10 steps to ensure foolproof client migrations

Make sure no critical information gets left behind when you perform desktop and laptop migrations.

Make sure no critical information gets left behind when you perform desktop and laptop migrations.

It's an IT challenge many enterprise professionals don't understand: desktop migrations. "What's so hard about migrating client machines?" ask many enterprise administrators. "You just unbox the new desktop, deploy the hard disk image over the network, and you're done, right?"

The majority of organizations don't have the budgets and infrastructure necessary to maintain disk image libraries, much less an IT department that's sufficiently staffed to develop, maintain, and administer image technology. That leaves others -- and most IT consultants -- having to perform desktop and laptop migrations the hard way: manually.

While different tools, applications, and systems exist to ease the process of moving a user's programs, settings, files, photos, music, encrypted data, proprietary applications, financial information, email account settings, and other critical elements from one computer to another, they don't really address all user requirements. Here are 10 steps you can follow to properly migrate desktops and laptops and ensure that no critical information is left behind.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Perform a software inventory

Before beginning the task of migrating user settings, data, and information, perform an inventory of installed software on the old machine. Leverage free tools such as Belarc Advisor or simply review a client's Desktop, Quick Launch toolbar, and Start menu for commonly used applications. Review the list of applications with the user to make sure you know every program that must be reinstalled on the new computer.

2: Prepare installation media in advance

Upon learning that you will be migrating a user's settings, data, and programs from one computer to another, request that the user round up all original installation media --  and do it as far in advance as possible. This includes Microsoft Office CD-ROMs, application DVDs, applications downloaded from the Internet, etc. Without installation media on hand, a one- or two-hour migration can consume an entire day as you work to track down old, outdated, and even sunset installation files.

3: Collect license keys in advance

A software inventory and installation media are worthless if you don't have all the registration codes and license and product keys. Intuit (with its QuickBooks products) is infamous for making its clients record product numbers, license keys, business zip code, and business telephone numbers to activate reinstalled software. Microsoft Office requires a unique 25-digit alphanumeric code. Antivirus programs have their own keys. Ensure that you or your clients have all the necessary documentation ready to go when you begin a client migration; otherwise, you'll lose precious hours seeking necessary licensing information.

4: Record printers in use

Most every IT consultant and technology professional has left a site or department following a client migration only to be called back. One of the most common callback causes? Forgotten printers. Don't assume that just because you installed all printers in the client's office that you've connected all the printers the user requires. Frequently, users must print to printers on different floors and in different departments. When configuring printers on the new machines, be sure to identify the proper default device, too.

5: Review network configuration

Another common mistake when completing client migrations is to assume all systems tap DHCP services on the network. Obviously, this is not always true, as some users still use PCAnywhere, DVRs, and other applications and equipment that require configuring static IP addresses. In other cases, computers may have manually configured DNS addresses. Always check a computer's IP settings before replacing it.

6: Note computer, workgroup, and domain names

Best business practices don't apply in every organization. On more than one occasion, I've encountered clients and companies that, for legacy support reasons or personal preferences of the owner, use nonstandard computer, workgroup, and domain naming conventions. In other cases, some computers may not be members of a corporate domain, as the owner may want to maintain separate networks for business or security reasons. Always review a computer's name, workgroup, and domain configuration before beginning a client migration. This is especially important, as any files or printers shared by a system that's being replaced will no longer be accessible to other users if the same configuration is not properly replicated.

7: Install popular third-party utilities

Despite reinstalling office, financial, and business-line applications, reconfiguring all user settings (including moving a client's personal desktop wallpaper), and migrating all user files (including music, photos, and video), I've been called back to client offices because new systems didn't "work properly." Further review of such cases often showed the new PC didn't include Adobe Reader (or Apple QuickTime, Adobe Flash, WinZip, or other software). Users often don't understand that these free programs are easily downloaded and installed from the Internet. Worse, they don't know where to go to locate and install these files. So be sure to include such popular third-party utilities in migration checklists.

8: Don't forget the .NK2 file

Possibly the largest, most understandable gripe users have when switching computers is the loss of the autofill information that appears when they begin typing an email address within a Microsoft Outlook message's To field. In my experience, users become absolutely dependent upon this information, which is kept within a single file. Users frequently don't add everyone to their Contacts list, so dozens if not hundreds or thousands of email addresses are "lost" if Outlook's NK2 file isn't migrated to their new machine. Outlook stores the NK2 file for each Outlook profile within a dedicated Outlook folder. On Windows XP systems, this file is found within the Documents and Settings\Username\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook folder. On Windows Vista and 7 systems, this file lives within the Users\Username\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Outlook folder. It must be migrated back to the same location, and its filename (usually Outlook.NK2) must match the Outlook profile name to work properly on the new system.

9: Remap network drives

Users quickly become dependent upon mapped drives, but they usually don't recognize that fact. For example, an accountant may be accustomed to opening QuickBooks and accessing a company file by opening files stored on the Q: drive. Unless the Q: drive (and other drive mappings) are replicated on new systems, backups, applications, and other programs will not work properly. Users often only know that they open applications and "click on this drive" or "click on that item," and they don't always understand those clicks connect to different systems. Be sure to remap all network drives to preempt frustration.

10: Use a physical checklist

You don't work in a vacuum. Your users often want to discuss the day's breaking news stories, recent sports events, or even different computer issues they're experiencing at home while you're trying to program new routers, configure DNS, or migrate the user from an old computer to a new one. In other words, you're going to work in environments rich with distraction. To assist migration projects, use a preprinted checklist, such as our Desktop Migration Checklist. (Note: Access to this list requires a TechRepublic Pro membership.) A checklist will help ensure you don't forget any critical tasks, whether clients are asking how to eliminate spyware on their home system, your cell phone rings, or a number of other interruptions arise.

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Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...


As an end user, I remember a migration 10 or 12 years ago from Macs to PC equipment. The 'new' (really hand me down p266) machines had a previously applied image incl. W95, Microsoft Office, etc. and had been used since they were imaged. Some still had files from the previous users to be removed. The IT folks did a commendable job of moving our files from the Macs and conditioning them prior to being copied back to the PC's. However, the IT staff did not migrate all of the users files so it then became a user/work group effort to move the last files from the Macs to the PC's. At the time we used the Netscape browser/email client and that became an issue to get the Mac housed email files moved to the PC's. Due to memory issues on the Macs, I used Claris Emailer which stored each email message as a separate text file with the subject line as the file name. I spent part of several days massaging the 1,500+ message subject line/file names so that they would work in the PC LFN format. In the end, saving the messages saved my bottom several times. My point here is to make sure that the client has everything moved that he thinks that he needs, not just what IT wants to move. Also, don't be too hasty to haul off the 'old' machines in case there is something else to be moved; although burning a CD/DVD off the clients 'old' machine would help. In the end, a migration takes mutual effort from both sides to be successful.


I'd like to add a few more things. Make sure you have backed up the user's profile on to an external drive or network drive. I usually make a backup copy of these folders in the Documents and Settings\UserName\ folder: Favorites, My Documents, and Desktop folder. In addition I also backup the .pst files in Outlook folders found in Documents and Settings\UserName\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook\ Another thing to back up is users' Outlook Signature found in Documents and Settings\UserName\Application Data\Microsoft\signature folder. Current wallpaper is also another thing to be backed up also.


While I was reading the article, I felt guilty in numbers 4 and 8 ... (printers and outlook profiles).. I also agree with third-part SW installation.. flash, shockwave, silverlight,java runtime, net framework, etc etc should always part of any image.. end users sometimes dont really know how or where to get these things.. Cheers :)


Not bad. I disagree, though, with the statement: ?The majority of organizations don?t have the budgets and infrastructure necessary to maintain disk image libraries, much less an IT department that?s sufficiently staffed to develop, maintain, and administer image technology. That leaves others ? and most IT consultants ? having to perform desktop and laptop migrations the hard way: manually?" Any IT organization worth its salt will standardize as much as possible on hardware and software. By adding software like Ghost (or Acronis) and Sysprep, you can easily create, store and image systems. The key is to standardize. Instead of providing just the tools a user needs, what I do is install everything that a particular group of users will possible use. I then create an image and store it. When a workstation needs to be re-imaged (new user or "my computer is runnng slow") it takes me all of an hour or less or have the workstation rolled out. By storing all date on a server instead of locally on the computer, there is almost no customization needed other thatn Favorites, and Outlook profile... Hank Arnold (MVP)


I love the line "You just unbox the new desktop, deploy the hard disk image over the network, and you?re done, right?? These are the words of a person that hasn't ever done a desktop migration. I have been through many desktop migrations and have seen some go well and some not so well. I found all of your keys to be right on the ball. I only found one area that you didn't hit on that I feel is paramount and that is communication with the end user. I find that if you are open with the management from the beginning that tends to make the transition run smoother. We have to remember that even though we are rolling out new and cool stuff, we are going to be disruptive to the business process. Coordinating schedules and determining what applications are necessary and which ones are antiquated will make a migration project go much easier. Another aspect of communicating to the end user is setting realistic expectations and communicating changes as well as getting their feedback both positive and negative. Often times the end user will clear out part of their busy schedule for the migration. Realistically, there will come a time when plans change or maybe the migration will be halted due to unforeseen issues that need to be resolved before moving forward. Communicating these issues to the end user will go a long way in maintaining credibility for the I.T. staff. Another key that I think is imperative is testing. The successful migrations that I have been part of in the past have involved the IT staff developing lists of software and testing them all out before migrating to new systems. This can be tedious but the flip side is throwing the end user into the fire can be disastrous if mission critical applications are not functional. I was part of a roll out project once where we were brought in to do a migration and ended up sitting around for almost two weeks waiting for the management staff to get all of their ducks in a row. I remember being irritated until I saw how seamless the project went. This was due to well laid out install instructions and tested procedures.


"Any IT organization worth its salt will standardize as much as possible on hardware and software." Did you get up on the arrogant side of the bed this morning or what? I would agree that every "IT organization worth its salt" would LIKE to have an imaging capability, budget and other constraints can make this impossible to realize for many otherwise first class operations. While it may be beneath your notice, literally, there are a lot of small but still first class IT organizations that do quite nicely without such tools. Want them? You bet! Afford them? Not in this life time!! I also take execption to your allegation that setting up and maintaining a image library is easy. I've done it and it's not. If one's organization can afford the overhead, it's a great tool to have and it does indeed pay for itself IF an operation is of sufficient size. However it is neither easy nor cheap to maintain this capability. 250 seats of Ghost lists for just under $5,000, not including the hardware and storage necessary for the image library. For a lot of organizaions, that's simply too rich to be real.

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