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Server Troubleshooting Guide

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“The server is down.” Those four words can strike fear and despair in the hearts of users and network administrators alike. For the former, it means they won’t be able to perform network tasks—run mission-critical network applications, access files, and send to everyone on their e-mail list. For the network administrator it could mean searching frantically across the internet for Server Troubleshooting Guides much like this:

Server problems can generally be broken down into a few categories:

  • Hardware problems
  • Operating system configuration problems
  • Application/services-related problems

It’s important to determine which category your problem fits into. What seems like an OS problem (STOP errors or unexpected reboots) may actually be hardware problems caused by faulty memory or a dying power supply.

Depending on the source of your problem, getting your server back up and running may or may not be quick and simple. These ten server troubleshooting tips will give you a starting point for tracking down the culprit responsible for your server’s demise, and address several of the most common server problems.

1. Develop a standardized server troubleshooting routine

To identify and correct server problems most efficiently, you should have a standardized server troubleshooting procedure that you follow each time something goes wrong. Troubleshooting server problems is generally more complicated than troubleshooting problems with client machines, because the operating system itself is more complex and because of all the services that run on a server machine.

2. Start at the bottom: Server Troubleshooting physical layer problems

The first step in troubleshooting server problems is to determine whether the physical layer is functioning properly. This includes the server computer hardware, any attached peripherals, and the cabling. Switching out network cards or cables will help you identify whether the hardware is at fault. For testing long runs of cable that can’t be easily switched, use a cable tester or multimeter.

If you have recently added new hardware to the server, make sure that it’s compatible with the operating system.

Tip: If you’re running a Microsoft server operating system, check the hardware compatibility list on the Microsoft Website.

You should also make sure that you have the correct drivers installed for your new hardware. Check the hardware vendor’s Web site for updated drivers.

3. Traffic control: Server Troubleshooting addressing and routing problems

Once you’ve eliminated hardware as a suspect, you should check the operating system configuration. The typical business network runs on TCP/IP, and incorrect TCP/IP settings can result in addressing and routing problems.

Make sure the server’s TCP/IP settings are correct. TCP/IP settings have been known to mysteriously change, for example, when you install an application. The most common situation is that the server’s TCP/IP configuration is reset to make the computer a DHCP client. In most cases, servers should have static IP addresses. You may not notice the problem with a file or print server, but if your DNS server or domain controller’s configuration is changed, your clients will experience problems.

Figure A illustrates the TCP/IP settings on a Windows .NET server.

Figure A
Make sure that all TCP/IP settings on the server are correct when you have a network connectivity problem.

4. Identification required: Troubleshooting name resolution problems

What’s in a name? A great deal, when computers communicate using names, which must be resolved to IP addresses. If you have an apparent connectivity problem, always try pinging another system by both name and IP address. If your server is “out of touch” when attempting to communicate by host name but is able to connect to other computers by IP address, check its DNS settings, WINS settings, and/or HOSTS and LMHOSTS files.

5. Trouble at the top: Troubleshooting application problems

The applications that get installed on servers are different from the productivity applications that are typically installed on workstations. Server applications tend to be those that allow you to manage, maintain, or monitor the server (such as disk utilities, network monitoring, or “sniffer” programs, etc.), or those that add another server service, such as proxy server software installed on top of the server operating system.

Compatibility with the underlying operating system is essential. Programs such as Microsoft’s Certified for Windows 2000 program give you a way to evaluate the compatibility of server applications.

On a Windows server, check the application log (Start | Programs | Administrative Tools | Event Viewer) for application-related errors.

Tip: The event logs are always a good place to start in troubleshooting server problems. In addition to the application logs, Windows Server 2019 and Windows Server 2022 servers provide the system and security logs and additional logs (such as DNS and Directory Services) when specific server services are installed. The Error, Warning, and Information messages in the logs can be your best clues in determining what went wrong.

6. Paper chase: Troubleshooting print server problems

The source of printing problems can be at any one of the following levels:

  • The printing device attached to the print server computer
  • The configuration of the print server
  • The physical connections between printer and server or server and network
  • The configuration of the client

Your first step in troubleshooting print server problems is to make sure that the printing device is working and all connections are secure. Make sure the correct printer drivers are installed. Check that the print spooler service is running and to see that there’s plenty of disk space on the server for spooling. Check the permissions set on the printer. If your network is a Windows 2000 or .NET domain, check group policy settings for printers.

7. It’s in the mail: Troubleshooting e-mail server problems

E-mail is the most used network application today. Problems with the mail server can be due to the same connectivity problems I’ve already discussed (hardware problems, TCP/IP settings). In addition, check the following:

  • Make sure that the Mail Exchange (MX) resource records in your DNS entries are correct.
  • Make sure the mail server has plenty of disk space for user mailboxes. You may need to impose limits on mailbox sizes if you have many high-volume users.
  • If you want your mail server to receive mail from other mail servers, make sure that your mail server is configured to enable relay; otherwise, these requests will be blocked.

Tip: Be aware that opening your server to relays can make your server vulnerable to be used to relay spam through your server. Make sure the server is configured to accept relay messages only to your own mail domains.

8. Terminal condition: Troubleshooting Terminal Services problems

The “thin client” solution is becoming more and more popular now that Microsoft includes Terminal Services built into its Windows 2000 and .NET server operating systems. For problems with your terminal server, check the following:

  • In a Windows 2000/.NET domain, check group policy and individual users’ account properties in Active Directory if users are unable to connect to the terminal server or are unexpectedly disconnected.
  • Check the Terminal Services configuration settings (Start | Programs | Administrative Tools | Terminal Services Configuration). Make sure that the terminal server is running in Application mode; otherwise, only administrators can connect, and you can only have two active sessions at a time.
  • Make sure that you have set up a Terminal Services license server and that you have sufficient licenses.

9. Can’t call home: Troubleshooting dial-up/remote access server problems

A remote access server allows clients to dial in to connect to your network or establish a connection through a VPN over the Internet. If clients are unable to connect to your remote access server, check the general connectivity issues mentioned earlier, then check the following:

  • Make sure that remote access services are installed and configured on your server. Make sure the service is started.
  • Make sure that your dial-in, PPTP, and/or L2TP ports are enabled to accept inbound remote access calls.
  • Make sure that the remote access server is configured to allow connections on the protocol(s) that are being used by the remote clients (IP, IPX, AppleTalk, or NetBEUI).

Tip: To view and configure properties of the Windows 2000 Remote Access Server, select Start | Programs | Administrative Tools | Routing And Remote Access, right-click the server name, and select Properties.

server troubleshooting10. Look for the less obvious: 

A good philosophy for troubleshooting server problems is the old adage: “When you hear hoof beats, expect horses, not zebras.” This means you should consider the more common sources of problems: hardware failure, mis-configured network settings, etc., rather than the exotic ones.

But what happens after you’ve checked out all the usual suspects and still can’t connect to your server? Then you may want to consider some less commonly discussed possibilities:

  • Check your server’s security settings, as well as any site- or domain-wide security policies that may be preventing connectivity.
  • Check client licenses and licensing settings. If your server is configured to use per-seat licensing and is set for 100 licenses, the 101st client may not be able to connect even though you’ve purchased additional licenses, if you haven’t changed this setting.
  • Always consider the possibility that the server itself is not at fault. Check the routers and the client computers to make sure that the real problem doesn’t lie elsewhere.

Preventative maintenance: The importance of backing up

You know how important it is to always have a current backup of your mission critical data, but do you actually practice what we all preach? Not only should you back up important data everyday, but you should also regularly do a test restoration to make sure that your backup software and hardware are in good working order. If not, you want to find out before you actually need it.

Power to the server: The importance of a good UPS

Power surges or outages can be responsible for all manners of mysterious “glitches,” even if your server appears to have survived intact. It’s crucial to protect your server with a good Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) to prevent this.

Good to go: Using VM software to mirror your server configuration

The ultimate in disaster protection is server clustering—creating an exact duplicate of your server on a second machine, which can instantly take over the duties of your failed server so that your users experience little or no interruption in network services.

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