Friday, April 18, 2014

Virtualizing Windows XP

My people have no tradition of proofreading.  —Ken White

Well... this is revolting.  A slip of a finger erased a multi-page post.  I have tried to re-create it, but this is not the original post.

You followed my advice in The Four Choices of the Windows XPocalypse and you have a shiny new computer with a shiny new operating system.  It might be Windows 7, but it's more likely Windows 8.1.  It might even be Linux or MacOS.  Now you find out that one or more of your Windows XP applications won't run under your new operating system, and you really need it.  What to do?  What to do?

Well, you could haul out your old computer when you need it, and if it's a laptop, that might even be practical.  What you really want is all your stuff on one machine, where you can use it when you want to.

Windows 7's Virtual XP Mode

Windows 7 includes a virtual XP mode that will let you run your XP programs under Windows 7.  You will have to reinstall your XP applications and any files they might need.

There is no XP mode in Windows 8, nor in Linux or MacOS, so it's not a long-term solution, and may not even work for you now.  Even if you have Windows 7 and your install media, your Windows XP setup may be so complex that replicating it under Windows 7 isn't practical.

Virtualizing Windows XP

A "virtual machine" is a software package that simulates actual computer hardware.  For helping XP live on, the virtual  machine software runs on your new computer, and Windows XP runs on the virtual machine.   There is software that's free for personal use that'll do this.  The exception is MacOS, where you will need a $60 software package.

You will need your Windows XP computer, with it's disk intact.  You'll also need an external hard disk at least as big as the Windows XP disk and virtualization software, which is free for most personal applications.  You may also need a new license and product key for Windows XP.  There's more on that below.

Creating the Windows XP Virtual Image

 If you bought your Windows XP computer with XP pre-installed, please read About the Windows XP Product Key below before you start this process.  If you're not sure whether your XP system has one of those OEM keys, you can try this process and See What Happens™.  The worst that can happen is that you'll have to do it again after you change the product key.

You make a virtual machine from your running Windows XP computer  by running the VMWare vCenter Standalone Converter.  It's free from VMWare, but you have to register to get it.  The longer XP goes unpatched, the more dangerous it is to connect it to the Internet.  I downloaded the converter (and all the other software I used for this project) using my new system and moved it over with a flash drive.

Install the vCenter Converter on your running XP system and run it.  Direct the output to your external disk, which should be empty.  (If it's not, format it.  Use the "quick format" option.)  This will take several hours – mine took about four – so best to plan to run it over night.

When the converter has finished, shut XP down, move the external drive to your new system, and go to Running Your Virtual Machine below.

About the Windows XP Product Key

Microsoft sold licenses for Windows XP to computer manufacturers at a steep discount. The catch is that the license is "locked" to the specific configuration of your XP computer. Such a license is called an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) license, and it will not run under a virtual machine.  If you try it, you'll get an "activation required" screen during the startup process of the virtual machine.

There is no way I know of to get past the activation screen.  Putting in a new product key doesn't work, and calling the phone number on the screen connects you to a robot with no sympathy for your plight.  You have to change the product key before you virtualize the XP system.

Getting a New Product Key: You will (probably) need a product key that matches the version of XP you have.  So, if you have XP Home Edition, you'll need an XP Home product key; if you have XP Professional, you'll need an XP Pro product key.  There are two kinds of licenses and product keys that will work, retail licenses and volume licenses.  If you ever bought, but did not use, a copy of Windows XP, you own a retail license, and the package will have the product key you need.  If you can find it.  Retail licenses for XP are for sale on eBay at prices ranging from $20 to over $100.  Expect prices to go up as these become rarer.

You may be able to talk the I.T. people where you work into giving you a product key for a volume license of XP.  (Remember, though, the VMWare software is free only for personal use; if you're doing this for work, you'll need VMWare licenses.) Educational licenses for XP are not locked to particular hardware, so you can use an education license if you have one.

I am told that one can find product keys that will work through searching the web.  I haven't tried that.  You shouldn't, either, because it's probably illegal.  (In the words of the late Jay Rosenberg, I have been politic and you have been warned.)

Cloning the XP System:  This step is optional.  Because I am conservative and risk-averse, I used the free edition of Macrium Reflect to make a clone of my XP system disk.  I booted from the cloned disk and changed the product key there.  My thinking was that if I somehow rendered the working disk unbootable, I'd still have the original.  That step took several hours and turned out not to be necessary for me.  (Although the free edition will do everything you need to do for this step, the folks at Macrium Software have done everyone a service by making it available.  Consider buying the licensed edition if you can afford it.)

Changing the Product Key: To change the product key of a running XP system, you will need the Windows XP Product Key Tool, still available (so far) from Microsoft.  Download it, run it, and type in the new product key.  You will probably have to reboot your computer, but it either will not need activation, or will activate over the Internet without trouble.  (If it doesn't, you'll be glad you made that clone disk!)

Once your XP system has a retail or volume license product key, you can return to Creating the Windows XP Virtual Image.

Running Your Virtual Machine

You use the free VMWare Player to run your virtual machine on Windows or Linux.   For MacOS, you will need VMWare Fusion, which costs $60.  There's a free 30-day trial of VMWare Fusion, so you can be sure this works for you before you put your money down.  Download and install the correct virtual machine software for your computer.

Connect the disk with the XP virtual machine image on it and double-click the dot-vmx file; Windows XP will start and run in your virtual machine!  (If you get the dreaded "activation required" screen, you will need a different product key.  See About the Windows XP Product Key above.  As far as I know, there's no way to get past the activation screen.  You will need to rebuild the virtual machine image with a retail or volume license product key.)

After you have Windows XP running, you will want to install the VMWare tools into the virtual machine.   There will be a button below the virtual machine screen that will start the process for you.  It takes two or three minutes.

You also need to read what Byron Brewer has to say about very slow shutdowns of VMWare virtual machines. I added the four-line change suggested by Brewer directly to the dot-vmx file by editing it with Notepad.

Use "msconfig" and "Add/Remove Programs" to get rid of things that start automatically.  They will make opening your virtual machine very slow, and may engage in unwanted Internet access.

It is an increasingly bad idea to use your XP virtual machine for anything having to do with Internet access.  Most especially you should not use Internet Explorer.  XP is limited to IE 8, and web browsers are a primary vector for malicious software.  Also avoid Flash, Java, and Acrobat in web browsers.  Best advice: No Internet access from that virtual machine.  You might even want to delete IE 8, Flash, Java, and Acrobat.

If all you do is look at stuff on your virtual machine, you probably don't need to worry about the virtual disk, except to back it up from time to time.  If you are writing to the disk as well as reading, you will want to read what VMWare has to say about compacting virtual disks.  Make a backup before you compact.

Copyright © 2014 by Bob Brown

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Virtualizing Windows XP by Bob Brown is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.