The Windows Server 2003 Customer Preview Program was launched last year to provide trial software for the next version of the Windows server platform. Though the product has changed its name occasionally (it was formerly code-named Whistler, then called Windows 2002 Server, and then Windows .NET Server) and release dates frequently, the second release candidate of Windows Server 2003 was released early this year.

I’m going to give you a first look at the Windows Server 2003 (WS2K3) installation process, hardware compatibility, some new features, and a look at server installation defaults. Release Candidate 2 (RC2) serves as the basis for this material.

Installing Windows Server 2003
Any registered persons of the Customer Preview Program can evaluate WS2K3. Once you have registered, you can order the installation CD for the cost of shipping, or you can download an .iso image to write onto your own CD. Before installing WS2K3, I recommend that you browse the installation CD and become familiar with its contents.

On the installation CD, the autorun feature lets you run a hardware compatibility analysis before you install (see Figure A).

Figure A

The CD also has links to the Windows Server 2003 online catalog and has the option to run the Windows Upgrade Advisor interactively with Windows Update. This is only helpful if the server that you will install WS2K3 on has an operating system on it currently. If you are starting without a Windows-based operating system, this functionality will not be available. If you do not use autorun for your CD drive, you can run D:\i386\winnt32 /checkupgradeonly (where D:\ is your CD-ROM drive) to start the Windows Upgrade Advisor. This feature is not a required part of the installation process, but is a nice way of previewing any potential problems before you install the evaluation.

You have some installation options with WS2K3. You can upgrade an existing server-class operating system as well as set up various dual-boot scenarios. The upgrade process can be executed from server editions of Windows 2000 or Windows NT 4. Make sure you read the text files on the root directory of the CD before installing.

The clean install (or dual-boot) scenario is a more common scenario and allows you to get a better handle on what goes into your newly configured server. The clean install of Windows Server 2003 feels and looks much like a Windows 2000 install and is fairly straightforward.

One notable difference in the WS2K3 install is that the Windows Components option is not available during the installation of Release Candidates 1 and 2. This includes enabling Windows features such as Terminal Services, IIS, and other options that were available in the Windows 2000 installation process.

After your installation is complete, it is quite easy to enable these services in the Control Panel under Add/Remove Programs. Select the Windows Components section and configure the additional services for your installation. However, some configuration changes in this area may require a reboot. For example, enabling the server to run Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services requires you to add that option explicitly after the installation and reboot. This popular configuration option has changed in this way from Windows 2000 Server to Windows Server 2003.

WS2K3 hardware compatibility
In the five months that I have been evaluating WS2K3, the only negative feedback I have is related to the hardware support native to RC1 and RC2. Since the product is still in development, I am cautiously optimistic that more hardware will be supported in the official release of the product. Nevertheless, it is important to check to see if your intended hardware will work.

There are a few important points that I should make about the hardware compatibility. I tested WS2K3 on four different systems. One of the four systems ended up not being able to work as a valid test computer. Also, by default, WS2K3 disables graphic acceleration on video adapters. This was an issue with one of my systems as the driver for this system’s video adapter required graphic acceleration. As a result, I experienced several conflicts between the driver and WS2K3.

In another one of my test scenarios, two different PCI network interface cards would not work on WS2K3. Both of these two cards were on the Windows 2000 native device list. I tried several different drivers (XP and 2000 drivers, since there was no OEM driver released for WS2K3) for these cards and Windows would not accept them. I then removed both cards, and purchased one of the Microsoft-branded network interface cards (MN-130) that I saw at my local retailer. I figured if anyone’s card would work with this release of WS2K3, it would be Microsoft’s. And, fortunately, even though this particular network card is marketed for the home user, it worked seamlessly with WS2K3.

Here are some resources to look at in terms of hardware compatibility:

Installation defaults
One of the things I like most about Windows Server 2003 is that, for the most part, the default installation has changed—beginning with fewer services that are automatically enabled and requiring admins to explicitly add the services that they need onto the server. For example, I was very pleased to see that the Alerter and Messenger services were disabled by default. In Windows 2000, I would always disable them (among others) as they were not used in most of my scenarios, and I felt that they posed a risk because they provided targets for hackers to exploit.

Navigating in WS2K3 is very similar to Windows 2000 and XP. When I wanted to see what was new with WS2K3, one of the first places I went to look was the Windows Control Panel, namely, the Services Control Panel applet. I wanted to look at all of the services that W2SK3 has by default.

I noticed that Windows Server 2003 provides more descriptive information about the Windows services. For example, Windows 2000 says the following about the Security Accounts Manager service: “Stores security information for local user accounts.” Windows Server 2003 offers the following description for the same service:
“The startup of this service signals other services that the Security Accounts Manager (SAM) is ready to accept requests. Disabling this service will prevent other services in the system from being notified when the SAM is ready, which may in turn cause those services to fail to start correctly. This service should not be disabled.”

I particularly like the last line stating that the service should not be disabled. I agree with that for this particular service. What is peculiar, however, is that the Security Accounts Manager service was the only service with such wording. Windows Server 2003, in my test configuration (basic hardware, DHCP client, Terminal Services enabled), had some default services that I disabled. In particular, the three services in Table A are ones that I have disabled in my configuration, despite the fact that the default installation made these services start automatically.

Table A
Service Name Microsoft’s Description
Wireless Configuration Enables automatic configuration for IEEE 802.11 adapters. If this service is stopped, automatic configuration will be unavailable. If this service is disabled, any services that explicitly depend on it will fail to start.


Error Reporting Service Collects, stores, and reports unexpected application crashes to Microsoft. If this service is stopped, then Error Reporting will occur only for kernel faults and some types of user mode faults. If this service is disabled, any services that explicitly depend on it will not start.


Automatic Updates Enables the download and installation of critical Windows updates. If the service is disabled, the operating system can be manually updated at the Windows Update Web site.

I have made a list of the default services in Windows Server 2003 from my installation. You can download this worksheet to view the services that are installed by default in WS2K3. The ones that are set to start automatically are highlighted in yellow.

Shutdown Event Tracker
Windows Server 2003 introduces the Shutdown Event Tracker. This feature lets you log your events related to shutting down a server. Also, in the event of an abnormal closing of Windows, the Shutdown Event Tracker will ask you to provide some custom notes about the closing of the Windows session. Figure B shows an image of the Shut Down Windows screen.

Figure B
This is the new Shutdown Windows screen in WS2K3.

These events are logged with their categories into the Windows System Event Log. These events can be retrieved for as long as your log has enough space (the default log size is 16384 KB, and it overwrites events as needed). Figure C shows an entry in the System Event Log for a user-initiated reboot. You can see the custom text: “Test Shut Down Event Tracker Log Entry.”

Figure C
The Event Log entry shows a custom note from the administrator.

This entry shows that Explorer.exe made the call to reboot the system. In the event that an installation, Windows setup, or other process-related event makes the decision to reboot, that executable will be listed in the log rather than Explorer.exe. If you use the shutdown.exe tool to reboot a WS2K3 computer over the network, the event is logged simply as winlogon.exe initiating the reboot, and typically no comment is provided.

However, in some circumstances, winlogon.exe can populate the comment field. For example, during Windows setup, if it is determined that the computer needs to be rebooted, the following comment is inserted: “Windows setup has completed, and the computer must restart.” Other process-driven or automatic reboot scenarios may or may not put entries into the comment field.

This feature is a nice addition to the Windows Server line. In some scenarios, it could replace a manual (and often poorly maintained) server log that an admin uses to track these events. The Shutdown Event Tracker can be disabled in the registry or group policy if you choose. Click here for more on the Shutdown Event Tracker.

I have explored the basics of getting a Windows Server 2003 system up and running. Taking a hard look at the basics of the product will help the administrator in the upgrade evaluation process.