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Colossal NT migration a lesson in perseverance

The Kentucky Department of Education gets an "A" for proving that a Windows Server migration can be done without bringing an organization to its knees -- even when there's 700,000 users on the move.

NEW ORLEANS -- Code Red and Nimda sealed the fate of the Kentucky Department of Education's aging Windows NT system. Together, the e-mail worms caused IT operations in 150 of the state's 176 school districts to shut down for nearly eight weeks in 2001.

That nightmare turned out to be a powerful incentive for the state, since a migration for its schools would be an awe-inspiring challenge involving 700,000 users, 160,000 accounts, 400 domains and 4,000 servers.

The decision to stick with Microsoft was the easy part, since the Department of Education was a longtime Windows and Exchange shop, and end users were comfortable with Microsoft's technology.

Tale of the tape

A few stats from the Kentucky Department of Education's migration:

-- 700,000 users
-- 160,000 accounts
-- 400 domains
-- 4,000 servers

The task of migrating from Windows NT 4.0 to Windows Server 2003 fell to Tim Cornett and Chuck Austin of the Office of Education Technology. Cornett, the OET's Active Directory architect, and Austin, an OET senior project manager and head of the effort, shared their nearly two-year migration story during a keynote session at the recent TechMentor conference.

Months of research conducted

While technical skills are a prerequisite for a project of this magnitude, it helps to have a sense of humor as well.

"I kept one of my favorite quotes on my desk to get me through this whole process," Cornett said. "It goes like this: 'A great pleasure in life is doing what people say you can't do.' Well, let me just say that there is nothing further from that truth."

Stick to 'the doc'

Tim Cornett, of Kentucky's Office of Education Technology, said that while no migration can be foolproof, they can be a lot easier when there's a written plan in place.

Cornett calls his team's 11-page, 48-step migration checklist "the doc." And his mantra during the move from Windows NT to Windows Server 2003 was "stick to the doc."

"I tell everyone, 'Just don't diverge from the doc,'" Cornett said. "When there's a guide as good as this to help you out, why not stick to it?"

He said that he sleeps better at night knowing that "the doc" is also there to help guide the state's school district personnel with system troubleshooting.

The project began in early 2002, when Cornett and Austin hit the road for six months to spend time visiting each of the state's 176 school districts to determine their individual needs. After numerous meetings and thousands of consulting hours, the pair settled on a single-forest, empty-root domain with 184 child domains. (The eight extra domains were for administrative purposes.) And they decided to make each district its own domain and its own site.

At the same time, Cornett and Austin decided to standardize on hardware to ease troubleshooting and support across all the districts. For this, the OET went with identically configured Dell PowerEdge 2600 servers with single processors, 2 GB RAM and 100 MB NICs.

A tryout in the lab

With the hardware decision made and the design questions answered, it was time to start building the environment. The OET put Windows Server 2003 on servers in their test lab in September 2002. Then, in March 2003, the group set up a pilot program with about 30,000 users, including the OET. Following a successful pilot run of several months, the OET decided it was time try the system in the school districts. By the end of 2003, almost all of the districts were on the new system.

The Kentucky migration tale inspired some TechMentor attendees to press ahead with their plans.

"It seemed so certain that their plan [would] be a guaranteed headache, but somehow it worked," said Kareem Ali, a systems architect for the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. "I've got a migration coming up this year and I feel a lot more confident about it after hearing about the experience these guys went through."

Martha Cannon, a network coordinator at Delnor Hospital in St. Charles, Ill., agreed.

"I am going back to tell my IT department all about it," Cannon said. "They need to hear that migrations are not all pitfalls and impending disasters," she said.


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