In-Depth

Step on Boot Problems

Knowing exactly how your Windows 2000 Server starts up can get you out of some tight spots.

Understanding the Windows 2000 boot process is fundamental knowledge for anyone in charge of a Win2K server, network, or clients. At some point, you’ll come across a computer that won’t boot, hangs during boot, or even blue screens. Most likely, this will be a computer that is critical to your network and its daily operations, and you’ll need to fix the problem as quickly as possible. Learning the ins and outs of the boot process now could save you your job later!

In this article I discuss how the boot process works, including:

  • What POST is and its purpose
  • How the BIOS is involved in the boot process
  • What NTLDR does
  • What the boot.ini file is and how it’s used
  • The detection of hardware in the system
  • Initializing the kernel

Then I cover problems that can occur during the boot process and show you how to use you new knowledge to troubleshoot those problems.

The Initial Turn-on
POST, Power On Self Test, is what every computer goes through during initial startup. POST begins when the computer is turned on and runs through a predetermined sequence of tasks. It checks the computer’s environment and makes sure the machine has the necessary hardware to function. These components include such things as the mouse, keyboard, hard drive, and memory. POST relays error messages prior to video output through a series of beeps and, later, through error messages shown on the screen.

The POST sequence starts with the availability of electrical power to the power supply. The first component awakened is the CPU; the CPU sets the first POST steps in action. This first bit of instruction includes a memory address that has the first line of POST programming on the system’s ROM chip. It’s this first bit of code that allows POST to begin. This portion of POST is performed by the startup BIOS. Error messages and beeps alert the user of a problem during this part of the boot sequence. If more than one beep sounds or no beep is heard, the problem lies in or on the system board.

Once this part of POST has finished, the computer’s BIOS continues to obtain information, including the data contained in the Master Boot Record (MBR). The MBR loads and the boot program included in the MBR runs. This program, at the beginning of all hard drives, is part of the information found in the partition table. This MBR program seeks out and loads the OS boot record contained on the active partition. Now that the MBR has enough information, it takes control of the startup process and loads a copy of the partitions’ boot sector into RAM, and the rest of the startup procedures begin.

Files You Need to Boot Windows 2000

If you need to create a disk that contains the files needed to boot a Win2K machine, you’ll need to copy files listed in the table below. To see these files on your computer, first make sure you’ve changed the folder settings to allow you to see hidden and system files!

File Location
NTLDR Usually C:\ the root directory of the system partition
Boot.ini Usually C:\ the root directory of the system partition
Bootsect.dos Usually C:\ the root directory of the system partition
Ntdetect.dos Usually C:\ the root directory of the system partition
Ntbootdd.sys For SCSI systems only, C:\ the root directory of the system partition
Ntoskrnl.exe In the boot partition under \winnt_root\system32
Hal.dll In the boot partition under \winnt_root\system32
System In the boot partition under \winnt_root\system32\config
Device drivers In the boot partition under \winnt_root\system32\drivers

Remember that the Bootsect.dos file contains information specific to each hard drive. It can't be copied and used to boot another machine.

Starting Up the OS
The boot sector program performs the next phase of the startup process on a Win2K server: It starts the OS. During this routine, various files are found from an active partition of the hard drive: Ntdetect.com, Boot.ini and BootSect.dos (if multiple OSs are used). When you see the message “OS Loader V.5.0” on the screen, you know that this part of the boot process is occurring. This is an important message to take note of, especially when you’re trying to troubleshoot a boot problem. If this message isn’t shown, then the problem obviously lies somewhere prior to this step, or with NTLDR itself.

NTLDR (which is similar to the old Io.sys in DOS) performs many tasks during its part of the startup process. Its responsibilities include:

  • Checking for multiple OSs on the computer and assists in offering OS choices to the user.
  • Finding and loading the OS files from the boot partition of the hard drive.
  • Making certain its 32-bit code can be used successfully by the processor. Processors initially try to run in real mode, like the old 8086 computers did, and NTLDR must switch the processor to a 32-bit flat memory mode before starting the OS.
  • Loading minifiles so their respective files can be obtained when necessary. These files include boot.ini, an editable file that offers other choices for operating systems if they are installed; Ntdetect.com, used to detect hardware present on a machine if Win2K is chosen as the OS; and bootsect.dos, used if more than one OS exists on the computer and an OS other than Win2K is chosen.
  • Loading and starting Ntoskrnl.exe. The information that NTLDR has obtained through Ntdetect.com is passed on to Ntoskrnl.exe, where the OS is started.
  • Loading the registry key, HKEY_ LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM, and selecting a control set depending on the user’s input, if any. For instance, the Last Known Good Configuration (discussed later) will most likely have different information than a default boot option, since changes have likely been made to the Registry since the last boot.
  • Loading all device drivers that have a start value of 0X0. The value of 0X0 means that the OS should load the drivers, but they shouldn’t be initialized at this time. These device drivers can be loaded into memory using the file Ntbootdd.sys or by using BIOS calls in real mode. (Device drivers can also have the start value of 0X1, which indicates that they should be initialized as soon as they’re loaded. These drivers are loaded by Ntoskrnl.exe and are located in HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services.)

Device drivers aren’t initialized by NTLDR; that happens when Ntoskrnl.exe starts. After Ntoskrnl.exe has control of the computer, the boot process is technically considered complete.

Managing Multiple OSs
NTLDR is responsible for loading the boot.ini file, which contains information about multiple OSs on the computer. The boot.ini file has two distinct sections, the boot loader section and the OS section. These contain information on what OS is the default choice, how much time the user is allowed to make a choice, the path to those OSs, as well as other optional tasks at boot such as loading a debugger, displaying what device drivers are being loaded, and specifying the amount of RAM Windows will be able to use.

Listing 1 shows an example of a boot.ini file on a Win2K Server computer that also dual boots with Windows 98.

Listing 1. This boot.ini file shows that both Windows 98 and Win2K Server are installed on this computer, and that Win2K Server is loaded automatically after 30 seconds if there’s no user intervention.

[boot loader]
timeout=30
default=multi(0) disk(0)rdisk(0)partition(3)\WINNT

[operating systems] multi(0)disk(0)rdisk(0)partition(3)\WINNT="Microsoft Windows 2000 Server" /fastdetect
C:\"Microsoft Windows"

Hardware Detection
Ntdetect.com, loaded by NTLDR, handles hardware detection. Once Ntdetect.com has obtained information and detects the registered components, it passes that information back to NTLDR and loads the information into the Registry. This transfer of information occurs after the boot.ini file has been found and an OS chosen. This makes sense since the different OSs on a computer may contain different hardware profiles and different working peripherals. You’ll know that this is happening when you see the Win2K Startup screen that says, “Starting Windows.”

The hardware detected by Ntdetect includes information about the keyboard, video adapters, ports, floppy disks, co-processors, computer ID, SCSI adapters and bus types.

Troubleshooting Startup
Now that you understand the sequence involved in the boot process, it becomes easier to understand why, where and when problems occur during the boot process. For instance, if the error message you receive states: “BOOT: Couldn’t find NTLDR. Please insert another disk,” you now know that the problem occurred somewhere between the MBR being loaded and the initialization of the NTLDR file. The obvious solution would then include reinstalling the NTLDR file rather than trying to dink around with the MBR.

Let’s look at other common error messages and their reasons for occurring.

POST problems are caused by a system board or hardware problem. These occur prior to seeing the bootstrap loader screen. POST errors give messages such as:

  • Multiple beeps or no beep at all during startup
  • “Missing Operating System”
  • “A disk read error occurred”
  • “Hard disk error”
  • A memory-specific error message
  • No keyboard present

The absence of messages such as “Found: CD-ROM” can indicate a problem as well.

These problems are generally hardware related. Most errors during POST are easy to isolate, since the number of beeps gives clues to the type of problem, and because the error messages on the screen are usually hardware-specific.

Problems that occur after POST and before the kernel takes control relate directly to the boot process. You can fix most problems by copying the missing file back on the computer. The following table lists common problems and remedies.

If startup problems occur and the previous solutions don’t help, don’t lose hope. The best place to start, if the answer to the problem isn’t reinstalling a file or restoring from backup, is with the tools that Win2K Server offers. These options include safe mode, Recovery Console, Emergency Repair Disks, and Microsoft’s knowledge base, located at http://windows.microsoft.com/
windows2000/library/resources/reskit/WebResources/
.

Download
To get the step-by-step flowchart for troubleshooting boot problems, e-mail michael.domingo@mcpmag.com.

When All Else Fails...
You can use safe mode to boot a computer safely with only minimal drivers and services. The mouse, keyboard, CD-ROM, monitor and plug and play devices will all be available, but non-essential drivers and non-essential system services aren’t. Safe mode is a good option when the system is down due to an incorrect device driver, a defective application, or corrupted system services. Safe mode is most often used to isolate problems with video adapters and incorrect drivers, troubleshooting intermittent problems, or if Win2K generally isn’t working as expected. You execute safe mode by pressing F8 when prompted during the boot process.

Last Known Good Configuration (LKGC) is one of the options that shows up under the Win2K Advanced Options Menu when you press F8 during the boot process. Each time Windows shuts down, a copy of the Registry settings are saved. If incorrect settings have been configured on the computer, and the computer won’t boot due to these settings, choose the LKGC to revert to the last working configuration. Whatever changes have been made to the Registry since the last boot won’t be saved; those will be discarded. Once you’ve logged on to a computer, you’ve created a new LKGC.

The Emergency Repair Disk (ERD) is another tool that can be used to repair a system that won’t boot. This is my personal favorite, since it’s easy to use and always seems to work the way it’s supposed to. The ERD can be used to make simple repairs, such as problems associated with the system files, problems with the boot sector and related entities, and the startup environment. Although the Windows NT ERD contained a copy of the Registry files, the Windows 2000 ERD doesn’t. However, you should create an ERD immediately following any new installation of Windows 2000, application of a service pack, or installation of any new or updated drivers. You should ideally store a copy of this disk off site.

Recovery Console offers a sort of “last resort” option when all else fails. It can give some access to all volumes on a computer with no graphical interface support. It’s important to know what you’re doing if you’re messing around in here! It works by allowing an administrator access to a copy of the Registry that was made during the last backup and the ability to restore that copy on the computer. All changes made after this backup are discarded.

Troubleshooting Boot Problems
Problem/Message Suggestion
No boot menu If the problem arises after installing a new OS for a dual-boot, you most likely installed the OSs in the wrong order. Win2K must be installed last; otherwise, the boot sector will be overwritten.
BOOT; Couldn't find NTLDRPlease insert another disk The NTLDR file is missing or corrupt. Copy the NTLDR file from another disk or system to the machine in question. Since the NTLDR file is installed after the MBR is read, you know the boot sector is still good.
NTDETECT errors Copy a new NTDETECT file to the computer in question.
Ntsokrnl.exe is missing. Please reinstall a copy of the above file This error sometimes occurs because the boot.ini file is corrupt or points to the wrong OS. If the boot.ini file is good, reinstall a new copy of the needed file. If it's the boot.ini file, reinstall the backup copy of that file from your arsenal of backups.
INACCESSIBLE_BOOT_
DEVICE
Generally denotes an unsupported SCSI driver for startup devices - check the HCL and make the appropriate changes.
Invalid Partition Table or Missing Operating system Denotes a problem with the MBR that contains the Master Boot Code. The master boot code is responsible for loading a copy of the boot sector from Active Directory into RAM. You'll need to go through one of Microsoft's recovery choices here, perhaps the Recovery Console, ERD, or repairing from backups.
Non system disk or disk error. Replace and press any key when ready There could be a disk in the floppy drive or corruption in the boot sector. This could be the result of a virus, or physical damage to the boot sector. Try Fdisk /mbr.
NTLDR is missing or NTLDR is compressed The boot sector can't find NTLDR. It could be corrupt, moved, missing or renamed. Using the ERD to repair this problem is the best solution.
Inaccessible boot device Win2K can't find the system partition. This is obviously a problem with a hard disk and can be hard to diagnose. If this occurs after installing a new hard disk, suspect this first. Otherwise, suspect incompatible disk drivers, physical disk errors, viruses, loose disk cables or incompatible large block addressing.
Unknown Volume The boot sector for the volume could be corrupt, permissions have been changed for the volume, or the Master File Table is corrupt.

Try Out Your Problem Solving Skills!
I hope you now feel better armed to troubleshoot boot problems. Remember that the best offense is a good defense though—always keep an updated backup on hand of your data, an ERD, and copies of the drivers, applications, and OSs installed on your computer. Recovering from a disaster doesn’t take much time or effort if you’re well prepared.

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