Recovering a Non-Bootable Windows Server 2003
By Peter A. Bromberg, Ph.D.
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Peter Bromberg

Well, it happened. You were installing some new software, or you were fooling with some registry cleanup utility, or maybe you don't think you did anything "bad" at all - and the next time you try to boot up the machine, you see one of two things (typically): Either you get a BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) or else the machine appears to boot normally, you see the normal blank desktop and the familiar mouse cursor in the middle of the screen, and you wait - and you wait - and you wait some more - and, Oboy --No logon dialog!

"Uh-Oh", you say to yourself, and you hit the reset key and try again... Same deal!   "Oh, Crap!", you say, "What do I do NOW?".

Well, in Windows Server 2003, you have a few options. About five, to be more precise. None of them are fun, but let's run through them just for fun:

1) Last Known Good. If you hit F8 as soon as your list of OS's shows up with the automatic timer, you'll be presented with a list of somewhat useful options, the first of which you probably want to try is the "Last Known Good" option.

2 Boot into Safe Mode. If you have a pretty good idea of what you did to your poor machine that made it hate you enough to refuse to boot, you'll hopefully be able to fix it and reboot into regular mode and recover. Again, this is one of the list of options you get by hitting F8. Of course, if you suffered that last indignity of never being able to get the ability to log on to your machine, you may very well find that Safe Mode treats you to the very same disappointment!

3) Did you make an ASR (Automated System Recovery) Disk and backup? You do this from the Backup Utility (Start, Run, "ntbackup"). Basically what this does is create a BKF standard NT backup file on the volume and directory (or tape, whatever) of your choice, and creates an ASR disk that you'll be prompted for when you choose the ASR Recovery option from the boot screen. You will choose the very first (R)epair option you see from the boot screen. If you don't have the ASR setup and boot diskette, why not take the time to explore this option now? It only takes a couple of minutes, and it can save you a lot of time later (not to mention the fact that if you run mission - critical machines, you may very well sleep a lot better at night!)

4) The next option (and one that's probably not very useful to most operators) is another option that you have from the boot screen - to go into the Recovery Console. Unlike with Windows 2000, you don't need to install this in Windows Server 2003, all you need to do is choose it. You'll get a limited DOS - type command prompt (Type HELP for options) that will allow you do manipulate files and so on.

5) The last option, and the one that most people will use, is to boot off your installation CD. Go through the entire process as if you are installing a brand new copy of Windows Server 2003. When it looks for existing installations of WIndows, you'll be prompted with the partition(s) that have them and FINALLY - you'll be given a brand new option to REPAIR (Which is essentially a complete install with an upgrade -- in other words, a new installation that preserves the existing Registry and System Settings.)

In Windows 2000, I used to use a wonderful freeware utilty called ERUNT that shadow - copies all the Registry hives to a directory of your choosing and provides an EXE Stub that allows you to replace your existing (Bad) Registry with the backed up copies. However, this utility DOES NOT WORK with Windows Server 2003. I use an unorthodox altough extremely simple procedure: I have two hard drives on my main machine; one of them has a very "lean" copy of Windows Server 2003. Whenever I want to back up the Registry, I simply boot into the "other" OS and COPY the entire config directory to a "backup" directory, and I'm done!

Using the ASR Procedure:

Create an ASR set

  • Start the Backup Utility by clicking Start->Run and type ntbackup
  • The Backup or Restore Wizard starts by default, we will not use this(though we
    could) , so click the Advanced mode link
  • On the Welcome tab, click Automated System Recovery Wizard
  • The wizard is pretty self-explained so follow it

Recover using ASR

  • Boot from the Windows Server 2003 CD and start the installation.
  • If you have a mass storage controller and must install drivers for it, do that by
    pressing F6 when prompted
  • Press F2 when prompted. You will be prompted to insert the ASR floppy.
  • Follow the wizard
  • You will reboot and if you pressed F6 previously, do that again when prompted
  • Follow the wizard

Since Windows Server 2003 is still so new at this writing (late June, 2003) there is a dearth of help material on this subject out on the Web. I hope the above tips may be useful to you. If you have additional information or know of a new utility to help in this regard, why not post it to our Forums in the Article Discussions topic?

Hey! An Extra Goodie!

While on the subject of Windows Server 2003 annoyances (and a non-bootable box sure tops the list), how 'bout that absolutely AWFUL "Shutdown Event Tracker" thing in Windows Server 2003 where you can't even SHUT DOWN your own damn machine without having to enter some BS in a damn FORM!

Because Windows Server 2003 is a 'Server', the event tracker plays a (supposedly) crucial role so that it can keep logs on why the server was shutdown / rebooted. Since I want it to be my "Happy Workstation", and since I could care less about why the hell I decided to reboot the sucker, I will show how to easily disable this annoying "feature"!

Go into Group Policy Object Editor, (go to Start -> Run -> and type gpedit.msc followed by enter). You should see the Group Policy Editor MMC snap-in. Browse to Computer Configuration -> Administrative Templates -> System ->, and now look in the right window pane and double click on "Display Shutdown Event Tracker". You'll see the Disable Choice. Select it and you are DONE! History to the little bastard! That's it! Good Riddance!

Peter Bromberg is a C# MVP, MCP, and .NET consultant who has worked in the banking and financial industry for 20 years. He has architected and developed web - based corporate distributed application solutions since 1995, and focuses exclusively on the .NET Platform.