SBS 2008 and Dell Rack-mount Servers

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Yesterday I finally ran into my first failed SBS 2008 install, not one I had picked up from someone else, but one of my own where I’ve managed the source server for years and did all the prep work myself. It was both a good thing and a bad thing: good because we got to finally troubleshoot one where we knew the entire environment up front so we could immediately eliminate several potential causes, bad because we were on a really limited migration timetable for this particular customer and we’ve ended up losing more than just a day on the project.

But the interesting thing about this migration is why it failed, and the blame lies right at the feet of Dell. Short story: the Dell PowerEdge R310 server does not allow you to individually disable the on-board NICs in BIOS. In BIOS, you can choose to disable both NICs, but the individual integrated NIC options include “Enabled,” “Enabled with PXE,” and “Enabled with iSCSI.” No “Disabled” option at all.

I’ll be perfectly honest, this was not a scenario I tested when working on the migration documentation with Microsoft and researching for the SBS 2008 Unleashed book. Since the SBS 2008 requirements list a single NIC only, that’s all the testing that I did. So when I went through with the migration install yesterday, I knew I was taking a bit of a chance, but hoped that since I only had one NIC connected to the network it wouldn’t be a problem.

Well, it was.

During the setup, the SBS portion of the install tried to do a WMI query against DNS for the existing domain. The query succeeded on the connected NIC, but the installer performed the query again on the disconnected NIC and failed. That failure led to the dreaded cascading failure of Exchange and everything else that followed. We were able to get the source server back online quickly since we followed best practices and took a System State Backup immediately prior to launching the SBS 2008 installer on the destination server, but then we faced the dilemma of how to proceed. After discussing the issue with a Microsoft contact, we thought the setup might complete if we connected both NICs to the network, but the better option is to disable the unused NIC in BIOS and do the migration setup the way it’s supposed to be done.

After a 3.5 hour call with Dell, it basically cannot be done on the R310. Apparently someone decided that an all or nothing configuration on the NICs on that particular server was the better solution than letting each NIC be individually disabled as done on every other Dell server I’ve worked with for a decade. The issue has been escalated with the engineering team, but we don’t yet know if there will be a fix or how long it will take to get one if it can be done.

Bottom line, I cannot recommend installation of SBS 2008 on a Dell PowerEdge R310 server until (or if) Dell resolves the issue of disabling the NICs individually in BIOS. I can almost guarantee that a migration setup will fail on this platform, but I don’t know if a clean install will have a similar issue or not. If anyone has successfully installed SBS 2008 on an R310 server, I’d love to hear from you. Since this is a relatively new model from Dell, however, I may well be one of the first to attempt this particular configuration. And I hope that our pain can save someone else from the same…