10 things to remember when upgrading servers

Servers are almost always deployed, at least initially, with specific objectives in mind. Regardless of whether the server is deployed in a small business or large enterprise, frequently the server’s role changes over time. Due to growth, budget cuts, rack limitations, or other factors, servers deployed for one purpose must often begin fulfilling additional services and responsibilities.

That’s why it’s important to periodically audit systems. Reviewing a server’s resource load helps ensure the organization optimizes performance and prevents downtime. However, system administrators can’t just break a case and drop in more RAM here or upgrade disks there. Server upgrades always require planning. Here are 10 things to remember when upgrading servers to ensure systems perform at peak efficiencies.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Always start with a verified data backup

Never make any changes to a server, even minor upgrades, before confirming a verified data backup exists. Whenever a server is powered down, there is no guarantee the server will come back online. While rare, I’ve seen servers that were shut down simply to install Windows performance and security patches fail to restart.

2: Consider creating an image backup

Several manufacturers offer IT professionals disk cloning technologies that simplify recovering servers when failures occur. Some, including Acronis Inc. and StorageCraft Technology Corp., provide a universal restore option that enables recovering a failed server even to a different bare metal chassis. Downtime is drastically reduced. When upgrades go south, disk images can help recover not only data but a server’s complex configuration in a hurry.

3: Don’t make multiple simultaneous changes

Most every IT professional understands the importance of minimizing server restarts, so novices are tempted to complete multiple simultaneous upgrades using a single shutdown. But adding disks, replacing memory, installing additional cards, and other tasks should all be performed separately. Why? When things go wrong a day or two later, the process of isolating the change responsible for the error is exponentially more difficult when multiple simultaneous changes were made. If only a single change is introduced, it’s much easier to track the potential culprit.

4: Monitor logs closely after making changes

Following server upgrades, never assume all is well just because the server booted back into its OS without displaying errors. Monitor log files, error reports, backup operations, and other critical events more closely than ever. Leverage Windows’ internal performance reports or third-party monitoring utilities, such as those from GFI Software’s HoundDog or Quest Software’s PacketTrap, to ensure all is performing as intended whenever changes or upgrades are completed.

5: Confirm the OS

It’s easy to forget the operating system a server is running. This is especially true when a server room isn’t standardized and multiple boxes sport a collection of operating systems. Even veteran administrators, caught within the whirlwind confusion that marks many enterprise IS departments’ days, have tried installing 8GB of RAM on a 32-bit Windows Server 2003 machine. Only by first performing a quick audit (including a quick 32-bit versus 64-bit check) of the system to be upgraded can you confirm the OS is compatible and will be able to use the additional RAM (or other resources) being installed.

6: Confirm the chassis supports the upgrade

Server hardware is famously inconsistent. Manufacturers frequently change model numbers and product configurations. Whenever installing additional disk controllers, disks, memory, or other components, you can review the manufacturer’s technical specifications online before ordering upgrades. But only by opening the case can you be 100% confident that the actual server deployed within the organization will accommodate the upgrade.

7: Don’t assume plug-and-play

Whenever installing new hardware, don’t assume the device will plug-and-play well with the server’s operating system (even if the manufacturer states the component is compatible). Before you order upgrades, perform a Google search to learn the experiences other technology professionals encountered when deploying that same component using the same OS. Since the upgrade is being completed on a server, confirm the component is listed on the OS vendor’s hardware compatibility list. It doesn’t hurt to check the server manufacturer’s forums, too, to learn of issues other techs encountered when installing the same device on the same server.

8: Optimize performance

Be sure to follow up on any upgrades requiring associated software adjustments. For example, just adding memory to Windows servers doesn’t automatically optimize Windows’ performance using the additional RAM. System administrators must also update a server’s virtual memory settings to optimize Windows’ operation following a memory upgrade. Further, when new disks are introduced, the page file may need to be moved to the new disk to gain performance advantages.

9: You get what you pay for

Certainly, less expensive disks, RAM, power supplies, and other components are always available. But when it comes to servers, it doesn’t pay to cut corners. Only high quality, high availability components should be deployed in servers. While these items may cost marginally more than other (lesser quality) alternatives, the performance and uptime benefits more than offset the additional expense.

10: Document changes

Surely you’re maintaining log files for each server. Within the documentation for the server just upgraded, update the documentation to note the component that was upgraded, the manufacturer, the vendor and even the order number and serial numbers, if possible. Include warranty and support information as well. The more documentation you have on hand, the easier it will be to isolate and repair issues that arise later.