Category Archives: IT Pro

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!

Windows 8: Why you should be excited!

This post was originally published on the Canadian IT Pros Connection

It is finally here. Microsoft’s most anticipated operating system in years is ready for prime time, and all around the world the enthusiasts are downloading bits, stores are putting out their new offerings with the new OS, and IT Pros around the world are asking the same question they have asked for years: do I need to upgrade my organization?

Of course, this is not a question that is going to be new to you as IT Pros. You evaluated Windows 7 and the answer was a resounding yes. For many organizations that transition has only recently completed or, in some cases, is still going on. For enthusiasts the question may be as simple as ‘what’s new and exciting?’ but for professional organizations you as IT Pros will have to make a business case that demonstrates a solid return on investments (ROI) and a lower total cost of ownership (TCO).  In this article I will demonstrate the value of win8 that will help make the decision to begin a transition plan for your organization easier.

The Application Compatibility Story

One of the biggest roadblocks that organizations had to consider when planning their migration to Windows 7 was application compatibility. It really didn’t matter how good the new OS was, if their business applications did not work then they had a problem. Fortunately there were several mitigations for incompatible applications, and most organizations were in the end able to deploy Windows 7. Nearly all of those mitigations will port over to Windows 8 (including the Application Compatibility Toolkit shims, Microsoft Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V), and Remote Desktop Applications (RD Apps). In short, if your applications worked in Windows 7, they will work in Windows 8… period. The goal of the development team was a one hundred percent (100%) application compatibility story between Windows 7 and Windows 8, and it looks like they achieved it. Wow.

But what about Windows 8 (modern) apps?

Windows 8 apps are not backward compatible to earlier versions of the OS; but that is not what you are trying to achieve. All of your Windows 8 apps will work on Windows 8, as well as all of your Windows 7 apps – whether they be on the desktop, in an RD session, or in the modern interface.

I’ve already built this whole deployment infrastructure for Windows 7…

Whether you used the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit (MDT) or System Center Configuration Manager (ConfigMgr) as the engine to deploy Windows 7, you have already built the deployment infrastructure needed to deploy Windows 8. You may need to upgrade MDT (updating MDT is not a difficult process, and from there upgrading your MDT Deployment Points (DPs) is a right-click away) or apply a service pack for System Center, but once you have done that all you are going to have to do is import your Windows 8 into your DPs and then create a new Task Sequence (TS). That’s it… nothing more. Once your DPs are updated you are ready to deploy Windows 8, and since your application packages from Windows 7 are all compatible with Windows 8, you are golden!

But what about Windows 8 (modern) apps?

While your modern apps are going to install differently from your legacy apps, rest assured that they will still deploy from your MDT and ConfigMgr deployment points. Of course you have probably heard about the Windows Store, and as a one-off you will still be able to buy apps from there; however for your deployment scenarios you will be able to side-load your modern apps from your DPs.

Won’t I have to retrain my users?

When you start Windows 8 it is going to look different from Windows 7 – you guessed it, the Start button is gone. In its place is a full-screen Start Menu that is going to take most users 5 minutes to understand and not much longer to get used to. Beyond that, the OS goes out of its way to be more user friendly than its predecessor. The new interface is optimized for touch, but is just as easy for users working with the mouse and keyboard to navigate.

Now it is true, as the IT Pro you may need a little more training than your end-users; not much, but some. Chances are you will be able to read a few blog articles (such as those on the Canadian IT Pro Connection) to get up to speed, but if you do need more there is training already available for you in many forms – the Microsoft Virtual Academy will have lessons that you can go through in order to get up to speed quickly. Microsoft Learning currently has a number of courses in beta[MDG1] which you will be able to take at a Learning Partner; additionally there are several exams that you will be able to take to prove your competency in the new platform, both to yourself and to potential customers and employers. The Microsoft Certified Solutions Advisor (MSCA) is a great way to prove that you are not only competent, but that you have taken the time to learn it right and to prove it.

Microsoft Learning has revamped their certifications in this its twentieth year of operations. The Solutions in MCSA means that certs are no longer focused on individual products, but on the infrastructure as a whole, which means that you should not be surprised to see questions about some of the Solution Accelerators that Microsoft offers (such as the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit, and the extremely handy Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit. They have been listening to you and understand that we are not deploying Windows in a vacuum, and understanding the different components of the ecosystem and how they work together is more important to you than knowing what button to press.

How do I know what SKU is right for me?

Once again Microsoft has listened to you; the Windows 8 SKU line-up is now simpler, with Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise, and Windows 8 RT (for ARM based devices)

For businesses large and small there are really only two editions: Pro builds on Windows 8 with key security, mobility, and virtualization features. The most notable feature improvement in Windows 8 Pro over Windows 7 is BitLocker, the drive encryption technology that was previously only available in the Enterprise SKU.

Windows 8 Enterprise brings key mobility benefits such as Windows to Go (WTG), Direct Access, and BranchCache, as well as even more virtualization benefits with Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).

Windows RT is a new member of the Windows family, and will come installed on devices with ARM processors. For users who have been asking for tablet devices that will be light, easy to use, has a long battery life, and delivers a high quality and predictable experience, tablet devices running Windows RT is the obvious answer. They are the only tablets on the market that run the same applications as you do on your desktop. That means there is no need to convert your files, and you will not lose any formatting going from one device to the other. Additionally if you buy a app from the Windows Store for your desktop it will immediately work on your tablet as well.

Windows RT offers another distinct advantage over competitive devices – security. With on-device encryption you can rest assured that the data that is important to your business remains secure.

But what about my legacy apps?

It is true, Windows RT will not have a desktop mode that other editions will have. However it will have the same Remote Desktop application that all Windows 8 devices have, and will be a great platform for RemoteApps and Remote Desktops, and is the ideal platform for Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) scenarios.  Additionally it comes complete with several VPN clients built in, including Cisco, CheckPoint, and of course the Microsoft VPN client.

Some of my users love the Windows 8 features, but occasionally need Windows 7…

It is not uncommon to hear of situations like this, which is why Virtual PC was such a popular download in Windows 7. Client-Side Hyper-V is going to be very popular for those people who want the speed and security of Windows 8, but also need to support older platforms. Hyper-V on Windows 8 offers the same Layer 1 hypervisor that you use in your datacenter servers, and allows you to run an operating system within your operating system – whether that is Windows 7, XP, Windows Server, or any supported flavor of Linux. In fact, as long as you can install it on x86 hardware, you can install it in a virtual machine.

If you are tight on RAM then dynamic memory in Hyper-V will be a godsend to you, allowing you to set Startup RAM, Minimum RAM, and Maximum RAM per virtual machine so that it only uses what it needs at any given point. For advanced users running multiple VMs in your client the Memory weight and Memory buffer make it easier to allocate contention resources where they are most crucial.

With very few exceptions, almost all of the features of Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 are available on the client, with a few obvious exceptions that nobody is really going to miss. Knowing that, many IT Pros will seize this opportunity to get to know Hyper-V before they set out to deploy it in their datacenter servers!

I feel the need… for speed!

Windows 7 was the fastest OS that Microsoft had released in many years; once it was booted, it was faster on Windows XP (on hardware that supported both systems), not to mention Windows Vista. Windows 8 has only improved on this, with a much faster boot time, as well improvements to memory management that prevents memory clogs where applications that are loaded but not in use cause your system to slow down. The development team was very conscious of the fact that modern users do not want to be kept waiting by their PCs, laptops, and tablets; you need devices that move at the speed of life, and Windows 8 will do just that.

Microsoft has made the hardware certification process much stricter on Windows 8 than it has been, ensuring higher quality devices and minimizing compatibility issues. However if you have recently gone through a hardware refresh never fear… Windows 8 runs amazingly well on legacy hardware as well!

Where do I start?

The best way to get to know any operating system is to start using it. Download your free trial today, and if you do not have hardware to dedicate to it, there are several ways you can try it out without having to go out and spend the money – there are a number of articles on the best ways to do that, and we recommend you try out one of them on your existing laptop today.

Of course, if you are a real enthusiast, then you may want to head down to the nearest retail outlet (such as the Microsoft Store) and purchase a new Designed for Windows 8 device on October 26th, and if you are like me, you will want to get a touch-enabled device!

Windows Server IT Camps: Server 2012!

Although our events are usually quite well attended, few have ever been as well received as the IT Camps that we’ve been holding across the country since last January. To date we’ve held Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 Virtualization Camps , Windows Server 2012 Install Camps , Private Cloud Camps with Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 and System Center 2012 and we’re currently making our way to a city near you with Windows Server 2012 IT Camps .

An IT Camp is a fun and collaborative event where you will get hands-on experience with the tools and products while completing a series of team challenges. Our Windows Server 2012 Camps are complementary, full day sessions where we cover the basics of Windows Server 2012, Hyper-v 3.0, virtual machine migrations and then dive in to scalability, capacity, storage and high availability. We go through an overview of System Centre 2012 and look at Virtual Machine Manager. We take our lab environment through its paces as we enable the Hyper-V role, complete Shared-Nothing Live Migrations, configure Storage Spaces, create a cluster and make one of our virtual machines highly available on a private cloud. It’s quite a jam-packed day and you certainly can’t beat the price!

Find out more about Windows Server 2012 IT Camps>>

Can’t join us in person? Don’t despair — there are plenty of online resources to help you out. Here are a few of my favourites:

- Download an evaluation copy of Windows Server 2012 for your own lab
- Download the PowerPoint deck for the Windows Server 2012 IT camps
- Get free, online, modular training with Microsoft Virtual Academy
- Download and read the free eBook, Introducing Windows Server 2012
- Try the Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012 Online Virtual Labs
- Study for your Private Cloud Certification
- Read the IT Pro Connection blog

The Shoemaker is No Longer Barefoot!

This post was originally written for the Canadian IT Pro Connection blog, and can be seen there at http://blogs.technet.com/b/canitpro/archive/2012/09/13/the-shoemaker-is-no-longer-barefoot.aspx.

For years I have been espousing the need to and value of locking down client workstations in a corporate environment.  Part of the SWMI Story – the secure, well-managed IT infrastructure for which I named my company – is that every user in the organization should have the rights and permissions to do their job… and nothing more.

Most corporate users are issued a computer that they use in the office (and at home or on the road) that are domain-joined, and because of all of the security threats out there the SWMI Story is very clear that they should be locked down.  If they want a computer to surf websites that are not business-related, play games, watch movies or anything else then they should invest in a home computer (or laptop).  I know that it is not fun to travel with multiple laptops (better than most!) but the bottom line is that unsecure client workstations are a stepping stone on the path to compromised server infrastructures… and that is bad news for everyone but the hackers.

One of the reasons that client machines have to be locked down is because most people do not think about IT security during the course of regular computer use.  Because I am always thinking about security, coupled with the fact that if something goes wrong I am pretty good at fixing it, I have been quite lax with my own laptops over the years.  After all, I own them and the servers; I built and maintain the infrastructure, and of course I am in charge of IT security.  So for the last few years, as I have been advocating otherwise, I have been logging on as the Domain Administrator on every laptop I have carried.

Last week I joined Microsoft Canada’s DPE Team as a Virtual Technical Evangelist.  Although it wasn’t actually a requirement, there were real advantages to reimaging my primary laptop (an HP EliteBook 2740p) with the Microsoft corporate image.  I was all happy once it was done… until I went to perform a simple operation and got a UAC window asking me for administrative credentials.  I entered my corporate credentials… and had a sinking feeling in my stomach when it came back with a DENIED message.

Fortunately the internal image allows you to install Windows with a local Administrator account; I was able to add my corporate account to the Local Administrators group so I don’t have to keep going into that account to make changes.

For the first time in many years I am not an exception to the rule… and rather than trying to find a way around it, I accept that while I need to be a local administrator, there is no way that anyone is going to make me a domain admin.  However this means that I am exactly in line with the statement I made in the opening paragraph… I have the permissions to do my job, and nothing else.  In order to do my job I need to be a local administrator… and nothing more!

To be, or not to be: If you are IT it is not your decision!

I made what I thought was a reasonably innocuous statement in front of an audience a few months ago, and couldn’t believe the pushback I got.

Our job as the IT providers – whether as in-house providers or as contractors – is not to make decisions.  In fact, people are often amazed by how few decisions we have to make.

There was a chorus of objections from this group of high-level systems administrators who protested that they made decisions all of the time, with regard to licenses, solutions, whose hardware to buy, what password policies to implement, and so much more.  They wanted to assure me that they made important decisions all of the time that would affect the user experience of everyone in their organizations.

Wrong.

As a service provider, and I hope that by now we can all agree that in most organizations IT is indeed a service provider, it is not our job to make decisions, it is our job to implement the decisions of others.  Our job is not to be decision makers, it is to be trusted business advisors.  That is an important distinction that we can never forget.

We don’t tell our clients what they need to do; they know what they need to do.  We simply advise them how they can use different technologies to do it, and then they make the decision.  It is our job to let them know what tools we can make available to them to facilitate their jobs.

Electronic communications is a great example of this.  A few short years ago it was our job to tell our organizations that they could better communicate with their customers, suppliers, and everyone if they would start using e-mail.  Then we often had to make a business case for using our own domain name – mitch@swmi.ca – rather than a public cloud (although we didn’t call them that) free address such as mitch@hotmail.com.  Of course it usually made business sense, but we so often had to make the case anyways.  From there it was servers – should our mail servers be in-house, or should we rely on our ISP (or another third party) for that service.  I even remember having to convince one boss that his e-mail address should be printed on his business card.

In the entire process above, I didn’t make a single decision.  I made recommendations, but it was the boss, the board, the committee that made the decisions.

So when this decision was made – our company will host our own mail servers – at least I could make the decision as to what mail servers to buy, right?

Wrong.

If I was an honest and trusted business advisor I would research what was available, cost out different solutions weighing in such factors as cost, reliability, features, and ease of use.  I would then present a number of options to the board (often at this point an IT Committee), and they would make the ultimate decision.  Again, I would make my recommendations, but the decisions were someone else’s.

Fast forward to 2012, the world is moving into the cloud.  Private Cloud or Public Cloud?  Whose solution?  I present my customers with recommendations.  I make my recommendations based on several factors, including operational expenses versus capital expenses, bandwidth requirements, service level agreements (SLAs), and so many other factors. Most of the time, because of my reputation as a trusted business advisor, my clients (and students) follow my advice.  However in the end they are free to make their own decisions.

I was in an interview with a potential client recently who came to me because they need to replace their current service provider, and we sat down for a great conversation.  Near the end of the chat he said to me:

Mitch, you obviously have the requisite skills and staff to do what we need, and I hope we can continue to work together going forward.  But you have a lot of very strong opinions.  What would you do if we disagree?  You tell me we should do <A>, I say that I want to do <B>.  What do you do then?

It was an almost obvious question that I had never been asked before.  I told him honestly ‘Mark, if we disagree on what to do then I am going to do my best to convince you that I am right.  I will make every proposal and reasonable argument, and will do everything I can to sway you to my side.  If I cannot do that, then the simple answer is that you are paying the bills, and that makes the decision yours.  In almost every case I will do what you ask me to do, because they are your servers and your infrastructure.’

Wait a minute… you said ‘almost’? Why the qualifier?

‘Very simple.  If you ask me to do something that will compromise the security of your organization’s systems then you will have to ask someone else to do it.  I compromise on everything else, but not on security.’

That, really, is the only major decision we can make… the decision to walk away when our customer (or boss) won’t take our advice.  Sure, others can delegate the details to us – what version of what server to use on what hardware – but the real decisions belong to others.

While this may be (to some) a bruise to our egos, the reality is we should be relieved; we have enough as IT administrators on us without having to shoulder the burden of those major decisions.  We are responsible for so much – and seldom get the credit we deserve for the jobs we do.  We are responsible not only for keeping our systems working, but also for giving the people who do make the decisions the best advice and suggestions.

Let someone else make the decisions Smile

A Dichotomy of IT Conferences

As I fly south from Toronto I am heading to two separate and very different conferences.  I am new to neither one, and am looking forward to both.  As they are very different conferences, I am looking forward to them both in very different ways.

SBS Migration – A Party with a Conference Theme

The first conference has several different names – the SBS Migration Conference, The IT Conference, or Jeff Middleton’s Conference.  This is a conference organized by Jeff to be by the community and for the community.  Indeed, all of the speakers are MVPs and none of us are being paid for the pleasure, we do it to give back to a group of our peers.

It has been several years since I have touched Windows Small Business Server, but I made a lot of friends while I was involved with that group, and when I can I always accept speaking at both Jeff’s and Harry Brelsford’s conferences.  It gives me the opportunity to see a lot of old friends, make some new ones, and again give back what I can.  If you ask some of the more passionate SBS crowd then may imply that I am actually there to convert people to Enterprise IT products and practices, and while that may not be entirely true I do admit that if I convince just one of them that you need more than one domain controller in your environment, and that wizards are not the panacea some think they are then I am not displeased.

If you have never been to New Orleans then you are missing out on a unique experience.  It is an incredible city that has to be experienced firsthand to understand and appreciate.  I have been there twice, and I admit I am looking forward to it because on my previous (multiple but adjacent) visits I was not able to experience two aspects of the city, owing to the fact that I was there the two weeks before my Black Belt test in 2010; I was neither eating nor drinking, and in a city known for its cuisine and its alcohol in the streets party every night, that was just a shame.

It is now two years later and while I will be watching what I eat and drink, I will not be denying myself good meals and the occasional drink.  I am also bringing my wife, which means we can enjoy what the city has to offer together, and I will not feel guilty (as I so often do) that I am experiencing things without her.

Oh yeah… the conference.  I will be participating in a number of panels, and will be presenting an abridged version of my VDI presentation that discusses Hyper-V, Windows 7, Citrix Xen Desktop, and the whole BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) story for businesses.  I forgot that I have to dance for my dinner, and that is my price of admission :)

The conference has a unique twist to it… after three days of learning Jeff feels there is no better way to unwind than for the entire group to get onto a cruise ship and sail to the Bahamas.  While I applaud his sentiment, I bemoan his timing.  After three days ‘with the gang’ Theresa will be flying home, and I will be heading to Orlando for my next conference…

Microsoft TechEd North America 2012

TechEd is considered by many the premiere IT Pro conference every year.  This year will be special for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is the twentieth anniversary of the landmark event, and I am sure that there will be no shortage of festivities commemorating that.

The second (and for me more important) reason why TechEd is going to be special this year is all of the product launches (on the IT Pro side) in 2012.  While end-users will likely focus on the new Windows 8 client that is set to launch sometime this year, IT professionals like myself are probably more excited about the new Windows Server 2012 (set to launch around the same time) and System Center 2012 (which was released in April).  In other words the vast majority of tools that I use and support are new and improved, and it is important to get out there and learn about the new features from the experts.

I will not be speaking at TechEd this year, and for the first time in the five years that I have been going I will not be working either.  Unlike years past I am showing up at the show with a fully paid ticket, and my only obligations are to learn.  That is very exciting for me – no booth duty schedules to coordinate!

That is not entirely true… I actually have three commitments at TechEd.  The first, I have been selected to compete in an event called Speaker Idol.  Modeled after American Idol, contestants compete as public speakers – more accurate, they compete as IT presenters.  There are three criteria to be considered a potential candidate: You must be attending TechEd (nobody is paying your travel or show pass), you must never have spoken at any TechEd event, and you cannot be a Microsoft employee.  The competition is always run by Richard Campbell and his partner in crime.  I do not know who the judges are, but I do know that Sean Kearney is going to be my biggest fan, and that he has already created several promotional videos that are up on YouTube.  The first prize, I understand, is an invitation to speak at TechEd next year, which would be cool.

My second ‘obligation’ at TechEd is the Windows Community Party – or Springboard Party as we usually call it.  For the last three years this has been the most sought after ticket of the week, and for the second year in a row I have been asked to man the door.  I guess Stephen Rose knows that not a lot of people are going to mess with me – either physically or verbally – and get away with it.  Attendance numbers are strictly controlled for several reasons, including cost and venue capacity.  It is always a blast, and I am counting down until Wednesday evening when we get to ‘get jiggy with the Windows fans’.

My last obligation is of my own making.  I do a lot of work with Microsoft Canada, and when I found out that none of the IT Evangelists would be attending the show this year, I asked ‘then who’s going to organize the Canadians Get Together that we all loved last year?’  Damir and Ruth asked if I would be willing to do it, and I agreed.  There is now an open invitation to all Canadians for Tuesday evening (late afternoon really) to join us for drinks and appetizers.  The time has been set, but the venue has not.  It will be one of the hotel bars to be sure, but which one will be determined on Sunday.  This has less to do with mystique and allure than the fact that I haven’t been to Orlando in five years and don’t remember which hotel bars are convenient.

All in all it will be a fun ten days.  I am sure I will be blogging about both events extensively so stay tuned… while I am not doing away with the Taekwondo talk, I am now back on track and focusing on IT and the IT Community!

Bringing Governments into the Modern World of IT

I recently attended Microsoft’s Canadian Leadership Summit in Redmond, where I had the opportunity to meet and chat with some amazing people. I overheard one conversation between two Canadian IT industry leaders who were lamenting the difficulties in getting various departments in different levels of government to adopt new technology, or more accurately to upgrade existing technologies to newer versions.

Nobody that I know debates that governments function more efficiently with technology than they did without it. Unfortunately it is difficult to convince them that investing in newer technology – such as replacing five year old servers running Windows Server 2003 with new servers that run Windows Server 2008 R2, and implement integrated private cloud solutions based on System Center 2012 versus continuing with legacy System Center (or 3rd party) management tools – is not simply an expenditure, it is an investment in their infrastructure that will pay dividends in licensing, service, training, and maintenance cost-savings, as well as allowing them to leverage the benefits of newer, green technological advancements such as server virtualization and advanced power management capabilities of modern servers.

So what is the problem? It is as simple as it is complicated, and as easy to solve as it is impossible.

Here’s my take on the problem:

Corporations think (and invest) for the long term. So do the people who work there, because although I always discuss the death of corporate loyalty in our modern world, most employees – certainly not the strategists – plan for the future because businesses understand the need for long term vision. Unless your name is Leo or Scott, CEOs do not see their positions as transient and disposable. They have learned that vitamins are cheaper than medicine, and that maintaining a healthy IT infrastructure will save them a lot of money in costly downtime down the road.

In the free world governments are made up of transients. In a parliamentary democracy such as Canada everyone who works for the government ultimately answers to Parliament. Members of Parliament are elected for a maximum term of five years, and each has to constantly remember the direction given them by the voters, especially considering that their real full-time job (for most of them) is preparing to get re-elected.

Cabinet Members – the Justice Minister for example – are in charge of their departments. The Justice Minister is ultimately responsible for everything within his (or her) portfolio, which of course will include in this case matters pertaining to the police, criminal, and civil courts, but also the mundane issues such as the ministry’s IT department (of which with few exceptions none of them will likely know anything about). While the Cabinet Ministers have the same maximum term of five years before needing to be reelected, that is not a guarantee that they will remain in their cabinet portfolio for the duration of their term, or even in the cabinet at all. Therefore they have to make sure that their ministries run smoothly, and if possible under budget (and if not then they should only go over budget under the public radar).

Somewhere beneath the ministers we then have the career public servants.  These are not political appointments, they are professionals who keep the actual nuts and bolts of the ministry working including (but certainly not limited to) the IT.  In order for the ministry to make substantial investments in the infrastructure it would need approval from the minister.  Because the minister is ultimately responsible for his ministry’s budget, and because (as stated) most often they do not understand the implications of making infrastructure changes to IT and the short- and long-term cost benefits to same, there is a good chance that they would say no.  In order to convince them (and of course I am oversimplifying the process somewhat) the IT department would have to make a really good case for the changes. 

If we want to make a case for IT changes we cannot do it by talking cool.  Technology people are great at ‘talking cool technology.’  Unfortunately most heads of companies – whether they are CxOs of corporations or Cabinet Ministers – are not impressed by (and do not make decisions based on) ‘cool,’ they are impressed by dollars and cents, as well as sense.  They have to be convinced that a) the project is necessary, b) the project is affordable, and c) they understand that the project discussed is beneficial overall to their department.

One of the statements I have made a thousand times to audiences – whether they be classes or user groups or business groups – is that the best way to convince the CxO of a company to do anything is to use the following equation: ROI TCO ↓.  If you can demonstrate increased return on investment and a decreased total cost of ownership, then the cool factor doesn’t matter… in truth it doesn’t matter anyways.  Most IT professionals know how to speak technology; to succeed in today’s world we have to learn to speak business because outside of our field nobody really cares about the rest, save for a possible fleeting fascination with it.

This formula has very little to do with capital expenditures (capex).  Most capex costs are one-time costs that may either shock or impress the uninformed, but it is the operational expenditures (opex) that really makes the difference to most companies – the ongoing operational costs of their systems, which include tangibles such as real estate, power consumption, air conditioning, battery backups and generators, staff, and more but also have to include intangibles such as security, incidence response & manageability, end-user (employee) satisfaction, comfort, and training… as well as the environmental impact of the purchases (which may include the cost of retiring and disposing of old equipment). 

Here’s an example: An IT desktop administrator believes that his company needs to upgrade the existing client workstations that are five years old and run Windows XP and Office 2003.

The wrong approach would be to focus on the new technology.  Even most of the new features of the new technologies are of little interest to the CxOs, because the end users have been able to perform their duties satisfactorily with the old systems.

The right approach would be to create a report that cites industry studies that show the client workstation bell curve (the TCO of workstations starts to increase dramatically after three years).  Show the cost of repairs and service to the workstations over the five years, highlighting the increased cost associated with out-of-warranty repairs, as well as end-user loss of productivity due to non-functioning hardware.  They could add in the electricity costs, and show comparisons of power consumption of old CRT monitors compared to newer LCD flat screens, as well as those of older computers versus newer ones.  Additionally they should call out that a planned and phased cycling of the systems coupled with training of end-users in the newer technology would cost X, and would result in higher end-user satisfaction that leads to increased employee productivity.

Of course these opex cost benefits might be offset in the first year or two by the required up-front capex costs, but over time the cost savings would be tremendous.

In business, this just makes sense.

Unfortunately in government we run into that maximum five-year job expectancy of a minister, coupled with the fact that all of his ministry’s expenses are available for public (and especially) media scrutiny.  Short term cost for long term benefits usually does nothing for the incumbent and would actually benefit the successor’s image.  There is no political benefit to that ergo there is little chance it is going to happen.

Now let’s extrapolate this attitude across the tenure of the career IT manager, who has come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of projects that would make his life (and the life of his team) better do not get approved by the minister, and that over the course of that career he may have seen the ‘same old same old’ from several – as many as a dozen – ministers.  When the staffers’ feel that the environment is always ‘Meet the new boss… same as the old boss’ they eventually become dejected and resigned to simply doing their jobs and going home at the end of the day – and it does not take long at all for the once upbeat, excited, and passionate IT Professional to become ‘one of them…’ a cog in the wheel who knows that the nails who pop their heads out get hammered.  Now we have an environment in which not only do new projects seldom get proposed, the existing infrastructure is seldom even improved upon.

While my sampling is by no means comprehensive, I have also encountered a great many government IT workers who like to tinker with their systems, and eventually find themselves with a system that is, against all published and logical best practices, the IT equivalent of a custom motorcycle that nobody but them really knows all of the intricate details of his system.  In environments like these the there are a number of problems, not the least of which is that despite any built-in redundancies, the single-point-of-failure becomes the individual who so often have not properly documented their tweaks, so when they are approached about modernizing the systems they tend to get protective of ‘their jobs,’ and the costs of upgrading are severely increased due to the inherent complexities of a custom system coupled with the often stubborn pushback from the staff.

We end up with a government running the IT equivalent of 1982 Buicks that were purchased new in 1986 – they may have been the best cars on the market in their time, but after years of consideration and review they were four years old when they were new, and that was a long time ago.  Even with constant maintenance (which is seldom done to factory spec) they require more of it than they did new, and nobody wants to pay for that.  Also the drivers are itching for newfangled features such as air conditioning, bucket seats, and electric windows… that would simply be impossible to retrofit into the old cars.

Infrastructure projects such as private cloud based on new servers are even harder for an IT department to justify because the vast majority of the improvements and benefits are to the back-end that are never seen by anyone… they may look pretty in their racks, but the reality is an end user checking his (or her) e-mail does not care if the mail server is running Exchange Server 5.5 or Exchange 2010, nor if that server is physical or virtualized.  The mail comes in and goes out, that is enough for them.  The proposal, therefore, must be made strictly based on numbers, and although most IT people are pretty good at math most of them do not have a background in (nor a strong understanding of) accounting principles or how to prepare a business proposal.

So with all of this working against us as an industry, how do we begin to try to solve it?  Where do we start?

Attitudes.  It is as important for us to change attitudes, from the top down and from the ground up.  It is as important to show the politicians the value of a modern IT infrastructure within their organization as it is to teach the IT professionals the skills to deliver compelling proposals in business-speak.  All levels have to understand the benefits – the positive, such as long-term cost benefits, green solutions, and heightened security capabilities, as well as the potential negative impact and costs of maintaining older systems that are out of warranty, harder to secure, and often more costly to program.

Drive. It is incumbent upon us to reengage with the IT Pros and remind them of the passion that drew them into their field in the first place, reignite the fires they once had.  Very little has ever been accomplished by those lacking passion.

Education. Often enough the people who want to drive new projects lack the full understanding of the actual benefits of the projects that could actually tip the balance from no to yes.  Explaining that end users will be happier with Windows 7 and that it will be easier to manage and support may be part of their argument, but being able to show the cost benefit prediction model might tip the balance.

These are three very simple answers to a not-so-simple problem.  There are so many other factors to consider, not the least of which are privacy requirements in the government and the fear of scandal (remember the eHealth boondoggle).  Again, the nail who sticks his head up…

Most people (the voters) also don’t understand the benefits of modern IT, and would rather see ministries spend their money only when absolutely necessary, and then only on the least expensive solution.  This attitude when it comes to IT is a dangerous one, but the average voter does not understand anything about IT, and unlike the minister is limited to possibly hearing a one minute news broadcast, or three column inches of reporting of facts, followed by hours of talk show hosts who usually don’t understand IT any better than the listeners, but who understand that taxpayer dollars are being spent on something that nobody is going to see and few are going to use.  That is a good way to ensure that the minister in question turns the plan down and looks for less expensive alternatives… that usually cost much more in the long run.

There are so many factors on the table that make it a daunting task for the leaders of the IT industry in Canada – people who really know and understand the benefits of implementing modern technology – to make inroads in government agencies, ministries, and departments.  I don’t have the whole solution, but I hope that in this article I have sufficiently outlined the major pain points so that others can tackle the problem and start fixing it.

70-659 Vouchers Giveaway!

Hey folks my friends at TekSource Corporate Learning (www.teksource.ca) in Toronto have told me that they have just received nine (9) more vouchers for the 70-659 exam (TS: Microsoft Windows Server 2008: Server Virtualization).  Knowing that so many of you were disappointed when Ruth (Technology Advisor, Microsoft Canada) announced that she was out of them, I thought I would take this opportunity to offer them up to you.

Now, there are some pre-conditions:

  1. First priority is going to go to members of the IT Pro Toronto Virtual Study Group (or any other affiliated study group from across the country).  They have done the work, and many were under the impression that we had promised them vouchers.
  2. Second priority will go to people who have attended any session that I have led or participated in.  That means a user group event, IT Pro Boot Camp, Tae Kwon Do class, Summit, anything… as long as I was there and recognized as a presenter or proctor.
  3. Third priority goes to Canadian IT Pros.  I know I support the community worldwide, but my first priority for this program has to go to Canada.  They are not geo-locked, but I will be checking! :)
  4. You have to schedule and take the exam before May 31, 2012.

So with that being said, if you want a voucher I need for you to do two things:

  1. Comment on this blog article to the effect of ‘I want a voucher! I want to get certified!’
  2. If you are a member of one of the study groups, send me an e-mail letting me know which one, who the leader is, and when it ended (or is scheduled to end).  That will of course put you to the front of the line.
  3. If you are not a member of one of the study groups let me know which session you attended.
  4. If you did not attend one of my sessions let me know where in Canada you live… and work or study!
  5. Check your e-mail!  If you don’t get an e-mail then I am sorry, you didn’t get it.

That’s it folks.  I will ask one more thing though… Commit to writing the exam before May 31.  If for any reason you cannot I do not want to see any of these vouchers (value: $150 US Dollars!) wasted.  Also please let me know how you did!  I am always very interested in the success of my students and readers!

Good luck… both with the contest and the exam!

Women in IT? Why Not?

I have been watching the ‘Women in IT’ movement grow over the past several years, and I truly do applaud women who want a career in IT.  However I do not think that women deserve any special consideration for being women in the professional world.

A friend of mine, Melinda Thrasher, wrote a great article recently on her views.  I applaud her initiative and know that she will make it in the field – not because she is a woman, but because she is smart.  That is what it takes, and if women feel they are persecuted in the field then I have not seen it in reality.

Read Melinda’s article here… it’s an interesting read from a woman on the verge of entering the IT field! http://techxygirl.posterous.com/women-in-tech-breaking-perceptions

Why We Support Communities

I wrote this article a few days ago, and decided that before I posted it here I would offer it to the CanITPro Team – IT Pro Connection.  They published it on January 31st as a guest blog post. 

I am now republishing it here, so that it can get the most exposure.  I have spoken to so many people across Canada and around the world who ask me why I spend so much time helping the IT Pro Community, and what value I see the MVP Program as having to me personally.  Sometimes it is not supposed to be about what it can do for me, but what I can do for others.  I can think of no better example of that than this article, an interview with a man who saw me speak at a user group that I founded five years ago, and whose life changed because of it.

If you are an IT Pro then you should be involved in your community.  Most of us start by attending meetings, absorbing information, and learning.  Later on you might join a committee, help run a study group or events, or join the board.  At a certain point you may realize you know something as well as or better than others, and you can put together a presentation – whether that be for an entire session or for a fifteen minute session, such as Sean Kearney’s IT Pro Toronto ‘PowerShell Snacks’.  But remember… like any other community you are responsible for giving back what you put in so that those who follow you will be able to benefit from your knowledge and experience, just as you benefited from the knowledge and experiences of others.

Last week I met a man at the Microsoft Virtualization Boot Camp who nearly made me cry.  His name is Andrew Thomas, and he is the reason I have spent the last eight years building, running, and supporting IT Pro user groups.  I asked him if he would be willing to answer a few questions for me by e-mail and he did.  For those of us who have worked for years to build the user group community in Canada, there is no more gratifying and inspiring story, because this is why we do what we do.  User groups do not build and run themselves… they require a lot of hard work and dedication from all sorts of people who seldom get any recognition for it.  That is why when I ran user groups I made a point of thanking the people who helped me, and when I speak to user groups today I try to always thanks and recognize not only the UG Leader, but those who help him along the way.

This is Andrew’s story:

Five years ago I was working as a Bench Technician with one of the large retail chains.  I had managed to work my way up to Tech Manager but was not very happy in my job.

I don’t know when I went to my first ITProToronto meeting or even how I heard of it, but I was on a number of mailing lists and would go to events when I was invited.  The first meeting I attended was held in Mississauga (which puts the timeline around early 2008).  I live in Scarborough but was working in Mississauga at the time.  I was hooked after my first user group meeting and was happy when the events were moved to Toronto because of the commute.

I went to the first few meetings thinking that I would meet people whom I could network with to try and find another job but I lost my nerve when I realized the depth of knowledge of the members.  I felt a bit out of my depth, but I kept going to the meetings because I kept learning from the presentations as well as from the other members.

The turning point for me came when we had a meeting about the then NEW HP Media Smart Home Server.  I had purchased one a month earlier and had been playing with it.  Suddenly I was having conversations with members about how the Server worked, what it did and how, and since nobody else had played with one yet I quickly realized that now *I* was one of the experts in the room!

It dawned on me that I was smarter than I thought… I had already earned a couple of certifications (including MCP and A+), and had implemented so much of the advanced technology in my basement (including Windows Server, DNS, DHCP, Exchange Server, Linux, and IIS) but it never occurred to me that I was good enough to work for a company as a systems administrator or domain admin.  I was really good as a bench technician, but did not have the confidence to turn my hobby into a career.

After that Home Server meeting I dusted off my résumé and hit the pavement looking for work.  My certifications were a little weak, but I had experience in all sorts of different technologies.  I took a job with a small financial company in Scarborough that was looking for an assistant for their system administrator.  I took the job only to find out that the sysadmin was mostly a trainer with no experience in networking, hardware or domain administration; they were having everything done by contractors and he was doing his day-to-day stuff by using search engines and the literally administering by the seat of his pants.  However he was a smart guy and did manage to keep their systems running for 2 years.

As luck would have it he got another job so I inherited the Network.  It was an opportunity for me to show what I could do on my own.  Unfortunately the company went bankrupt three months later, and I was looking again.

I decided to take a year off to travel, and was surprised when I returned to the workforce to find out that I no longer had the qualifications I needed to get the jobs that I wanted.  My Windows 2000 certifications were just not good enough, as Windows Server 2003 was the standard and Windows Server 2008 was about to be released.  I decided to invest the time to spend a year at school, where I studied all of the newest technologies, and became certified in Windows Server 2008, Exchange Server 2007, as well as Linux.

Now that I have all of the right credentials I have set a lower limit for any job I would ever accept, and that lower limit is more than twice what I was earning as a bench technician.  I am working on projects that include all of those technologies and more, including Server Virtualization (which I am now comfortable with thanks to the Microsoft Canada IT Pro Virtualization Boot Camp!), and more.  I support users and environments, and the list goes on and on.

It may look like you just go to a meeting but the user group (for me anyway) is a lot more than that.  I learned things – both about technology and about myself.  I never would have had the courage to make such drastic career changes if it was not for the user group meetings.  Now I can go out and put all my skills that I have learned over the years to work for me and I thank the group for that.

CanIT! (Pro)

For years I have followed, worked with, and looked to the IT Evangelism team at Microsoft Canada for guidance and direction.  My first encounter with them probably dates back to 2003 (before there was an actual team), but I really started to get to know them in 2005.  When Rick Claus came to speak to the GUMSNET user group about virtualization in November, 2004 I saw him behind the podium at Microsoft Canada as a behemoth (and he is not nearly tall enough to be that), and as I got to know the other members of the team – past, present, and future – I always admired the passion they had for what they discussed, along with (obviously) a deep knowledge of the technologies they discussed.

Last week Rick Claus, the ‘Team Elder’ as it were, announced that he has moved on.  He is still an IT Evangelist for Microsoft, but he has moved down to Redmond and is now working for Corp.  I wish him well, and know that while we will miss him in Canada he will be a great addition to the team in Redmond.

Meanwhile back in Canada I am currently doing a lot of work with the Evangelism team on their Virtualization Boot Camp tour, and was thrilled that Damir asked to re-post two of my articles from this site there.  They are:

What’s a Layer 1 or Layer 2 Hypervisor and Where Does Hyper-V Fit in?

and

Virtualization Infrastructure: Which platform is right for you?

I am currently in the process of writing another article which I hope to cross-post shortly.  Keep your eyes peeled to both these sites for great information that will help you grow as an IT Professional!  Also watch both sites for news about other cities where the Virtualization Boot Camp will be showing up… they are a great opportunity for you to learn virtualization, win cash prizes, and support your local user group community!

Who Pray Tell is Jack Oprah: Missing pieces are easier to contend with than wrong ones.

Although I have of late been on another ‘digging through the archives’ kick, I was reminded of this article from 2005 by a friend of mine who occasionally refers to it to remind me that I really can write about anything when I am so inspired.  Thanks for reminding me of that Jess!  Unfortunately I am still flummoxed by the one article I am working on, but that will happen.  In the meantime, here’s Jack. –M

I was in my favourite cafe this evening and noticed the barista had got up from the crossword puzzle over which she had been agonizing.  I walked over for a glance, and noticed immediately that it was replete with errors. 

5 Across: Fat-Free Jack. Her answer: OPRAH.

I was amused because the middle three letters were obviously right, but instead of seeing if she could get more clues to help her, she just took any name that would fit, regardless of the consequences.

In IT we do this quite frequently.  We have a client whose systems just stopped working, and he will grab any solution that fixes his immediate problem, often to the detriment of the total final solution.  In some cases this is what the client wants – an immediate fix to the immediate problem.  The problem is that some of those filler solutions can cause greater problems later on, and if we do not take note of what we did we may find ourselves hunting for another quick fix to an immediate problem caused by these filler solutions.

I am as guilty as most, though when I get the system working I generally take the time to figure out what went wrong, and work towards a permanent (and best-practices) solution.  I admit to being quite successful with this approach… most of the time.

A colleague of mine refuses to work that way.  To him he would rather the client be down for 15-30 minutes longer, but when he is back up he can be sure that the problem is well and truly solved.  He and I have had a number of discussions on this, and it shows two different ways of looking at things: I will extend myself out on a limb, and he likes the CYA approach.  I am not saying one is more right than the other, I am only saying that different professionals can have fundamental differences in approaches and viewpoints, and respect each other without agreeing.

I suppose in a true emergency my experience has always been ‘now means now.’  It comes from my background, and it is very difficult for me to escape.  Internet is down?  Get it up.  Period.  Shortest distance is right, and smooth it out later.  I have a hard time telling clients ‘I could get to the bottom of the problem and you may be down for another 30 minutes’ when I can say ‘I’ll have you up as soon as I flick this switch, and when everyone goes home I will get to the bottom of the original problem so that it doesn’t happen again.’  Depending on the client I am sure I have gained or lost points for this approach.

The problem in IT is that when you just patch in a quick fix the real solution gets harder to see.  When I look at a crossword puzzle I look at the blank spaces and like most of us my eyes assume that the letters filled in are right.  Those wrong letters are not just missing pieces, they are bread crumbs leading down the wrong path in the forest.  We see them there, and if they are there then there’s a reason.  Unfortunately they are like a magician’s misdirection, designed to draw your eyes from the real issue at hand.

My advice to aspiring crossword puzzle solvers?  Use a fine pencil with a good eraser.  If you aspire to solving network connectivity issues, I suggest practice, training, and before you can take leaps to fill in the blanks, make sure you have the experience you need to un-leap yourself… a neat trick indeed until the client and his fifty employees who are all off-line and lurking over your shoulder learn to be patient with IT problems that they will probably never understand.

I am sure that someone out there knows someone whose name really is Jack Oprah, and I apologize to you.  For Jack Sprat, you will have to chase down my barista, and forgive her youth and inexperience.  I did when my cappuccino came with cinnamon instead of chocolate!