Does Upgrading SBS Have to Be So Hard?
I read Karen Forster's "Hey Microsoft!: Things Readers Want to Know About SBS 2003" (June 2005, InstantDoc ID 46170). I contribute pro bono system administration to a small nonprofit organization. I've given thought to having this organization run SBS, but in general, I've stuck with full application packages. The financial burden of doing so is eased by a combination of software I acquired via TechSoup (a technology resource offering support to nonprofits) and Microsoft's "Open Charity" licensing program, which makes it possible for nonprofits to afford software such as SQL Server 2000, Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003, and Microsoft Exchange Server 2003. Most small businesses don't have access to nonprofit pricing, however, and so I can empathize with those who lean toward SBS.

One thing that worries me about SBS is the upgrade path for both hardware and OS transitions. In general, my non-negotiable rule is to never upgrade the OS on a server. The one exception I made was to upgrade Windows NT 4.0 to Windows 2000 Server, and then I immediately built a new domain controller (DC), migrated the Flexible Single-Master Operation (FSMO) roles, then demoted the old PDC and removed it from the domain.

Keeping in mind that I've never played with SBS, here is what I see as the results of the constraint that SBS must be the first server in the domain. First, there's no way to move from SBS 2003 to SBS Longhorn without upgrading the OS on the server itself. Second, if you want to upgrade the hardware on your SBS 2003 box, you don't have a lot of options. You can't use the disaster recovery tools built into Windows Backup because doing so makes all sorts of assumptions about partition sizes and hardware that might not be valid on the new box. You have to install a fresh copy of SBS 2003 on the new machine, let it create a completely new domain, then restore your old system (including system state) over to the new system. If the two boxes use different hardware abstraction layers (HALs), you're hosed. You might be able to restore the Active Directory (AD) stuff separately, but I don't know how well a DC behaves when it thinks it's a DC in one domain and you restore AD from another domain over to it without doing a complete system state restore.

In general, upgrading servers (both OS and hardware) is one of the trickiest and most sensitive tasks IT professionals undertake. The restriction that there can be only one SBS server in the forest and that it has to be the first server in the forest strikes me as likely to create additional difficulties during transitions.

At Microsoft, we're constantly listening to feedback from customers, which led us to come up with several solutions and prescriptive guidance to help customers smoothly migrate to and from SBS 2003. In fact, several hundred customers have migrated from SBS 2000 Service Pack 1 (SP1) to SBS 2003 on the same box. One example of these customers is Atom Jet Industries. This company's original infrastructure consisted of 14 outdated workstations. Atom Jet realized a 400 percent cost savings by migrating first to SBS 2000 and then to SBS 2003. (To read Microsoft's case study on Atom Jet, go to http://www.microsoft.com/resources/casestudies/CaseStudy.asp?CaseStudyID=15025.)

When two SBS servers exist on a network, Microsoft provides for migration from one box to another for a limited time. You can migrate AD forests from one SBS server to another. In the case of needing to move from one piece of server hardware to another, Microsoft provides prescriptive guidance for backup and restoration in "Backing Up and Restoring Windows Small Business Server 2003," available at http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkId=46575. In addition, third-party tools are available to help the backup and restore process (go to http://www.sbsmigration.com). SBS 2003 provides a reliable way to perform regular server backups to a tape drive, external hard drive, or network share.

Microsoft strongly recommends that customers work closely with their value-added reseller (VAR) or Value Added Providers (VAP) on any upgrade or migration. Although it's too soon to talk about SBS Longhorn, the SBS development team hears your concern and is diligently working to make certain the upgrade process is smooth and painless.

Please visit http://www.microsoft.com/WindowsServer2003/sbs/upgrade/default.mspx for more information about upgrading to and from SBS 2003. We know that an IT pro's time is precious, and we appreciate feedback. We invite you to participate in the Windows Small Business Server Community, at http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/sbs/community/default.mspx.