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Six Things a SysAdmin Should Know About XP

by Andy Patrizio

With the release last October of Windows XP, Microsoft continues the process of expanding the functionality of Windows while at the same time trying to make it more bulletproof. They're usually more successful at the former than the latter. While the debate rages between testing labs as to whether XP is faster or slower than its predecessor, Windows 2000, there's no question that like every release of the NT technology, XP features enough changes that you can't simply assume it's a lot like the previous release.

Whether you work on a Windows, Linux, BSD or other kind of box, it's likely that if you're a system administrator, you'll wind up tending some XP machines in your network. Here's a list of the most important elements of Windows XP to keep in mind when making the migration from earlier versions of Windows. If you are on the fence with XP, the list below will give you an idea what you are in for, should you make the leap (or get pushed).

1. Review and Plan Accordingly.

Just because Windows XP is built on Windows 2000, don't assume it will be just another Windows 2000 installation. You have to evaluate the following:

  • Business organization and geographical requirements.
  • Application requirements (includes inventory of software and hardware).
  • Any existing Windows NT domain architecture, such as the number of domains and system policies in effect.
  • Service Packs and hotfixes applied to servers.
  • Interoperability (presence of NetWare, UNIX, or Linux-based computers).
  • Network and application standards -- current and future.
  • User types (roaming, mobile, remote, task-based, knowledge-based, and so on).
  • Software standards.
  • Hardware standards.
  • Support issues.
  • Naming conventions.
  • Security policy.

You will have to go through the hardware and software compatibility lists as well. Hardware requirements have gone up with Windows XP (see below), and with Windows XP, there is a software analysis tool to examine all of your installed applications to see if there's a known issue.

If you are not sure whether or not your systems can handle Windows XP, there is a way to evaluate your system without actually going through an upgrade. Windows XP Professional Setup includes a mode called Check Upgrade Only, which can be used to test the upgrade process.

Check Upgrade Only mode produces a report on potential problems that you might hit during the actual upgrade, such as hardware compatibility issues, or software that might not be migrated during the upgrade. To run Setup in Check Upgrade Only mode, run Winnt32.exe, from the i386 folder, with the command-line switch -checkupgradeonly. It will check your MSDOS configurations, PnP hardware and installed software.

2. Know Windows 2000, at the Very Least.

This will all be a lot easier if you're familiar with Windows 2000. XP builds on Windows 2000, so if you know Windows 2000 administration, the transition will go a lot smoother than if you have been sticking with Windows NT 4.0 Server. "All of the considerations you have to have with Windows 2000 Professional and all of the knowledge and know-how to deploy Windows 2000 Professional comes into play with XP," said Christian Gyorkos, product manager for Windows XP at Microsoft.

All of the new functionality in Windows XP can be controlled by policies, a feature introduced with Windows 2000. These let you lock down desktop functionality, such as what can be installed and what can't. These tools, such as remote installation, Active Desktop, Intellimirror, etc., are virtually the same on XP as they were on Win2k. But NT 4.0 administrators will have to learn them first.

Microsoft offers the User State Migration Tool (USMT), which it designed for administrators doing large deployments of Windows XP Professional. Think of USMT as the more powerful version of the File and Settings Transfer wizard in the home edition. It transfers all of the personalizations of the user's Windows 9x or Windows 2000 desktop. USMT is designed for administrators doing hundreds of migrations at a time, with more specific needs such as unique modifications to the registry.

It is possible to migrate an NT 4 domain to Windows 2000/XP domains and map them as before; Microsoft said that in most cases, administrators would rather take the time to learn Active Directory and deploy a whole new domain from scratch.

There are some improvements to Active Directory as well, but those are mostly in terms of flexibility. For example, if you prepare an image of Windows XP for your desktops and need a different driver for some of the desktops, the image knows to use that driver. With Windows 2000, you had to make a whole new image to change one driver.

3. Application Requirements and Changes.

If you have a large NT 4 deployment, you'd better spend some time double-checking whether or not your applications run under XP. "Again, that's much easier if you have an app running under Windows 2000 Professional, because virtually every app, other than a few low-level apps, that run on Windows 2000 will run on Windows XP," said Gyorkos.

The biggest problem will be with low-level applications that make calls to the kernel or to architecture-specific functions in the OS. Between Windows NT 4.0 and 2000, quite a few changes were made to the kernel, which broke more than a few applications. If the application makes API calls, then it won't be as likely to break.

The following NT 4.0 applications are likely to have problems with Windows XP:

  • Applications that depend on file-system filters; for example, antivirus software, disk tools, and disk quota software.
  • Custom power-management solutions and tools. Windows XP Professional support for Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI) and Advanced Power Management (APM) replaces these. Remove such custom solutions and tools before upgrading.
  • Custom Plug-and-Play solutions. These are no longer necessary, because Windows XP Professional provides full Plug-and-Play support. Remove all custom Plug-and-Play solutions before upgrading.
  • Fault-tolerant options, such as disk mirrors.
  • Other network clients and services.
  • Virus scanners.
  • Uninterruptible power supplies.

Microsoft has a utility called the Upgrade Advisor that does a check of your installed applications and hardware, complete with warning messages about incompatible software on your machine. It's a database of compatibility info that is updated when you perform this checkup. It can be downloaded from Microsoft.

Should an application not work, the Program Compatibility Wizard will (or will try to) run the application in a different OS mode. By right-clicking on an application and selecting Properties, a tab for Compatibility will appear. Applications that don't run, or don't run well in Windows XP can be run in a number of other modes:

  • Microsoft Windows 95.
  • Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 (Service Pack 5).
  • Microsoft Windows 98/Windows Me.
  • Microsoft Windows 2000.

4. Hardware Support and Issues.

If you want an OS that runs adequately in 64 Mbytes of memory, you might want to look at one of those free OSes, because one thing XP is not is lean. Its minimum requirement is 64 Mbytes of memory, which will let you load XP and that's about it. 128 Mbytes is the minimum amount you can get away with, and 256 Mbytes or more is recommended.

As for other hardware considerations, make sure your computers have the latest available BIOS version that it is compatible with Windows XP Professional, and especially, that they support Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI). You will need that to install Windows XP.

Microsoft has a Hardware Compatibility List for Windows XP, which it continues to update with the release of XP.

While many hardware makers have already updated their drivers for Windows XP, and in most cases Windows 2000 drivers will work just fine on an XP system, be advised NOT to use any Windows 9x drivers on your XP system. 16-bit device drivers for Windows Me, Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows 3.x were based on the virtual device driver (VxD) model, which is not supported in Windows XP Professional.

When you upgrade a Windows 9x system to XP, none of the 16-bit drivers are migrated. Therefore, you will have to have the Windows 2000/XP versions ready. You do have the option during the installation to add device drivers when the install is being done.

Digitally-signed drivers were first introduced in Windows 2000, and the feature gets an overhaul in Windows XP. If you install a driver that is not digitally signed, you get flagged with a dialog box warning you the device is not signed and certified by Microsoft. In XP, you have the option of disabling this notification or preventing any non-digitally-signed driver from being installed on the system.

Windows XP also comes with driver rollback, which lets you roll back any installed driver to the previous version, and system restore, which enables you to roll back old application settings to a previous state or previous time.

5. Mind the New Features.

Windows XP introduces several new features you will want to keep in mind. They are: wireless support, remote desktop, remote assistance, and communication via Windows Messenger.

Wireless support comes in the form of zero-configuration 802.11x networking. Windows XP will try to authenticate the computer to the network automatically rather than force a manual configuration, which can be a time-consuming nuisance, especially in a company with a lot of roaming help.

Remote Desktop enables you to access your PC remotely, similar to Symantec's pcANYWHERE, although even Microsoft admits Remote Desktop isn't as comprehensive as pcANYWHERE. It uses the Windows 2000 security model and security is handled via Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnelling. The feature is set to off by default on installation, but can be enabled if the administrator chooses.

Remote Assistance is, as its name implies, for troubleshooting without sending someone to the computer. It's up to administrators to decide what level of support they want done remotely and how it's handled, such as via instant messenger or telephone. They also have to decide if it's automated or if support is handled manually.

MSN Messenger got quite a facelift with Windows XP. Microsoft combined its old MSN Messenger, which was basically a two-way chat utility, with NetMeeting, its collaboration software, and beefed the whole system up significantly. It's now peer-to-peer with no NetMeeting server required, is simpler to use and set up, and works with more applications.

6. Updated Interface.

They didn't just pretty up Windows XP, they changed a number of features that will affect how the computers can and are used.

Although designed for the home user, Fast User Switching is a feature with business uses as well. It lets multiple people share a single computer as if it were their own and silos their data and applications from each other. There is no need to save files and log off for someone else to use the system. Windows XP uses Terminal Services technology to run each session as a unique Terminal Services session, enabling each user's data to be entirely separated.

The redesigned Start menu shows your most frequently used files and applications together for quick and easy access. Help and support are available from the Start menu, as are the Administration tools for managing the system, which you may or may not want to allow.

File management has been updated as well. My Documents lets you manage your files by groups or when they are modified. In addition, the Webview option in the left-hand side of a window gives you a number of options, such as renaming, deleting, making available on the network, and so forth. These features used to be buried under a few layers of menu options.

Andy Patrizio is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to Wired News,, Java Pro and Enterprise Systems Journal. He lives in Los Angeles.

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