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'Upgrade' option need not be a migration quagmire

While some caution that a "brand new" approach is the way to go in an e-mail migration, the "upgrade" choice worked out well for a New Jersey school district during its move to Exchange 2003 from 2000.

Software platform migrations can be a painful and expensive undertaking. Oftentimes, it's helpful to first take a look at what others have done to get an idea about what works -- and what doesn't. Following is one organization's messaging migration story.

Migration warrior: Sandra L. Hacker, MCSE, network administrator

Organization: North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District, Annandale, N.J.

Number of users/mailboxes: Approximately 420. More users/mailboxes are added constantly.

Number of servers dedicated to messaging: One

Current version of Exchange: Exchange Server 2003, Service Pack 1

Messaging system you migrated from: Exchange 2000, SP3

Number of people involved in this project: Servers, one. Mail clients, two.

How long did the migration take? Pre-migration/upgrade preparation and planning took about a week. The actual migration of Exchange and the underlying OS took about two days. (It is strongly recommended to upgrade the underlying Windows 2000 OS to Windows Server 2003 right after a successful upgrade to Exchange 2003).

Describe your migration experience: I'm going to give you all the background on this project first. Obviously, if your network does not closely resemble ours, pre-migration/upgrade, there will be definite differences in the planning and execution of your project.

What's your story?

Do you have an Exchange migration story you'd like to share with your IT peers? If so, send an e-mail to Senior News Editor John Hogan.

Underlying network: Windows 2000 native mode Active Directory with approximately 20 servers. Exchange 2000 (one server in demilitarized zone) running on Windows 2000 Standard server, member server. OWA integrated with our Web server, running Windows 2003 Web Server Edition.

Avoid running Exchange on a DC if possible. We had all virus protection and spam management running on the Exchange box.

I had to make sure the current partitions on my server would handle a dual upgrade of Exchange and Windows from 2000 to 2003. I did not have enough room on any of my existing 2000 server's system partition to upgrade, so we purchased Volume Manager (Symantec), and it worked like a charm. No complaints. Any Windows partition that is going to house the OS will now be 8GB or more. The service packs and patches slowly fill up a hard drive, guaranteed.

A compatibility test for good measure

The server hardware had to be checked for compatibility. Dell 2550s make up most of our servers. The BIOS, the RAID drivers, the firmware, all had to be upgraded according to the Dell site's information on Windows 2003 compatibility. That went fairly easily. (We backed up the system and Exchange in case of failure here.)

Next, knowing that Microsoft recommends that the OS be upgraded right after Exchange (2000 to 2003, in both cases), I ran the Windows 2003 compatibility test and printed the report on that server. The report is clear and concise; I ran it on every server I had prior to the upgrade. I took care of every issue listed on the report that would have hampered the migration/upgrade, such as virus software/spam management software version incompatibility, as well as other software issues.

Evaluating the health and connectivity of Active Directory and the server itself was the last thing to do prior to the actual upgrade. I used the classic tools for AD (DCdiag, event logs, etc.) and resolved all issues. Exchange depends on a solid Active Directory and an absolutely healthy DNS for success. We have one parent domain and two child domains. The Exchange server only serves the parent as far as mail accounts go. If you've got a solid AD and DNS, then you're in good shape for an upgrade -- as long as the server itself is healthy! We were solid, so I did decided on the upgrade rather than the "brand new" approach. Some people will tell you never upgrade. I would have told you that myself last year, but this upgrade went well, given a solid foundation.

It was very important that I knew my network and had confidence in how it was built and how its health was. I would not recommend upgrading if you take shortcuts, or don't like to do extensive planning and research.

Exchange 2003 doesn't allow mistakes

The one problem I ran into was when the Exchange 2003 disk was in and evaluating its new home. Prior to the upgrade, my Exchange 2000 machine had suffered a dirty shutdown a couple of weeks earlier. In spite of running ESEUTIL, ISINTEG, and a support call to Microsoft, there was a problem with the indexing service that was preventing my upgrade to Exchange 2003 from completing. This is the beauty of Exchange 2003. It won't allow you to make a mistake. If there is something wrong, Exchange 2003 will tell you exactly what it is, like if you forgot to extend the AD schema for Exchange, or if there is a service that will not start that it depends on.

More tales from the trenches

Visit our archive of Exchange Migration Warrior articles.

Exchange 2003 will not complete until you've satisfied all of its needs, and it doesn't mess up your current system in the process of telling you what those things may be. Awesome.

After the service issue was resolved, the upgrade continued and finished without a problem. OWA 2003 is very impressive, and well worth it. The operating system was upgraded the next day after it was clear that Exchange 2003 was fine. That also ran well. We now had Exchange 2003 running on Windows Server 2003 Standard, a member server.

An improvement in our overall Exchange performance was immediately realized after we turned over spam management to our ISP, taking that huge load off the server itself.

Don't believe every post you read

As I was upgrading our servers, our technicians were upgrading our 400-plus clients to Outlook 2003. The consistency in versions of the client and server eliminated variables caused by unmatched client and mail server systems. This was very important when support calls came in having to do with Outlook.

An issue communicating with EarthLink may arise if you go to 2003 forest functionality with Exchange 2003, which is where we are now. There are posts out there that tell you to do things to your Exchange box like make new connectors to resolve the issue. That's not necessarily true. This is an EDNS issue introduced by Windows 2003's extension of DNS. Our firewall didn't understand it.

First thing, if you find that mail to EarthLink, AOL and Hotmail are coming back undeliverable, read this article and perform the workaround: Microsoft Knowledge Base article KB832223. Use an account by one of the providers referenced in this article to prove your problem is fixed. (I had a friend at EarthLink who helped me out.) Our mail communication to these ISPs was restored immediately after performing the workaround, and we've had no problems since.

Main advice: If you are a lone ranger like me overseeing a Microsoft network, convince your employer to purchase a five pack of support calls for your calendar year. The piece of mind that I get from knowing Microsoft is a call away during a huge project (upgrading an enterprise to 2003) is invaluable. I always have high praise for the support I get from Microsoft. My record of calls to them has been about 12 to 14 hours, I believe. I don't call often, but when I do, I am usually at wit's end. They always get it done, no matter what.

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