Windows Server 2003: Early users take the plunge

Microsoft launched its long-delayed Windows Server 2003 operating system this week, but some users could not wait.

Microsoft launched its long-delayed Windows Server 2003 operating system this week, but some users could not wait.

Nasdaq Stock Market and JetBlue Airways jumped from Windows 2000 Server to the Windows 2003 beta to gain a performance edge and pursue server consolidation.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Department of Education and Intrawest took the plunge in the hope that Active Directory would help rein in the many domain controllers they had with Windows NT 4.0.

Windows Server 2003 promises improvements in performance, scalability, reliability, security, manageability, networking and its integrated .net development framework.

But migrating to a new server operating system is no snap for any IT department, once the planning, testing and potential disruption to end-users are built into the equation.

All four of these early adopters said they realised benefits from migrating to Windows Server 2003, but they also expended months of effort to make sure they did.

Plus, as participants in Microsoft's joint development or rapid adoption programmes, they received special assistance to ensure that their projects went smoothly.

Careful assessment and planning will be crucial for any company migrating to Windows Server 2003, in order to realise the full business benefits and justify the expense in a tough economy, analysts and consultants say.

IT managers need to step back and envision the future, advised Chris Burry, a technology infrastructure practice director at consultancy Avanade. He said IT departments should weigh questions such as what role directory services will play in their business and how those services can enable provisioning, security and management.

"If you look at what you need the infrastructure to do, that's the best way to organise your migration," Burry said.

Directory drives migration

For organisations using NT 4, such as the Kentucky Department of Education, Active Directory is often the first step of the migration.

The education department had over 300 Windows NT 4.0 domains and more than 2,000 domain controllers dotting the state's 176 school districts and 1,400 schools, and the distributed systems had become tough to manage and patch, particularly from a security standpoint.

Chuck Austin, project manager of the Kentucky Education Technology System, said both IT staffers and school superintendents saw the benefits of using Active Directory to manage critical network resources centrally and deliver services.

Their goal is to improve security, reduce recurring costs and complexity, stabilise backbone services and lay a foundation for better collaboration.

To preserve local autonomy, the IT department will delegate authority for managing users, computers and groups to network administrators in the districts. Each district will have at least one Windows Server 2003 domain controller and a global catalogue server, and about 20 districts are expected to continue to run Novell's NetWare in tandem.

Tim Cornett, the Kentucky Department of Education's Active Directory lead architect, said the directory migration to Windows Server 2003 has been easier than it would have been with Windows 2000 Server because he does not have to manually create connection objects for replication between domain controllers.

Another overall benefit from the Active Directory migration, which is due for completion by year's end, will be the reduction of the 2,000-plus domain controllers to 400 and the 300-plus domains to 178, Austin said.

When the Kentucky Department of Education migrates its 320 Exchange and 700 web servers, it hopes to achieve server consolidation, he added.

Domain servers reduced

Intrawest has about 130 Windows NT 4 servers involved in domain and security tasks. But the IT department is aiming to reduce the "god-awful mess" to 40 dual-processor Dell PowerEdge 2650s running Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition, said Matthew Dunn, chief information officer at the resort operator and developer.

He said the company's 35 active domains will be cut to two, thanks to six months of careful consideration and planning.

One challenge that Intrawest encountered in figuring out the best way to address the problem was wading through the boat-load of documents that Microsoft makes available to customers. "Microsoft is almost guilty of supplying too much information," Dunn said.

Plans call for Intrawest's Microsoft and in-house applications to be migrated from Windows NT and 2000 to Windows Server 2003 over the next two years. Dunn said he wants a .net-centric architecture to pave the way for the web services he hopes will help disparate systems talk to one another through XML and Simple Object Access Protocol (Soap).

"Because of the performance gains," he added, "there's an opportunity to pursue consolidation as well as migration."

Shrinking the web server farm

Steve Randich, chief information officer at Nasdaq in New York, said saw a 25%-30% boost in performance running Windows Server 2003. That enabled his staff to consolidate 75 four-processor Dell web servers to 35 servers.

Stress-testing tools from Mercury Interactive showed that the servers can handle more sessions and users. "We pay less maintenance when we have fewer boxes in production," Randich said, adding that he also expects to reduce licences.

Application code has run more reliably, and servers required fewer patches than Windows 2000 Server did during its beta period, said JP Athey, vice-president of Nasdaq network and web technology. Migrating web servers still involves the typical intensive testing effort, but he found it "more seamless" than the move to Windows 2000 Server.

Server consolidation, performance, enhanced security and total cost of ownership benefits will be the key drivers when Nasdaq looks to migrate other web, database, transaction processing and application servers from Windows 2000, Athey added.

Nasdaq, which is doing a server consolidation study with Hewlett-Packard, hopes to go from 1,100 servers to 700.

Rick Fricchione, vice-president of Microsoft services at HP, said IT departments often start with migration and move to consolidation to cost-justify the upgrade. But he warned that they need to focus on service management, availability and reliability once there are tens of servers each supporting 1,000 users, rather than hundreds of servers handling 100 users each.

"The biggest gotcha we've seen is understanding that you're much more mission-critical when you come out the other end," he said. "Instead of having 100 people impacted when a machine goes down, you may have 1,000 impacted. So operational best practices matter greatly."

Boosting scalability

Improvements to Windows' Distributed File System (DFS) were a major impetus for JetBlue Airways to upgrade to Windows Server 2003. The airline relies on DFS services to distribute electronic manuals to pilots as part of its paperless cockpit initiative.

JetBlue chief information officer Jeff Cohen said DFS replication in Windows 2000 Server sometimes did not work as advertised in updating changes made in the root folders. But the new version of DFS fixes the problem and affords more granular control over replication.

An all-Microsoft shop, JetBlue sometimes runs 40% of its systems on beta software. But, Cohen said, there is minimal risk because Microsoft "is standing by your side." By 19 May, JetBlue will have devoted more than 5,000 man-hours to testing, planning and developing applications for Windows Server 2003.

Its migration of 250 Windows 2000 servers started with the "extremely smooth" upgrade of 22 domain controllers, he said. One of the few minor issues was that HP's SmartStart setup utility was not ready to help configure the servers.

JetBlue is also shifting mission-critical applications to Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition on Unisys ES7000 boxes, including two running 64-bit Windows Datacenter on Itanium 2 processors. The company has three ES7000s in production and four more in the works.

Next month, JetBlue will go live with the new 64-bit SQL Server 2000 for its frequent-flyer programme, a move Cohen likens to doubling the size of a highway during rush-hour traffic. The company also plans to run its entire web server front-end on ES7000s. "These servers can give five 9s of reliability," Cohen said. "We're running an airline. We cannot afford to be down."

But Avanade's Burry warned that Datacenter may not be the right choice for every IT user considering Windows Server 2003. Each company will need to carefully weigh the economic impact of downtime, he said.

"As you drive up the availability, you also drive up the cost," Burry said. "There are places where Datacenter Server is absolutely marvellous. But it needs to be connected to the requirements of your business."

Should you upgrade?

Windows Server 2003 has been described as not much more than an incremental upgrade to Windows 2000 Server. But some users and analysts say a few key features set it apart, such as the following:

Active Directory improvements, including cross-forest trust, domain rename and schema redefine capabilities, more efficient replication and synchronisation, a new group policy management console and new group policy settings, and the ability to load directory content from back-up media such as CDs, DVDs and file copies without replicating across the corporate network.

  • Enhanced security, including the lockdown by default of Internet Information Server 6.0 and a new Internet Connection Firewall to protect and monitor traffic between the network and the internet.
  • Internet Information Server 6.0, which is based on a new request-processing architecture. It provides an application isolation environment to prevent one application or site from stopping another and to reduce the time needed to restart services.
  • Volume Shadow Copy Service, which enables rapid "snapshot" back-ups of servers without disrupting applications.
  • Built-in .net Framework support, along with native support for Web services standards such as XML, Soap, Web Services Description Language and UDDI.
  • Support for 64-bit computing in Enterprise and Datacenter editions.
  • Windows System Resource Manager, which lets IT managers allocate CPU and memory on a per-application basis.
  • More scalable, efficient Distributed File System allows multiple DFS routes to be hosted on each server; during system failure, a server fails to the nearest available server.

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