For years, doing an in-place upgrade was something you only did on workstations — and even then, these upgrades were mostly for consumer machines. The main reason an IT purist would do an in-house upgrade was to commit the free upgrade. Especially for business deployments, the thinking has been that it’s best to do a clean install when upgrading to a new operating system.
Although the free upgrade to Windows 10 offer has ended, you can still upgrade for free from Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. Start with your licensed Windows 7 or Windows 8.1. Then download the Windows 10 media creation tool to create a bootable ISO file and click on the resulting setup.exe file to start the upgrade process from your Windows 7 or 8.1 machine.
Once you’ve upgraded to Windows 10, if you click Settings, then Update, then Activation, you should see that the operating system is activated. The Windows 10 license is activated from the fully licensed Windows 7 or 8.1. If not, click Activate PC and then enter your original Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 activation key. Windows 10 does not have the same hardware requirements as Windows 11, which is why you may be able to upgrade from your soon-to-be unsupported Windows 8.1.
It is important to check if your hardware supports an in-place upgrade from Windows 7 or 8.1 to Windows 10. It must meet these minimum requirements:
CPU: 1GHz or faster supported processor
RAM: 1 GB for Windows 10 32-bit or 2 GB for Windows 10 64-bit Storage: 32 GB or more GPU: DirectX 9 compatible or higher with WDDM 1.0 driver Display: 800×600 pixel resolution or higher Internet connection: Some versions of Windows 10 require an internet connection during installation
With Windows Server 2012 R2 nearing the end of its life, many users may be tempted to do an in-place upgrade on servers as well. For years, any IT administrator would look at you with disgust if you even mentioned an internal upgrade; the correct way to upgrade was to manually install the new operating system and then install or copy the necessary information and data from the old server to the new one. The idea was to make sure that any older style permissions wouldn’t be inherited on a clean install. In particular, this ensured that you set up the servers securely.
Performing an in-place upgrade from an older Windows 2012 R2 server to something newer such as Windows Server 2016, 2019, or 2022 is fully supported. To do this, simply mount the ISO of the server OS you are migrating to and install it away, making sure to check the box to keep all data, files and folders intact. (Even SQL services can survive the upgrade process.)
Microsoft has made sure to support the in-place installation option due to the increased use of cloud services. Obviously, with more users who have servers in data centers – and instances in Azure – and you can move from version to version without having to be physically in the room, you can upgrade without a hitch.
Before starting a major server project, it’s important to have a full backup so you can roll everything back in case of any problems. Since many servers are virtual, you can easily back them up. (The same goes for workstations.)
Before starting an in-place upgrade, make sure you have removed all third-party antivirus programs, third-party firewalls, and most importantly, third-party disk encryption. I even recommend disabling Bitlocker if you have it installed on your server.
Then decide which version of Windows Server you want to upgrade to. Which operating system you migrate from is determined how many hops? you have to get to the end successfully. Ideally, perform as few upgrades as possible and avoid multiple upgrades in a row.
Note: The same is not true for migrating to later versions of Exchange Server. Email servers are databases and need to be upgraded in some other way – and email migrations usually require more planning. Whether you are migrating from on-premises hardware to another on-premises setup (or to cloud mail servers), the process involves moving mailboxes from one to another. I often find that third-party migration tools make a much easier migration path and usually offer additional recovery options if problems arise.
Ultimately, these upgrade and migration processes are much simpler when using virtual machines. Since these devices are hardware independent, you no longer have to worry about physical hardware specifications. As long as you have enough disk space, memory and CPU resources, you can easily set up and schedule additional servers for additional plans and options.
In-place upgrades are possible and supported by Microsoft guidelines. The next time you’re nearing the end of support for a server, consider an in-place upgrade as a viable option.
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