Sep 22 2010

Avoiding SBS 2008 Migration Migraines

Whether you run a fast-growing small business or simply want to keep up with the latest technology, it's time to consider an upgrade.

Microsoft's Small Business Server 2003 offered a great value for small businesses that wanted to leverage many of Microsoft's most compelling technologies, such as Exchange, SharePoint, IIS and Active Directory. But the limitations built into the package meant that many companies outgrew SBS 2003 long before they reached the 75-user limit.

If your business has not outgrown SBS 2003 but needs to refresh its hardware (or if you simply want the latest editions of the bundled software included in SBS), then look to SBS 2008. This edition includes Exchange 2007 and a more secure remote access layer, and it runs on a 64-bit architecture.

The complexity of having so many services running on a single box can make SBS tricky to administer. Performing a combination hardware migration and upgrade in one step might not appeal to many administrators.

Fear not. Microsoft has included a Migration Mode in 2008, along with extensive documentation and manuals. We use the online SBS Migration Guide as our primary source. There is also an interactive demo of the migration process that we recommend users go through once to get a feel for the steps. If one does one's homework and follows the directions, it works quite well.

But there is a catch: In order to put the target SBS 2008 server into Migration Mode, you must have a prepared answer file located on a USB drive inserted into the target server during the initial setup. There is no other way to trigger Migration Mode — no secret command line switch, nada. The server must be put into Migration Mode by the answer file during the automated setup.

This can cause all kinds of problems if your chipset and BIOS are twitchy about booting up with a USB drive inserted during checks for bootable volumes. This generally leads to frustration, followed by cursing, then begging, tears — and finally, a breakthrough. I can attest to this because I recently experienced it with SBS and a shiny new HP ProLiant ML150 G6 machine.

But cry no more: My 18-hour emotional roller coaster is now to your benefit. The methodology below should work on any hardware that is picky about USB thumb drives and primary boot and installation volumes. The solution boils down to well-timed juggling of the USB drive into and out of the USB port.

The following is a step-by-step process for installing SBS 2008 in Migration Mode in as hassle-free a way as can be expected with this very complex product.

Prior to Installation

  • Make sure the BIOS on your server is up to date (but you do this anyway when installing on a new server, right?).
  • When the BIOS update is done, go into the BIOS and, if possible, turn USB Boot Priority to OFF. (Our HP hardware with American Megatrends BIOS allows only a setting of LOW.)
  • Configure hard drives and/or RAID to your liking using the ROM-based setup or Boot-CD.

Prepare the USB Hard Drive

  • The USB drive should be formatted as FAT32 (see discussion).
  • Include RAID drivers as flat files; for example, expanded from Cabinet, self-extracting or zipped archives.
  • Include NIC drivers as flat files.
  • Include the SBS Migration answer file. Change the file name to all lower case (for example, sbsasnwerfile.xml). This shouldn’t be necessary, but some users report the process is more reliable this way (see discussion). Regardless, the answer file must be at the root of the USB stick directory.

Setup Process

Begin Setup of SBS 2008 for Migration using the steps described in the SBS Migration Guide (we worked off Version 5, dated November 2009).

  • Boot the server without the USB drive inserted and with the SBS Setup disk inserted.
  • Allow the server to boot from the CD normally, and begin stepping through the very first part of the SBS Setup: enter key, accept EULA, select Custom Install.
  • Next, select a disk to install onto (see Step 9 in the Migration Manual, on Page 26). Insert the USB disk to install RAID drivers and format the disk. Once the disk is formatted and the partition is labeled “Primary,” remove the USB key before clicking Next.
  • If you fail to juggle the USB disk correctly, you will get the error message “Windows could not determine if this computer contains a valid system volume,” and you will be sent back to the main SBS install splash screen. 
  • If the install process kicks off and the device begins to install and expand files, insert the USB disk right away.
  • The install process will reboot a number of times (I lost count at about four). During each reboot process, be sure to remove the USB stick until the post process is finished.
  • On the ML150 G6, the server hung during some of these reboots at the very first step of the post process, displaying the error “00 USB mass storage devices found and configured.” Make sure your USB drive is not plugged in, and hit Ctrl-Alt-Del to reboot the machine. Usually, the second time it will start up normally and resume the installation process.
  • If the first login prompt you get includes the domain name and user name (DOMIAN/user) then congratulations, your setup is complete
  • Be patient. Depending on your hardware, the elapsed time from beginning of install until the install is complete and the Migration Wizard is ready to go can be up to 2 hours and 15 minutes, or longer.
Connor W. Anderson is vice president of Riverfront Technology in Clinton, Iowa.