How to move hard drives and transplant system drives between servers

Moving hard drives can be tricky; but it may be faster and more cost-effective than re-imaging. Learn how to remove hard drives and transplant system drives.

When a workstation goes down, many administrators simply replace the machine and an image is then deployed to the...

new workstation's hard drive to prepare the new machine for use. In these economic times, saving money is on everyone's mind and you may find yourself reusing functional components from the dead machine, and other methods to reduce user downtime.

This is particularly true of the workstation's hard drives. If the machine's hard drives are viable, it may be faster to move the hard drives into the new machine rather than deploying a new disk image. This technique may reduce downtime, which helps reduce costs, and has the added benefit of preserving anything user-specific.

Users are typically discouraged from saving data on their hard drives, but they may do so anyway. Even if they do not store data on the hard drive, they may have application specific customizations that reside locally. While normally frowned upon, this will help during the transplant process. And if roaming user profiles are used, then settings, such as Internet Explorer, favorites and desktop design, will follow the user from machine to machine and should automatically apply them to the user's new computer.

However, moving a hard drive can be trickier than it seems. You must first consider whether or not the machine that the drive is being pulled from, the source computer, is dead. You also need to figure out whether you are removing the machine's system drive, a secondary drive or both.

Removing a secondary hard drive

If the source machine still functions and you only plan to remove a secondary hard drive, then get the functioning machine to recognize you are removing the drive rather than just pulling it. To do this, follow these five steps:

  1. Boot the machine
  2. Open the Device Manager
  3. Locate the drive that will be removed. (The drive should be located in the Device Manager's Disk Drives section).
  4. Once you have identified the drive, right click and choose the "Uninstall" command from the shortcut menu. (This disassociates the drive from the operating system).
  5. Shut down and move the hard drive.

In many cases, the new computer won't distinguish the hard drive from the other system after the transplant is complete. To fix this, use the Disk Management console, which will open when the DISKMGMT.MSC command is entered at the Run Prompt. The console will display every drive in the system, and the transplanted hard drive will most likely be listed as a foreign disk. You can force Windows Vista to treat the drive as a part of the system by right clicking on the drive and choosing the "Import Foreign Disks" command from the shortcut menu.

When the import process is complete, you may need to assign a drive letter to the volume on the drive. To do so, right click on the volume and choose the "Change Drive Letter and Paths" command from the shortcut menu.

Transplanting the system drive

Transplanting the system drive is slightly more complicated than moving a secondary hard drive; mostly because the information about the machine's hardware configuration is tied to the boot process. Sometimes a direct transplant works, other times it does not. It will greatly depend on the hardware similarities of the two machines. I have learned that if transplanting the drive isn't going to work, you will know right away. You will typically receive a blue screen error before the boot process even completes.

If you have trouble transplanting the system drive, there are other options. Since Windows Vista's backup application is designed to create backups that are hardware independent, you can restore the backup to dissimilar hardware (the new computer), and boot the old operating system. And if there is another machine with similar hardware to the old machine, you can temporarily move the hard drive into it and boot the OS. From there, you can back up the system drive to a USB hard drive.

Brien M. Posey, MCSE
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Exchange Server, and has previously received Microsoft's MVP award for Windows Server and Internet Information Server (IIS). Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once responsible for the Department of Information Management at Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer, Brien has written for Microsoft, TechTarget, CNET, ZDNet, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at http://www.brienposey.com.

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