Almost all of us in the IT world have been faced with the “emergency” of an old yet critical system that starts to fail and that cannot be easily replaced.  The scenario usually revolves around old line of business software that runs on old hardware/operating system (Widows 2000, anyone????) which is impossible to replace (vendor has gone out of business) or is too expensive to replace.  We (itgroove) run across this fairly often and while we may moan about the lack of planning on the part of the businesses that are facing the problem the fact of the matter is this is a common problem that causes grief for lots of organizations.  So, what can be done to keep things running until such time as a “permanent” solution can be found?  The answer, in many cases, is virtualization.

As you may know, I’m a big fan of virtualization in general and of VMware’s virtualization tools in particular.  Truth be told, VMware ESXi and VMware Workstation have saved my butt many, many times; and they can save your butt, too, in the scenario we are discussing.

Case in point:  we recently had a customer come to us with a failing and very ancient IBM server running Windows Server 2000 (sadly, there is more of this out there than you might think).  Parts are pretty much impossible to come by for the server and one of the three SCSI drives in the RAID5 raidset had failed.  The customer was facing a real crisis as the server houses their core line of business application that cannot, easily, be moved to a newer O/S.  If another drive failed they would be in deep trouble.  Of course, their budget also precluded getting much in the way of a new server so what could we do to help them?

This is where a bit of lateral thinking and tools from VMware came in.

VMware ESXi (otherwise know as vSphere 5 Hypervisor) runs on a wide range of hardware and I have run it on a number of desktop machines in lab and migration environments quite successfully.  There are some caveats, of course, but so long as your machine supports virtualization and 64-bit O/S’s (in other words, most “modern” Intel and AMD CPU’s), has non-software RAID SATA drive(s) and sufficient RAM, then you should be in good shape.  You might have to splurge for a decent NIC as a lot of the desktop motherboard NIC’s aren’t recognized by ESXi but a decent NIC is not expensive (less than a hundred bucks Canadian for a decent Intel).  And be aware that you probably have to enable virtualization support in your BIOS.

Anyway, we helped the customer obtain an HP desktop machine from our local Best Buy that met the requirements listed above and we loaded it up with ESXi (the free version).  ESXi recognized all of the hardware and allowed us to create a datastore on the 1TB SATA drive with no problems.  ESXi installs in about 10 minutes so installation takes no time at all.

VMware makes their conversion tool, VMware vConverter Standalone, available for free and it is the tool normally used to convert a physical machine into a virtual machine that can run under VMware ESXi, VMware Workstation or VMware Server.  We obtained a copy of vConverter 5 (to match our version of ESXi) and attempted to install it on the failing Server 2000 machine.  For some reason, the conversion tool would not load properly on the machine and I was a bit stumped as this was the first time, ever, that I had run into this sort of a problem with the vConverter tool.  I decided I would try running the conversion routines from inside VMware Workstation 7 as they offer slightly different options to those given by vConverter.  (Workstation is not free but it’s also not terribly expensive, either.)  The Workstation conversion agent installed into the Server 2000 machine correctly and I was able to start up the conversion process with the output being pointed at the ESXi machine.  Conversion of the Server 2000 box (about 65 GB’s in total) took about 2 1/2 hours.  The speed of the conversion may vary depending on the machine you are running Workstation on, in my case it was my three year old HP laptop running a dual-core AMD Turion CPU.  A newer more powerful system may have run the conversion in less time.

Once conversion completed we logged into the ESXi box using the vSphere client, made some adjustments to the virtual machine configuration then fired up the now converted Server 2000 virtual machine.  The VM started up without a hitch (yay!) and after a bit of time we were at the Server 2000 login screen.  We logged into the machine and verified all the bits and pieces expected were intact then we installed VMware Tools into the VM.  VMware Tools provides all of the “magic” that really makes a VM “sing” and, once installed, we were able to adjust the “hardware” assigned to the VM and we expanded the memory assigned to the VM and installed a higher-performance NIC.  Once all of that was done we removed all of the “ghosted” hardware from the VM, rebooted, and that was that.  The customer then logged into his line of business app and marvelled at how much faster it operated.

A conversion such as this can only be considered a short-term “save” as, obviously, a desktop machine can NOT replace a properly configured server.  However, as an ESXi VM can be easily transported to another ESXi server it would not take much to obtain and configure a “proper” server with ESXi then migrate the VM to the new server.  In fact that is what this customer is going to do a bit down the road once they have budget in place and the HP desktop will then be repurposed as a “real” desktop machine.  Win, win!

In a real pinch, the conversion could also be run directly into VMware Workstation or into VMware Server which are both hypervisor products that run on top of a Windows operating system (Workstation on top of XP, Vista or windows 7; Server on top of Server 2003 or Server 2008).  While less efficient than ESXi which runs directly on the underlying hardware, the end result is the same – an operational VM that now runs on stable hardware and which provides the services the business is so reliant upon.

You can explore the options available to you from VMware at www.vmware.com.  There are other virtualization options available from other vendors such as Citrix and Microsoft (to name but two) but I have not tested this scenario using other vendor’s tools.  Instructions for displaying and removing “ghosted” hardware in a VM are available from http://www.tech-recipes.com/rx/504/how-to-uninstall-hidden-devices-drivers-and-services/ or http://forums.techarena.in/tips-tweaks/1161554.htm.

How to save your butt when an old system starts to fail
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2 thoughts on “How to save your butt when an old system starts to fail

  • Good read. I’ve just randomly stumbled across your blog and found it an interesting read.

    I too found myself in this predicament, where the company had acquired a business several years ago which had an old server running 2000 with a bespoke CRM installation, that would have been a pain to replicate the same configuration, on new hardware if it was supported. The hardware was on it’s way out and we needed a solution.

    Doing such fresh installs can be somewhat daunting, as you don’t really know how it was configured and all the additional tweaks that might have been required to get the software up and running.

    This is where Virtualisation really can save our butt (as you’ve stated), not that some companies appreciate what you’re doing or even begin to comprehend what a pain in the ass IT can be.

    Two comments I normally tend to get;

    1) if it doesn’t work, can’t you just transfer the data, reboot and it’ll all work again?

    2) Can’t you just take the hard drive and put in on another machine and it should work?

    I can see the logic behind their reasoning, but if it only was so easy.

    Anyhow, I encountered the same issue as you, using VMware converter not playing nicely with Server 2000.

    There are two things you need to do;

    1) You cannot use converter versions 5.0 or 4.3, as they are not compatible with Windows 2000, you need to use 4.0.1. Sadly, the error message doesn’t make much sense [do they ever!!]

    2) I found that for some reason, it would not push the agent out to the OS, so you need to install it locally and then carry on with your conversion.

    I think that in such scenario’s where clients are desperate to get some kind of solution, they should really have some kind of plan for extra funding.

    Even though you kindly migrated the application from their old dying server to a desktop that supports ESXi, they should really be saying that if they lost it all, they would be stuffed, to spend a bit more money and buy something like a Dell R210 that is cheap and place it on there instead of using desktop hardware. But sometimes the money is just not there.

    Due to the ease of Virtualisation, irrespective of what flavour you may use, I think everyone even with one server should virtualise (if they fit the criteria) just for the simplicity of not being “hardware dependant” and being able to transport the data much easier from server to server.

    Anyhow, was happy to read this.

    Thanks,

    Gabi.

  • Gabriel:

    Many thanks for your comments, nice to see someone is reading my ramblings. Thanks for your comments on Converter, we were up against a wall and I have Workstation so no problems at our end but good info for the future. And I am so with you on the comment about desktop vs server hardware but the customer really doesn’t “get it”. Some days you cannot win, you just do what you can and hope the customer will see the light at some point.

    Robert

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