Embracing Windows Server 2003: A Cautious, Long-term Migration
- By Linda Briggs
For Richard McBride and his team at Ernex Marketing Technologies
in Vancouver, Canada, small, cautious steps rule their gradual
Windows Server 2003 rollout.
In mid-October of last year, McBride
was in the early portion of a carefully orchestrated move from
Windows 2000 to 2003. If things proceed according to plan, by
April the migration will be substantially complete, with all
major servers and their Active Directory infrastructure
converted to Windows 2003.
But first, many challenges await. So far, things are moving
relatively smoothly, but as McBride says, "We're going to test
the devil out of this thing before we put it into production."
The Devil's in the Details
Ernex is a relatively small organization, but its size is
deceptive given its need for 24/7 uptime and intense processing
power. The company's software system uses the Internet and X.25
connections to securely collect and deliver customer information
in real time for retail outlets. That lets clients like Nike and
Eddie Bauer immediately access customer purchase data and offer
reward programs at the point-of-sale.
The 50 employees at Ernex each have a desktop computer, but
another 50 machines, mostly Win2K servers now, are used for the
processor-intensive work of collecting and analyzing customer
data collected from point-of-sale terminals throughout
Ernex runs Win2K on its 20 core production and AD servers, with
a few machines still on NT for backward compatibility.
McBride is orchestrating the cautious rollout in three parts:
Early testing among staff and on member servers, which he's just
completing; several months of use on eight to 10 servers in the
test area; then finally the production rollout. McBride's
technical team of David Bailie, Dragan Babovic and Peter Wilson,
along with McBride, has installed the new OS a number of times
and each is using it on a personal desktop system.
The company will mostly roll out the Standard edition, using
Windows 2003 Enterprise Edition only where clustering is used or
might be needed later.
The production rollout itself will be carefully divided into
four tiers: Beginning at the bottom, McBride will roll out the
development servers first, then the Tier 2 production servers
that provide non-mission critical services or secondary
applications, moving up gradually to Tier 1 servers such as
24/7 SQL servers, then to the infrastructure servers running
applications like Exchange, SMS, and SUS. Only when all of
those are running successfully will he upgrade the
all-important domain controllers.
For now, since the new OS is the operating platform for Bailie
and Babovic, they've been able to work out some of the most
obvious kinks--and discover some features they really like.
"I have to say that the server roles are a great feature,"
Bailie says. "Right now, you install the server and it does
nothing. You add a role [as needed]. IIS out of the box isn't
even installed any more. The only role I've added is IIS.
That's just great."
McBride intercedes cautiously, "[Adding roles] is, however,
one of the areas we'll be paying close attention to."
"I was concerned about the interaction with SQL 2000," Babovic
says, "so I tried different approaches. I compared execution
plans and different scenarios. With SQL 2000 against Windows
2003, it's brilliant," Bailie continues.
During the course of testing SQL Server, however, one bump
appeared in the upgrade road. "It seems one of our main SQL
servers in our testing environment is unable to boot after
the upgrade," McBride says. "This is almost certainly a
hardware problem. However we get a very, very quick flash of
the blue screen with the explanation and then the machine
reboots. I have seen this before with EIDE, SCSI, and other
drive controllers, and we already know there was a problem
with one of our machines. However because of the fast-flashing
blue screen we cannot use the Windows information to determine
the cause of the problem. We can't even boot into safe mode,
so it will not be easy for us to troubleshoot this machine."
McBride says their troubleshooting plan is to reinstall Windows
2003 and see what happens. "It is possible there is an EIDE or
BIOS problem (or some other problem) that did not get exposed
in the original install. My hope is that a rebuild will NOT
destroy all of our SQL setup. If it does, no problem; this is
a test environment designated for just this thing."
The bulk of other problems so far relate to SharePoint Server.
According to Bailie, "We currently run SharePoint 2001 as our
corporate portal, but it [doesn't run] on Windows 2003. We'll
have to upgrade to SharePoint 2003." As McBride points out,
that leads to another issue, since they're running a version of
Office 2000 that interacts only with SharePoint 2001. "That may
cause us to delay implementation on our core production server,"
McBride says, "which actually is a host for SharePoint." A
corresponding bump: Office 2003 isn't integrating with
SharePoint 2001, so they've stopped rolling out Office 2003
McBride estimates that his team of three has spent 20 to 30
hours on installations so far. In the test phase, he plans
four to eight hours per machine to fully upgrade and
stabilize--an hour or two on the upgrade itself, then the
remainder checking infrastructure components. Ernex also has
many custom services, each of which will have to be tested.
The production rollout should go faster; McBride estimates one
to two hours per machine. "I hope that by that time I'll have
determined some automated process, and it will be login-and-upgrade."
Software compatibility is one more thing they'll be watching
carefully. "We're concerned," McBride says. "We have a number of
proprietary applications and we're concerned that some of them
Still, McBride is cautiously optimistic as the rollout gets
underway. "AD is probably the riskiest thing to play with," he
says. His main worry: That changes to the AD with Windows 2003
may damage some AD elements (he says Microsoft already
acknowledges that some attributes "will get mangled") or affect
their group policies. Ernex's AD is "fully formed" and used for
network and SQL authentication, "and we have a number of GPOs to
assist us with network and systems management." Because they
expect lots of account cleanup, he probably won't use the AD
Hoping for Five Nines
Rather than performance or security, McBride says his biggest
single upgrade driver is server reboots. "We have a 24/7 [Win2K]
server that I had to reboot twice today for security patches...
I'm hoping that Windows 2003 will address that. Early indications
are that it has fewer reboots."
Babovic adds, "We're hoping for fewer patches as well," or at
least fewer patches that require a reboot. "Some of the larger
updates for Windows 2000 required a reboot," Bailie comments.
"Some of the same for Windows 2003 [betas] didn't. That's good."
He's also hoping for better handling of .DLLs, allowing major
application installations without rebooting.
"My real hope," McBride summarizes, "is that I can turn these
machines on and walk away. I want to reduce my management costs."
Next we discuss a global manufacturing firm's experiences in
moving from NT 4.0 to Windows Server 2003, an operation with
10,000 computers worldwide.
Linda Briggs is the founding editor of MCP Magazine and the former senior editorial director of 101communications. In between world travels, she's a freelance technology writer based in San Diego, Calif.