  • Scour the local hard disk for data and documents that have not been stored in appropriate locations.

  • Support automation for the capture and restore processes.

  • Support the generation of automated executables or scripts for execution in disconnected environments.

  • Include encrypted administrative credentials or support the ability to run in protected user mode.

  • Integrate with an automated OS deployment tool to provide an end to end deployment process.

  • Provide reports on profiles to capture in support of workload estimates.

Using a tool that provides these features will ensure your profile migration works as you expect each time you need to use it.

Take the utmost care when moving computer personalities from one OS to the other. Every migration can be deemed a success only if the end users -- the people who will work with the systems you migrate -- are completely satisfied and find themselves on familiar ground once you've done your work. The way you handle personality migrations can make or break your migration project. Don't compromise. Get it right the first time.

Danielle Ruest and Nelson Ruest are IT professionals specializing in systems administration, migration planning, software management and architecture design, and the authors of The Definitive Guide to Vista Migration. You can reach them at [email protected].

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