Although I don't directly support a large corporate network or face hundreds of users' problems every day, I do spend a fair amount of time reconfiguring hardware in my test networks on a scale that most IT pros don't have to deal with. When I combine my experience with conversations I have with readers who are in the trenches every day, I get a pretty good feeling for the real problems in their lives and mine. So, when I recently reconfigured a few servers and clients running Windows 2000 in preparation for testing Windows Server 2003 environments, I thought I was preparing for some realistic testing of potential migration and Active Directory (AD) problems with the new server OS. Little did I know that I'd find something to write about before I even started the Windows 2003 installations.

I began by setting up a few client computers. Most of these computers were already running Win2K Professional; I made some hardware changes to give me a range of common configurations. These alterations were mostly a matter of changing memory and storage configurations and networking hardware. Then, I did what any support pro would do--I booted each computer so that I could work on the software configuration. The first three systems booted up fine, and I was able to finish the software configuration within a few minutes on each machine. The fourth machine started to boot, churned the disk for a while, then returned one of those text messages that systems administrators dread: "Windows could not start because the following file is missing or corrupt: System32\Drivers\FastFAT.sys."

I used the installation CD-ROM to repair the corrupted system OS, which I could do because I didn't need to save any of the data on the computer's boot partition. After laboring through the reinstallation, I rebooted the computer only to run into the same error message.

At this point, I was becoming aggravated. I knew that I had seen the error message before, but I couldn't recall exactly where. I determined that the next step was to check out the hardware and make sure that all the cables were attached to the drives. They were. To be on the safe side, I swapped in a new drive cable, but doing so changed nothing. In desperation, I started checking all the hardware components in the system. To my chagrin, I heard a "click" when I pushed down on the second DIMM in the system. Like Archimedes, I was about to shout "Eureka" at my discovery but instead uttered a more Homer Simpson-like "Doh!" I had located the problem, but in doing so recalled that bad memory can cause the OS to generate the corrupt FastFAT.sys error message.

I've written about funky hardware problems causing software errors in the past. If I had only searched the Microsoft Knowledge Base with the text of the error message before I started trying to solve the problem with what I assumed was the right answer, I would have saved myself a couple of hours of useless effort. As a one-man shop, I can't afford to waste a couple of hours. If you multiply by a hundredfold the trouble that similar assumptions make in a typical large company, you come up with a huge waste of time and effort. I've stuck a little note on my wall to remind me of my exercise in futility. It reads simply, "Check the KB first." That's a simple reminder, but it's one that will save me--and I hope you, too--valuable time in the future.