July 14th is a day perhaps better known as Bastille Day. History buffs might remember it as the birth day of both former US President Gerald Ford and Jim Gordon (drummer for one time super group Derek and the Dominos). Windows focused IT pros, on the other hand will know that July 14th 2015 is when the lights go out for Windows Server 2003 (and Windows Server 2003 R2). In less than 200 days’ time from now, Server 2003 will no longer attract bug fixes or patches.
Looking Back at Server 2003
Server 2003 was another great version of Windows Server with a wealth of new and improved features. It was released to manufacturing in April 2003. This release coincided with the release of Windows XP as the client operating system for both home and business users, in effect replacing Windows 98/ME.
Windows Server 2003 included a load of new and improved features including Distributed File System, support for SANs, ISCSI, NUMA and Multipath I/O. Active directory and it’s underpinnings (including DNS) were also much improved.
Server 2003 shipped in a large number of separate SKUs: including Standard, Enterprise, Data Center and Web. Server 2003 shipped for 32-bit and 64-bit processors and for the Intel Itanium range. In addition a number of derivative versions were also shipped, including Windows Computer cluster Windows Storage Server, Windows Home Server, Windows Server for Embedded systems and of course Small Business Server
In December 2005, Microsoft issued a major update, Windows Server 2003 R2 (which also reaches its end of life this summer coming). The R2 version kept the same kernel and driver set of Windows Server 2003, but included a number of non-kernel improvements, including better branch office support, improved identity and access management and, in an attempt to improve manageability a free add on Services for Unix (aka SFU) was also included.
But in just a few short month, the Server 2003 party will be over. From that all free support will cease. There will be no further publically issued patches. Organisations may be able to contract with Microsoft for longer support – but such contracts will be expensive (certainly more expensive than the cost of upgrading).
From August, Microsoft will issue patches for bugs that may well have been in Server 2003 – but no patches will be issued for Server 2003 itself. These later patches provide significant input to the hackers who can use the patches to help develop malware that would target Server 2003 specifically. At some point in the future, any Server 2003 box that is internet facing will simply not be safe (or yours).
Now of course the sky won’t fall down on the 15th of July the day after end of life. The world will not cease to exist from then. But from that point on, your older systems are increasingly at risk. One could argue that IT departments and possibly the company’s management, that fail to upgrade in time and later get hacked, were negligent. If those servers are running inside some sort of compliance regime, you may find those servers out of compliance. In the case of PCI compliance, you could find that Visa/MasterCard may cease doing business with you – and for some companies this could mean the end of the organisation. Other compliance regimes can impose other sanctions. All in all, there’s little upside to continuing running Server 2003.
There may be some cases, where upgrading is difficult, if not impossible. Server systems running certain applications or supporting specialist hardware may find that software or hardware is not supported on later versions of the OS. It’s easy to say that you should have had a plan B for such situations and had it figured out a long time ago. But upgrading is rapidly becoming a requirement not an option.
Upgrading to what?
So let’s assume you do want to upgrade – what do you upgrade TO? There are a lot of factors that you need to take into account. These include the advances in hardware and software as well as the impact of both virtualisation and the cloud.
A lot of systems still running Server 2003 and R2 are old and well ready to be retired. Technology has improved significantly since you implemented Server 2003. Server hardware today is significantly faster and more energy efficient. X64 systems now allow huge amounts of RAM, and SSD disks are significantly faster. Networking has seen speeds rise by several orders of magnitude. The whole hardware landscape has evolved significantly.
Newer versions of Windows Server have also provided significant new features, not least of which is Hyper-V, Microsoft’s approach to virtualisation. If you are wanting to upgrade, it makes sense to go for Windows Server 2012 R2.
Virtualisation has been another huge change in the way one designs a data centre. In the Server 2003 era, virtualisation was not all that common, with VMware being about the only serious game in town. Whereas Virtualisation was once a niche approach, today, there’s almost no system that cannot be easily virtualised. There are of course some exceptions to this, i.e. servers that utilise specialised hardware – but for almost all commercial applications – virtualisation should be the only option.
In summary, you should be upgrading to the latest version of the Server OS you can. Given that upgrading to a new version may well incur costs relating to the new Operating System – you might as well get the latest version (Server 2012 R2). Besides the obvious feature benefits, Server 2012 R2 mean your next upgrade will be as far away as you can get!
It might be tempting to just wait for the next version of Windows Server (aka Windows Server 10). But since Microsoft announced that this version would not ship for another year – you are going to be at risk till you can get the final version. You could just go live on the beta versions – but going live on beta server software seems to me to be even riskier! Waiting for the next server release is possible – but certainly a risky plan.
Your Upgrade Project
Gartner reckons it can take anywhere from 6 to 9 months to carry out an upgrade. Now for some simple scenarios (a Server 2003 File and Print server), moving to the Server 2012 R2 for those features is going to be pretty simple. But moving LOB of apps is likely to be harder. And of course, almost every organisation has a number of applications that may not be simple or straight forward to upgrade.
To assist in the Upgrade, Microsoft has a couple of really helpful packages. The first is the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit (AKA MAP). Microsoft say: “The Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit is an agentless inventory, assessment and reporting tool that can securely assess IT environments for various platform migrations”. You can get the MAP toolkit for free from Microsoft at: https://technet.microsoft.com/en-gb/solutionaccelerators/dd537566.aspx. This tool should help you to assess your network with respect to upgrading from Server 2003. It will also help you to plan your project.
Another tool that can be useful as part of an Upgrade Project is the Application Compatibility Toolkit. Microsoft describe the ACT kit as: “a lifecycle management tool that assists in identifying and managing your overall application portfolio, reducing the cost and time involved in resolving application compatibility issues and helping you quickly deploy Windows and Windows updates.” The ACT helps you to identify the applications within your overall application portfolio and to evaluate the upgrade. The ACT also enables you to ‘fix’ applications so that they run properly in the latest versions of MS operating systems. As such this tool will be invaluable in making older applications work without having to do costly upgrades.
The ACT and MAP tool sets do overlap a bit but both are extremely valuable. And they are also both free. Having said that, undertaking an analysis of your existing network, a step you really need to take as part of upgrading, can take time. It’s NOT an overnight task. And what’s more, you may find a whole lot of applications that are both critical to the business or some part of the business but are totally unknown to IT. You need time to assess these applications and to plan for moving these applications forward.
Get Started SOON
If you are still running Server 2003 in any shape or form – you should have an upgrade strategy. You should work out what you are going to upgrade, and what to. This is not necessarily a fast process. It can take weeks to work out all the applications you have and analyse each and every one for upgrade potential. And where upgrading to a new OS means an upgraded or a totally new application suite, you can find the upgrade process is going to be longer.
So, bottom line: if you haven’t started now – you are going to be hard pressed to finish in time. Get moving.
Of course a great first step is to become certified in Windows Server 2012 R2. It only takes 2 minutes to register for our 13th April Installing and Configuring Windows Server 2012 MCSA or any of our official Microsoft courses.
About the author: Thomas Lee is a long standing IT Pro consultant, author and trainer. He has had a consulting practice since the late 1980s after leaving what is now called Accenture. Thomas has co-authored several books as well as writing for magazines such as BackOffice Magazine and PC Pro. He has also spoken at Microsoft TechEd across the world.