At Last My Updates Are Dynamic!

Never one to upgrade just for the sake of it, I've so far stayed with Windows 2000 and Office 2000 on the "main machine" that I use for most of my day-to-day work - in particular for writing book and articles, doing the company accounts, and all the other general tasks that don't involve cutting-edge Beta software. It's been fairly stable for a couple of years now, and I'm a great believer in the "not broke, don't fix" approach. OK, so Word had some bad habits, my graphics tablet refuses to work for more than half an hour at a stretch, and Windows Explorer sometimes gets fed up and dies. But that's not bad for the amount of stuff I'd piled onto it since I first set it up.

I guess lots of other people are the same. Why play about with a working setup? But then someone sent me a PowerPoint presentation back from review, and mentioned that they had added comments to the relevant slides. Except that there weren't any comments. So I did the usual of emailing back to say "Sorry, you sent me the wrong deck" and then trying the next one to find the same result. I knew that the sender was a Microsoft employee, so I guessed that they were probably using Office 2003 - with some fancy new feature that no-one knew they wanted but Microsoft decided to add just as a special treat. And I also guessed that "invisible comments" probably wasn't the kind of feature that met this criteria, so it looked very much like it was time for me to upgrade.

So, what do you reckon? Stuff the Office 2003 disk in and add another layer on top of the already groaning pile of software already on the machine? Or start afresh with a nice squeaky-clean installation of the O/S? And probably, taking the latter course, move up to XP Professional at the same time? Why not, everything just installs itself these days so it will be a breeze. I can probably go on holiday and come back to find it's done it all by itself. So, here we go - boot off the Win XP Pro CD, nuke the existing partitions (having made sure everything is backed up elsewhere first, of course) and then start installing all the apps I need again.

Actually it went quite smoothly. I do so many re-installs of the O/S these days, with all the Alpha and Beta releases we handle, that I have a server-based folder of all my applications, odd drivers I need, and other backups of settings and profile information so I can get up and running fairly quickly. By nightfall, the box was ready, with most things in place and working. Amazing - I even managed to do some work while the hard disks were being refilled with the necessary grunge we all seem to need just to write stuff and work out our tax bills.

Coincidentally, as you may have seen from my previous diatribe, I've just acquired a nice new Media Center box that is also dangling off some distant corner of the network. Of course it's just Windows XP Pro underneath, so all of a sudden I have two XP boxes running, whereas before the only occasional XP on my network was the two tiny laptops I use for traveling and presentations. And I've also got a Windows Server 2003 box on permanent duty now, running various Beta stuff. So I guess I'm suddenly in the "mixed operating system" world. Maybe that's why I was having so much hassle getting them to talk to each other at times. Random "can't find machine X" messages, odd lack of connectivity, and generally annoying logon dialogs when you don't expect them.

Aha! I just upgraded the network as well, about a month ago, replacing the old 10MB hubs with nice new DLink 100MB switches. Maybe that was the reason. Or maybe XP is a bit more choosy about the network environment than Windows 2000. And, let's face it, Windows Server 2003 is so locked down by default that I was amazed just to get a picture on the screen - never mind have it talk to other machines on the network. So I plodded along for a week or so, swearing at XP and promising myself I'd go back to Windows 2000 everywhere. But then a major incident occurred that meant I had to focus all efforts on sorting out the problems.

If you are married, you'll recognize the effect. My wife had just started to get into playing with Media Center, and didn't seem to accept my explanation of "Hey, it's a computer - you can't expect it to work properly all the time..." She seems to think that she should be able to get on the Web, view the photos stored on the server, or find the CDs that I've painstakingly copied onto the server for her to play through the media box. Suddenly, network administration became my sole focus. Trouble is, my network administration skills are only legendary in the sense that they probably don't exist, or if they do it's all pretty much based on fiction (as you'll know if you are a regular reader).

Thankfully, I had a couple of clues. The error message that I've been disregarding (seemingly forever) on the domain controller about it "not supporting dynamic DNS" might be relevant. And, after my last fight with a networked print server and XP, I remembered something about NetBEUI not being installed on XP. So maybe DNS is just a bit important when I no longer have Windows 2000 and rely only on TCP/IP over my network. And, of course, everyone knows that DNS is really simple to get right (notice the wry grin at this point). Thankfully, after a lot of searching, I found the answers in a couple of MSDN Knowledge Base documents. OK, so I didn't really understand what they said, but the gist was pretty clear - I needed to get my DHCP and DNS servers to talk to each other and do that dynamic update thing.

When I looked at the domain records in the DNS, it soon became clear why there were problems. Only two machines were listed, and both were machines that had long ago disappeared from the network to be upgraded and renamed, or just junked at the end of their useful life. In fact, looking at it, it seems that the DNS hadn't been updated since I moved into the new house four years ago! The whole network has been surviving for years on NetBIOS/NetBEUI, wet string, and a wing and a prayer! Oh, the shame of it all... I'm supposed to know about this stuff.

So if you're still reading - and having the same problems - here's the nub of the issue. When I installed Active Directory, I set it up as a root server and it still had a "." domain listed in the DNS - with no Forwarders and no root hints. I'd often wondered if this was right, but the checkboxes to add root hints were disabled, and the Event Log message about "adding the records from the netlogon.dns file" didn't help either. I'd often checked that all the records were actually there - even down to cross-checking every character of the GUIDs that some of them contain.

If this problem is starting to look hauntingly familiar to you, the good news is it turns out to be really easy to fix. You grit you teeth, close your eyes, and bravely delete the "." domain in DNS Manager, stop and restart the DNS service, and then tick the "root hints" checkbox. It fills in the root hint server details, and magically all the errors disappear. The DNS server starts populating itself with the correct IP addresses (do "ipconfig /renew" on each client machine) and every machine can see all the others. The sanity-saving article I used, which also provides links to other useful ones, is http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;260371. Needless to say I ticked the "extremely helpful" box in the MSDN survey window!

It's amazing how fast my network is now...

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