Category Archives: IT Pro

Surface Pro 3: Two weeks later

Are there problems with it?  Yes.

Do I absolutely love it? I love my kids and my dogs… but I suppose I do like it as much as I have ever liked a laptop or tablet… and I have had quite a few of them over the years!

What are the problems? There is really only one that you should be aware of if you are thinking of going out to buy one.  It’s the patches and the battery.

How, you may ask, do patches and batteries wind their way into a single problem?  Simple… as you probably know, everything in computers is managed by software drivers… and that includes the battery to some extent.  When you buy the device (or any device) you are prompted to apply patches, and at this point a couple of them for the Surface Pro 3 are firmware updates.  You apply the first one, and then you have a problem…

…Windows tells you there is no battery detected.  Worse, if you unplug the device it shuts off immediately.  The firmware update actually tells the computer that there is no battery installed.

BUT THERE IS! Wait a minute!  I was using it unplugged just a few minutes ago!  Where did it go?  Oh… I get it!  The pesky firmware is what screwed me up.  Let’s check to see if there is ANOTHER firmware update.  Plug it in, connect to the Internet, run Windows Update… By Jove, there it is!  Install it, and presto changeo, there’s my battery!

…and what a battery it is!  My original Surface Pro probably gave me 3 hours of battery (with Hyper-V and a bunch of other things draining it).  The Surface Pro 2 was probably closer to 5.  The Pro 3? I haven’t had it run dry on me yet… for the first time in my laptop-owning life I am not afraid to leave the house in the morning without the charger.

THE SCREEN BOSS, THE SCREEN!
(Imagine the voice of Hervé Villechaize if you would…)

Yes, there are a lot of improvements over the Surface Pro 2, but wow I never would have imaginged that the 1.4″ difference in screen size (12″ over 10.6″) would make that much of a difference.  As I told you recently I have an external 16″ screen that I keep in the trunk of my car so that I can have the dual screen experience on the go.  I don’t know that I have pulled it out once since I got the Pro 3… the combination of the slightly bigger screen and the much improved screen resolution make the extra screen redundant… at least when I am on the go.

Don’t get me wrong… the day the Pro 3 docking station is available I am buying it – I have pre-ordered it from the Microsoft Store, and I have the voucher for it (from something else I returned).  All I need is the e-mail saying it is in… and I expect that to be around the same time the remaining Surface Pro 3 models (with the Intel i3 and i7 CPUs) are released, sometime in August.  When I am at home (or an office) I will still want the multi-screen experience.  On the go?  Not necessary anymore.

A lot of people are saying I should have waited for the Intel i7 version, but the reality is I have not found myself lacking.  The Surface Pro 3 runs everything I need it to with 8GB of RAM and the Intel Core i5 CPU, and frankly I don’t want to spend the extra money (the i7 version will come in two models – 256GB storage for $1,599, and the 512GB model for $1,999.  Too rich for my blood, but thanks!

Conclusion

I am asked pretty often (including 3 minutes ago, as I sit at the Microsoft Store in Square One Mall blogging) whether the Surface Pro 3 is really a laptop replacement.  The answer, as with everything, is that it depends.  I would think that for the vast majority of people the answer is yes.  If you are a true hard-core gamer? Maybe not; there are some gamers who need more than 8gb of RAM.  If you are a coder? I have a friend who is a programmer who needs to run virtual machines running more than 8gb of RAM at all times.  (Did I mention that I LOVE the fact that it runs Hyper-V?  Well I do…). Aside from them?  I don’t know too many users – even power users – who need more than 8gb of RAM ever, not even occasionally.  For them (like myself) I would say that this is the device for you.

If you are in the Greater Toronto Area come down to the Microsoft Store at Square One or Yorkdale Malls to check it out! :)

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.

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!

The Price of Quality

macallan18s During the summer I was sitting with a student of mine having a drink after class.  For those of you who do not know me, let me reassure you that I have not in many years taught anyone who was not old enough to drink.

We were sitting in a bar in Portland, Maine and after reviewing their brief list of scotch whiskeys I ordered an eighteen year old Macallan.  He ordered a beer, and as we took our first sips he told me that he couldn’t justify paying $12 for a scotch when the $7 scotch was just as good.  For the record this was a very reasonable bar.

I told him that for my tastes they are nothing near the same.  He said ‘Okay, so let’s say the more expensive scotch is 10% better than the cheaper scotch, does that really justify the expense?’  I asked if he had ever tried the ‘good stuff’ and he admitted that he had not.  He did like scotch, and was happy to be proven wrong.

I called the bartender over and explained our disagreement.  I asked her to pour him a glass of the eighteen year old Macallan, and asked if she would mind giving him just a sip of the twelve year old Glenfiddich (no slouch, but definitely the inferior of the two) to compare it to.  He tasted the Glenfiddich, and then (after a sip of water) tasted the Macallan… and you could see in his eyes with that first sip that he knew I was right… the difference was definitely substantial!

Of course, there was a time when I did not appreciate the difference either.  When I was in the army I drank cheap scotch and smoked cheap cigars; my first car was a used Subaru Justy.  The truth is that in life you get what you pay for.

The day I took my first sip of single malt scotch was the day I stopped drinking blends.  The day I smoked my first Cuban cigar (yes, my American friends, it is legal in Canada… although I smoked it in Israel where it was also legal) was the day I stopped smoking the crappy ones.  As I have said many times I would rather have one good scotch than three mediocre ones, and I would rather have one good cigar than three crappy ones.

For the record I drove that Subaru Justy for 9 months until it started falling apart, and didn’t trade too far up.  There is a difference between relatively inexpensive consumables and transportation, and in the years after my release from the army I was in no financial shape to buy anything nicer.  However I had driven better cars and looked forward to the day when I would be able to buy one… and I did.

Quality costs money.  You can buy an inexpensive suit and it will last a few months before the signs start to show, or you can buy a better suit that will last longer (I am told… I haven’t bought a lot of good suits in my life).  You can buy a cheap suitcase and expect to replace it after a number of uses (been there, done that!) or you can buy high-end suitcases that will last.  When my wife told me what she paid for my Briggs and Riley luggage I nearly fainted; five years and hundreds of flights later I swear by those suitcases, and have since bought several of the matching bits to complete the collection.

It is no different when you buy a computer, or when you hire an IT Professional.  You (more often than not) get what you pay for.  Higher end systems last longer and work better, and higher end IT Professionals will save you money in the long run.

Unfortunately when it comes to IT Pros sometimes you do not get what you paid for.  I have heard horror stories from customers and community members about consultants who over-charge and under-deliver.  That is why, just like when you choose a tailor, price should not be the only factor.  You have to do your research… look them up on-line, ask people for recommendations, and when interviewing the IT Pro (yes, you can and should do that) you should ask for references.  While a list of certifications is important, it means nothing without a list of prior satisfied customers.  Let’s face it, people can cheat on exams… it is a lot harder to cheat on your clients.

It sounds like I am perpetuating the cycle that you can’t get experience without a job and you can’t get a job without experience.  That is absolutely not the case.  Inexperienced IT Pros should spend some time working for more seasoned IT Pros who can show them the ropes, guide them, and have them work on projects which will give them experience.

Of course this means that more often than not an IT Pro will not work for the same company for his entire career.  That was the case before anyways, even though it may not have been explained as such.  However as an IT Director it would be irresponsible of me to give a large architecting contract to an inexperienced IT Pro (IT Amateur?) who may have learned from books but has never been hands on.  In the same way that I would never let a new tailor who just bought his first sewing machine to make my suits… although it would not bother me if that young tailor was assisting with or being supervised by a more seasoned tailor.

While I am not a supporter of unions, I believe the electricians have it right.  After school you take an apprenticeship, and that could have you sweeping floors on some days and doing work that some people today seem to feel is beneath them.  It is how you pay the Master Electrician for whom you are working back for taking you under his (her) wing and teaching you.  After the apprenticeship you get licensed, and soon enough (I do not know when or how) you too become a Master Electrician.

I would love to see the same sort of system in place for IT Professionals, but I know that it is just a dream.  However without that sort of system it is incumbent upon our new IT Pros to seek out the mentorship of experienced IT Pros, and it if some of those were to take on that responsibility I believe that we would have a profession worthy of the respect that I hope we are generally afforded.

And now, as I close, I am going to put my laptop back into my Briggs and Riley laptop bag, and rest for the remainder of the flight which, I hope, is being flown by a very qualified and well-paid pilot.

This is getting interesting…

Last year I was asked to participate in the Canadian launch tour for Microsoft Office 365.  At first I was hesitant, but I am really glad that I did.  I got to meet and speak to a lot of interesting people across the country who do not usually come out to my sessions on Windows Server, Virtualization, and System Center 2012.

After my presentation and demos in Toronto my friend and local (well… Guelph) SMB-guru Sharon Bennett came to speak to me in the Microsoft booth, and told me that she was surprised by a lot of the features I was able to demonstrate with the new software and SAAS (Software As A Service) offerings from Microsoft.  We had a good discussion during which she confided that she had been a loyal GMail user for years, but based on my demos she was going to try out Office 365.

Like most of you, I get a lot of ‘interesting’ titles in my Inbox, although my spam filter does a great job of keeping most of them out of sight.  So when I saw one this morning with the title ‘50 Shades of Grey’ I was surprised.  When I saw that Sharon’s name was attached to it I decided to investigate… and sure enough, it was a legitimate article from my favorite SMB Blogger :)

E-Mail Affairs: My  Version of ‘”50 Shades of Grey” is a very interesting read about a relationship that many of us have – this almost sordid affair with our e-mail provider; how we are expected to be fiercely loyal, but how when we veer from that path it can be exciting and such.  As with real-life affairs it can even lead to an eventual break-up.

I am always happy to read Sharon’s writings, and hope one day to be able to attend one of her sessions.  If you are interested in SMB IT from a fresh and fun perspective I suggest you give her a read!

What not to Learn… Revisited for 2013!

In October, 2011 I posted an article called vPTA: What NOT to take away from my 1-day virtualization training!  It was only partly tongue-in-cheek on the environment that I have been using for several years to demonstrate server virtualization from a pair of laptops.  A few months later Damir Bersinic took that list and made some modifications, and published it on this blog as Things NOT To Take Away from the IT Virtualization Boot CampBecause we spend so much time in our IT Camps demonstrating similar environments, I decided it was a good time to rewrite that article.

Normally when I revisit an article I would simply republish it.  There are two reasons that I decided to rewrite this one from scratch:

  • The improvements in Windows Server 2012, and
  • My more official position at Microsoft Canada

Since writing that original article I have tried to revise my writing style so as to not offend some people… I am trying to be a resource to all IT Professionals in Canada, and to do that I want to eliminate a lot of the sarcasm that my older posts were replete with.  At the same time there are points that I want to reinforce because of the severity of the consequences.

Creating a lab environment equivalent to Microsoft Canada’s IT Camps, with simple modifications:

1. In our IT Camps we provide the attendees with hardware to use for their labs.  Depending on the camp attendees will work in teams on either one or two laptops.  While this is fine for the Windows 8 camps, please remember that in your environment – even in a lab where possible – you should be using actual server hardware.  With virtualization it is so simple to create a segregated lab environment on the same server as your production environment, using virtual switches and VLAN tagging.  In environments where System Center 2012 has already been deployed it is easy enough to provision private clouds for your test/dev environments, but even without that it is a good idea.  The laptops that we use for the IT Camps are great for the one- or two-day camps, but for longer than that you are going to risk running into a plethora of crashes that are easy enough to anticipate.

2. You should always have multiple domain controllers in any environment, production or otherwise.  Depending on who you speak to many professionals will tell you that at least one domain controller in your domain should be on a physical box (as opposed to a virtual machine).  I am still not convinced that this does not fall into the category of ‘Legacy Thinking’ but there is certainly an argument to be made for this.  Whether you are going to do this in physical or virtual, you should never rely on a single domain controller.  Likewise your domain controllers should be dedicated as such, and should not also be file or application servers.

3. I strongly recommend shared storage for your virtualization hosts be implemented on Storage Area Networks (SANs).  SAN devices are a great method of sharing data between clustered nodes in a failover cluster.  In Windows Server 2012 we have included the iSCSI Software Target that was previously an optional download (The Microsoft iSCSI Software Target is now free).  While this is still not a good replacement of physical SANs, it is a fully supported solution for Windows Failover Cluster Services, including for Hyper-V virtual machine environments.  It is even now recognized as an option for System Center 2012 private clouds.  As well the Storage Pools feature in the new Server is a compelling feature to consider.  However there are some caveats to consider:

A. Both iSCSI software targets and Storage Pools rely on virtual storage (VHDX files) for their LUNs and Pools.  While VHDX files are very stable, putting one VHDX file into another VHDX file is a bad idea… at least for long-term testing and especially for production environments.  If you are going to use a software target or Storage Pool (which are both fully supported by Microsoft for production environments) it is strongly recommended that you put them onto physical hardware.

B. While Storage Pools are supported on any available drive architecture (including USB, SATA, etc…) the only architecture that will be supported for clustered environments are iSCSI and SAS (Serial Attached SCSI).  Do not try to build a production (or long-term test environment) cluster on inexpensive USB or SATA drives.

C. In our labs we use a lot of thin-provisioned (dynamically expanding, storage-on-demand) disks.  While these are fully supported, it is not necessarily a best practice.  Especially on drives where you may be storing multiple VHDX files you are simply asking for fragmentation issues.

4. If you are building a lab environment on a single host, you may run into troubles when trying to join your host to the domain.  I am not saying that it will not work – as long as you have properly configured your virtual network it likely will – but there are a couple of things to remember.  Make sure that your virtual domain controller is configured to Always Start rather than Always start if it was running when the service stopped.  As well it is a good idea to configure a static IP address for the host, just in case your virtual DHCP server fails to start properly, or in a timely fashion.

5. Servers are meant to run.  Shutting down your servers on a daily basis has not been a recommended practice for many years, and the way we do things – at the end of the camp we re-image our machines, pack them into a giant case and ship them to the next site – is a really bad idea.  If you are able I strongly recommend leaving your lab servers running at all times.

6. While it is great to be able to demo server technologies, when at all possible you should leave your servers connected (and turned on) in one place.  If you are able to bring your clients to you for demos that is ideal, but it is so easy these days to access servers remotely on even the most basic of Internet connections.  If your company does not have a static IP address I would recommend using a dynamic DNS service (such as dyndns.com) with proper port-forwarding configured in your gateway router to access then remotely.

7. I am asked all the time how many network adapters you need for a proper server environment.  I always answer ‘It depends.’  There are many factors to consider when building your hosts, and in a demo environment there are concessions you can make.  However unless you have absolutely no choice it should be more than one.  For a proper cluster configuration (excluding multi-pathing and redundancy) you should have a production network, a storage network, and a heartbeat network… and that is three just for the bare minimum.  Some of these can share networks and NICs by configuring VLANs, but again, preferably only in lab environments.  Before building your systems consider what you are willing to compromise on, and what is absolutely required.  Then build your architectural plan and determine what hardware is required before making your purchase.

7a. While on the subject of networks, in our demo environment the two laptop-servers are connected to each other by a single RJ-45 cable.  BUY SWITCHES… and the ones that are good enough for you to use at home are usually not good enough for your production environment! Smile

8. When it is at all possible your storage network should be physically segregated from your production network.  When physical segregation is not possible then at least separating the streams by using vLANs is strongly recommended.  The first offers security as well as bandwidth management, the second only security.

9. Your laptop and desktop hardware are not good-enough substitutes for server-grade hardware.  I know we mentioned this before, but I still feel it is important enough to state again.

10. In Windows Server 2008 R2 we were very adamant that snapshots, while handy in labs and testing, were a bad idea for your production environment.  With the improvements to Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 we can be a little less adamant, but remember that you cannot take a snapshot and forget about it.  When you delete or apply a snapshot it will now merge the VHDX and AVHDX files live… but snapshots can still outgrow your volume so make sure that when you are finished with a snapshot you clean up after yourself.

11. Breaking any of these rules in a production environment is not just a bad idea, it would likely result in an RGE (Resume Generating Event).  In other words, some of these can be serious enough for you to lose your job, lose customers, and possibly even get you sued.  Follow the best practices though and you should be fine!

Microsoft Canada Partner Summit: CATCH IT!

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Hey folks!  If you are a Microsoft Partner in Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver then I’m happy to tell you that I am coming back to town!  Of course, I won’t be alone… I am coming with the while Windows and Office Partner Summit! 

Windows 8, the new Office and Windows Server 2012 are coming soon and if you are a Reseller Partner, we would like to invite you to the Partner Summits on Windows and Office. This is your opportunity to get the latest sales training and information on Windows 8, the new Office, and Windows Server 2012. Join us for this in-depth training event delivered by Microsoft subject matter experts and experience the simplicity, speed, beauty, and power of these exciting new products.

HP, Intel, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba and Microsoft Hardware will be showcasing their latest hardware for you to try out.

Register today as space is limited for an event in the city near you:

Montreal, QC – November 15, 2012

Toronto, ON – November 21, 2012

Vancouver, BC – November 28, 2012

Additionally, connect with representatives from Microsoft authorized distributors in Canada.

This training will take you through what’s new in Windows 8 and the new Office and how you can take advantage of the great opportunities these products offer you. The day will also cover a breadth of valuable information including:

  • Value for Business
  • Sales Opportunities
  • Devices
  • Partner Incentives
  • Product Demos
  • Licensing
  • …and more!

I will be speaking on two topics: Windows 8 Device Management and Windows Server 2012.  Additionally, I will be doing some of the demos to help a couple of the presenters.  I’d love to see you there, so come on out and say hi!

…and remember to download your evaluation copy of Windows Server 2012 today!