I was three years old when I landed on Saudi Arabian soil, around 1975-1976, shortly before the golden era of rapid economic progress was going to take place there. On the other side of the world, Microsoft was being founded by Bill Gates in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the USA, and a new revolution was about to begin in the field of computing that later became known as the PC revolution. It was 1988 when I bought my first computer with an 8086 Intel processor named as PC XT, a clone of an IBM PC. Several years after playing with this primitive PC, I studied computer engineering and got my Microsoft certifications.
I have worked in several rich countries in the Gulf and also in a developing country like Pakistan. I can confidently say that the perks of working for a good organization in Saudi Arabia are way better than that of working with a poorer country like Pakistan. The difference is in the quality of life and the standards of living. The quality of products, services, and the resources that will be available to you in your home and at your workplace in a Gulf country like Saudi Arabia can be enormous. This is one of the main reasons that in Saudi companies you get to work with extremely high quality and highly expensive equipment and software. The reason being that the oil or the “black gold” as it is called drives the economies of these Gulf countries, and when you work as a professional for a good company here, you do not have to make compromises at work due to lack of resources and you do not have to mess around with ill functioning products. The new technology rapidly replaces the old one and the expensive licenses of software are bought and updated as soon as they are released. You can enjoy an extremely comfortable lifestyle and a flourishing workplace environment, working with experts and consultants from all around the world. There are funds always ready and available when a piece of equipment is outdated or broken.
One of my earliest successes in Saudi Arabia as an IT professional was that I found employment in 2003 in a Saudi group of companies that made construction materials, the Al-Tuwairqi Group. The company also had a very modern and well established computer network and provided a great opportunity for me to learn and excel in my profession as a Network Administrator and a Technical Support professional.
The company had three major sites that were located around 10 to 30 kilometers apart from each other with offices and machines that made construction materials. Each site housed a server room with a data center. All the sites were connected to each other. The site with data center was roughly in the middle connected through a wireless connection with one other site. The data center was also connected to the head office via a lease line. There were around 1,000 workers in the company with approximately 300 users of Windows 2000 Professional PCs at that time. The domain controller and a Microsoft Exchange server were both running on Windows 2000 Advanced Server, and ISA was also configured on Windows 2000 Advanced Server at the data center, providing a single point for Internet services to the company users. There was also a SAP server installed on Windows 2000 Advanced server that fulfilled the ERP needs of the company.
Back then, around 95% of the Saudi Market share for IT products and services belonged to Microsoft. The Saudi corporate sector was the biggest buyer of Microsoft products at that time and there was a great a demand for Microsoft professionals (especially MCSEs). Today, ample demand certainly still exists in whole of the oil rich Gulf.
When Windows 2003 was released, the IT manager at Al-Tuwairqi Group showed interest in upgrading the complete network infrastructure of the enterprise. A team of three professionals were put together to undertake the task: an experienced Microsoft Network Administrator and Cisco administration expert, an experienced professional in Microsoft and SAP administration, and me; I had a solid background in Microsoft technologies. When I was appointed, I was required to give a comprehensive presentation on the complete process of the network upgrade that included everything from planning, implementation, research, and development. I took the presentation delivery as a great opportunity to bring all the stakeholders involved in this project together to feel confident about the infrastructure upgrade. The research and development phase was very crucial for this upgrade project. The virtualization for Windows was quite unknown and was still in its infancy at that time. Therefore, I did not use any virtualization technology to meet the testing objectives.
To replicate the network environment, I used a mini testing lab, connecting two computers--one being a server and the other being a client machine--with an Ethernet cross cable. The server was installed with Windows 2000 Advanced Server and the client machine was installed with Window 2000 Professional. To facilitate this research and development, I was sanctioned with two latest Fujitsu Siemens Scenic W600 Pentium 4 PCs that matched the hardware requirements for the upgrade project. A similar server hardware was installed in the company data center. I also acquired original licensed CDs for Windows 2000, Windows 2003, Microsoft Exchange 2000, and Microsoft Exchange 2003. One of the objectives of the projects were to sort out the problems that may result during the upgrade project.
At each of the three company sites, there was a single domain controller. At one location, the data center housed the domain controller with Windows 2000 Advanced Server and the Microsoft Exchange Server 2000 on the same machine. This was not a recommended configuration by Microsoft as the domain controller and Microsoft Exchange server should be on separate machines, but this is the way it was, so the upgrade team had to upgrade the Windows 2000 OS and Microsoft Exchange 2000 to Windows 2003 domain controller and Microsoft Exchange 2003. The company had a single huge domain that contained all the three sites.
The plan to upgrade was clear and is described in the following:
- The hardware was completely compatible with the operating systems and other software.
- The licensing mode was Client Access License (CAL).
- Each computer was to have a single operating system.
- The filesystem was to be NTFS.
- There was a part of the plan to install DNS and DHCP before the upgrade.
- There was no need to remove any components.
- There were two partitions for server and client computers.
One of the biggest challenges in this upgrade project was the compatibility of software deployed on different client machines. Software were different in different departments to serve the needs of different employees, but there were also some software that was common and vital for the support and sustenance of the network that was installed on every single machine. The McAfee antivirus network for clients software was one of those mandatory software installed on every client.
To test the compatibility of the software for the new environment, it was important to gather information, especially in case there would be any problems, because workarounds would then need to be devised with the close cooperation of the support department. I was a liaison between the network administration and the support department. It was decided that the frontend servers shall be upgraded first and a consistent strategy would be developed as we would upgrade the client machines in different departments, closely taking into account the compatibility of different software that was installed on client machines in the company. I would work closely with the support department to facilitate this process. I’d also like to point out that the technologies that are available nowadays to upgrade and install software remotely on a large scale like System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) servers were nonexistent at that time.
Another big challenge in the upgrade process was that the Windows 2003 did not support Microsoft Exchange 2000. In other words, if Windows Server 2000 was to be upgraded to Windows 2003, before the upgrade of Microsoft Exchange 2000 would halt the system since it was already deployed and was unsupported by the operating system upgrade. If this tiny bit of information was overlooked or ignored, it meant disaster on the upgrade project. The Microsoft recommended upgrade procedure was that if Windows 2000 is present with Microsoft Exchange 2000, you needed to upgrade Microsoft Exchange 2000 to Microsoft Exchange 2003 first, and then upgrade the Windows operating system from Windows 2000 to Windows 2003. In the lab that I devised, I installed Windows 2000 Advanced Server and then promoted it to domain controller. The domain controller is the server on which the Active Directory database is installed that contains all the objects on the network like user accounts. After that, I installed Microsoft Exchange 2000 on the same computer after fulfilling the Microsoft Exchange 2000 installation requirements. The second computer was installed with Windows 2000 Professional and it was designated as a client computer for testing purposes. The client computer was then physically connected to computer that was a domain controller ( with Microsoft Exchange 2000 installation) via a cross Ethernet cable. I then joined the client computer to the domain. I created some dummy accounts on the domain controller and created mailboxes of those dummy accounts on the Microsoft Exchange 2000 server.
I executed the pre-upgrade tasks such as adprep/forestprep commands in order to extend the schema of the Active Directory for the Microsoft Exchange server. The schema contains the definitions of all the objects for a database like Active Directory. When major changes are made to the network like the upgrade of the Microsoft Exchange server, the Active Directory requires definitions of the new objects in its schema that the Microsoft Exchange server 2000 upgrade introduces. I upgraded Microsoft Exchange 2000 to Microsoft Exchange 2003 and then upgraded Windows 2000 Advanced Server to Windows 2003 Advanced Server in the test environment. The complete process went smoothly and this process was repeated several times over the course of few weeks in the testing phase. A quick check to the logs in the Event Viewer ensured that there were no severe issues regarding the test upgrade process.
After approximately two weeks of the successful deployment testing, when all is said and done, I made an appointment with the other stakeholders of this project to make the presentation and a demonstration of the outcome. My colleagues were baffled by the requirement to upgrade Microsoft Exchange preceding the upgrade of Windows operating system because it is an unexpected move for a system upgrade. They started to ask questions, which is very common during a presentation delivery, so I made sure beforehand that I understood everything I was going to say to remain in control of the presentation flow.
Fortunately, during my time at the Al-Tuwairqi Group, the company was expanding very fast and we were not short of any type of resource for any of the projects carried out. We had plenty of staff to ensure the project’s success.
When we were actively involved in deployment during the implementation phase of this project on the production network, we selected the nonworking hours (in the evening time) so as not to interfere with the daily operations of the company. The backup systems for the servers were updated with latest copies to ensure we were prepared in the event of a disaster.
The domain controller/Microsoft Exchange server in the data center were upgraded first with success. After doing the upgrades of other machines in the data center, we moved onto the other two sites and upgraded the domain controllers there. All of these were in-place upgrades. The upgrade project was a resounding success on the backend.
Once all the Windows servers were successfully upgraded, we steadily upgraded the client machines. No serious problems were encountered and the front end was also gracefully dealt without any major problems.
Conclusively, I learned two important lessons from this experience. First, before you start a project on a production network, it is extremely vital that the process is replicated in a lab or virtual environment several times to ensure success. Second, depending on your findings, you should make a thorough presentation and demonstration to all the stakeholders of the project to gain their trust and establish an authority. This is absolutely crucial to ensure that you are commissioned with a steady flow of projects in the future.
I practiced the presentation and demonstration for this project prior to its delivery so much that it became second nature to me. It was obvious that we could not afford any mistake in the project implementation and this maiden phase had to assure it. One of the objectives was to identify and avoid any pitfalls in the practical phase that was to follow, as I have mentioned earlier. I earned much appreciation and support from this preliminary work for this project that continued on to its implementation on the production network. This was very encouraging and gave me a high boost of motivation to carry on with succeeding projects. This project was a milestone achievement for my break into the company leading to my career growth as an IT professional from then on.
Photo credits: Edward Musiak