Embracing Windows Server 2003: Moving 30 Remote Sites Running Windows NT

For Raycom Media, a critical application drove the decision to roll out the new OS: Exchange Server 2003. For the company's 30 broadcast television stations across the U.S., with 2,000-plus employees, Exchange is the mission-critical application. Compelling new features in Exchange 2003 cemented the decision to move from Exchange 5.5, and hence the move off of Windows NT 4.0.

Jim Upchurch is the manager of systems administration for Raycom, based in Montgomery, Alabama. Upchurch's Windows Server 2003 rollout, which actually began in fall 2001 as a Windows 2000 rollout, involved migrating all 30 local TV stations across the U.S.

The sites included 13 Exchange servers, 2,000 mailboxes, and 110 servers filling other roles. The rollout consolidated the enterprise from 25 NT domains and four peer-to-peer workgroups to a single consolidated Windows 2003 domain.

Migration Boogie

The migration took two steps, beginning with an 18-month process that proved to be the hardest, but most critical, part: Consolidation of all the domains and workgroups into a single NT domain. The second step, an in-place upgrade of the NT domain to a Windows 2003 Active Directory domain, was then easy. The domain consolidation took 18 months--not because of its complexity, but because of the logistics Upchurch and his team faced in traveling to each of the 30 sites while still maintaining IS support duties in Montgomery.

Despite the time it took, consolidating first "was the most critical decision we made," Upchurch says, and saved huge amounts of time later. He describes a migration planning phase that was lengthy and critical, and included long discussions about multi-domain forests vs. integrating and managing through organizational units (OUs). But Upchurch realized from his copious readings that they wanted to keep things as simple as possible, so they decided on a single domain. "All the sources say that one of the keys is to use as few domains as you can get away with, and one if possible. So we did."

Upchurch is proud of the fact that they conducted the entire migration without third-party tools. "All the case studies that I read talked about third-party tools," Upchurch says. Even the Microsoft Consulting Services representative they called in at one point for a bid planned to use third-party tools. Eventually, they declined that service as too costly and proceeded on their own.

At almost the last minute, when they were still planning to move to Win2K, Windows 2003 shipped. They "took a big gulp and decided to go with it," Upchurch says.

Windows 2003 offered compelling reasons to jump over Win2K, including better administration tools for AD--tools that are proving important now that he's directly managing 2,000 user accounts. He also predicted that Win2K was going to have a shorter lifespan than the long-lived NT.

Gradually, over a year and a half, Upchurch or his assistants visited each site. And with help from station IS managers, many of whom were principally broadcast engineers, all stations were moved into a single domain. Most sites had about a hundred seats, though the largest had 250. Under NT, four of the sites were peer-to-peer workgroups; the remainder had their own domains, as did corporate headquarters. Trust relationships connected those domains that included Exchange servers; the rest were independent.

As they visited each site, Upchurch's team also installed and configured a backup DC for the consolidated domain. That made the next step, the upgrade to Windows 2003, "unbelievably easy," Upchurch says.

It helped that the company had purchased a new Dell PowerEdge server for each site, along with an OS license. That allowed Upchurch to designate that server as the site's domain controller (DC), free from file server, print server or application server duties.

AD-Day Approaches

As the AD kickoff date approached, Upchurch installed a new desktop machine at corporate headquarters and then, as he describes it, "made it a perfectly clean NT 4.0 backup domain controller for the consolidated domain, which we then promoted briefly to be the primary domain controller for that domain. We then upgraded in place to Windows Server 2003, making the system briefly a Windows Server 2003 hybrid domain. We then DCPROMO'ed two new Windows 2003 servers, transferred the FSMO roles to them, DCPROMO'ed the former PDC down to a member server, removed it from the network, and shipped it off to do other things." The entire process worked beautifully, Upchurch remembers, and took just a few hours.

In the beginning, migrating a 100-workstation TV station to another domain, including user accounts, mailboxes, servers, user profiles, and more, took close to 12 hours. As Upchurch's team developed procedures, that dropped to five or so hours of steady teamwork. His objective at each station: Make the migration as invisible as possible from the user's point of view, and complete it in a single overnight visit so that business wasn't disrupted.

Not for Lack of Info

One challenge they've faced: Lots of information on Windows 2003 isn't yet in Microsoft's Knowledge Base. Answers sometimes still refer to Win2K; he's often not sure if they can be extrapolated to Windows 2003 or not.

Upchurch's advice in retrospect: Don't be scared off by the huge amount of planning that all the migration books seem to recommend. "If you're familiar with your network and experienced with NT and Exchange, you certainly have to plan, but don't think you have to spend the next three years [on it.]"

Tomorrow we profile a Canadian's firm's on-going, cautious efforts to evaluate the new platform for its truly mission-critical 24x7 environment.

About the Author

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.

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