Dreading Windows 7 or 8 deployments? How advanced application mapping could be your silver lining

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Supporting an ever-increasing number of enterprise applications has always presented a challenge, but this pain is especially acute when operating system (OS) upgrades -- such as from Windows XP to Windows 7 or Windows 8 -- are rolled out.

"Application mapping," the process of identifying and reinstalling users' application sets, can be automated and helpful, but the traditional process is highly inefficient. However, a new approach to application mapping substantially eases the impending aggravation of a Windows migration.

OVERVIEW: Why, when and how to migrate to Windows 8

MORE: 3 tips for migrating applications to Windows 7

With traditional application mapping, the process of identifying and reinstalling the user's application set can be automated by identifying relevant applications in the old system's inventory and translating, or "mapping," them to a ConfigMgr package and program. This process is often referred to as "Package Mapping."

In fact, the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit has included a little-known application mapping solution since it original release (BDD 2.5). Variations of the original solution can be found on various public blogs; all use some form of string comparison to match Add/Remove Program entries to ConfigMgr packages and programs. At the center of the process is a custom table, populated by an administrator, containing inventoried applications display names in one column and ConfigMgr package ID's in another. A sample of what this PackageMapping table may look like is below.

Table 1

Sample PackageMapping table

The potential time savings has an obvious appeal, especially when planning a large-scale migration; but application mapping can do more than save time. First, application mapping can be used to install an upgraded version of particular applications. In the preceding example, installations of Project Professional 2007 are automatically upgraded to Project Professional 2010 during the migration. Second, this process can rationalize and reduce the size of the organization's software portfolio. Again referring to the preceding table, installations of WinZip and jZip will be replaced with 7-Zip at deployment.

While application mapping can add value to a Win7 migration, the traditional approach can introduce new challenges and complexities. The default application mapping rule is to install nothing, meaning every application to be reinstalled during deployment requires an entry in the PackageMapping table. Any product that does not match a PackageMapping table entry will not be reinstalled. For an enterprise managing hundreds or thousands of software titles, populating and maintaining the PackageMapping table may be a daunting and lengthy task.

Also, the process relies on raw, un-normalized ConfigMgr inventory data. Any variation in display name for a particular product must be identified and manually added to the PackageMapping table. In the preceding PackageMapping table, five variations in the display name for Adobe Acrobat Professional 8 exist in the environment, requiring five separate table entries. Any overlooked display name variants for this product not listed in the table will not be reinstalled at deployment.

By far, the most significant drawback is that, by implementing it, the organization implicitly forgoes a rare and prime opportunity to rationalize software versions, reduce software license costs and avoid buying licenses for new versions of unused software. When applications are automatically reinstalled based on their presence in the system's inventory, there is no opportunity to question if the user still needs the application, or consider if a less expensive alternative may suit the user's needs. The result is a costly, inefficient allocation of licenses and unnecessary application bloat.

Lastly, all the ConfigMgr packages mapped using this process must be installed during task sequence execution. This prevents the use of application mapping to install software with interactive installation programs and those packaged to install via a task sequence.

Taking a new approach

However, new tools are available that take an advanced application mapping approach that combines powerful application inventory and normalization capabilities with operating system deployment automation features. In this new approach, applications are identified by their ID and mapped to software titles available in the organization's software catalog. How applications are mapped is controlled via an administrator-defined rule set. A logical representation of an application mapping rule set can be found below.

Table 2

Logical representation of the next wave of application mapping rules

The default mapping rule is to reinstall the same version of an application. Items in an organization's software catalog that have been linked to items in an advanced software licensing platform do not require mapping rules to have the application automatically reinstalled. In the preceding example, installations of Project 2010 are automatically reinstalled, even though Project 2010 is not referenced in the mapping table.

Creating and maintaining custom mapping rules is also more precise, simpler and less prone to oversight. The preceding example produces the same result as its cousin (Table 1: Sample PackageMapping table), but with much fewer entries. Instead of matching products by name, they are matched to an inventory ID number. Furthermore, products are linked to normalized data in the software licensing application, meaning that single ID number represents any subtle variants in the product's display name to a single release. For example, where the traditional application mapping solution required five table entries for Adobe Acrobat 8 (one for each of the variants in its display name), the example using an advanced application mapping solution only required one.

Application mapping based on usage

The ability to reinstall an application, or not, based on its usage is what really sets advanced application mapping apart. Adding usage to the mapping criteria affords the organization an opportunity to reclaim or clean up licenses that may not be in use. Referring to the example above, on client systems where Acrobat Professional 8 and 9 are installed but not used ("Unused"), the software is not reinstalled during the migration and these unused licenses are reclaimed.

Some advanced application mapping tools are able to identify three categories of usage for every application: used, potentially unused and unused. This affords administrators the opportunity to create rules specific to each usage category. For example, frequent users of Project Professional 2007 would receive an upgrade to Project Professional 2010, while occasional Project users receive a free project viewer. Finally, for those who haven't used Project in quite some time, no application is installed.

Not only can the organization save time and improve end-user satisfaction by automatically reinstalling user applications for them, software can be systematically rationalized and reduced in the process. Applications the user no longer needs, as determined by usage, are removed during the Windows 7 migration. New license purchases are reduced as licenses for new versions of unused software do not need to be obtained.

Annual license maintenance fees are also lowered and existing licenses are efficiently allocated to those who use them. For most enterprises, this type of internal software audit could take years of effort to complete. However, for enterprises leveraging an advanced application mapping approach during an operating system migration, it is just part of the migration process and takes up no additional time. It's also a perfect time to perform software rationalization as end users expect significant change in their experience when their operating system is migrated.

Don't dread your pending Windows migration. Take this rare opportunity to make a full-scale internal software audit part of an operating system migration. Doing so will help you better rationalize software usage, reduce software licensing and maintenance costs, and ensuring end user satisfaction.

Dave Harding is product manager at 1E, a company that specializes in efficient IT solutions.

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