Recover From 120 Day Terminal Services Eval Time Bomb in Windows Servers on EC2

I’ve always been frustrated by Windows messages like, “please see your administrator. . .”  I AM the administrator, I don’t need to see myself, I need useful information to lead me in the right direction to troubleshoot and correct a problem.

Here’s a new one that really frustrated me this week.  I have several Amazon EC2 servers.  Most of which run Windows 2003 or Windows 2008.  Often when I start a server for our development team I will install Terminal Services (120 day eval) so more than two developers can connect at a time with RDP.  Usually those servers are in use for a few weeks to a couple months.  Every so often they are used over four months.  Well, as that time approaches Windows kindly displays reminders as to how many days remain in the trial.  We see this so often it just gets ignored.

Well, after the 120 days we can’t login to the box any longer, which sucks in and of itself, especially since we can only use RDP (unless we installed something else) to connect to these servers and cannot log on to the console.  The first few times this happened I had to scrap the server and start a new instance.  I have since figured out a work-around. . .

It used to be that after the 120 days was up a nice, informative message was displayed (don’t remember the exact wording) that basically said, “time is up you cheap bastard.  You cannot log in to this server any longer and must pay the mighty Micro$oft.”  Or something like that.

Now for some reason I’m getting the message, “To log on to this remote computer, you must have Terminal Server user Access permissions on this computer.  by default, members of the Remote Desktop Users group have these permissions.  If you are not a member of the Remote Desktop users group or another group that has these permissions, or if the Remote Desktop User group does not have these permissions, you must be granted these permissions manually.”

When I first saw this new message it scared me.  Recently we had some employees leave under less-than-ideal circumstances.  And while I was careful to disable their accounts on our production servers I missed a couple of the dev servers.  My first thought was that one of these guys removed my account and all others from the Administrators group.  After all, that’s what the message indicated.  I was able to connect to the crippled server from another EC2 server with Computer Management where I reviewed the security event logs and found nothing afoul.  I also checked the date on NTUSER.DAT for all users.  Again, no smoking gun.

When the same thing happened to another server last night I began to get more worried.  What in the world was happening?  After some crack investigation on my part I was also not able to find anything on this other server which would lead me to the culprit.

I did discover though that both servers had been started initially about four months ago.  This really got me thinking that perhaps the 120 day terminal services time bomb might be the problem.

As I mentioned earlier I discovered how to reset this 120 days on a Windows server running on EC2 – image the machine.  While imaging an EC2 server has a couple of annoying side-effects, like resetting the timezone to Pacific time and creating a new certificate, it does whatever is required by Windows to reset the time to 0 for things like 120 day eval of TS.

Not trying to cheat the system here, just pointing out a way I found to logon to a server I thought was toast.  We are actually done with both of these servers and can terminate them now anyway.

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