Microsoft's Windows 7 XP Mode has been released to manufacturing and will be available for download on the Window 7 launch date of October 22. XP Mode is an interesting addition to Windows 7 that offers a number of distinct advantages and some limitations.
There are huge advantages to using XP Mode.
It allows you to run legacy XP apps on Windows 7. This is the primary purpose of XP Mode. It provides a path forward for people who can't yet let go of apps that just won't run in Vista or 7. Don't expect it to be a robust gaming environment, but your business apps should be fine.
It allows you to run multiple versions of incompatible software. For example, on a single instance of Windows, you cannot run multiple versions of Internet Explorer or Outlook. With XP Mode, you can run the latest version of IE on your host computer while using IE6 in XP Mode for legacy compatibility.
It's integrated. XP Mode apps can be launched directly from the Windows 7 start menu, and it defaults to using your documents library on the host computer when it saves files. A challenge in supporting any virtual computer is explaining to the end-user exactly what a virtual machine is and how it works. Though the concept is simple, people often have a hard time grasping the idea of an OS running within an OS. Once XP Mode apps are deployed, XP Mode's integration provides a layer of abstraction that hides virtualization from the user.
It provides a way to run 32-bit specific apps on a 64-bit OS. While the lion's share of 32-bit apps will run on a 64-bit OS, there are exceptions. For example Watchguard's SSL VPN client requires a 32-bit OS. XP Mode provides a safeguard for these rare occasions.
You can blow it up. Since it's a fully functional virtual machine, you can use it for testing software that you don't trust on your host computer. If you somehow destroy the XP Mode environment, it's easy to restore it.
XP Mode isn't without its limitations.
XP Mode is resource intensive. Running a virtual OS on top of your real OS takes up lots of CPU cycles and memory. If you have a new quad-core CPU running 64-bit Windows with 8GB of RAM, your computer will handle XP Mode with aplomb. However, running with 1GB of RAM will prove to be somewhat frustrating.
XP Mode requires a CPU with hardware assisted virtualization technology. Without a supported CPU, your attempts to install XP Mode will be dead in the water.
Windows 7 Professional (or higher) is required. If you were hoping to run XP Mode on a new Windows 7 computer picked up at a retail outlet, you might be disappointed to find that you'll need to spend some additional capital to upgrade to the Pro version.
XP Mode is slow. If you need to launch an app that requires XP Mode, you might be waiting a minute or two for the app to launch. Subsequent XP Mode apps will launch faster since the virtual machine will already be running. While business apps should give you no trouble, don't expect to run graphics intensive games or HD video.
Microsoft was smart to offer XP Mode to its business customers. It virtually eliminates software compatibility as an excuse to hang on to older systems. As long as you're aware of its limitations, I think you'll find that XP Mode can guide you through a few sticky situations.
Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.