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Windows Product Activation on Windows Server 2003

Note: This page only applies to Windows Server 2003.

Windows Product Activation (WPA) is used by Microsoft to enforce license compliance with Windows. The activation process uses a 25-character Product Key, such as DQ8BP-RE28Z-NBGRW-KFD2F-GKWJ2. This is decoded into a Product ID, which is then installed on your computer. When you activate Windows you transmit to Microsoft the Product ID and a hardware signature that uniquely identifies your computer. Microsoft responds with a key that unlocks your copy of Windows and disables the activation timeout. The activation timeout is typically 30 days for Windows Server 2003. The timeout is 3 days for changed hardware.

In Windows Server 2003 the secrets in Active Directory (such as user passwords) are encrypted using the computer's security credentials. To successfully move Active Directory, U-Move must move the security credentials also. The problem is that (on Windows Server 2003 only) WPA is encrypted using the same security credentials that AD uses. This means that under some circumstances moving Active Directory may reset the Windows Product Activation status of the destination computer.

Newer versions of Windows Server do not share the same security credentials between AD and WPA, so this is no longer an issue.

Triggering Windows Activation on Windows Server 2003

If the hardware on the new computer is sufficiently different from the old computer it is possible that Windows may prompt you to re-activate the Windows Product Activation key.

  • WPA is not an issue on Windows Server 2008 or later.
  • WPA is not an issue if you are restoring Active Directory onto the same computer.
  • WPA is not an issue if you installed the Volume License (VL) edition of Windows Server 2003. The Volume License edition of Windows Server 2003 does not require activation.
  • WPA is not an issue if the destination computer has “sufficiently” identical hardware. For a discussion of what “sufficiently” means see Inside Windows Product Activation.
  • WPA is not an issue if you moved AD to this computer from the same source computer previously.
  • The grace period for changed hardware is 3 days.
Note: U-Move does not circumvent Microsoft licensing. U-Move works exactly the same as NTBACKUP, except instead of restoring the whole computer it restores a subset. Product activation on Windows Server 2003 will be triggered exactly as if you ran NTBACKUP to load Windows onto different computer hardware.
Activating Windows

To activate Windows click on Start -> Activate Windows. If you do not see an icon for Activate Windows you do not need to activate Windows.

When you click the button Windows will contact the Microsoft web site and transmit your Product ID and hardware signature. The web site will respond with a key that unlocks your copy of Windows.

If activation fails follow the instructions on the screen to call the Microsoft Product Activation Support telephone number. Explain to the telephone operator that you moved your licensed copy of Windows Server to new computer hardware. In some cases you will be speaking to a robot attendant. Answer all questions with a clear "yes" or "no". (It is not necessary to mention U-Move.)

Important: Afterwards you should discard or erase the old computer hardware. Do not boot the old computer again. This is required for Windows license compliance, and also to prevent two identical computers from serving Active Directory at the same time.

Activating on a test computer

You generally do not need to activate Windows on a test computer (subject to legal license compliance of course). You have a 3 day grace period. This should give you sufficient time to conduct any testing. The grace period will be reset each time you load Active Directory with U-Move. You can do this for up to 30 days until the activation timeout expires.

If you decide to activate Windows on the test computer, you only need to do it once. Activate Windows after you move AD (not before). Once activated you can repeatedly copy AD from the same source computer to the test computer; it will not trigger activation again.

License Compliance: Fixing the Product Key

If the destination computer is already licensed for Windows Server it may already have a previously licensed 25-character Product Key. In this case you might want to install the correct Product Key on the destination computer to maintain your legal license compliance.

Changing the Product Key with the Volume License Edition

You will need to make a change to the registry (specifically the registry value “OOBETimer”). The procedure for changing the Product Key is documented in the Microsoft Knowledge Base article KB328874. Although the instructions say the procedure is for the Volume License edition of XP, the procedure also works on the Volume License edition of Windows 2003.

Changing the Product Key with the Non-Volume License Edition

If you have a retail (non-VL) version of Windows Server 2003, use the following procedure:

  1. Verify that that your computer has connectivity to the Microsoft web site.
  2. Rename the file C:\Windows\System32\wpa.dbl to wpaOLD.dbl.
  3. Rename the file C:\Windows\System32\wpa.bak to wpaOLD.bak (if the file exists).
  4. Reboot
  5. Before logon you will be prompted to re-activate Windows.
    (If you do not get a prompt then run %systemroot%\system32\oobe\msoobe.exe /a.)
    Select I want to telephone a customer service representative to activate Windows and click Next.
  6. Click on Change Product Key.
  7. Type in the new 25-character product key and click Update. If you get the error message “The product key was mistyped,” check for typographical errors. If the error persists it means that the product key is for the wrong edition of Windows (e.g., Academic vs MSDN vs Retail).
  8. Click on Remind me later to restart the dialog.
  9. Select Let's activate Windows over the Internet now and click Next twice.

The procedure will assign the new product key to the computer and activate it over the Internet.