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I’m Back!

As many of you know I left Microsoft to pursue other adventures when I did my first gig with Rakuten in the fall of 2013.  The plan was, according to the managers I spoke with, for me to return to Microsoft when I got back from Japan.

That obviously did not happen.

I will not go into any detail about what or why or when… but the last three years have been interesting… while I retained my MCT credentials and continued working with Microsoft technologies, my affiliation with the organization became strained.  I was pretty sure that my days of working with them were behind me.

There is a quote from a novel from one of my favourite authors: The present is like the past and the past is the present, heya?  The last word might give away that the book was Noble House by the late, great James Clavell.  And so it is that after several months of discussions and background checks and much more, this morning I walked back into the offices of Microsoft Canada to pick up my new badge.  I am a vendor this time around, as opposed to a business guest which is what I was previously.  What does that mean?  I guess it doesn’t matter.  I’m back.

While my role will not be community focused as it once was, I will nevertheless be blogging about technologies that I use and work with.

Thanks to all of you who were concerned and interested… and no, I assure you I will not be drinking or serving any Kool-Aid this time around!

ThinCharge: Making the iPhone useable again

It was as much of a shock to me as anyone that I became an iPhone user, but here I am, walking around with my iPhone 6.

Now here’s the issue… Apple seems to get you every time.  You buy a new iPhone, and the battery is strong and good for more than a day.  Then you start adding apps; then you start connecting to Bluetooth devices and Wi-Fi networks; then you start this and that and that and this… and soon enough you find yourself having to recharge every few hours to make it through the day.  What a pain.

When I had my iPhone 5 I bought a case that was supposed to extend your battery life… it was big and clunky, and after a few weeks it just stopped working.

So here I was, walking around not only with my phone, but also with a USB charger and an iPhone cable.  Of course, when I was in my car or office it wasn’t a problem because (when I remembered to) I could just plug in there… but that meant that I needed to invest in two more lightening cables… and did I mention that at $29.99 the cables lasted about as long as a box of doughnuts at an IT Pro user group… I found myself having to replace at least one every couple of months.

New-Hero-BlackSo when I was asked to try a new device called ThinCharge from ChargeTech I was skeptical… but I promised to keep an open mind.

At first glance the add-on case looked a bit flimsy, and that is a word that always bothers me when it comes to something that will sit in my back pocket.

Unlike the previous battery extending case that I had tried the ThinCharge was not weighted at the bottom (where that device’s battery was), but rather the battery seemed to be a thin cell along the back of the case.  Ok, that is different…

I clicked my iPhone 6 into place and attached the top, and I was pleasantly surprised… all of a sudden the device did not seem to be a flimsy add-on, rather an integral part of my phone.  It was not meant to be removed and re-added, but to live on the iPhone forever.  Because of that the design seems to take extra care to add as little size and weight as necessary to the phone (a little over a millimeter on the bottom as well as on each side).

One huge benefit that I found to the ThinCharge is that it plugs in to the lightening connector on the bottom of my iPhone (which I always found to be an inconvenient placement, especially when placing the phone in a cup-holder in my car) and adds the lightening port to the top of the device; this allows me to place my phone on any surface right-side up while charging, which means I am less likely to damage the ridiculously expensive cables.  Another point in the ThinChare’s favour.

When plugged in the ThinCharge charges your device first; but while doing so it also seems to charge itself.  When the phone is at full charge it then continues to charge itself until it is full.

There are no added buttons on the ThinCharge; when you are on the go and you find your iPhone battery waning, you press and hold the up-volume button for three seconds and your iPhone starts charging off the extra battery.  When it is back to full juice it just stops charging.

The website claims the Lithium-Polymer battery has a 2,600mAh capacity, effectively doubling the capacity of your iPhone.  So it will not replace an external charging brick for your three-day camping trip, but it will allow you to leave that brick at home when you leave the house early in the morning with a long day ahead.  And at 70g the weight is insignificant, and the size will not change how it feels in your pocket.

Of course, because it is changing the actual size of your device, you will not be able to have other fancy or colourful iPhone cases… but to compensate the ThinCharge is available in black, gold, and white… and the smooth surface means you can place whatever decorative stickers you want.

If you are an iPhone owner this is a definite BUY recommendation… I will not soon be going back to the old way of doing things.

Keep it in Your Pocket…

Here’s a tip for travelers going through Airport Security: you are going  babe asked to empty your pockets … Everything, including wallet and car keys and passport. It all has to go in one of those plastic bins. Lots of coins? Put em in da bin. Matches? Bin em.

You also have to take off your jacket.

If you want to make your life a lot easier (not to mention faster for the people in line behind you): As you make your way to the front of the line, transfer everything from your pants pockets to the pockets of your jacket. That way when you get through you can quickly grab the jacket and go… And transfer everything back at your leisure.  It’s faster and easier for everyone involved.

Don’t have a jacket? Fine… Use a plastic (or paper) bag to achieve the same results.

Good luck and fly safe!

Drive Space Nightmares with Hyper-V

As you know, I have been using Hyper-V since before it was released, and am a huge proponent of the solution (although I am also a huge proponent of VMware).  The fact that Hyper-V is also included in Windows 10 makes my life easier – I use it on my Windows Client for several reasons.  In fact, at present I have four virtual machines on my Surface Pro 4, two of which I use on a very regular basis.

So when I notice from time to time that my C: drive is running out of space, I know immediately what the culprit is… my dynamically expanding drives have, in a word, expanded.

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Not good… I need more than 3.18GB free space to be comfortable.  However when I look at the drives, I know that none of them are overly taxed… the VM I use most often (I use it to download files that I am not sure are safe so that I can ‘Sandbox’ them) is a dynamically expanding virtual disk that is as much as 80GB, but only 31GB is used.

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That should be very comfortable… and yet there we see the usage.

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A 53GB vhdx file for about 31GB of information.  It is easily explained of course… With a dynamically-expanding virtual hard disk the file gets bigger when you write to it, but when you then delete files and clean it up the file does not get smaller… or at least not automatically.  So what you have to do is this:

  • Shut down the virtual machine.  You cannot edit the disk while the VM is running.
  • In the Action Pane of Hyper-V Manager Select Edit Disk…
  • Click Next on the Before you Begin page.
  • In the Locate Virtual Hard Disk page navigate to the ‘offending’ vhdx file then click Next.
  • On the Choose Action page click the Compact radio and click Next.
  • On the Complete the Edit the Virtual Disk Wizard click Finish.
  • At this point the process will begin, and when it is done you should be good to go.

    PowerShell

    Yes, I know… you can do everything you want in the wizard… but let’s try a quick PowerShell cmdlet anyways Smile

    Optimize-VHD -Path C:\Hyper-V\Sandbox-PC\Sandbox-PC.vhdx -ComputerName MDG-SP4

    It only took a couple of minutes, and here are the results:

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    Almost 10GB freed up.  That makes life so much more comfortable.  Of course, since I use that virtual PC for these purposes a lot, I will want to keep an eye out for this creep and perform this script on a regular basis.  Hence why you might want to use PowerShell over the GUI.

    The (Solar) WInds of Change…

    I used to love System Center.  Simply put, if you were a systems administrator / engineer / architect it did… everything.  It monitors, automates, protects, virtualizes, scripts, patches, deploys, integrates… everything in your environment.  It is, in a word, comprehensive.

    It is also big.  There was a time (prior to System Center 2012) when you could pick and choose the components you wanted to buy – if you only wanted monitoring then all you bought was System Center Operations Manager (SCOM).  If all you wanted was the virtualization management than all you bought was System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM).

    When Microsoft announced in 2012 that all of the pieces would now be sold as a single package I thought it was a good decision for Microsoft, but not necessarily a good one for the customer.  Certainly it would increase their market share for components such as System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) – which was probably from a 0.1% market share to something somewhat higher – but that was not what the customers wanted.  I want a reasonably simple monitoring tool that could be deployed (and purchased) independent of everything else; I could then use the backup tool that I want, the deployment tools that I want, the anti-malware tools that I want.

    So when I got an e-mail from representative of SolarWinds asking if I would try out their product (Server & Application Monitor) I decided to give it a try.  After all, I knew SolarWinds by reputation, and due to the non-invasive nature of the tool I could easily deploy it along side my existing SCOM environment and monitor the same servers without risk.

    The Good

    The first thing I noticed about SolarWinds was the ease with which it installed.  Compared to SCOM (which even to simply install it was a bit of an ordeal (See article) it was a simple install – it did not take long, and was pretty straight-forward.

    While the terminology was a little different that SCOM it was easy to understand the differences, and I suspect for a junior sys admin would be pretty easy to understand.  At the top of the Main Settings & Administration page the first option is Discovery Central, which allows SAM to search your entire environment for servers.

    The Alerts & Reports option helps you set up your mail account that sends alert & notification e-mails to the admins based on the current environment and issues.  It is just as easy to send these e-mails to individuals as to groups, and configuring what is sent to whom is relatively simple.

    Fortunately SAM is completely Active Directory integrated, so I can just authorize my Domain Admins and other groups to access what data they need in SAM, and to grant individuals and groups granular permissions to see and/or change what they are allowed to.

    The dashboard is easy to read and understand, as well as customize.  I want my graphs to be at the top, and I want to know anything critical up front.  As with any good monitoring tool, Green=Good, Red=Bad.  All of my alerts are hyper-linked so if I see something Red I can just click and go right to it.

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    Actions, not words… If this happens then do that is a requirement in this day and age… Of course, if my monitoring tool can notify me that a service is down it is great… but how much better that it can bring it back up for me at the same time.  That can be as simple or complicated as you need, but the fact that certain conditions can trigger actions and not just alerts is key for me.  This was a simple task in SAM.

    Of course it is important to realize that some system admins will not be as comfortable learning a tool this powerful on their own, and the fact that SolarWinds offers scores of free training resources is key.  The Customer Portal has more than just videos; they offer live classes and expert sessions with their engineers and experts which you can attend live or watch later.  They have on-demand recordings of everything you might want to learn.  Their Virtual Classroom is an amazing resource for customers who need help – whether that is learning a simple tidbit in a few minutes, or going from zero to hero over the course of a few days.

    My initial impression of SolarWinds SAM was that it would be a great tool for smaller businesses; that impression changed drastically reasonably quickly.  Yes, I installed SAM in one of my 100 server environments in Q3 2015, and it performed brilliantly.  However as I learned about it and got to know the product I was convinced it was definitely Enterprise-Class, and by the end Q1 2016 I also had it installed at a client with 19,000 users and thousands of servers.

    The Bad and the Ugly…

    There is really only one aspect of SolarWinds that irked me, and that is the licensing model.  With some monitoring tools if you have 200 servers you know you need 200 licenses.  With SolarWinds a single server may require 100 licenses, depending on what you are monitoring.  That is not to say that SAM will be more expensive than other tools… it is just a different way of looking at the calculations that I needed to wrap my head around.  A small thing to be sure, but it is certainly an issue for me.

    Conclusion

    I was offered a trial period with SAM to try it out in my environment, and when that trial period ended I decided to renew.  SolarWinds has a great tool here, but more important to me is the support that I have been able to get from the company, which has extended beyond simple ‘how do I…’ questions.  Their engineers have gotten on-line with me to help solve a couple of custom issues that arose, and they were happy to do it.

    The product offering is a home run for system admins who want a monitoring and reporting tool and do not want to break the bank… or change out all of their other management tools to drink Microsoft’s Kool-Aid.

    Small environment or large, SolarWinds is worth it.  Contact them at www.solarwinds.com for more information, and a demo of their offerings!

    Rules: Why are they Client-Side only?

    For several of my clients I use a great monitoring tool called SolarWinds Server & Application Monitor (SAM).  It does a spectacular job of monitoring my environments and letting me know when there are issues.  What I like to do is set up the mail alerts to let me know everything that is going on in my customers’ environments.

    Of course, there are different levels of importance to the messages.  Yes, it is important for me to know when servers are using more memory than usual, but when a server is DOWN I want to know immediately.  No… I need to know immediately.

    So what I do is I set up a couple of e-mail rules.  The first (rather, the second) rule essentially says that ‘…any e-mail from my monitoring e-mail account is filtered to a specific folder.’  This is great… I can see everything that is going on in one place.

    However because I usually see my e-mail on my smartphone this rule would necessarily only let me know things are happening when I actually go into my e-mail client and navigate to the Customer SolarWinds folder.  Not very efficient.

    The way I get around this for critical issues (e.g.: SERVER DOWN) is simple: I created another e-mail rule in my Outlook that states ‘…if the e-mail is received from my monitoring e-mail account has the words is Down in it then a) Leave it in my Inbox and b) mark it as HIGH IMPORTANCE.

    Great, it’s done, right?  Wrong… Whether or not I get the warning when I create the rule, I notice that following the name of the rule the words client-only are annoyingly prominent. 

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    In other words, as long as Outlook is running I am fine, but if I shut down my laptop the rule will not apply.

    The issue is simple… there are certain rule settings that are applied in our mail server, and some that are not.  For example, the ‘mark it as high importance’  is not done by Exchange but by Outlook.

    If I clear that one rule setting, my rule will apply at the mail server level, and not at the client level.

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    This means that I will receive my notifications the way I want, whether my computer is on or not… and that is how my customers can rest assured they are getting the monitoring they need to be productive.

    Smoke ‘Em While You Got ‘Em!

    Okay, as many of you know I am stuck at home with pneumonia, so I am not smoking anything this week.  With that said, many of you know that I am a cigar lover, and have over the past couple of years accumulated a decent collection of them.

    The thing is, whenever I speak to someone about cigars (which seems to happen more often than I would have thought) I seem to have a lot to say, and a lot of people who enjoy cigars do not know a lot about them.  Those people (especially the ones who enjoy but do not really know) really appreciate learning from me, and I have found myself reading and ‘studying’ to learn more about them.

    My question is this: Would you, my readers, be interested in reading a series of articles on the subject?  Routines, brands, reviews, opinions?  Please let me know… It’s something I have been swirling around in my mind for a while.

    Thanks!

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