MERIT Solutions Blog

MERIT Solutions has been serving the Chesapeake area since 1982, providing IT Support such as technical helpdesk support, computer support, and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses.

Luck Be A Lady Tonight

As is so often true, the cobbler's children have the worst shoes. So goes the computers of the IT company. Because "stuff happens", we usually wait to update or fix our own situation last. Like a captain being the last one to leave a sinking ship, a good IT company makes sure that everyone else is safe and secure before concerning itself with its own situation.

This mindset is noble, but shortsighted, because if the IT company is not healthy, how can it be there for its clients when the going gets tough?

With this in mind, we recently set forth with a plan to upgrade our equipment. Over the years, we have put together a collection of old, new and refurbished servers to meet our needs. We recently procured an R720, one of Dell's 12th generation servers with two 6-core Xeon processors and 96GB of RAM. This server is a beast. Not only is it fast; it is quiet and it throws off very little heat. Chalk it up as a win-win for the data center and for the environment.

Over the past two weeks, we had moved all of our virtual servers from other platforms onto this box. The migration went well and all VMs worked fine with virtually (pun not intended) no tweaking.

There was one server left to be touched. This was a physical file server in a 1U form factor that was acting as a general purpose file server and secondary domain controller. As a file server, it also was the host to our QuickBooks files and our FileMaker database. This little server had a RAID1 with dual SATA 1TB drives. Yes, I know... SATA drives in a server is not what is recommended, but with as little work as this server was doing, it was more than sufficient for the task.

Last week, the server froze up and had to be rebooted. After it happened a second time, we knew we had a problem, so we kicked off a refresh of our new AppAssure backup to make sure that we had a good image of the server. Friday afternoon, it died. RAID failure. (I will withhold any and all opinions on the efficacy of RAID for another blog post.) It appears that the failure was in the RAID controller, as both drives appeared to be OK. Also, our backup had not completed, so we were now dependent solely upon the hard drives for our data.

Because it was a RAID1 (1:1 mirror) built from SATA drives, we were able to remove one of the drives and mount it in a Black-X USB drive carrier and successfully read the files on the drive. Now, doing something with this server was no longer an option. We knew the files were OK, so the big pressure was off, but who wants to completely rebuild a server on a weekend?

Follow me as I describe how the repair unfolded and why I named this blog post as I did.

First, I tried to boot the drive in the 1U server as a standard (non-RAID) single drive on a normal SATA port. Nope. It didn't work. "No O/S found", the BIOS informed me. Note: In spite of all of the benefits of using SAS drives in a number of RAID configurations (most notably RAID10), one clear benefit of using SATA drives in a RAID1 is that if the controller fails (which is often the case) or if one drive fails and brings down the whole RAID (not supposed to happen, but it still does), we can slap a working drive onto any computer and read the files. In most cases we can even bring the server back up in a non-RAID single drive configuration and run it while we plan for a proper repair.

With the goal of virtualizing this server as well, how do I get a hard drive from a broken array that will not boot, into a Hyper-V host as a VM? I considered making an Acronis backup of it and then restoring the backup as a VHD, but I didn't have all of the pieces that I needed in place at my secret laboratory (also known as my home office), so that wasn't a viable option for this weekend.

With the help of Google, I checked on the possibility of converting the drive into a VHD. There is a feature of Disk Edit in the Hyper-V control panel that will let you copy a physical disk to a virtual disk (VHD) but the instructions explicitly state that the function is for data drives, not bootable, system drives, so that option was out.

While this was transpiring, a huge line of storms, called a derecho was barreling across Virginia, leaving tornado-like destruction in its path. Those of you who work through emergency situations know that problems usually do not travel alone. This was the case with me. In addition to all of this tech trouble, I was going to have to check up on my cabin in the Virginia mountains. So, with truncated time, I decided to try a different approach. If it worked, great. If it did not work, it would be rebuild time, but we would be OK since we had a good copy (and a backup) of Friday's QuickBooks file.

Saturday night, I put the server drive on my computer in my lab and ran my trusty friend Disk2VHD by Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell. This tool was intended to be run on a functioning physical server, and by using Windows' Volume Snapshot capability, create a VHD file based upon the server at that moment. Would it work for a separate drive with a possibly not-bootable operating system? Let's find out...

I mounted the SATA drive via a USB connector. Two new drive letters appeared on my computer: E:, which showed up as System Reserved, a 100Mb partition that Windows 2008 uses, and F:, which is the main data drive. I first copied about 120Gb of ISO files and some temporary folders off of the drive since I did not want to bring over a bunch of old files that would likely not be needed in the future. Then, I ran Disk2VHD and selected just the two drive letters that represented the broken machine. I pointed the destination of the VHD to a lab server's networked folder which had plenty of room, clicked START and went to bed.

Sunday morning, before departing for the speed run to the mountains, I checked the conversion. It looked like it had worked, so I started a copy of the VHD file from the drive share back over to my 1TB drive. This would take a while, so I let it run while I was gone.

Upon my arrival back home Sunday evening, I took the 1TB drive off of my computer and mounted the drive to a SATA controller in a Hyper-V VM host that I have set up for experimentation. Since the SATA drive is now mounted internally, it only took 18 minutes to copy this VHD from the SATA to the server's RAID. Once done, I created a VM in the Hyper-V control panel, pointed it to the VHD and clicked START.

Within one minute, the new VM was sitting at the CTRL-ALT-DEL screen. Whew. Not having to deal with a Blue Screen of Death was a welcome occurance. A BSOD usually occurs when dissimilar hard drives or other drivers are encountered when a computer boots up. Hyper-V as part of Windows Server 2008 R2 is quite good at loading the proper drivers when mounting a new VM, and I was sure happy to see that it worked for me.

So, after checking to make sure that I could log in to the server, I shut it down and did a Virtual Machine export back out to the 1TB drive. This took about one hour. Upon completion, I removed the drive from the server, slipped it into a silver anti-static bag and took it to the office.

At the office, I mounted the drive onto my new VM host using the Black-X USB interface and copied the newly exported virtual machine onto the host's drive. This would take about 3 hours due to the size of the image and the fact that it was USB 2.0.

Finally, early Monday morning, I remoted into my VM host at the office, check to see if the copy was successful, then ran Import Virtual Machine from the Hyper-V console and pointed the wizard at the location to which I had copied the exported files. About 30 seconds later, it was done. I opened settings for the new VM, and connected the NIC to a virtual network and clicked OK. I started the VM and up it came. Voila!

The last thing I needed to do was to set the IP address of the NIC to the static IP of the original physical machine and all was well. Even processes that were accessable from the Internet were working. (I did have to reactivate the server with a valid product key since so many elements had changed to the operating system, but this was expected.)

To recap, here is what I did:

  • Mounted one drive from the bad RAID1 array on my local computer via USB

  • Ran Disk2VHD and unchecked all drives but the two partitions on the USB drive

  • Started the Disk2VHD process and created a local VHD

  • Moved the VHD file to a Hyper-V host server, built a VM around it and booted the VM

  • After testing VM for integrity, turned off the VM

  • Exported the VM to a removable drive

  • Imported the VM to the intended Hyper-V host

The last three steps could have been eliminated if I had moved the new VHD directly to the host at the office. In other words, this could have been a much quicker process if the circumstances had been different or if I had known how it was going to turn out!

Bottom line: this was a new use for an old tool (Disk2VHD) which still amazes me at how well such a small (811K) piece of free software works. Thanks, Mark and Bryce!!! And now, with apologies to Frank Sinatra, you understand the title of this blog post. Skill and knowledge ALWAYS works better with a little bit of luck.

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