What Computer Repair Techs Need to Know About Migration of Data and Programs on Windows Operating Systems


Guest Post by Micah Lahren:
The old computer just won’t perform anymore, and your client needs a new machine. Thankfully, they followed your advice about backing up all their data, in case it failed completely, but they steadfastly refused to get a new machine for years. Now they want all their old programs, pictures, documents, music, and other data to be available and functional on a new machine.

Hopefully they haven’t gone out on their own and purchased one already, as many new machines are equipped with 64 bit operating systems, and those old 32 bit programs may not function at all, even with the so-called ‘compatibility mode’ of Windows operating systems. Even between operating system versions, you will find many programs that simply will not function on a different version than the OS that was intended for them.

Before rushing them into a new computer, find out what they need, and you’ll be in a better position to ensure they won’t regret moving from that old dinosaur to something new. Just grabbing any migration software and setting it to work could be a big mistake. There are many factors to take into consideration such as 32 bit/64 bit, program compatibility, hardware compatibility, and more. I’d recommend following some basic steps to ensure the best results, and client satisfaction, to say nothing of headache prevention for you, the Tech.

1. Get a list of absolutely everything they use on their computer, even simple games like Hover from ’95. It may also be helpful to implement a scale of importance for each program, such as 1-10 for importance. I’ve mentioned this before, but the CBK from Technibble has an excellent list of forms for just this situation, and it merits serious consideration if you want to cover all your bases as far as handling client data.

Of course, you’ll need them to list locations of where the data is stored on their computer that they will want to migrate, such as documents and pictures. If they’re not sure, offer to sit down with them and work it out together. It’s amazing where some old programs attempt to save program-related files. Note down all configurations you’ll need to recreate, taking detailed screen shots if you need to.

2. Find out what operating systems those programs are supported on through research and testing. Virtual machines can be an quick hassle-free way to get some of this done, but don’t rule something out if it doesn’t work on a VM, as it’s not completely foolproof. The internet can be a great resource for finding out what problems have been encountered using different programs on varying operating systems, and workarounds if there were any issues. Notify the client of the results of your investigation, and suggest new machine specifications accordingly. Depending on the importance of the old programs they wish to use, they may decide to just drop some of them and find alternatives, and you can also help them with that.

3. Depending on what they choose to do, or have already done, there’s nearly always a solution or a workaround if you try hard enough. If they’ve already bought a machine, the OS of which just won’t run some of those old programs, even with ‘compatibility mode’, try a VM such as VirtualBox, install their old OS in it, and use their old key to activate it. They may spend all their computing time inside that VM, and you’ll be their hero for resurrecting their old operating system on a faster machine.

For some of the older operating systems, you’ll need to jump through a few hoops to get them installed on a VM, but it’s not that much trouble, and it’s better than not having those programs they need. If all else fails, and there’s no way those old programs are going to work again due to one thing or another, in a worst-case scenario, you can always demonstrate newer similar applications that perform the same task faster, and in many cases, much better. As a case in point, there’s a plethora of reasons why audio cassettes and older media types aren’t popular anymore.

4. Migrate the data and programs carefully. I’m extremely hesitant to recommend any ‘migration’ software after unpleasant experiences with a few popular products that claim to be ‘hassle-free’. If you encounter proprietary software, including business software that connects to remote data sources during it’s operation, you’ll find some migration software will fail completely at attempting to reinstall the proper configurations. In addition, to ‘undo’ a failed migration, it will take additional time, in addition to the time it will take for another attempt. My recommendation is to find the original installation media (or locate it on the internet) and install everything and reconfigure it manually.

You’ll find in many cases, it will save you a lot of time compared to using a commercial ‘migration’ product. Many migration products refuse to transfer drivers, which automatically means you won’t be able to transfer that ‘all in one’ printer software they have installed on their old machine. If you’ve installed everything else manually, and simply can’t find the installation media for a specific program anywhere, perhaps that is the time when you’ll absolutely need a migration software solution. If you intend to use migration software from the start anyway, do yourself a favor and read the fine print, if you haven’t used it before. It may do the job quickly and effectively in simple cases, but cause nothing but problems in other, more complex scenarios.

5. Reacquaint the client with the new machine. If you used a VM to install some programs, show them how to use it. Show them how to access their old data, and if any workarounds needed to be effected in order for some programs to function, make sure they’re all in working order and that the client knows exactly how to perform them. As I mentioned before, be sure to complete all the paperwork for the task, and ensure their satisfaction with the migration.

If you at least follow the basic steps and make the migration as painless as possible for them, they’ll be much less hesitant to upgrade to the next version of their operating system the next time they need it, which will make your job that much easier. There’s also a very good chance they’ll refer their friends to you if anyone asks for an expert on ‘computer upgrades’.

Guest Post by Micah Lahren – Micah covers a wide spectrum of the tech industry, including PC repair, front-end development, WIMAX networking and installation, and more. He currently works with an ISP in Texas that also provides web hosting/design and computer repair, although he’s been tinkering with computers since he was 6 and eventually turned it into a career. He also enjoys traveling and doing volunteer missions in other countries.


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Comments (15)

  • Tim says:

    For point (3), make sure you are not violating the EULA from Microsoft for OEM operating systems. Most key codes are only valid on the machine they are originally installed from the OEM.

  • Deadeye says:

    I think that for most users, a VM is much too complicated, and will only create headaches for them. If a program doesn’t work on their computer, find them an alternative.

    Also, are you sure that you would be able to use the same product key for their VM as for their old machine? i do believe that Microsoft would not verify the OS should you try this. Correct me if I’m wrong though I do believe the product Key is linked to the motherboard.

    • Chris DesJardins says:

      I installed the VM BlackBox to allow a VERY old Home Security program to work on a Win7 64 bit machine for the 80 year old owner. I put an icon on his Desktop to launch it from and he’s had no problems!

      I also would NEVER rely on any Migration software ever since my first attempt at using Microsofts to migrate a WinXP to Win7 which failed miserably.

      Finally, Kodak has an old s/w program that came with one of their digital camera’s that “hides” where it saves the pictures. Regardless of what account the user is logged into. It saves it in the ALL USERS account. From that point on, I ALWAYS do a search for: Jpegs, bmp, docs, avi’s etc.

  • Roger says:

    With reference to the Microsoft O/S not verifying if used on another machine,the licence code will work on any machine that you put it on as long as it a real key.

    • Nige says:

      Good article, however with Rogers statement, it is breaking the EULA from Microsoft.

      The COA is ONLY valid on the computer in which it was installed.

    • Greg says:

      It’s not so much a question of activation but instead a question of compliance with the EULA. If the OS is OEM, then it can only be legally used on the original machine. There may be a clause in the EULA related to virtualization, if not I hope they add one as it is becoming a common practice for legacy systems.

      On a related note, physical to virtual conversion is a great way to virtualize an old computer without the need to reinstall anything. As long as it is within compliance.

    • Micah says:

      When I wrote the article, I had a feeling this would become a comment topic, and I didn’t want to discuss all the technicalities of OEM systems and such, as I was hoping most techs are already aware of EULA’s that won’t allow the OS to be used on a different machine. In those cases, you of course won’t be able to use them on a VM, but that’s not always the case, so discretion and compliance with all EULA’s is advised in all cases.

    • Benji Fleming says:

      I’ve talked with a few representatives from Microsoft licensing addressing the use of XP keys for Windows 7 downgrades and VM’s. I specifically asked if it mattered what type of key was used and on how many downgrades or VM’s a single key could be used. I was told “no”.
      I was still skeptical so I asked repeatedly and was told repeatedly that all that is required is a valid key for activation and it does not matter what type of key it is or from where it was acquired. They also said the same key can be used on multiple downgrades or VM’s on different machines within a single small business or home office.
      I still pushed the issue and flat out asked, “So if I get any key, even from the internet, and the key activates I can use it for downgrade or VM without EULA liability?”. The answer, “Yes.”.

  • Karlin High says:

    Good stuff, but I’m afraid I frequently violate most of it. A fair fraction of the migration & reinstall work I do is for people who simply aren’t that well acquainted with the names and locations of the things inside their computer. They won’t know what they were using until it’s gone.

    For example, I had a client who was firmly attached to the dictionary in Microsoft Works 6, something I wasn’t even aware existed. I’m thinking, good riddance MS Works, with its WPS document format that nothing else opens properly. The new computer will have Office Starter or LibreOffice. But afterward, the client calls and asks, “Where’s my dictionary?” The computer isn’t online, so dictionary websites are out. I set up a program that included a dictionary, but it didn’t satisfy. MS Works isn’t sold anymore, so we had to buy an OEM CD from Royal Discount Software.

  • Tom says:

    I really relate to the intro of this post. Clients love to buy new toys without consulting first, but then expect everything to be an “easy migration” from old to new.

    As for #1, all of that sounds great but there is a huge flaw. Most clients have absolutely no idea where their data is stored or installed to. I don’t even bother asking anymore unless it’s an off the wall program. Secondly, clients rarely want to “sit down”. When I’ve tried that in the past the response has been, “can’t you just move everything?” They don’t want to be bothered

    I suggest moving everything you can and simply tell them that their out of date items are just that. However, do it professionally and offer alternatives with descriptive, comparative explanations. Tech changes, we do a disservice to the client by not moving them forward with it.

  • JK says:

    Micah, do you actually do this for your migration customers? if so, how much do you charge? or is it more a case of ‘this is how I would do it if I had the time..’ This obvously takes up a significant amount of time per customer, I certainly couldn’t possibly contemplate spending that amount of time on each migration for free & very few customers would be prepared to pay for it…

    As previous comments say, most people just want it ‘done’ & don’t know where stuff is stored, nor do they want to sit down with us to figure it out ‘cos they think we should know this sort of thing…

    Just my 2c worth

    • Matthew Keathley says:

      That exactly what I thought. This would take hours and hours of time, with little real success. I just use Fab’s and tell them I cannot transfer programs, (this is the case 95% of the time) and will reinstall from the disk if they have they, they won’t. Most people are happy to get thier pictures, document,music, and favorites.

    • Micah says:

      Good point, JK. It all comes down to the client. Some couldn’t care less what programs they transfer as long as they get their pictures and documents. Others want absolutely everything transferred; they want their old environment with newer and faster tech. If you can get by with less, great!

  • Tim (Skyline PC Services) says:

    One of the VERY first things I do when migrating a user to a new machine is image the drive (pick your image SW poison, I use Acronis). Next, I run a concatenated search for every commonly used file type (doc, xls, jpg, ppt, pdf, mp3, m4a, etc) that they’d be most concerned about.

    The search results, when sorted by Location, gives you a pretty quick overview of where most of their relevant data is kept. You can quickly scan the results list and skip over all the default Windows/other app files that are generic and focus in on the files located in non-standard directories, My Documents, etc.

    If you dump this list to a hard copy then you have the option of sitting with your client for a few moments to quickly ask them about anything else they might think of to look for or that they’re particularly concerned about. If you get a blank “deer in the headlights” look no problem. You imaged the entire drive and, presumably, you have an external drive adapter or spare connections on a bench machine to slave the drive and pull anything that may come up later on down the road.

    Tag the old drive with your client’s info and just hang on to it for a couple of months. Including these steps has proved immensely useful in the past when a client has called with despair in their voice saying they forgot about such-and-such, or so-and-so. No problem! Slave the drive, collect their files to a USB/DVD/CD, and be the hero! :-)

  • Dale says:

    It’s not hard to be the data migration hero if you are experienced and meticulous about your work. There are as many ways to do it as there are people to do it. While I use programs like FABs, I always manually verify it because it might miss stuff due to folder corruption or permission problems. But my main issue is that at some point, I like to be properly compensated for my work. This article has a lot of great things to consider, but if I were to adhere to every technique outlined in the article, it would probably eat into my time needed to be spent on other computers, As such, I have 3 tiers of data migration fees depending on the depth of the work the customer wants done, and whether or not I am transferring data from a system that won’t boot or not. I take into consideration if they just want everything dumped in to one folder on the desktop, or everything put back where it came from, recreate email accounts, back-up product keys, passwords, setup multiple profiles, install applications, etc. Also, it would be a good idea to have these processes documented on some sort of checklist, especially if you have other technicians working for you. Sorry, but no matter how talented and trustworthy a tech might be, if they are an employee (with no skin in the game), they just won’t do the same meticulous work I would 100% of the time. That’s just the way it is, and once in a while (hopefully only a great while), you will hear about it later when a customer is missing some of their data. But most of the time, data migration is a no brainer…