Troubleshooting hardware on Windows Server 2003

Windows has a reputation for being unstable, but in reality, most Windows instability comes from hardware problems. Here's how to troubleshoot and overcome common hardware problems in Windows Server 2003.

Hardware glitches at some point along the line are par for the course for most IT professionals. Sometimes due to the related software and sometimes a function of faulty manufacturing, servers from the dark ages up to Windows Server 2003 are affected. Here are some potential hardware problems and possible solutions to them.

Printing trials and tribulations
Printers are the bane of existence for many administrators. Not too many devices create more headaches and require as much care as the multitude of laser printers strewn about the office. While there are few problems related to the use of printers with Windows Server 2003 servers, printing problems can bring user productivity to a halt.

The place to look for the solution to a problem generally depends on the scope of the problem. For example, if all of your printers suddenly have problems, the cause is not likely to be every printer failing simultaneously. Rather, a problem at the Windows 2003 print server is the more likely culprit.

Spooler service
If the printers connected to a specific server all die at once or the print jobs on the print server aren’t printing and they can’t be deleted, a very likely cause of the problem is the failure of the server’s spooler service. The spooler service is responsible for any and all printing activities to printers either connected to or installed on the server as remote printers, for example, HP JetDirect printers. If your printers stop, try stopping and restarting the server’s spooler service. Often times, they’ll start chugging along again after the service is brought back up.

Disk space
If you have printers using a server for your users’ printing needs, you’ll need to make sure the system has sufficient disk space on which to spool the documents to be printed. If you don’t, two things happen: (1) documents won’t print and (2) your server will run out of space, which can be especially problematic if you’re using the system volume for printer spooling.

If you find that you’re consistently running out of space on the system volume, which is the default location for the print spooler’s files, move the spooler files to a different volume. For you performance aficionados out there, move it to a separate physical disk to improve overall system performance.

To move all of the spooler service’s files, choose Start | Printers and Faxes. From the window with the list of installed printers, select File | Server Properties and choose the Advanced tab. You'll then see the screen shown in Figure A. In the Spool Folder box, type the path to the new location for the spooler files and click OK.

Figure A
The Print Server Properties tab is used to define the spooler file location.

You’ll get a warning indicating that the action terminates the printing of all active documents, as shown in Figure B. If you have a heavily used print server, you might want to consider doing this off hours.

Figure B
Print spooler location change warning

When you’re done, stop and restart the spooler service.

General printing problems
If you’re having problems with printers here and there, make sure to look at some of the more common causes of printing problems such as mismatched drivers, paper problems, misconfigured IP addresses and the like. Keep in mind that you can install printer drivers on the server for every operating system that you support so that the clients always get the right driver.

If you’re having problems, take a look on the printer vendor’s Web site to see if they have updated drivers.

The CD burner doesn’t work
In the interest of performance and in an attempt only to enable services needed to run a server, the default Windows Server 2003 installation does not support burning CDs on the server. In most cases this is appropriate as CD burning can be somewhat system intensive and should not be done at the server. If, however, you need to be able to do this, it’s a matter of enabling the right service.

Click Start | Administrative Tools | Services. Find the service named IMAPI CD-Burning COM Service. Right-click the service and choose Properties from the shortcut menu. In the Startup Type box, change the selection to Automatic as shown in Figure C. Click OK. This will make the service start automatically at system boot. To start the service for the current session, select the service, and click the start button on the menu bar.

Figure C
Starting the CD burning service

Use the Windows Catalog
The Windows Catalog, formerly known as the Hardware Compatibility List, is your one-stop shop to products that you know will work on Windows Server 2003. Available at Microsoft’s Web site, the Windows Catalog provides you with a list of hardware that has passed Microsoft’s Designed For Windows logo program, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
The Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Windows Catalog site

When you select a product from the Windows Catalog, the details about the certification are displayed, as you can see in Figure E.

Figure E
Windows Catalog details about a Dell server

Personally, I liked the old HCL better as it seemed like it was a more level playing field for the products listed, but such is the price of progress.

Network problems
Network problems at a server can have a pretty significant impact on your users. There are quite a few causes for network problems, Including bad adapters: take a look at some other things that might go wrong.

Windows 2003 network adapter drivers
Look back at the previous section regarding the Windows Catalog/Hardware Compatibility List. If you decide to move ahead with hardware that isn’t on this list, keep on reading! If you’ve run up against a situation where you’re trying to use a network adapter that doesn’t have a Windows Server 2003 driver, try the Windows XP, 2000 or NT driver. I wouldn’t recommend this for a longer term solution, though. The best solution is to replace the NIC with one that has drivers for Windows 2003 available, and preferably one that is on the hardware compatibility list. Using drivers from other versions of Windows can introduce instability in the system and result in the dreaded Blue Screen of Death.

A quick DHCP, ARP, NETBios, DNS, WINS fix
Networking can be funny sometimes. If you’re having trouble with name lookups, you need to clear the DNS cache. If you’re having trouble with ARP requests, you might need to clear the ARP cache. If you’re just having networking problems in general, Windows Server 2003 provides a quick way for you to do a bunch of stuff at once, including refresh the DHCP lease, clear the ARP, NetBIOS and DNS caches, and re-register the adapter with WINS and DNS services.

Choose Start | Control Panel | Network Connections | {network connection having problems}. Click on the Repair button in the lower left-hand corner of the window. You’ll get a confirmation window that the repair operation completed, as you can see in Figure F.

Figure F
Repairing a network connection

Hardware needn't be hard
If you stick to the HCL and/or user drivers designed for the OS, your hardware problems with Windows Server 2003 will be minimal. Use the tips presented here as a starting point and if your problem isn’t listed here, use every tech’s best friend: Google.

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