If you’re facing a system crash on a Windows 2000 workstation, the first step to recovery is to turn to the boot menu. Reviewing which menu options work and which don’t will give you an initial idea about where the problem might be. The boot menu also can boot Windows into several different low-level modes that you can use to identify and correct the problem.

What’s the boot menu?
The boot menu appears if you turn on the system and press [F8] while the system displays the screen that asks which operating system you want to use.

The first option on the boot menu is Safe Mode. If you’ve done much with Windows 9x or Windows Me, you’re familiar with Safe Mode. Safe Mode is designed to load Windows 2000 with a minimal set of drivers. For example, when you boot the system in Safe Mode, Windows will use the standard VGA driver, rather than loading the display driver that you normally use. Likewise, drivers for devices such as network cards and sound cards aren’t loaded either.

The idea behind Safe Mode is that a corrupt or incorrect device driver can cause a Windows 2000 boot failure. If you can boot the workstation without loading the corrupt or invalid device driver in the process, Windows will run and you’ll be able to fix the problem.

Generally speaking, Safe Mode will take care of most boot problems, with a few exceptions. For example, if the minimal drivers Safe Mode uses are missing, corrupt, or invalid, Windows can’t boot into Safe Mode.

BOOT.INI, a hidden file in the system partition’s root directory, is also critical for booting. The BOOT.INI file tells Windows which hard disk and which partition on that hard disk contains the Windows 2000 system files. If the BOOT.INI file is missing, corrupt, or has been modified incorrectly, then Windows won’t boot, even in Safe Mode.

Networking and command prompt options
The next two options on the boot menu are Safe Mode With Networking and Safe Mode With Command Prompt.

Safe Mode With Networking allows you to repair a server or workstation and have network access at the same time. If critical driver files or service packs are stored on a network share, you would be unable to reach them because the normal Safe Mode doesn’t offer network support. The Safe Mode With Networking option also allows you to download a file from the Internet or copy files to the network before formatting a hard drive.

The only trouble with this option is that you can’t use it if a network-related function is causing the boot problem. For example, if you had an incorrect network card driver loaded and it causes a boot failure, the boot failure would also occur in Safe Mode With Networking because this mode loads all network-related drivers. The flip side is that if the system boots in Safe Mode With Networking, you know that the problem isn’t with a networking component.

The next option is Safe Mode With Command Prompt. Generally speaking, you won’t be able to boot to Safe Mode With Command Prompt if the normal Safe Mode option isn’t working, but sometimes you get lucky. In one situation, Internet Explorer was damaged and Safe Mode wouldn’t work, but I was able to boot to Safe Mode With Command Prompt.

When you load Safe Mode With Command Prompt, you won’t have access to anything but a Command Prompt window. So, if you don’t know all of the DOS commands and the various Windows 2000 command line utilities, this option won’t help you much. If you can work with these tools, then Safe Mode With Command Prompt offers a viable option for repairing your system.

Boot logging
Beneath the Command Prompt option, you’ll find an option to Enable Boot Logging. This option works well in conjunction with Safe Mode. With the Enable Boot Logging option, Windows boots normally. As it boots, it compiles a log file that lists every step attempted and every step completed.

Later, when the system crashes, you can reboot in Safe Mode and review the log file. The log file is named NTBTLOG.TXT and is stored in your %systemroot% folder (usually C:\WINNT). As you look through the log file, look for events that were attempted but not completed, especially toward the end of the file.

While you’re in Safe Mode looking at the boot log file, you should also check the system log. Windows 2000 contains several log files that are always active, and they may contain information regarding your problem. This will depend on the level of logging you’ve enabled and on how early in the boot process the system fails.

The Enable VGA Mode option is next on the boot menu. This option is left over from Windows NT, and is obsolete. It’s only included in Windows 2000 for backward compatibility.

Last Known Good
The next boot menu item is the Last Known Good Configuration option. This one is also left over from NT. Unlike VGA Mode though, the Last Known Good Configuration option is anything but obsolete. With this option, Windows makes a copy of the current configuration after a successful boot and flags it as “good.” This copy isn’t really a backup, but more of a list that contains information about the system’s settings. Therefore, if the system fails to boot after a configuration change, you can use the Last Known Good Configuration setting. This replaces the current configuration settings with those from the last known good file, which should allow Windows to boot normally.

The rest of the options on the boot menu don’t really have anything to do with boot failures. The ones listed here should give you plenty of options for identifying and solving the problem.