With the release of Windows 7, enterprises need to at least begin looking at deploying Microsoft's new operating system in their environments. Whether you are excited about Windows 7 or hate the fact that XP will not be around forever, the fact is that you will probably be rolling out Microsoft's next-generation operating system to your Windows users at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Slideshow: See screenshots of the tools listed in this post.

Short of a one-by-one build or OEM pre-build (still painful), any tools to help you automate the deployment of Windows 7 would certainly be welcomed. If you haven't done an enterprise-wide cutover to a new Windows environment since XP, then you will be pleased to learn that many such a tool is now available.

While there is plenty of third party software to get the job done, they come with a premium attached. But we all know that Microsoft wants you to buy Windows 7. And so Redmond has created a set of free tools for enterprise deployment. Most of these tools are not brand-spanking new (most were around for Vista) but they have all been improved for a Windows 7 deployment. I found all of them to be surprisingly easy to use and efficient.

Some of these tools are used for preparing an environment for the new operating system. Others are used to actually roll it out. Some of the tools listed here are actually part of a broader tool set (for example, USMT is part of WAIK), however they are worth calling out as individual tools because of how helpful they are. To quickly thumb through screen shots of all the tools listed here, check out the related slideshow.

Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT)

Let's begin with the applications. We all know that just because an application or device worked under one version of Windows, that doesn't mean it will work under the new version as well. This tool allows an administrator to determine the compatibility of applications that are currently running under Windows XP or Vista. The tool however does not just allow you to determine whether or not an app is compatible with Windows 7, it helps you to determine what the possible outcome would be of running an app that is not compatible.

The latest version of this tool also features:
• Ability to audit your application data and to selectively synchronize your applications with Microsoft.
• Updated documentation for suggested compatibility fixes.
• Ability to customize your Quick Reports view.
• Ability to label your individual data-collection packages.

ACT collects data and then provides a simple way to analyze that data and create a report for a system. The report will show you which applications or devices have issues and allow you to set priorities and assign categories for that device or application.

Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit (MAP)

Now that we have the applications taken care of we need to move on to the system itself. Device drivers have always been a sore spot for Windows migrations so the MAP tool is used to assess hardware and device compatability for computers on your network. MAP is an agentless tool that doesn’t just provide a quick once over. It generates detailed readiness reports and visual charts to help you pinpoint which systems are ready to run Windows 7, which systems are not and why.

Along with the analysis, it provides a device compatibility summary for ensuring that the proper device drivers are available before the migration. You can use the task pane to generate a report ported into Excel. This report will provide even greater detail about device and system compatibility issues. MAP also provides a reference library, which is a series of links to documentation and additional resources for deploying Windows 7.

User State Migration Tool (USMT)

If you were involved in a corporate XP-to-Vista upgrade, you may be familiar with Windows Easy transfer. In the simplest terms, USMT is a command-line equivalent of this tool and is meant primarily for large-scale user state deployments. This scriptable command-line tool is pretty easy to use and very efficient. Create a location for the migration file and then use the ‘scanstate’ command to copy the user state information. Once Windows 7 is installed to the system, simply use the ‘loadstate’ command to move the user state over to the new operating system. Even in my small test environment of just eight users, I found this to be quicker and more automated than the Windows Easy Transfer tool.