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Even if your organization's existing Windows XP computers are able to run Windows 8.1, you must still want to do a clean install to update systems. Microsoft offers no direct migration path for porting a user's files or settings or the computer's applications.
For the apps, you'll likely want to include them in your Windows 8.1 deployment, unless you're purchasing machines preinstalled with the new operating system, in which case you'll need to install the programs separately.
As for the user settings, Microsoft provides no way to preserve them. Workers will have to start from the beginning, which is perhaps not a bad thing, given the radically different Windows 8.1 user interface. On the other hand, you can migrate user data -- such as files in My Documents or on the desktop -- but to do so, you have to use a Microsoft-sanctioned workaround.
Before we go into the details of this approach, it's worth noting that you might want to consider a third-party migration tool, such as PCmover Enterprise, which can help transfer files, settings, user accounts and selected programs. You'll have to research what's out there and which tool might fit your needs before deciding to go that route. In the meantime, if you plan to stick with Microsoft tools, you'll need to jump through a few hoops to get your users set up on their new systems.
The three primary tools that Microsoft recommends for Windows 8.1 deployment and desktop management are System Center 2012 Configuration Manager R2, the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) 2013 and the Windows Assessment and Deployment Kit (ADK) for Windows 8.1.
At the heart of the migration process is ADK, a requirement for both Configuration Manager and the MDT. One of the tools supported by the ADK is the User State Migration Tool (USMT), which is critical to migrations from Windows XP to Windows 8.1. The USMT lets you retrieve user data from old desktops, laptops and tablets and deliver it to the new ones.
Unfortunately, the USMT in ADK for Windows 8.1 does not support Windows XP. Instead, you must also install ADK for Windows 8 -- on a computer separate from the one where ADK for Windows 8.1 is installed -- and use that version of USMT to capture the user data on the XP machines. From there, you then use the USMT in ADK for Windows 8.1 to restore the data to the newly installed Windows 8.1 machines. True, this approach sounds a bit convoluted, but it is the solution that Microsoft represents.
In addition to swapping out the USMT, the workaround involves several other steps, such as updating the CustomSettings.ini file.
The end is here for Windows XP
For most organizations, the time has come to migrate from Windows XP to another OS if they haven't already done so. For those who haven't, it's likely a little too late in the product lifecycle to go with Windows 7, and Windows 8 has been usurped by Windows 8.1.
However, a leap directly to Windows 8.1 means working around the fact that Microsoft doesn't provide a Windows XP migration path. Instead, you must use a combination of Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 deployment tools. A little clunky, yes, but the alternatives could prove clunkier still. Then again, you might decide to limp along with XP until Windows 9 takes center stage. Or, you might take an even more radical approach and start moving to Linux desktops.