Data Centers

Migrating to Windows Server 2003 from NT is a demanding process

It's a steep migration path from NT Server to Windows Server 2003. Here are some pointers to ease the process and some possible pitfalls to avoid.

By Louis Nel

If you intend to migrate to Windows Server 2003 (as .NET Server has recently been renamed), you’d better start planning now. If you plan to migrate and you’re one of those companies that hasn’t yet migrated to W2K Server, you’re going to have a long and rather arduous road ahead.

It’s a steep migration path from NT Server to Windows Server 2003. Here are some pointers on simplifying the process, as well as some possible pitfalls to avoid.

As with all migrations, but especially so with server migrations, the motto should be: festina lente (hurry slowly). The better your planning is and the more thorough your testing is, the smoother your migration is sure to be. Also, a wait-and-see approach is always prudent, otherwise you might end up as an interesting case study as to what can go wrong.

The first important step on the migration road is to clearly identify your goals. In other words, for what business and technical reasons do you want to migrate? These are very important questions well worth spending some time on, because without a clear focus, you cannot set clear goals.

Get everyone on track
To answer these questions, it is essential to make a collaborative effort between the IT department, executives, and all other departments of a company. As the facilitators and guides that must make it all happen, the IT migration team must come to this table well prepared. It should be able to translate those executive (and technical) dreams into reality, so the team should be able to judge what is possible, what is feasible, and what the best technical options and solutions are.

To be prepared for these discussions, you should know the differences between the four different flavors of Windows Server 2003. Also be prepared to answer the inevitable questions and concerns about cost. Remember to take into account training costs—they can be quite high depending on your team and the extent of your migration. You might also have to migrate from Exchange Server 5.5 or 2000 to Exchange Server 2003 (both currently won’t run under release candidate 2 of Windows Server 2003) and you might want to migrate to ISA Server, and so on). Note: Although Exchange 2000 Server will run in a Windows Server 2003 environment, Exchange itself will only run on a Windows 2000 Server-based computer. For more information regarding Exchange 2000 Server and Exchange Server 5.5 compatibility with Windows Server 2003, check out this article.

Carefully consider whether you'll need to make use of professional services—a distinct possibility, especially considering the big jump from NT to Windows Server 2003. You might also want to use some excellent third-party migration tools that are available (at a cost, of course).

Consider cost implications
Hardware requirements can come at a hefty price, especially if you are migrating to a native Windows Server 2003 environment, and all clients are to be upgraded to XP. So check the Hardware Compatibility List (HCL). Determining the compatibility with existing applications used in the company is also very important—you don't want to discover that some crucial applications suddenly don't work anymore after the migration. If there are to be application upgrades or even a migration to different applications, you have to address this now. Obviously, there will also be costs involved and most likely training.

Another important consideration with considerable cost implications is the licensing mode. Make sure you know what your licensing options are and what’s best for your company. Also, you'll have to decide whether you're migrating to mixed or native (pure) mode. Your present infrastructure and needs will determine your choice.

Do your research
Once the stage is set, the next step in your deployment planning is more research, this time about the migration’s details. To make it all happen, you'll also need up-to-date and detailed information about your existing network infrastructure.

Gather and start studying the technical documents from the .NET Server Web site. Also, be sure to check out the indispensable deployment guide (although it is still incomplete at the time of this writing). The Windows 2000 Server Resource Kit will also be a great help in the planning and research phases.

Learn about the different methods of automating and customizing installations (disk imaging techniques; remote installation service; network installation points). Choosing the right one for your setup and circumstances can speed the process up considerably. Microsoft's Deployment Guide includes a section on the topic, including compatibility testing, design information for unattended installations, image-based installations, and RIS installations.

Windows Server 2003 boasts a lot of new security features, so start reviewing your security setup now and plan to take advantage of the enhancements. Also, determine what it will mean in terms of the upgrade.

Active Directory
If you're new to Active Directory (as you're likely to be if you're running on NT), research and learn all you can about it. Download Microsoft's white papers on the subject.

In Windows Server 2003 Active Directory is more powerful than in W2K Server. Once you know what it's all about and how it works, prepare your domain structure for AD. If you have a complex domain structure, there's a lot of planning to be done.

A tip: If at all possible, standardize your network on TCP/IP.

Other issues
Don't forget the critical importance of share, file, and print access control lists (and the accompanying permissions issues), or productivity might grind to a halt after migration.

If you're not migrating applications like Exchange Server as part of your migration to Windows Server 2003—and especially if you're planning to run Windows Server 2003 in native mode—make sure which services you'll have to enable on your servers to support these legacy apps. Exchange 5.5, for example, requires WINS to run.

If you're planning on running your network in mixed mode (having Windows Server 2003 assign a domain controller to act as a PDC for NT BDCs), be aware of the limitations and possible pitfalls. For example, you can’t use all the advanced features the new operating system has to offer; remember that only one Windows Server 2003 domain controller can act as a PDC for NT BDCs, and the first domain controller you install will perform this role.

When deciding which features of the new operating system to implement, don't be in too much of a hurry; first get it on its feet before you (try to) make it dance. It will reduce the complexity of your task and make troubleshooting somewhat simpler.

Plan your test bed network properly as well. For realistic and thorough testing, your test bed should properly reflect your network, including things like a router and firewall, some workstations with the different operating systems and applications you're using, and a couple of servers. Once you think everything is working okay, bring in some users for the final testing, especially those using critical apps. If all goes well, you're ready for the big rollout.

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