Embracing Windows Server 2003: A Cautious, Long-term Migration
Part three of this four-part series describes a Canadian’s firm’s on-going, cautious efforts to evaluate the new platform for its truly mission-critical 24x7 environment.
- 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
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 for now.
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 won't work."
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 migration tool.
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."
Tomorrow 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.