Data Centers

Making your life a little easier: Planning for a server upgrade

Thinking of upgrading your servers soon? Not sure how to prepare? Ron Nutter gives you some tips on planning and implementing a successful server upgrade in this Daily Feature.


At some point in the near future, you’ll be looking to upgrade one or more of your servers. The key to successfully performing any upgrade is planning, planning and more planning. In this Daily Feature, I will touch on some of the key components for planning and implementing a successful server upgrade.

Document the server
For those of you using Compaq as your platform, if you installed your server using Compaq's Smartstart system or if you installed the Survey utility (available for both the Novell and NT platforms), a good amount of this work may already have been done for you.

Take a close look at the hardware present in the computer, noting the manufacturer of the device and how it is configured. This would also be a good time to check for any firmware updates that are available for your server and the items inside such as the hard drives, raid controller, and the motherboard itself. Even if you have more than one server of the same type, I would recommend that you create a fresh set of BIOS update disks (Compaq's term for these updates is ROMpaqs) for each server. This is primarily so that if you have a problem with the hardware after one or more of the devices is upgraded, you can to return to a working configuration. In a few rare cases, however, I have seen the BIOS update for a particular device actually damaged the device.

Now would be a good time to make sure that you can find the CDs and license diskettes for your server Operating System. This may sound trivial but in case the upgrade really goes wrong you will be able to completely reinstall the server software without much ado.

You may think I’m going a little overboard, but I came very close to this situation just a couple of weeks ago. I was upgrading a server from NetWare 4.11 to 5.1. This normally should have been a three to four hour operation; however, 45 minutes into the upgrade, I received an abnormal abort message on the GUI installation screen.

I decided to restart the upgrade and again, I got the same result. While waiting for Novell tech support (which ended up being a three and a half hour wait), I tried to get the server back to 4.11. What I discovered was, at the point where the upgrade stopped, critical files were changed, making it nearly impossible to revert back to NetWare 4.11. In my case, I finally found out that there was a hardware issue, but I was able to find a legal copy of NetWare 5.0. The server is working fine at the moment.

Check the third party applications
This step may take a little more digging. The applications you will need to check for compatibility are loaded and installed on the server that you are upgrading. For example, I recently ran across an accounting application while upgrading a server from 4.11 to 5.1 that had a dependency that required Btrieve to provide the database record management used by the application. Although everything looked okay, I later found the settings file for Btrieve was changed during the server upgrade and that the company setting the application only supported Btrieve version 7.0 or later (although they really preferred even a later version of Btrieve as well as an upgrade to the latest version of their application software).

Get the updates you need for the upgrade
There are always updates that should be downloaded and applied after the base operating system has been installed. While upgrading Novell to 5.1, I downloaded Service Pack 1 separately since there was no indication on the package if this service pack was automatically applied. To my surprise, I found that the copy of Service Pack 1 that I had downloaded was, in fact, Service Pack 1a.

If you own a Compaq server, you have an additional step to take here. In the case of a NetWare upgrade, there is an additional file that you need to download called NSSD (short for NetWare Support Service Disk). This file is actually a large file that contains a series of drivers that handle communication between the hardware and the OS that resides on the server you are upgrading.

Backup, backup, backup
I can’t stress this enough. You can never have too many backups. My usual rule is to have at least two full backups of a server before starting down the upgrade path. Also, depending on the particular backup software system you’re using, you may have one additional recovery option if the upgrade fails. Your system may allow you to boot the server from a series of disks that will automatically restore the server to its original state.

While it might take time to get two full backups of a server, I would take a little extra time and run a full comparison of the backup tape and the server to ensure that they match. To be on the safe side, I would also recommend that you run a cleaning tape through the tape backup drives to make sure that there isn't any oxide buildup from previous tapes that have been used in the drives.

To keep problems to a minimum when you run your backup jobs, I recommend using either brand new backup tapes or tapes that have been used only a few times. Over time, tapes start to degrade and may suffer from signal dropout. So, if you use old tapes, a file you desperately need to restore may be on the tape, but you may not be able to restore it.

Installing the upgrade
Before starting the upgrade process, ensure that all the users have logged out and understand that they need to remain off of the network until you tell them otherwise. You should also take a few minutes to go around the area this server services to make sure that all devices (such as network print servers or anything that connects to the network to provide service or access to a service) are turned off and can't log in to the network. Get paper and a pen to take notes in case you get an error message or get a message indicating that a particular file can’t be upgraded as the server upgrade process runs. This will be handy when you are trying to debug the server after the upgrade.

Once the upgrade of the operating system is complete, you’ll need to apply the service pack update. If you’re using Compaq servers, you’ll want to apply the SSD after—not before—the service pack. This is because the SSD provides updates to driver files that the service pack could inadvertently downgrade.

Test, test, and test some more
Now, the server is upgraded to the new operating system. Your job is almost done. However, you need to test everything on the server to make sure that it is operating just as it was before. I realized the importance of testing on a recent upgrade when the tape backup software stopped recognizing that there was a tape drive attached to the server. A couple of calls to tech support and a couple of configuration file changes later, I not only had a functional system but one that ran faster than the prior version of the OS.

Conclusion
No two upgrade processes will ever be the same, but with a little planning and some experience, you should find them fairly uneventful. Those who have worked with and for me over the years think I am a little paranoid and a little pessimistic when it comes to upgrading servers. I will let you in on a little secret: Anticipate and plan for the worst. If something bad happens, you’re ready and will be able to complete the task at hand. If all goes well, all you’ve lost is the little extra time that you spent preparing—this time. Good luck in your server upgrades—may they all go smoothly!

Ronald Nutter is a senior systems engineer in Lexington, KY. He's an MCSE, a Novell Master CNE, and a Compaq ASE. Ron has worked with networks ranging in size from single servers to multiserver/multi-OS setups, including NetWare, Windows NT, AS/400, 3090, and UNIX. He's also the help desk editor for Network World. If you’d like to contact Ron, send him an e-mail. (Because of the large volume of e-mail that he receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message. However, he does read them all.)

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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