Migrate user data with Desktop DNA

Users hate change just as much as you do. But when you must perform the inevitable workstation or operating system upgrade, Miramar Systems' Desktop DNA can help you migrate pertinent user data. Learn about its features and how it performs in a test.

When you reinstall or upgrade an operating system, you are left with the time-consuming task of reconstructing the OS and applications to their original state. In other words, users will want their stuff to work the same as it did before you messed with it. This includes operating system preferences such as networking, desktop, and control panel settings, and application preferences such as favorites, mailboxes, and macros. User state migration programs are designed to migrate user preferences to new machines or operating systems, and advanced programs migrate preferences as well as user data and applications. They have even taken on the role of backup utilities for critical settings and data. In this Daily Drill Down, I will examine the migration features of Miramar Systems' Desktop DNA.

When to use migration tools
The following three scenarios are ones in which technicians will find migration tools extremely helpful:
  • Used along with disk imaging programs to do a rollout of multiple operating system installs over a network. Migration programs greatly reduce the time spent reconfiguring individual user settings and replacing data.
  • When it is desirable to maintain users' settings when upgrading hard drives or replacing PC systems.
  • When completely reinstalling a system’s operating system to clear up major problems.

Desktop DNA features
Miramar Systems’ Desktop DNA combines great flexibility and features with ease of use. It is currently at version 3.5 and can be used with Windows 9x, Me, NT, 2000, and XP to migrate user OS settings, files, folders, application settings, and entire applications. The program allows you to either migrate settings through a TCP/IP network connection or by creating a DNA file that can be used on any system from which you wish to migrate data. Desktop DNA also allows you to make a DNA file self-extracting, so you should not need to install the program on the target system.

Try before you buy!
Each Desktop DNA license (up to 24) costs $49. For 25 to 99 licenses, the price drops to $45 each. Value pricing is available if you need more than 100 licenses. If you would like to try Desktop DNA, Miramar offers a fully functional, seven-day demo.

Desktop DNA allows you to create templates of the settings and files you wish to migrate via the Template Editor. Using templates makes multiple migrations easier, as you can select your settings once and then apply them many times. The templates include settings for both the migration source and destination system.

With the assistance of DNA scripts that Miramar provides for many popular applications, Desktop DNA also allows you to migrate applications (including all Microsoft Office products) and their settings. I should point out, though, that moving entire applications with a migration tool is quite time-consuming, so you may want to defer to imaging programs such as Norton Ghost for application migration. Desktop DNA is better at application settings migrations.

For other applications and proprietary software (such as custom in-house programs), Desktop DNA provides a Muscle migration option. The Muscle tool attempts to gather information about an application and automatically creates a best-effort script for it. Desktop DNA includes a script editor (DNA Studio) in case changes must be made and also offers a script-writing toolkit for those who want to write their own DNA scripts. Miramar even provides script writing as a service for organizations needing to migrate their proprietary applications or settings.

Another unique feature of Desktop DNA is its ability to schedule migrations, allowing you to consistently back up settings and files so you can recover them if need be. When used in conjunction with an imaging program, this type of scheduled migration can be a valuable time-saver. For instance, you could reinstall or reimage an OS and then use the latest DNA file to rapidly restore the user settings.

Desktop DNA supports a powerful command-line interface that provides tremendous flexibility in applying your migrations. It also supports the use of batch files to migrate user settings within batch and script programs, which means that you can write programs that include user migrations as part of a larger automated process.

The process in a nutshell
I conducted a few tests on Desktop DNA in an idealized environment. The first test involved the self-extracting DNA file feature, which allows you to conduct a migration without a network. I began by taking note of several settings on my Windows 2000 partition, including desktop settings, Outlook settings, mailboxes, folders, contacts, IE favorites, and cookies, as well as several files contained in the My Documents folder. I then started Desktop DNA as Administrator.

When you first run the program, you are presented with a welcome screen to the wizard section. These welcome screens precede each major step of the migration and can be disabled if you no longer need their assistance by selecting that option on the menu bar at the top of the window. Below the menu bar are tabs for each task section that the wizard leads you through. You can click on one of these tabs to go directly to one of the migration steps, but the wizard will ping you if you skip too far ahead.

Figure A
Desktop DNA performs migrations via a DNA file or TCP/IP network.

For the first step of the migration, you must choose whether you want to create a DNA file or migrate through a network TCP/IP connection, as shown in Figure A. For my test, I selected a DNA file. Then, I had to decide if the migration would apply only to the current user or to multiple users. Since I wanted to move the Administrator and my user accounts, I selected multiple users.

Desktop DNA then prompted me to choose the types of settings (presented as checkboxes) to be migrated. Selecting the checkbox next to a plus sign (+) will select that entire setting subset. You can also expand the list to select only certain settings within a category. The setting categories, which appear onsuccessive screens, include System Settings (Figure B), Applications, Application Settings, and Files And Folders.

Figure B
Checkboxes allow you to choose which settings you want to migrate.

The third step consists of selecting a destination for your DNA file. You can choose any local drive or network drive, and you can opt to make the DNA file self-extracting so that you won't need to install Desktop DNA on the target system or drive. For this test, I selected to create the file as self-extracting. I chose a location to save the DNA file and then started the migration.

After the migration, you are presented with a series of logs that indicate any errors that occurred during the process. You are also given the option of undoing any of your earlier migration selections, which can be very convenient if you change your mind about an item. The Migration Exception Log (Figure C) warns you of actions you may need to take in order to complete your migration, and it also lets you know which settings could not be migrated for a variety of reasons. You can print this log as a sort of checklist to ensure you set any remaining items manually.

Figure C
The Migration Exception Log is one of several ways Desktop DNA warns you of potential pitfalls.

Self-extracting DNA file problem
After creating the self-extracting DNA file and saving it to another partition, I used Norton Ghost to reinstall Windows 2000 to a clean state from a saved partition image, which simulated an OS reinstall. I then tried to carry out the migration by executing the self-extracting DNA file as Administrator. It crashed. I created another self-extracting DNA file and tried the migration again after reimaging the NTFS partition. It crashed again. Unfortunately, the drawback of an executable migration file is that if it fails to run properly, you are left with very little recourse. If this would have been a real migration rather than a simulation, I would have been rather upset. Nevertheless, I decided to retry the migration this time without a self-extracting DNA file.

Validate before you migrate
After carefully resetting the items whose migration I wanted to observe, I created another DNA file. This time, I did not choose the self-extracting option. I reimaged my Windows 2000 partition again and proceeded to apply my migration. I installed Desktop DNA, ran it, and chose to open the DNA file that I created earlier. After opening a DNA file, the Desktop DNA wizard gives you the option of editing the file or selecting the destination to apply the migration. Editing the file is useful if you want to modify the selections you made when you created the file. Since I did not want to edit the file, I chose my destination.

Desktop DNA allows you to validate a migration before you apply it. This is an extremely useful feature and, along with the migration logs, can be used to make the migration process as error-free as possible. Like the migration logs, the validation process indicates possible problems and what actions you may need to take, and allows you to deselect those items that may cause trouble.

No NTFS file permission migration
After the validation, I proceeded to apply the migration from the file. This time, everything went smoothly. To verify the effectiveness of the migration, I compared my list of observed migration items to the system’s current state. I found that Desktop DNA did a great job of migrating almost all of my observed settings. The few that it did not were mentioned in either the validation or the migration exception log. The only exceptions to this were my user’s folder settings to hide protected files and to hide extensions of known file types. While these were minor drawbacks, I did find a more troubling one. It seems that while Desktop DNA does migrate sharing permissions, it does not migrate NTFS file permissions. This can be quite disappointing if you have spent a good deal of time setting file permissions only to discover that you will have to set them again after a migration.

Migrating over the network
Finally, I decided to test a TCP/IP network-based migration. I installed Windows Me on two PCs and networked them via a TCP/IP connection. I set up one machine with the settings and application (QuickTime) I wanted to migrate. I then installed Desktop DNA on both systems. In order to do a migration over a TCP/IP connection, you run the application and select one system (the machine with the settings to be migrated) as the source. Then, you must go to the target system, run the application, and select it as the destination. On the source system, you can either specify the target’s IP address or you may have Desktop DNA search for the target system. The rest of the migration procedure is similar to that described above for migrating with a DNA file. Besides migrating some basic application setting via a DNA file, I chose to migrate QuickTime by using Desktop DNA’s Muscle migration option.

The majority of the migration items were transferred smoothly, and Desktop DNA did a fine job of applying the settings of the Windows Me installation on the destination system. However, the migration of the application took a really long time. In fact, the first time I tried transferring the application, Desktop DNA dropped its connection. As mentioned before, this may not be too much of a drawback since you will more likely use the program to transfer application settings rather than whole applications.

Get moving with Desktop DNA
Desktop DNA is a flexible user state migration solution that makes moving files and settings a safe and easy process. The validation and migration logs provide a means for applying the migration in a virtually error-free manner, while the Validation feature allows you to change settings after the migration if you change your mind. However, I found Desktop DNA's inability to migrate NTFS file permissions disappointing, and my bad experience with its self-extracting DNA file option makes me wary of using this feature in a real migration situation. But overall, Desktop DNA does a solid job of performing its primary function over a variety of Windows platforms.

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