More Free EBooks from Microsoft Press

You have to give Microsoft Learning (and Microsoft Press) credit… they have finally figured out that their parent company will make more money if they help people to learn their products, rather than charging them for the privilege.

When the Microsoft Virtual Academy went on-line we were all thrilled, and continue to be so as more courses become available.  However some of us still like having books that we can reference, rather than having to go through an entire course.  For that reason I am thrilled that they are offering a series of ebooks from Microsoft Press – written by some of the top experts in the field – for free.  Simply go to the site (here) and download them all… in either .PDF format, EPUB format, or .Mobi for Kindle.

Now here’s what they aren’t telling you, which they should.  You see, I don’t have a Kindle, I have a Kobo.  After all, I did spend several months consulting for the parent company, and I love the device.  If you go onto the Kobo site and do some quick searches, you will find that a lot of these books that are available for free from Microsoft Virtual Academy are also available as free ebooks from the Kobo store.  I was hoping this would be the case, so I went and checked, and sure enough I just downloaded a bunch of Windows Server and System Center books to my library, which I will now sync to my device.  Amazing!  I cannot attest that the entire library is available… but I downloaded five books on System Center and two on Windows Server, and none of the ones I was looking for were missing.

Now if you`ll excuse me, I have some System Center books I need to start reading! :)

How do YOU manage?

A year ago I left the world of technology evangelism and became, once again, a full time consultant.  It’s true… up until that point a great deal of my recent experience has been in training and talking, rather than hands-on doing.  While that is certainly how a lot of people still see me, I can tell you it has been good to get back into the world of doing… first at Rakuten, and now with Yakidoo.

As a Microsoft guy I always talked about the best tools to manage your Microsoft environment as being built in… Windows Server and System Center have been huge for me.  However over the last little while – and especially with my VMware environment – I am realizing that a lot of the best tools for the job are not direct from the software vendor – or at least, in some cases, they are separate downloads that you have to go looking for.

I am going to start with the old adage that if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.  I learned this from an old boss years ago in a former career, and it has served me well over the years.  In order to do our jobs properly as IT administrators, you need to be able to see what you have.

RV Tools

There is a gentleman in Holland named Rob de Veij who has been in IT since the mainframe days, and since 2007 has been working with VMware.  As near as I can tell, he is a former developer who found that it was easier to manage (or at least measure) his vCenter environment with an easy set of tools.  His RVTools is an application (running on Windows) that uses the VMware SDK to display information about your virtual environment (VMware) from the datacenter on down, including clusters, hosts, virtual machines, networking, and down to the virtual CDs that are connected to individual VMs.

For me, the most useful part of this toolkit (which simply connects to your vCenter Server from any Windows machine) is the vHealth screen.  When scanning your virtual environment it looks for issues such as inconsistent folder names, active snapshots, VMware Tools versions and more.  I ran this report recently in my production environment and it advised me that I had a couple of snapshots (anyone who knows me knows why this is a no-no!) and no fewer than seven virtual machines with low free disk space on the guest OS.  Two minutes to run the report, an hour or less to mitigate, and it saved me countless hours of headaches and downtime.

PowerGUI & PowerCLI

I am both happy and disappointed that this tool – once owned by Quest Software – is now a VMware property (since Dell acquired Quest I think).  I am happy about it because I was able to download it using my regular VMware credentials and did not have to purchase it.  I am sad because I liked that it was a third party tool that did not necessarily follow VMware party lines.  Nonetheless the PowerGUI community lives on – albeit on a Dell branded site.

PowerCLI is a tool that allows you to use Windows PowerShell to manage your VMware environment.  PowerGUI is the front-end graphical tool that allows us scripting neophytes to do it well (ish).

One of the components I love about PowerGUI is the ability to create, download, and install PowerPacks, which are essentially community-driven tools for the suite.  The VMware Community PowerPack gives you a lot of the same functionality as the RVTools, but from a VMware sanctioned product.

Solution Accelerators

With Microsoft I am still a lot more familiar with the management tools that are from Microsoft than I am with third party tools.

The Solution Accelerators have been around for several years, and while I have not used all of them, I am very familiar with most of them, and have lectured on and demonstrated/implemented several of them.

The Microsoft Assessment and Planning (MAP) Toolkit has made my life easier with regard to taking inventory of what I (or a client) have. While not its primary purpose, the MAP Toolkit will perform a complete inventory of your environment, including applications, operating systems, guest virtual machines, and virtualization hosts. I have a number of customers who now have a monthly task to run the toolkit to track changes to the environment.

The tool is more complex than the VMware tools because frankly it monitors more – for example, it will do everything on the operating system and application side (whether physical or virtual) and will also monitor VMware, Linux, and more. However because of that be prepared to provide credentials for all of those platforms, and no, they are certainly not foolproof.

The Security Compliance Manager (SCM) is a great way to build and manage your Group Policy Objects (GPOs) in your Active Directory forest. Not only does it provide recommendations for best practice configurations for all of your servers and clients, it breaks it down into domain, domain controller, Windows versions, Users, Microsoft Office, Internet Explorer, SQL Servers, Exchange Servers, and even Hyper-V hosts. Spend a few minutes learning the tool and you will realize that even if you don’t need Microsoft’s recommendations, SCM still helps you with documentation by exporting the GPOs into Excel format. Very useful.

TechSmith

There are two tools from TechSmith that I have been using for years, both with regard to demos (Camtasia is screen recording software that I have used in many of my demos, courses, and blogs) and documentation (SnagIt is a screen capture package that offers much better control and editing than Ctrl-PrintScreen). While they may not be, strictly speaking, management tools, I have found them useful for documentation but also sending people screen shots of issues or solutions (drawing those big arrows and typing HERE’S THE BUTTON YOU ARE LOOKING FOR!).

Of course I could go on and on, but that is not the point. I want to know what tools you find helpful? If you make a good enough case (and if I am able to implement it in my current environment) I might even write it up for your fellow readers!

Communications – I’m talking to you, IT guy!

Let’s face it… most technical people did not get into their fields because of their love of communicating.  It is not uncommon to see IT pros (and developers) avoid communications with non-technical people, often shying away from any human contact whatsoever.  The ultimate portrayal of this was Sandra Bullock’s character in the 1995 movie The Net.  Angela Bennett went away on vacation, then came home to an extreme case of identity theft… and nobody could vouch for her because as a shut-in nobody could really identify her.

Of course, that is an extreme case, and most of us are not like that.  However if you were to ask one hundred IT professionals to list the three most important skills they need in their jobs, communications would likely not rank in the top ten.  The problem is, most of them would be wrong.

We communicate with others in myriad ways, and in a lot of jobs where good communications may not seem important they really could make our jobs easier.  Imagine the following scenario:

You are the systems administrator for a small company with 30 users.  You have to apply a server patch that will bring the company’s primary systems down for twenty minutes, and it cannot be done outside of business hours.  It can go two ways:

1) You say nothing.  When the systems go down people start complaining, and you tell them that the systems will go back up in twenty minutes.  You spend the entire twenty minutes fielding these calls, getting yelled at, and being told that you are preventing important work from getting done.  It reflects poorly on your co-workers’ impressions of you… and on your job performance.

2) In preparation for the outage you send a company-wide e-mail apologizing for the predicted downtime, and tell your co-workers that between the hours of 12:00 and 12:20 the systems will be down, and if there is any critical reason that this time slot needs to be changed, please reply.  As it happens the Sales Manager is hosting a group of potential customers for a lunch, and will need to demonstrate the company’s abilities during that time frame, so you reschedule it (communicated) to 3:00 to 3:20.  At 2:45 you send out another e-mail reminded.  At 3:00 the entire company seems to be congregating in the cafeteria for their snack break, and are chatting about… anything, but not about you.

Do you see the difference?  The quick e-mail prevented you from looking like a bum.  Don’t get me wrong, nobody is going to see you as a hero – that is seldom how sysadmins are seen – but it is better that they don’t see you as the enemy.

In the first scenario you are at risk of losing your job.  Imagine if the company brought in those clients, and because of you the Sales Manager only had ‘Server Not Available’ to show?  Imagine the Sales Manager then going to the president of the company and telling him that the company lost a major sale because of you.  If you don’t think that is going to reflect poorly on you then you are just wrong.  And by the way, this is when the Sales Manager says to the president something like ‘You know, I have a cousin who graduated from ITT Technical Institute, and just finished an internship at a company a lot like ours… He would be a great replacement for your current guy.’

If you think those conversations don’t happen then you are fooling yourself.  We live in a cutthroat world and everyone is trying to get ahead.  Sending that e-mail could in some cases save your bacon… even though you don’t think communications are important.

There was a time when we were seen as wizards, and everything we did behind the curtains was secretive and magical.  Guess what: our profession has become demystified, and nobody thinks we are irreplaceable and nobody thinks that we are magical.  Smart? Yes, we still have that going for us.  But everyone knows someone smarter… or smart enough.

I have been blogging for a decade and was a writer for a decade before that… but I still used to belong to the ‘let them eat cake’ school of IT administration.  And then I got wise… the five minutes it takes to send that e-mail – at the possible cost of having to reschedule whatever it is that I am doing – has probably saved my job or contract on several occasions.  Remember it… because e-mails are easy and job hunting sucks.

Sad Times for an Industry

I used to say to my audiences that while the number of jobs in IT will go down, the best will always be in demand.  I then spent several months essentially unemployed.

The IT field has changed dramatically over the course of the last few years.  I suppose it is natural for an industry as young as ours to evolve drastically and violently… but I didn’t expect it would happen to me.  When I did find a job I was relieved to say the least.

During the time when I was looking I noticed that a lot of people turned their backs on me.  I thought for a while it was personal, but I have realized that people in our field are becoming a lot less secure than they were even a year or two ago… yes, some of the people who disappointed me did it out of malice or jealousy, but I have realized that there are also a lot of people who have realized that if they are not protective of what they have, someone else might get it.

I am not naming names… but one of the people who didn’t turn his back on me – someone who commiserated, and did everything that he could to help me – pinged me this morning telling me that he had been let go.  I know that a few months ago I had counselled him on a position at Microsoft, but realized before I even replied (because of time zones it was the first message I saw this morning) I realized that while I remembered him telling me that he found something, I had no idea where it was.  I suppose now it doesn’t matter… he’s not there anymore, and through no fault of his own.

There are a lot of reasons for someone to leave their company… often they will leave because of a better job offer elsewhere (I e-mailed a friend at VMware Canada last week and the message bounced… he turned up at Microsoft Canada this Monday).  Sometimes we are just fed up, and we leave of our own accord.  Of course there is also the termination for cause, and we all hope to avoid that.

All of those are reasons we could have done something about… but when the company simply cannot afford to pay us anymore – they don’t need five IT guys and are downsizing to three, or the project we were hired for was cancelled – it can come as a shock… we did nothing wrong, and there was nothing we could have done to prevent it.  We’re just… gone.  This is a lousy situation.

A few years ago when I went to the US border to apply for my TN visa so that I could work in that country.  Please remember that US border agents are quite loyal, and very protective of their country.  I was trying to explain to the agent what I did as an IT Pro helping companies to virtualize did.  After a few minutes he said to me ‘Let me get this straight: you want me to let you come into my country to teach companies how they can become more efficient and need fewer American workers.’  I could feel his eyes boring into me like lasers.  But the truth is I always felt that the students who learned from me would always be safe, because I was helping to prepare them for the inevitable shift in the industry.  And yet there I was, looking for work… for a long time.

The friend who pinged me this morning was one of those students… I taught him virtualization and System Center, and those are two very important skills to know.  But how do you prepare yourself for the company canceling the project?  It’s not easy.

I have said for years that one of the worst advancements in IT with regard to the IT Pro field was the advent of Microsoft Windows.  In the days of DOS, Novell, and AccPac computers were a mystery to most people, and it was only the real IT Pros who could make sense of everything for the masses.  With Windows `Press Here, Dummy!’ interface myriad people figured it out, and started calling themselves IT Pros.  Some of those people would eventually learn what was really under the hood, get certified, and thrive… but a lot of them did a lot of our customers a disservice and made those people and companies distrust the entire profession.  I see that coming back to haunt us even worse, in a time when automation and virtualization are making thing easier for the fewer IT Pros needed, we are living through the worst of times for the profession.

What is the solution?  I don’t know… but I do know that we can’t put the genie back into the bottle, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.  I hope we are all able to weather the storm.

WSUS: Watch out!

Here’s a great way to waste time, network bandwidth, and storage space: download excess patches that you do not need.  For bonus points, download languages you don’t support. 

Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) is a great solution that has come a long way since it was introduced.  However it gives a lot of us functionality that we don’t need (and will cost).  Here’s an example: I support an environment where people speak English, Spanish, Urdu, and Hindi.  Between us we probably speak another six languages, but those are the mother tongues in this office.  So when the WSUS configuration screen asks what languages I want to support, it is easy to forget that every operating system in the joint is English…

Imagine you have to download 10GB of patches.  That could immediately translate to 10GB of patches per language.  Time, effort, and not to mention that you should be testing them all… it’s just not worth it.  What language are your servers in?  Mine are in English.  My workstations are also English, but we might have to account for a few French workstations – especially in Quebec.  That’s it.  Don’t go overboard, and your bandwidth will thank me!

Surface Pro 3 and Windows 8: Not everybody’s cup of tea

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I do like my Surface Pro 3.  With that being said, I know everyone has different tastes, and some people are not going to like it.  A couple of months ago my sister, a long time Mac user (and Apple Fanboi) told me that her new job would be giving her a Pro 3, and asked what I thought of it.  I told her – it predated my realizing the extent of the network issues – that I loved it, and expected she would too.

Last week she e-mailed me to tell me that she really hated it.  It crashed a number of times in the first week, and she does not have the patience for these errors – she said her Macs (all of them) just work, and don’t have blue screens of death or other issues.

Now to be fair to the Surface team, a lot of the issues she outlined had to do with Windows 8.1, Microsoft Office, OneDrive, and the Microsoft Account.  I understand her frustration – if you take the device out of the equation, those are four different products from four different teams that are all supposed to work together seamlessly… but don’t.  I respect that Microsoft has a lot of different products, but if you are going to stop talking about products and start talking about solutions then you should make sure your teams work together a lot closer to make sure that seamless really is seamless.

I probably know Windows better than 99.5% of the population, and work very fluently across these four products… but one of the reasons for that is because I have come to understand that sometimes the seams between them are going to show, and like a Quebec driver I have learned better than most to navigate the potholes.  However if Microsoft really wants to stay at the top in an era where customers do want things to just work, they had better get off their butts, come down off their high horses, and start making sure that seamless really is just that.

I want to be clear… I am not trading in my devices for Macs (or Linux).  While I do have an iPhone (See article) I would just as soon have an Android or a Windows phone.  I love Windows 8.1, and even now at my office I cringe at having to work with Windows 7 (Ok, cringe is a strong word… I just wish it was Windows 8.1!).  However I have worked with iPads, Androids, Macs, and more, and I know that those solutions do make for a better experience with regard to some features than the Microsoft ecosystem.  I hope that under Satya things get better… but nearly a year into his tenure and I don’t see much progress.

In the meantime I am strongly considering going to open an account at one of the banks that is currently offering free iPad Minis to new account holders!

Cloning with Customization Specifications

Being back in a VMware environment, there are a few differences I need to remember from Hyper-V and System Center.  It is not that one is better or worse than the other, but they are certainly different.

Customization Specifications are a great addition in vCenter to Cloning virtual machines.  They allow you to name the VM, join domains, in short set the OOBE (Out of Box Experience) of Windows.  They just make life easier.

The problem is, they do a lot of the same things as Microsoft’s deployment tools… but they do them differently.  We have to remember that Microsoft owns the OS, so when you use the deployment tools from Microsoft, they inject a lot of the information into the OS for first boot.  Customization Specifications work just like answer files… they require a boot-up (or two) to perform the scripts… and while those boots are interactive sessions, you should be careful about what you do in them.  They will allow you to do all sorts of things, but then when they are ready they will perform the next step – a reboot.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t use Customization Specifications… I love the way they work, and will continue to use them.  Just watch out for those little hiccoughs before you go :)