Troubleshooting Boot Failures in Windows Server 2003

Most of us have had the problem before. You start up your Windows machine and are greeted with a cryptic error message or “blue screen of death” before your system boots. It’s a sinking feeling. You cannot access the operating system and troubleshooting the problem can be difficult. In most cases, people end up resorting to drastic measures, such as reformatting the hard drive and reinstalling the operating system. It’s not always a lost cause. Windows Server 2003 includes a number of alternative boot options to help you troubleshoot and resolve these issues.

When attempting to recover from a Windows boot failure, the first step is to get to the boot options menu. You can do this by hitting the F8 key on your keyboard immediately after the Windows boot loader screen is displayed. Once you have accessed the boot options menu, you will have a number of options which are outlined below:

Safe Mode

This option starts the operating system with a bare minimum of system drivers. Safe Mode will help you when troubleshooting boot failures caused by device drivers and registry problems. This mode does not provide networking support and most system services are disabled.

Safe Mode with Networking

The same exact thing as Safe Mode, only with Networking support.

Safe Mode with Command Prompt

This is a command line interface. It can be useful for renaming files and doing other basic command line routines. The windows explorer shell is not loaded and it’s basically just a dos prompt.

Enable Boot Logging

Boot logging starts the system normally, but it creates a detailed log of all the services and drivers that are trying to load at boot time. This can help you determine what is causing the system to crash. The default location for the log file is C:Windowsntbtlog.txt.

Enable VGA Mode

This actually loads the currently installed video driver, but uses the lowest resolution and color depth available. This is a useful option if you are troubleshooting an issue with your video card or monitor driver.

Last Known Good Configuration

You can use this option to revert to a copy of the registry that was saved during the last successful login to Windows. Although it sounds great, I can’t remember a single instance that this has ever worked for me in the past, and believe me, I’ve tried it several times.

Directory Services Restore Mode

This is only applicable for Active Directory Domain Controllers. It allows you to perform maintenance and backup recovery tasks on Active Directory.

Debugging Mode

This will allow you to hook up a working server via a serial cable to send debugging messages for analysis. This requires a great deal of configuration on the receiving end and may not be a realistic option for most people.

Finally, you can use the Recovery Console to perform more advanced troubleshooting. The Recovery Console is not installed by default. If it is not installed, you can still use it by booting to the Operating System CD and choosing the “Repair with Recovery Console” option. The Recovery Console allows you to change service startup options, create or extend volumes and or select alternative boot options.

In this article we’ve covered the multiple boot options provided by Windows Server 2003. If you are not dealing with a hardware failure you can often narrow down and correct most boot problems in Windows Server 2003 using these tools.

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