Smelling fresh asphalt (or repaving a PC)

Repaving – def. the computer-based act of reformatting the system partition followed by installing a fresh operating system followed by fresh application installations followed by user settings restoration

For starters, it’s a good idea to separate your data from your applications (e.g. C: has OS and software; D: has documents, pictures, music, videos, etc.). You can accomplish this separation via separate physical hard disk drives or drive partitions. (Given the amount of software I use regularly due to my professional as well as the volume of digital content I posses, I go the multiple drive route.) So, if you currently run a one-disk-and-one-partition environment (RAID 1 (mirror), RAID 0 (striped) or no RAID), consider creating two partitions in your new environment.

Any robust repaving process should begin with current backups. If you don’t already possess a current backup of your critical files, settings, software installers, etc., find your backup medium of choice and start that process. If your backup solution is online and off-premise, just make certain that you save the means to reconnect to your service from your new computing environment–same applies to your ISP. If you choose, for example, to backup to disc (DVD or (gasp) CD) be sure to validate written data is readable before calling it a day. Also, be sure to exit out of all applications before commencing backup–even to the point of confirming exits via Task Manager (e.g. OUTLOOK.EXE isn’t hanging around nor is any other desktop search software that maintain a lock on your PST file, etc.).

Recently I’ve found it useful to maintain a list of what I install on a machine, especially for work (software architecture). When I’m repaving, I simply review this list to trigger anything specific that may require backing up. This list also comes in handy further into the repaving process when I start re-installing software. As a cross-checking measure, I save the contents of my Start menu, my Quick Launch toolbar, and a listing from my Program Files directory, too. Be sure to save the means to reinstall each piece of software (e.g. URL’s, license keys, setup programs, access credentials, etc.).

Use care when your repave involves software or content with activation (e.g. Adobe) or other rights management (e.g. music). By “care” I mean take time to confirm that nothing OS-specific forms a basis for rights (e.g. seen as one machine under XP and a different, second machine under Vista, or not). Omar Shahine has a useful post about persistent application cache care and other concerns.

So, you have your current system backed up and your ready to repave.

First, restart your PC using your Windows operating system installation disc and not your existing OS. Select the existing system partition and perform a complete reformatting of this partition–nothing less than NTFS, of course. This reformatting should not affect any other partition or hard disk drive on your computer. Depending on the size of the system partition/drive, reformatting can take some time (i.e. window of opportunity to break for another activity of choice).

Next, install the software you require. Unlike looking over everything in your closet of garage before you get rid of it, take the time to consider whether or not you really need to restore a particular piece of software in your new computing home. If no compelling reason comes to mind, don’t install it–instead just save it for a later day (that may never come).

Finally, restore or apply your particular software configuration, app-by-app. Fortunately a growing amount of software provides an automated way to backup and restore user settings (e.g. Microsoft Office). For me, this also involves a review of my Start menu, Quick Launch bar, Windows environment variables, Windows Registry favorites, IE favorites, Firefox bookmarks, etc.

Once you have your new environment finally setup and configured to preference, it’s a good idea to create an image (e.g. built-in ImageX software on Windows Vista or third party software like Acronis True Image). By creating an image, should your system partition head south, you can restore your OS and applications back to a known state in minutes rather than hours. Of course, as your system changes over time, it’s worth periodically updating your system image.

One last tip: Increasingly I’m using virtualization as a means to partition my computing environments (e.g. I have several VMware-based virtual machine images for work-related projects). Virtualization allows me to keep my physical computing environment (i.e. host OS in VMware parlance) simple and more spartan. Virtual images compress well; so, I regularly archive these to my data partition/drive.

This process has served me well over the years. Fortunately as Windows has matured, my need to repave has decreased. Alas, it hasn’t gone away completely, though…  :-|