The Inefficiencies of Legacy Thinking

Until recently, I was working at a company that was in the process of migrating their datacenters into the cloud.  Their policies, written many years ago, stated that information had to go through their corporate firewalls.  During the Covid-19 outbreak that saw 95% of the workforce working from home, this was nevertheless interpreted to include corporate e-mail (which was stored in the Office 365 cloud) and video-conferencing (hosted through Zoom, WebEx, and other cloud providers).  This caused tremendous latency and led to poor transmissions.  When I asked why we were forcing our users to route their WebEx and Zoom traffic through a corporate (on-premises) virtual private network (VPN), I was told simply that: “Because the Corporate IT Security Policy requires it.”  Based on that, I wrote the following article.  It was not published at the time, but a couple of the co-workers I shared it with did take up the cause to have the policy changed. –MDG

I used to live in a part of Glendale, California called Adam’s Hill… thusly named because yes, we were on a hill.  If you are at all familiar with the topology of the Los Angeles area, you know that there are several hills and mountains to it; when I looked out from my patio (which was essentially the top of Adam’s Hill), I could see in the distance – maybe five miles away – the next hill.  Traffic in Los Angeles can be extreme, so it is likely that for me to get to the next hill, through all of the side-streets and with all of the traffic and streetlights, it would take me an hour… which is to say, I would get there at a rate of about five miles per hour.

RoadImagine I needed to get to the next hill on a daily basis, and I had all the money in the world… I decide to build a highway overpass that reaches from the bottom of my driveway right to my destination on the other hill.  At a reasonable clip of seventy-five miles per hour, I have now cut my trip from one hour to four minutes… at a tremendous cost, but for whatever reason I thought it was worth it.

The federal government sees me working on this project and determines that I cannot just build a road straight through, but I would have to build inspection booths at either end to make sure of whatever they want to make sure of.  They determine that each inspection – source and destination – will take five minutes.  Okay, my initial one-hour drive what had initially dropped to four minutes is now up to fourteen minutes.  This is a little frustrating, but it is still a tremendous savings.

The state government gets involved, and they determine that every highway must be patrolled by California Highway Patrol, and because the road is only thirty feet wide, they are imposing a maximum speed limit of fifty-five miles per hour.  I am, of course, a law-abiding citizen, so I will never exceed the speed limit.  Okay, what could have been a four-minute trip is now a fifteen-and-a-half-minute trip.  This is getting a bit silly…

The municipal governments look at my road and determine that my road goes through several residential neighbourhoods, and because of that, both to protect our children and to limit noise pollution, they have decided I need to install speed bumps that will limit my car’s ability to exceed ten miles per hour.  Now what would optimally have been a four-minute trip has now expanded to a forty-minute trip.

There are two ways to look at this:

  1. 40 minutes, down from 60 minutes, represents a 33% time saving; every work week I will have saved 100 minutes in commuting.
  2. With the tremendous amount of investment dedicated to this project – including time, manpower, cost of materials, cost of labour, permits, and such – we could have expected as much as a 90% time saving, and the mere 33% saving is paltry indeed.

So, where did our project go wrong… if at all?

A traffic jam on the 5 freeway heading south in Orange County California.It is easy to say that all of the levels of government had valid points to make about the road.  They have, after all, been building and managing roads for many years.  However, if this is a new style of road, using completely new technologies and accepting only the most modern cars, is it still true that all of the legacy rules that were important in the past should still apply to our road?

If we are building a solution using new technologies, rather than standing our ground firmly stating that the rules (and technologies) we have always implemented should be equally implemented here, would it not make sense to reevaluate each of these?  This is not to say that all of our old rules and technologies should immediately be discarded… but is it not worth reviewing to see if they are still relevant to modern infrastructure? 

As an example, do municipal speed limits that protect pedestrians matter on a road that is inaccessible to pedestrians?  If the noise created is undetectable to anyone who is not at the same level as the road, is it important to manage it?

I ask these questions because we, as the IT Professionals managing our organizations, have for many years done an outstanding job of protecting our datacenters.  However, in an era where the datacenter is becoming less relevant, and where cloud tools have modern tools that can protect them, should we not look at these, rather than focus on what worked well in the past?

As did most of us, I grew up in the datacenter.  It was not always easy, but I have learned to let go of a lot of what was, in favour of what is now.  Can we keep these questions in mind as we continue to migrate our company into the cloud?

Cloud Storage: What’s your favourite?

A few weeks ago Bauke Roesink, a fellow blogger, reached out to me to ask for a blub for a piece he was doing on Cloud Storage.  He asked me to write up what platform I use to share large files, and why.  The results would be featured in a piece he was doing, that eventually became Transfer Big Files – 44 pros reveal how to send large files.

I did not have a single answer; I use several different platforms, and that is what I wrote up.  Is one better or worse than another?  Probably not, depending on what platform you need to use it from (OneDrive certainly integrates more seamlessly with Windows 8 than the others because it was developed by the same company; I would expect Google Drive wins hands down on Android devices).  I listed the four that I use (I excluded FTP, even though I do use that from time to time) and the reasons I use them.  I list my favourite as OneDrive, and I explain my reasons.

So if I prefer OneDrive, you may ask, why don’t I just stick to the one?  Simple… not all of the people I share files with use it.  I have been supporting DropBox and Google Drive for several months since I joined Yakidoo in August, but I only created a DropBox account for myself when one of my colleagues at Taekwondo told me he was using that platform to share videos and information that I will need to prepare for my upcoming test, as well as videos of our demo team.

I only heard about Box recently when I was at an event on the Microsoft Campus and one of the presenter’s machines had an icon for it in their task bar.  A few days later I found out that one of the companies I work for was investing heavily in a PoC on Box, so I was instantly introduced to it.

The article was published this week and I read it (I did not read all of the bits about why people use which platform) and I think it is a great exposé… with one glaring inaccuracy.  The article lists the 15 best cloud storage services.

Aside from the fact that a number of the options listed are not actually cloud storage services (e-mail certainly would not be classified as such, nor BitTorrent Sync), I am wondering if a more accurate title wouldn’t be ‘the 15 most popular cloud storage solutions.’  If there is one thing that Windows 95 taught is it is that Best and Most Used are not necessarily one and the same.

Nonetheless it is certainly an interesting read… I am not surprised that many of us noted that we use more than one service (if we can agree that OneDrive and OneDrive for Business are two separate services, then I use four).  In some cases we list that it is the features we like, often it is the price.  Some list that they have aligned with a vendor and use that product exclusively.  Who is right and who is wrong?  None of us.

I am always concerned when I hear that one or the other service has been hacked or otherwise compromised, and am glad that to date my favourite has been secure.  What will the future hold?  Who knows.  In the meantime, I only keep files on-line that if they were to be made public would not actually ruin me.  What should you use? You decide!

Managing Your SMB-IT Without Server

A set of clouds

You have a small business.  You have been running Windows Small Business Server 2003 for six years, and you know that it is time to retire it.  The question is, what should replace it?

Before you make any definitive decisions, why not review what you need your server to do:

  • File Server
  • Mail Server
  • Internet Portal
  • Centralized Management

For the past several years you have paid a consultant to manage the server and your client PCs, and have primarily called him in for break-fix issues.  Maybe you were industrious and decided to learn the basics of IT so you could do a lot of the maintenance yourself.  You might even be a small-business IT consultant who has been managing and maintaining SBS environments for your clients.

You have heard so much about the cloud that you are in a bit of a fog… you know that people are talking about cloud-services, but haven’t quite figured out how they can work for you… to save you money, to earn you money.

Replacing the Server

For most small businesses I still recommend a centralized server; Active Directory is still the best mechanism you will find for centralized user management, and Group Policy allows you to lock down your environment.

With that being said, many of the functionalities offered in Microsoft Small Business Server are now available as part of two cloud-services offerings from Microsoft.  Microsoft Office 365 offers all of the functionality listed above (File Server, Mail Server, Internet Portal) and much more.  It is actually all of the following products in the cloud:

Office 365 allows you to have the functionality of all of these tools… without having to purchase or maintain them.  It also means that you will always have the latest versions of all of these… without having to upgrade.  ‘Your servers’ will be maintained by the Microsoft IT team, without your having to pay them hundreds of dollars per hour.  If any of your services go down (and admittedly they do occasionally) you can rest assured that before you even discover the outage the people who know the products best will already be well on their way to fixing the issues.

Managing the Desktop

Between the operating system and the applications, there is a lot of work that goes into the proper maintenance of your PCs.  That includes anti-malware, patch management, policies, and more.  Additionally being able to generate and view reports is a huge benefit – as I always say If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it!

So Before we get into application side of things,  let’s discuss the benefits of the second cloud-services offering, Windows InTune.  InTune installs as a simple agent on your Windows PC, and the list of benefits is amazing:

  • Upgrade rights to Windows 7 Enterprise
  • Windows InTune Endpoint Protection (centralized anti-malware solution)
  • Centralized Patch Management
  • Policy Deployment
  • Application Deployment
  • Device Reporting
  • Alerts
  • License Management

When you subscribe to Windows InTune (per-PC subscription) you get the right to upgrade your legacy Windows client (Professional/Business/Enterprise SKUs) to Windows 7 Enterprise.  Right there you have the basis for the common operating system required to simplify management.

Windows 7 Enterprise Edition includes two features that Business Edition does not:

  1. Multiple language support; and
  2. BitLocker drive encryption technology

With the preponderance of mobile computing these days, as well as organizations doing business around the world, there is no question that Windows 7 Enterprise is an easier feature-by-feature sell than the lower-priced options, but that lower price seems to be a deciding factor so often.  With the Use Rights in Windows InTune you don’t have to settle.

Once the Windows InTune agent is deployed on a PC it will start populating the individual computer’s information to the InTune system, and you will be able to get a better idea of what you have.  On the Devices screen you will be able to see:

Computer Name Total Disk Space CPU Speed
Chassis Type Used Disk Space Last User to Log On
Manufacturer & Model Free Disk Space Serial Number
Operating System Physical Memory Last Hardware Status

imageIncluded in the Windows InTune installation is the Windows Intune Endpoint Protection engine, which will protect your PCs from malware.  It uses the built-in patch management system to keep the definitions up to date, and offers real-time protection, as well as centralized reporting and e-mail alerts to the Help Desk / Support Team / IT Guy when a computer is infected.

InTune 2.0 added the ability to centrally deploy applications to client PCs.  InTune 3.0 adds an extra to this – the ability for end-users to install published applications on-demand.  The new Company Portal allows users to help themselves on-line, before eventually ‘escalating the call’ to you.

Users can also deploy their own client from the portal, assuming they have the proper credentials.  This allows them to download a client using their corporate credentials, rather than you having to send them the file (along with the ACCOUNTCERT file) which would allow anyone (in theory) to install on any device that would automatically be managed by… you.

By far the most common application suite found on desktops in the workplace is Microsoft Office.  The most common complaint I hear about Office is the cost (followed by the difficult to understand SKUs).  Of course, with Office in the name it is no wonder that it is part of Office 365.

Of course there are several different SKUs to Office 365, and each one has different offerings.  The small business SKU (P1) costs $6/month, and does not include the installable suite.  However it does include Office Web Apps, which means you can create and edit Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, and of course use OneNote… all within your web browser.  This is great if you work on multiple systems, or if you are ever remote and need to work on a document.  The convenience loses its thrill when you realize you cannot work if you don’t have an Internet connection.

The E1, E2, and E3 SKUs do come with the client software, so if that is a requirement then those SKUs (which cost quite a bit more) are probably better for you.

Why you should consider maintaining a server on-site

Our mail server is gone… so are our SharePoint and File Servers.  Why then would I still recommend a small server in a small business environment? There are several reasons.

  1. Active Directory.  As I mentioned earlier in the article, AD is a great way to centralize security and credentials.  Additionally there are plenty of hooks from Active Directory into Office 365 (which can be covered in a later article).
  2. Deployment Server.  Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2012 is the perfect companion to your new Windows 7 Enterprise licenses.  In under an hour you can create a deployment point that will deploy Windows and all of your applications (including the Lync Client and the Windows InTune agent) in fifteen minutes (or less).  It is by far the easiest way to deploy Windows to your desktops, laptops, and even tablets!
  3. Hyper-V.  Although many of our applications will be installed directly onto the laptop, many companies still have server-based applications that require an application server.  Hyper-V is the best way to create those servers on-site, for a plethora of reasons that have been outlined ad nauseum previously at www.garvis.ca, and countless other sites.  Of course, your virtualized application servers can run any version of the Windows Server operating system, but they can also run any supported client OS, as well as several iterations of Linux (supported and enlightened) and any other x86-based OS (neither supported nor enlightened).
  4. Group Policy.  Although Windows InTune v3 has much better policy support than its predecessors, there is no denying that Group Policy is the best way to granularly control, configure, and secure your client and server environments.  Whether you want to enforce secure passwords, BitLocker, or simply set a centralized screen saver and desktop wallpaper, the best way to do it is by creating a GPO in Active Directory.

As you see the combination of cloud-based services from Microsoft and an on-line Windows Server are the best way to manage your entire SMB IT infrastructure, but even if you are not going to maintain an on-premise server the cloud-based services can manage most of the needs of most SMBs.

By the way, there is one more advantage to these solutions… you will always have the latest and greatest.  Right now the Windows InTune subscription comes with use rights for Windows 7 Enterprise.  When Windows 8 is released, you will automatically have access to that platform.  Office 365 comes with Office 2010… but when the next version is released you will have that version right away too!

Interested in hearing more?  Drop me a line and we’ll talk… or you can check out www.windowsintune.com and www.office365.com to download 30-day trials of each!

Are you a SkyDriver?

Well if you aren’t, you should be!  Right now loyal SkyDrive users have the opportunity to upgrade their default 7GB free on-line storage to 25GB on-line storage… but that’s not the best part.  Here are some huge changes that will rock your world with cloud-based storage:

image1) SkyDrive is a free service… that is not changing.  However if your 7GB (or 25GB) free storage is still constricting, you can now purchase additional space on a yearly basis… and it is really not very expensive – $10 for an extra 20GB, right up to $50 per year for an additional 100GB of free on-line storage.  Now that is impressive, and beyond the requirements of most people that I know.

 

SNAGHTMLb1821cc2) Remember Live Mesh? Well it is now integrated into the Live SkyDrive… or at least the functionality is.  So you can now download the Microsoft SkyDrive app (for Windows, Mac, Windows Phone, iPhone and iPad!) and then synchronize your Live SkyDrive to any device.  As you can see in the screenshot I have a folder within the profile on my primary laptop configured to synchronize… it is by default created at %user%\SkyDrive.  However you can configure it however you like.  This allows me to store all of my files here… and have them automatically backed up into the cloud!

 

 

3) I am told that the new file size limit is 2GB… I haven’t tried this out yet, but that is a huge file to store in the cloud, and a great improvement on the previous file size limit of 100MB.

So in short, if you are not yet a SkyDriver, now is the time… have fun, and TO THE CLOUD!!!

Tweet Chat – Cloud-proofing your IT career

I am excited about this.  Tomorrow (Tuesday, April 3rd) I will be the guest on Microsoft Learning’s Tweet Chat.  The topic will be what IT professionals should be doing to ensure they stay relevant in this day and age where so much of what we see in the IT industry is heading into the clouds.

This Tweet Chat series is one of the ways that Microsoft Learning is honouring the twentieth anniversary of their first certifications.  All you have to do to follow along and join in is watch for the hash tag #20yrs20ways.  I was amazed to find out that Microsoft certifications are actually celebrating their 20th… although I admit that I have only been certified since March 31, 2003 (hey, I just celebrated my 9th anniversary this week-end!).  I would love to hear from people who have been around longer how they feel certifications have changed, and if they are more or less relevant than they once were.

While we will start with questions from Microsoft Learning (that I will be doing my best to answer in 140 characters or less), I expect that we will quickly start taking questions from the audience – in other words YOU!  This Tweet Chat is meant to be fully interactive with the audience, and I will do my best to answer as many questions as I can… which is why for the morning session (9:00am Eastern, 6:00am Pacific) I will be sequestered in my hotel room in Calgary, Alberta… and for the afternoon session (7:00pm Eastern, 4:00pm Pacific) I will be in my room in Edmonton. 

Normally these sessions would be at the same PM hour as the AM hour, but Microsoft Learning was good enough to make this exception for me, as I will be presenting tomorrow evening at the Edmonton Microsoft Users Group.  If you are in town, come on out!  I’d love to meet you!  If not… I’ll be repeating my session (Architecting and Supporting the Back-End Infrastructure for the Consumerization of IT) across Canada over the coming months.

In the meantime, I hope to see you on Twitter… just follow @MGarvis and of course #20yrs20ways so you don’t miss a minute!

Getting Started with Cloud Computing

I have been asked by Microsoft Canada to post this to the site.  Please feel free to comment, and let me know when you do get stared with Office 365, InTune, or Azure! -Mitch

You’ve likely heard about how Office 365 and Windows Intune are great applications to get you started with Cloud Computing. Many of you emailed me asking for more info on what Cloud Computing is, including the distinction between "Public Cloud" and "Private Cloud". I want to address these questions and help you get started. Let’s begin with a brief set of definitions and some places to find more info; however, an excellent place where you can always learn more about Cloud Computing is the Microsoft Virtual Academy.

Public Cloud computing means that the infrastructure to run and manage the applications users are taking advantage of is run by someone else and not you. In other words, you do not buy the hardware or software to run your email or other services being used in your organization – that is done by someone else. Users simply connect to these services from their computers and you pay a monthly subscription fee for each user that is taking advantage of the service. Examples of Public Cloud services include Office 365, Windows Intune, Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, Hotmail, and others.

Private Cloud computing generally means that the hardware and software to run services used by your organization is run on your premises, with the ability for business groups to self-provision the services they need based on rules established by the IT department. Generally, Private Cloud implementations today are found in larger organizations but they are also viable for small and medium-sized businesses since they generally allow an automation of services and reduction in IT workloads when properly implemented. Having the right management tools, like System Center 2012, to implement and operate Private Cloud is important in order to be successful.

So – how do you get started? The first step is to determine what makes the most sense to your organization. The nice thing is that you do not need to pick Public or Private Cloud – you can use elements of both where it makes sense for your business – the choice is yours. When you are ready to try and purchase Public Cloud technologies, the Microsoft Volume Licensing web site is a good place to find links to each of the online services. In particular, if you are interested in a trial for each service, you can visit the following pages: Office 365, CRM Online, Windows Intune, and Windows Azure.

For Private Cloud technologies, start with some of the courses on Microsoft Virtual Academy and then download and install the Microsoft Private Cloud technologies including Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V and System Center 2012 in your own environment and take it for a spin. Also, keep up to date with the Canadian IT Pro blog to learn about events Microsoft is delivering such as the IT Virtualization Boot Camps and more to get you started with these technologies hands on.

Finally, I want to ask for your help to allow the team at Microsoft to continue to provide you what you need. Twice a year through something we call "The Global Relationship Study" – they reach out and contact you to see how they’re doing and what Microsoft could do better. If you get an email from "Microsoft Feedback" with the subject line "Help Microsoft Focus on Customers and Partners" between March 5th and April 13th, please take a little time to tell them what you think.

The Dawn of a New Community

I had no idea when I was scheduled to come to Buenos Aires that I would be here to watch such a momentous event.  A month ago Elias Mereb, a fellow MVP from Venezuela, found out I was coming down and introduced me to Daniel Levi, a DPE at Microsoft Argentina.  Daniel told me that on the evening of November 8th Microsoft was hosting a ‘Virtualization Launch Event’, and if I wanted to come I was welcome.  He actually looked into getting a simultaneous translation service so that I could speak, but that did not work… which is good, because as I sit here at the back of the room I am a bit jetlagged and have slept 30 minutes since yesterday morning!

I should mention that my Spanish is horrible… but I understand a lot more than I can speak.  That is why as I sit at the back of the room listening to Daniel present, it is like déjà vu all over again.  It could easily be November, 2004 in Montreal, and Rick Claus speaking instead of Daniel.  Not only are we discussing virtualization – that first meeting 7 years ago Rick presented on Virtual Server – but he and Harp Girn also covered the importance of community, and asked us who was willing to participate.

On that fateful day Daniel Nerenberg and I raised our hands and stepped forward.  I would be hard pressed to come up with a more crucial junction in the formative years of my career as that moment.  Today it is Rodrigo de los Santos and Leandro Amore who are running the show as the inaugural presenter-volunteers, along with four others whom I had the opportunity to meet earlier.  I am so psyched to see this community – la Comunidad de Usarios de Tecnologias de Nube Privada (Public Cloud Technologies User Group) – coming to life.  I remember Steve and Fred from GUMSNET who were our spark, and I remember Thomas Kroll, Max Viel, Randy Knobloch, and a couple of others who were our initial leadership group.  MITPro started the same way as la Comunidad de Usarios de Tecnologias de Nube Privada is, just a few years earlier.

I tip my hat to these guys… and I will be honest, although I know that they are discussing heterogeneous virtualization host management in System Center Virtual Machine Manager, and can see the SCVMM screen on the overhead, I cannot understand a word that they are saying.  However the audience is enthralled… as a professional speaker I know what indifferent audiences look like and I know what captive audiences look like… these guys are captive, and the house is packed – two MPR rooms and hardly an empty seat, plus 10 people at the back of the room.  It is amazing to see.  This is a user group that has the potential to succeed, and as long as they have the right people at the helm (and they seem to!) then they will do great.

Interestingly enough, I met my first Microsoft MVP that night in 2004… tonight I had the opportunity to meet a fellow MVP who is a fellow member of the STEP Program – Roberto Di Lello.  We had spoken before, but we had never met.  It is great to see that just as they do in Toronto and Montreal and all of the other cities where I have visited, the local MVPs come out to support the user group community.  Thanks Roberto!

As Leandro and Rodrigo go on about the Cloud in Spanish I am ever tempted to raise my hand and ask the only question that I could easily ask in Spanish… ‘Que?’  Of course I would get a laugh, but I won’t do it.  I wouldn’t want them to do it to me!  However in complete seriousness, if you are in or around Argentina, you should reach out to Daniel and ask him about the IT Camp that he is planning for March, which will be the real Launch for this amazing group.  There will be a lot to learn, and I am just hoping that I will be able to come back to speak then.

While they will be serving pizza at the end of the meeting, what really impressed me is what they had set up at the beginning… six laptops encouraging attendees to sign up for the Microsoft Virtual Academy (See Free Online Training and Resources from Microsoft).  There were two lovely ladies helping explain what it was, and giving away swag for every registrant.  Yet another idea that I may just have to borrow!

Good luck Argentina… you are launching nicely!

To join the conversation join the la Comunidad de Usarios de Tecnologias de Nube Privada (Public Cloud Technologies User Group) or look for them on LinkedIn.com!

Office365 Outage: It happens… know about it.

I have been using Microsoft Office365 to manage my e-mail since the beta program, and last month purchased the full program for SWMI Consulting Group.  Office365 includes, among so much more, the mail service in a cloud (Exchange 2010).  I have had few complaints – someone else manages it for me, and I can focus on my business.

This afternoon my e-mail went down for a couple of hours.  It is easy to detect if you are looking – the indicator at the bottom of the Microsoft Outlook client changed from Connected to Microsoft Exchange to Disconnected. I tried to connect to the Outlook Web Access site, but got a 503 Error.

At the same time I noticed several of my friends and colleagues on Twitter complaining of the same sort of outage, and not sure what to do.  Fortunately I have been down this road before, and knew just what to do.

I logged onto the Office365 Portal Page (https://portal.microsoftonline.com) and clicked on Admin along the top.  Along the left there is a Support link for Service Health.  The Service Health screen gives the current status of all of the services, and the one-week history.  The screen had a lot of green checkmarks, but under E-Mail and calendar access under Today was a red flag (seen below).

image

The red flag was a hyperlink, so when I clicked on it there was a three minute old notice that there was an open incident, that the status was Investigating, and the details said: ‘We are investigating a service issue and will provide updated information when it becomes available.’

I kept my eyes on this screen, and watched the progress. Over the course of the next couple of hours or so I was able to get my e-mail and my calendar.  It was fortunate, because people had told me to expect e-mails – and there were several outgoing e-mails waiting to be sent out.  Because of these communications I knew what was going on, and that it was being dealt with.  I continued along with my day.

image

Gartner agrees with me… Hyper-V is for real!

In September Microsoft Canada contracted me as a Virtual Partner Technology Advisor, tasking me with evangelizing Microsoft virtualization solutions.  One of the reasons I was such a good fit for the role is that I am very familiar with both Microsoft’s and VMware’s server virtualization solutions – I teach and consult on both platforms.  I am a VMware Certified Professional (VCP 4) as well as a Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) Virtualization Administrator.

For the past ten months I have (in an official capacity) espoused the benefits of Hyper-V and the Microsoft Server Virtualization Solutions.  I have visited over thirty partners and given a dozen or more presentations to user groups; I have taught at least five full classes of 10215A to partners and end users alike, and I continually hear the same question from IT Pros and users alike: ‘What you are telling us and showing us is nice, but can Microsoft really compete head to head with VMware for market dominance?  Are they really a legitimate player in the virtualization space that has for so many years been dominated by a single player?

My answer has been yes every time, and each time Microsoft releases new versions of Hyper-V – first 2008 R2, then this past winter Service Pack 1 – they come closer to technological parity.  The closer they come to being an equivalent technology (and they are now closer than ever!) the more the deciding factor is going to start coming down to price… and man, does Microsoft ever win in that category!

Of course it is easy to see me as biased, but I’m sure we all agree that Gartner is unbiased.  According to their latest (June 30, 2011) Magic Quadrant for x86 Server Virtualization Infrastructure, Microsoft has firmly taken a position in the Leaders square.  For years VMware alone occupied that coveted position (based on rankings along the X-axis of completeness of vision, and the Y-axis of ability to execute).  VMware (who it should be noted are still the leaders)  has Microsoft and then Citrix nipping at its heels.

According to the report:

Citrix and Microsoft have joined VMware in the Leaders Quadrant by increasing vision and execution respectively. Although market share leader VMware continues to set the standard in products and the pace in terms of strategy, Microsoft has increased its market share (especially among midmarket customers new to virtualization), and Citrix is leveraging its desktop virtualization strengths and its free XenServer offering to expand its server virtualization share. The road map from virtualization to cloud computing is rapidly evolving, and executing will be very important during the next year as this market continues to rapidly evolve and grow.

Interestingly one of the factors that many of the companies I have spoken to with regard to this choice – price, and the ability to make a profit off the solution – is called out in the report as both a key strength and a weakness ‘…when it comes to influencing the channel to promote its product, rather than its competition.’  Because Hyper-V is a free product (or, more accurately, is a component of a product that the client is already buying), there is nothing more to sell… the partners cannot mark up another product. 

One of the points listed in the Gartner report under ‘Cautions’ is the ‘Hypervisor dependence on a running copy of Windows as a parent operating system’ can also be viewed as a strength, because of the sheer amount of different hardware types supported, ranging from high-end server farms used in the enterprise to laptops and white-boxes that IT Pros, enthusiasts, and students may have in their basement as learning platforms.  For a recent presentation I was forced to downgrade my VMware hypervisor to an older version simply because ESX 4.1 was not supported and would not even install on my demo box. To quote the report:

The most significant hypervisor difference continues to be Microsoft’s reliance on a parent operating system on each virtualization host — which carries the benefit of a proven driver architecture, but the burden of potentially more planned downtime for patching and maintenance (however, Microsoft’s patch record to date for its parent operating system has been good).

All in all, I think it is going to be hard for VMware to remain the industry leader for long.  Let me be clear: they make great products.  Whatever my beef may be with the company, I don’t have a bad word to say against their server virtualization technology.  However with Microsoft catching up as fast as they are (System Center Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) 2012 is currently in beta) it is hard to see VMware remaining the industry leader for too much longer without coming up with something so dramatically new and unique as to vault them once again ahead of all other players.

I look forward to seeing vSphere 5 (possibly being released as early as July 12th); from what I have read mostly through unsanctioned sites it will be VERY interesting to see.  However I still don’t see it being worth the price difference. 

One thing’s for sure… it will be an interesting couple of years in the virtualization space!

Office 365–Complex or Options?

Last week Microsoft officially launched its cloud-based infrastructure offering, Office 365.  As a virtual insider I have been using this solution for the past six months for my IT consulting firm, and frankly had forgotten that it was a beta offering.  That is because while the packaging may be new, all of the applications – both client- and server-side – are mature products that released to manufacturing long since.

I am not surprised by the number of negative reviews; the different offerings and price points are complicated to understand, owing to the sheer number of them.  For the do-it-yourself guy who is not very technical it may be difficult setting up the DNS records properly.  Some of the features available in the rich client versions are not available in the on-line applications.

While I may disagree with some of the criticism I want to be clear that I share your pain; this morning I finally opened the e-mail that essentially said that ‘The Office 365 beta program is over; we hope you have enjoyed using it… now it’s time to start paying for it!’ I was disappointed that there was no link in the e-mail that would lead me to where I could do that.

When I did log into my management site (portal.microsoftonline.com) I was greeted with a simple, discrete line up top reminding me that I had 42 days remaining in my free trial subscription.  I was pleased by this because it takes the pressure off somewhat… until I click ‘Buy now’ and am told immediately that I need the E3 level subscription for my company. 

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Fortunately a closer read let me know that I had other options… I have already purchased the Office Professional clients for my computers, so that would save me a ton of money.  So now I had to look at my other options:

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These are the bundles available… but there are so many components, what if I only want to pick and choose the ones I want?

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What… there’s more?  Wow, keep scrolling!

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Ok at least I am near the end… all I have to do is expand Additional Services and I’ll know everything…

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All of a sudden this is looking daunting and expensive… maybe I should just buy a license of Windows Small Business Server 2011 to run my infra… wait a minute!  I had one of those ‘smack my forehead’ moments.  Doesn’t Microsoft usually put together special packaging and pricing for small businesses?  Certainly the six of us who use our corporate e-mail (and SharePoint, and and and) would qualify as an SMB… let’s see if I can find that anywhere on the page…

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Okay, let’s click here and see what turns up…

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Now wait a minute… $6/month per user?  There has to be a catch… scrolling down I see this plan offers me all of the services I need (and still many that I don’t)… I am still looking for a catch!

I haven’t found one… If you have the Office client (which I do) or are willing to use on-line apps (which have most but not all of the functionality, and have the pesky disadvantage of not being available on airplanes) then smaller organizations are in luck. $72 per user/year is not a lot considering the time I would have to spend installing, configuring, and maintaining my own Exchange and SharePoint servers.

So what about the confusing options for Enterprise?  There are absolutely a lot of choices.  There are people who will always say that Microsoft can’t get anything right, and the people who poo poo these editions and tiers are the same people who would complain that if they had fewer choices they would be restricted in their options.

For smaller businesses it is a no brainer, and for larger organizations they will have to sit down and plan what options they need.  Does Office 365 need more thought than competitive options?  Sure… but it also offers more choice.