Easier Physical-to-Virtual Migrations

A guide for transferring user personalities from physical to virtual desktop environments

by Amy Hodler

Over the last few years, IT has seen how virtualization reduces both operating and hardware expenses. Having experienced these benefits in server virtualization, IT is turning to desktop virtualization to further leverage their infrastructure during the economic downturn. Desktop virtualization can decrease both management and energy costs, and Gartner predicts that by 2013, between 10 to 15 percent of enterprise PCs will be virtualized.

Despite the expected cost and management benefits, early adopters of hosted virtual desktops have encountered several obstacles in achieving them, including:

  • a lack of a mature ecosystem and migration tools
  • higher-than-expected switch costs
  • implementation projects that take too long
  • low user adoption rates
  • long-term storage and management requirements
  • lower user efficiency

These limitations can seriously hinder the overall return on investment and jeopardize widespread deployment. Many of these obstacles are directly linked to desktop customizations, their entanglement with the operating system and applications, and the need to maintain OSes and applications for user efficiency in a new virtualized environment.

Users customize their surroundings to increase familiarity, resulting in higher efficiency and productivity. However, management complexity and costs drastically rise as soon as users begin to personalize the baseline image. To reap the benefits of virtualization, enterprises must actively manage the desktop personality which includes all essential end-user application and OS customizations, metadata, templates, connectivity data, custom dictionaries, data files, and even customizations beyond those saved in Windows profiles. In moving to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), if users are forced to move from rich personal environments to generic, "greenfield" desktops devoid of their personal customizations, virtualization endeavors will fail. For users to accept VDI as reasonable, they should not be able to tell whether their environment is based on a traditional desktop or on some form of virtualized desktop.

Consequently, as more enterprises adopt virtual desktops, demand for migrating end-user desktop personalities from a physical PC to a virtual desktop continues to increase. There are several ways to transport the user environment and desktop personality to virtual desktops and thus personalize VDI. Attempting to manually gather user customizations and data should be avoided as it will result in a long and costly implementation as well as a dissatisfied user base.

Taking a snapshot of the entire image and then moving it to a virtual image is a misstep that completely undermines the basis of many benefits of VDI that rely on centralized management of a few standard images, not management of many, individual endpoints with multiple OS and application versions. Abstracting and migrating the personalized user environment with a solid, well-planned process is essential to maintain user efficiency and acceptance of the new environment and to realize the management and cost benefits of desktop virtualization. There are several best practices that can be used to develop a strategy that will work for a variety of environments.

Selecting a Personality Migration Tool

Choosing the best migration tool allows for a smoother and faster transition to a virtual environment for both IT staff and users. Be cautious with free tools as they may meet some, but not all, requirements or need additional time or incur additional cost due to their inflexibility.

Here are a few tips to consider when selecting a desktop personality migration tool for physical to virtual desktop migrations:

  1. Choose a tool with comprehensive scanning and discovery of all essential user settings and data.
  2. Make certain the personality migration process can be easily automated to ensure the virtual desktop implementation is efficient for IT staff and users. This is especially critical in large-scale projects.
  3. Confirm the migration tool is architecturally flexible and lightweight so it can be easily integrated with most management solutions and processes.
  4. Choose a tool and process that will support several virtual desktop technologies and scenarios for greater long-term usability. For instance, use a tool that can support each user owning an individual virtual desktop, individual clones, or users sharing a virtual desktop with multiple personalities.
  5. For greater ROI, select a personality migration tool that can be used beyond the physical to virtual migration process. Some migration tools can also be used for continual personality backup and for settings translation between software versions.

Configuring Personality Migration

Most user environment and personality migration tools require configuration to define and specify which users, customizations, application settings, and data files are to be included in the personality capture. Each desktop environment is unique; tailoring what data and settings must be captured for the specific environment is required for an effective migration; using a generic configuration may have unintended results such as the migration of personal music files or missing custom application settings.

To properly configure the personality migration tool, you must:

  • Identify a proper data store location where the migration tool will save and protect personalities
  • Customize application and Windows settings
  • Customize file and folder rules to include or exclude files by type, path, date, or size; as well as identify redirection paths if file redirection is used
  • Identify and include any additional registry information including registry keys and values

Process Automation

User environment and personality migration tools should include command-line automation to execute the capture and restore process automatically and silently. Each batch file should silently install and remove the software, provide a path to the data store, and include criteria for user or personality identification.

With process automation, the personality can be captured from the physical device and transferred to a specified data store location. The capture processes will likely use a set of command-line switches to identify users to include or exclude from the migration. A common mistake is to overlook identification of all users of a computer to be migrated and capture only the currently logged-in user personality.

The personality restore process transfers the user personality from the data store to the user’s virtual desktop. The steps for restoring a personality in a virtual environment depend on how virtual desktops will be distributed; they should be customized for the virtualization technology being used.

Enterprises most often face one of two common scenarios:

1. Each user will be assigned an individual, personal virtual desktop or clone: Prior to restoring, determine how each user personality will be identified and then matched to the user's virtual desktop. Identification options include a user restore command line, passing the user information at runtime, or a predefined list called by the restore process.

2. Multiple users share one virtual desktop configuration, but have individual customizations: In this case, the user groups must be predetermined and matched to a specific virtual desktop image for that group. Although there are several options, in terms of organization and execution, it may be most efficient to use a separate process batch file for each virtual user group.

A personality migration tool should support a single click or integrated, unattended execution of this process. The capture and restore process can be manually executed, scheduled at user log on or log off, or performed as an integrated process with any deployment-capable software. Once the personality has been restored, if supported, the migration tool can also be used to continue to backup the personality on a predefined schedule.


Desktop virtualization is expected to dramatically increase over the next year, but user acceptance and productivity is a major stumbling block to VDI adoption. Organizations that provide their users with virtual computing platforms that look and feel like their existing PCs will see lower support costs and higher acceptance of VDI.

Moving from a physical desktop environment to a virtual environment will not occur quickly. As organizations get ready to pilot and implement VDI, they should select the personality migration tool that is flexible enough to meet changing needs over time, ensure their processes can span traditional and virtual environments, and have a solid migration plan in place for efficient migration projects and greater user adoption of the new virtual desktop environment.

Amy Hodler is director of product management at Tranxition, Inc. You can contact the author at

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