Windows Server 2003's true challenge: App migration

Companies that have wrestled with a Windows Server 2003 migration know that the hardware and operating system are the easy part. Applications are the real headache. If you own some of the estimated 2.7 million servers that will not be migrated before Microsoft ends support on July 14, 2015, you're in for a challenge.

We asked migration experts to weigh in on what to expect.

To set the stage, consider the complexity of the task. The Server 2003 part might be only one portion of a bigger server-side application, such as ERP for example, that spans Unix systems and SANs. Then there are the interconnections of applications that will also require upgrading. Translation: there’s a good chance you will find yourself upgrading more than Server 2003 platforms.

Companies with file and print servers or basic Internet servers won't feel as much pain. But if you are running a PeopleSoft ERP package, you will be busy for a while, as ERP upgrades, like deployments, can take several years.

Add the possibility that the original Server 2003 deployment team may have left the company, and current staff may not fully understand what you have.

So let’s begin.

First step, find the right talent to do the work

Migration experts argue that if you had the skills in house, you'd have migrated already. "You have to look at all of the dependencies of the whole path to upgrade and it can turn into this big staggering mess of app dependencies. You try to untangle all that, and it doesn't happen overnight,” says John Abbott, director of advanced technical services at Centrilogic, a cloud services provider that also does migrations. “Companies that think they are going to do this in a few months are kidding themselves."

"Deep Windows expertise is important to getting it done. You [also] need people with big project management skills. Is your organization capable of doing it alone or will you need help? It goes to people skills, and [whether or not] the people you need are free to do the project," says Greg O'Connor, president and CEO of AppZero, which specializes in server application migration.

If you choose to hire an outside firm, there are some things to consider. To start, compare the project management methodology they use – waterfall or Agile. Waterfall involves doing the whole task – whether it’s writing the app or performing the migration, and then testing at the end. Agile involves doing bite-sized pieces, testing, adding another piece, testing that, and determining how it works with the previous parts.

"Once you do that, you learn how to categorize apps better so you don’t do the whole exhaustive discovery project at once," says O'Connor. "You do the first few then pick the next bunch to work on."

It's unlikely that any one individual will have the skills to perform the entire migration, so you need to choose an integrator or consulting partner with multiple skills, says Paul LaChance, consulting strategist and global portfolio manager in HP's Technology Services division.

"The skills I would look for [include] extensive knowledge of the Windows technical infrastructure, knowledge of server roles, the certification server, file and print, Active Directory, basically all of the standard features. You never know what you will run into at a customer site until you do an inventory," he says.

Consultants also need experience with tools for things like rationalization of assets and determining recoding, refactoring, consolidation and app migration, LaChance adds.

Finally, consultants need a good solid understanding of virtualization and cloud technologies. Apps running on Server 2003 are likely single-instance, not virtualized and not accessible by mobile devices. You don't just want to move your old app to a new server OS. This is the time to repurpose it for the future.

"With new apps, there are a lot more possibilities than before. There were no private and public clouds, no tablets or smartphones, when these servers were deployed. Customers need to think about where it's going in the next five to ten years, not where it's been in the last five to 10 years," LaChance says.

The extensive talent requirements for a migration present something of a chicken and egg situation. You want people with experience, but where do they go to get experience? Abbott says he's finding plenty of talent thanks to downsizing and layoffs. "There are superstars available and we grab them. These are enterprise employees who understand the red tape. They are familiar with the way enterprise companies think and operate," he says.

Assess the mess

The next big step is assessment, which won't be trivial if you have an ambitious or complex data center. Also adding to the problem will be the ISVs that provided the packaged software.

"You have to figure out if an upgrade [to the app] is available. Is the vendor even around? Rarely can you install old apps on Server 2012 so you will need a new version. You have to look at each app as a mini-project," Abbot says.

To do an app upgrade you will likely have to do a database upgrade. That won't be cheap or easy, especially if you are using Oracle, which is known for its cost and complexity. You might have to do a Linux or Unix upgrade to support it. If so, then your monitoring agents won’t work and they have to be upgraded, then apps like HP OpenView or IBM Tivoli don't work.

Abbott suggested that as part of the assessment, identify Internet facing servers first. "Make sure they are the number one priority to make sure no legacy services are exposed to the Internet. They will be more and more at risk over time," he says.

For apps inside the firewall, there are two steps: first, determine which apps can be retired. Look for duplicates, redundant apps or multiple versions of the same app, and also look for dead servers. A recent study found as many as one-third of all servers are "comatose," meaning they have not sent any computing services in the last six months.

Flushing out idle hardware is one of the side benefits of a Windows Server migration. "We were doing an inventory for a large enterprise and found servers installed with nothing on them. [They] were installed for a project, the project was cancelled and they sat there spinning with nothing on it. You just shake your head and wonder how no one noticed they weren't doing anything. They were doing backups and no one noticed the servers had just an operating system," he says.

The second step with inside-facing apps is to secure them as best as possible until they can be migrated. That means firewalls, intrusion detection and antivirus software, all of which will still be available for Server 2003 after EOL, although how long is not certain.

Favorite migration tools

Discovery is the longest part of the migration because you have to dig through your entire network and determine everything that touches the retiring servers. If you are a 20-person business with just file and print and perhaps SharePoint, Exchange or a low-end SQL Server, the task will be relatively minor. If you have complex back-office systems, things will be more challenging.

The market for Server 2003 discovery and migration tools is rather small, but experts have favorites.

For example, AppZero's migration tools find all of the library dependencies of an app, every upgrade needed, and then place the app in a "container." The contained app is then installed on a new server with the newer OS and if everything works well, the container is "dissolved," as O'Connor put it, and the app runs like any other native application.

If your migration includes a large database, Vision Solutions' Double-Take can be used to pre-migrate the data to keep it in sync with the source database and the target. Once a new server and database are in place, you then point the new database at the mirrored source, which has been kept in sync with the old data source.

PlateSpin Recon from NetIQ handles server consolidation and virtualization planning by tracking server use, so it can find underutilized servers, collects inventory and performance data, forecasts workload utilization and helps migrate data as well.

Finally, there is Microsoft MAP (Microsoft Assessment and Planning) toolkit, which is entirely designed to help migrate off old Microsoft software to newer versions. It covers all of the Microsoft operating systems, Office and SQL Server.

These apps, though can take months to install because of the high level of access they need to do their job. The anti-malware security software and firewalls designed to keep the malicious software from roaming unchecked through your data center can't distinguish discovery software from malware, after all. LaChance cautions that it can take up to two or three months to get discovery software to move through the change control environment of a large enterprise.

Other considerations: Old apps with no migration path, licensing methods

If your app is old enough, the newest version may not recognize its files and you may have to buy an older version between what you have and what is the latest version to do an interim migration, says O'Connor.

Also, companies may change their licensing methods from CPUs to cores. After all, Server 2003 came out long before multicore CPUs hit the market and licenses back then would be on a per-CPU basis. Now with Intel producing 18-core Xeons, enterprise firms like Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP are charging on a per-core basis.

Any application that uses the system libraries heavily will be hard to move, says LaChance. He encountered a customer that made heavy use of Microsoft's .Net platform, and that has been through multiple versions and revisions. In migrating off Server 2003 to a new version of Windows Server, the updated .Net framework broke the customer's applications.

"There can be very extensive changes between versions. You need to think of the target platform. Start there by looking at the minimum supported .Net version," says LaChance.

Because the level of change from Server 2003 to Server 2012 is so great, HP has encountered customers that went to Server 2008 instead, hoping it would be less disruptive. LaChance calls the results "mediocre."

"Some customers were OK, but some apps didn't work and in other cases, some real difficulties didn't show up until a week or two later," he says. In his experience, it takes about the same amount of time and toolsets to go to Server 2012 as it does to go to Server 2008, so there is no reason for anyone to go to Server 2008 at this point.

Abbott has had even trickier encounters: Vendors that have not upgraded their software beyond Server 2003 because, as he puts it, "they are just living with their customer base and there is no urgency." He's also encountered vendors that have not moved their apps to 64-bits, even though Microsoft has made Server 2012 64-bit only. So even if you upgrade your OS you might not be able to upgrade your apps.

Don’t skip on discovery

A Windows Server migration is the easy part. Your apps will be your biggest challenge and the more complexity you have, the more you will have to change and upgrade. The migration might prove prohibitively expensive and not for the hardware or OS. Upgrading ERP systems is especially difficult because they are such massive installs to begin with.

ERP installations routinely take years. An upgrade won't be any quicker since you are essentially reinstalling the whole thing. Except now you have to upgrade hardware, upgrade Unix servers, upgrade network connections, and this requires DBAs, Unix experts, networking experts, and other high-priced help.

Some IT departments are using a Windows Server 2003 migration as an opportunity to take their first complete inventory in a long time. As part of their migration, companies are looking at consolidation, virtualization, cloud services and mobile enablement.

All of this has to be done at the discovery level, in the beginning, not at the end. You don't want to do a migration and then think about giving your remote sales force access to the apps you just migrated, you should do that at the start.

Bottom line: A lot of help will be needed. The good news is there's a lot out there. Microsoft maintains a list of partners that can offer soup to nuts migration assistance.

This story, "Windows Server 2003's true challenge: App migration" was originally published by ITworld.

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