The Microsoft Deployment Image Service and Management (DISM) tool
Note that Microsoft bills the Windows System Image Manager as being able to manage distribution shares, which it technically can manage, but the better tool for doing this is Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) 2010. Also, note that Imagex is not the right tool to manage or modify Windows 7 images. DISM (shown at right) is a better choice, but DISM cannot capture or apply an image; only ImageX can do that.
Also note that these migration tools - especially AIK - are difficult to use, so you may need to bring in a migration consultant.
You can deploy Windows 7 images over the network if you use Windows Server 2008 and combine MDT with the Windows Server 2008 service called Windows Deployment Service (WDS). MDT and WDS are usually thought of as competing deployment tools, but in fact they can be used together, as Rhonda Layfield, a consultant who is also a Microsoft MVP for Deployment and Desktop Deployment Product specialist, explained to me.
When you use MDT to deploy Windows 7, you have to create the OS image, called a WinPE. You boot from the WinPE, then run its installation program; WinPE can be booted from a CD, DVD, external hard drive, or WDS server. To boot from a WDS server, hold F12 when starting up the client PC; this creates a Trivial FTP connection to the WDS server's UNC share. Choose WinPE, and MDT installs the OS image on the client.
You can also use WDS with MDS if you want to multicast the OS image (MDT supports only unicasting, or one-to-one connections between the server and a client). By telling MDT to use the WDS multicast protocol, WDS sends the WinPE image to multiple clients, and MDT runs the WinPE image at each client.
Considering virtualized desktop deployment
Windows 7 offers a wild new deployment option: client-side virtualization. You might consider this type of installation because of the flexibility and speed it offers in restoring, securing, and upgrading systems.
One type of client-side virtualization is to install Windows 7 onto a virtualized hard disk (VHD), which is a single file that you can easily copy and deploy anywhere. You can also create incremental VHDs, so you might have a core file that everyone uses and incremental VHDs that have the applications and other configurations for specific departments and even users. The PC boots as normal but opens Windows 7 from the VHD instead of the hard drive's normal file system.
The use of VHDs will slow your PCs by about 3 percent, Microsoft says. It also prevents you from using the Windows Experience Index, as well as BitLocker on the disk where the VHD resides. (You can use BitLocker within the VHD, but not on the disk where the VHD resides.) Note that you need Microsoft's Virtual PC or Virtual Server to create the VHDs, which can run only the 32-bit version of Windows. An MSDN blog details the setup process.
Another virtualization option is the concept of VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure), where the OS is hosted on a server in the datacenter. Users get the same experience as working with Windows 7 directly on their desktop, but IT can manage the desktops locally in the datacenter and even provision them to different desktops, such as when a person is visiting another office or working at home. Gartner estimates that in 2014 about 15 percent of the professional market will run Windows this way.
Perhaps more futuristic is the notion of running Windows 7 directly on a hypervisor, which could let you run Windows 7 on computers not designed for the Windows OS -- or any specific OS. If the computer can run a supported hypervisor, you can run Windows 7 on that hypervisor. Through management tools, you could quickly deploy an OS to multiple systems. There are already tools on the market (such as Virtual Computer's NxTop) that let you manage virtual systems, encrypt the drives (note that BitLocker will not work with VHD-based OSes), and wipe the OS if the system is lost or stolen and booted up.
This hypervisor approach could be very helpful in migrating your users if they are already running in a Windows XP environment with client virtualization. In that case, they can be moved over to a new OS and their computer's "personality" comes right along with them. Just remember that this is leading-edge stuff, so it's something you're more likely to experiment with than deploy companywide in the near term.
Good-bye nightmare, hello sweet dreams
For many, the transition to Vista was a nightmare best avoided. But the transition to Windows 7 will be a much sweeter sleep.
It will take work to make that migration happen, but by assessing your tools you have, your equipment, and the needs of your organization going forward, you can do it. And when you're done, the only system running Windows XP is the one in the company museum with a sign that says, "We ran our company on this OS for 10 years before moving over to Windows 7."