Holy smoke, it’s an explosive demo

I’ve spent the last couple of days in London helping out with the first Exchimageange Unplugged 2007 events, which have gone really well. One attendee to the first session, held with BT at the Tate Modern, said in 15 years of working in IT, it was the best Microsoft event he’d ever been to. Let’s hope the rest can keep the standard so high.

Anyway, today’s event (in association with Dimension Data, at the Radisson Mayfair hotel) had an unexpectedly dramatic turn. Brett‘s demo server (used to run all the demos for the first 3 sessions, running numerous VMs in Virtual Server) gave a sudden burst of fan noise and emitted a puff of smoke, during the 2nd session. The noise continued throughout the session in bursts, and there was a funny ozone-like smell close to the box…

Somewhat amazingly, it carried on and he wisely decided to leave it on, until after the 3rd and final session was complete. Just as well, since after it was powered off, it wouldn’t come back online again – power supply failure, methinks.

Anyway, here’s Brett and Julian standing by with precautions, in case it happened during Julian’s brilliant unified messaging demo session.


They got through that session and hopefully a replacement Shuttle box will have arrived before the third event of the week, tomorrow!

Geek T-shirt cool – or not

I always like reading Jason’s blog, and had to laugh the other day when he posted a great picture of a now-favourite t-shirt, which glows when in a WiFi zone.

I’m not much of a t-shirt wearer, but I think the best geek slogan I’ve seen so far is (from the same shop as Jason’s Wifi catcher originates) …


It’s one of those things that you wear and forget you’ve got it on really quickly. All day, people walk up and look at your chest then look puzzled, or else smile because they get the joke… Now all we need is for ThinkGeek to open a .co.uk store so we can order without paying massive delivery costs and customs duties…

Microsoft launches “Online” hosted services

In an attempt to clarify the whole online software branding, with “Live” being consumer oriented and “Online” being aimed at businesses, Microsoft launched a new service recently, but that may have gone unnoticed (what with other launch events such as PerformancePoint Server for business intelligence, or the Unified Communications launch of OCS and Exchange SP1 etc).

The new “Online” service (“Business Productivity Infrastructure“) is offering Exchange mailboxes, Sharepoint sites and Office Communication Server hosted presence & IM. Currently the service is aimed at larger enterprise customers, though it will be extended to smaller organisations in due course. The Exchange, Sharepoint and OCS parts are all available separately, under the titles Exchange Online, Sharepoint Online and Office Communications Online.

The whole online services offering can be a bit confusing – at one level, Microsoft sells “Exchange Hosted Services” (EHS), which is a hosted filtering, archiving and encryption service that routes inbound & outbound SMTP mail to/from an organisation, weeds out the spam and infected messages then delivers what’s left, optionally keeping a copy “in the cloud” for later access (eg for compliance purposes).image

In this EHS model, you can still run Exchange “on premise”, it’s just that the hosted filtering etc helps reduce the volume of inbound junk.

This kind of service differs from the hosted Exchange offerings from various partners, who will host Exchange mailboxes for you in their data centres. Hosted Exchange has been around in one form or another for years, and it makes a lot of sense for start up companies or smaller orgs who don’t want the overhead and up-front expense of buying & managing their own server in-house.


Rather than buying Exchange servers & licenses, with Hosted Exchange, the customers have a monthly subscription to the hosted provider, who provide all the service via a URL which can be used by Outlook or Outlook Web Access to connect. Hosted Exchange typically has a separate login for the end users, though in more advanced cases, the hosting provided may have a private network link back into the corporate network, allowing access to the corporate Active Directory.

There are hosting providers who will basically manage the server and the delivery of the service to your end users, but the licenses are owned by the customer directly – so in effect, you’d buy Exchange but instead of running it yourself, on your own premises, you outsource that operation to someone else, for a negotiated price.

The new Microsoft Exchange Online service effectively delivers hosted Exchange, but allows for customers who’ve already bought Exchange etc directly. In other words, you’d be able to go to a partner who re-sells the Exchange Online service, and buy the hosted service from them at a lower cost because you’ve already bought the rights to use the software (so the cost would be the operational part, not the software subscription).

This new service adds an extra choice, but it’s not going to replace Hosted Exchange – it’s quite likely that you’ll be able to get a more customised service directly from a hosting partner, and it might be less expensive than the Microsoft Online service too, depending on who’s offering it and where.

Windows Home Server – would you have it in your home?

I just read an interesting article from Adrian Kingsley-Hughes on ZDNet about Windows Home Server, speculating whether there really was a market for such a device, and who would buy it.

Adrian’s point – and it is a valid one, if you know anything about what the “typical” home user might do and buy – is that your average Joe or Joanna isn’t going to march out and splash a few hundred quid on a box to back up all their home PCs, even if they’ve lost precious data before.

In an enterprise IT environment, disaster recovery has often been treated as a second-class citizen, until a disaster actually happens – after which point, it’s properly factored into things. I vividly recall making the case for DLT drives over DAT over 10 years ago, yet on cost grounds alone it looked like DAT could do the biz… until the crunch came, a disaster happened, it looked like the DR plan wasn’t quite up to scratch, and after that it was easy to get money to do DR properly.

Sad to say it, but 9/11 and the London 7/7 bombings in 2005 probably helped a lot of organisations realise that backup (and more importantly, recovery) was actually worth spending a bit of time & effort on. You only realise how important it is to have a contingency plan, when you’re faced with the real need to have – or to show you have – one.

As an aside, if you haven’t seen it yet, Microsoft announced Data Protection Manager 2007 recently, as a means to snapshot and backup various systems to low-cost disk backup. DPM could allow you to backup not just file systems, but Exchange, Sharepoint and SQL Server, using VSS snapshot technology. We’re now using it internally to back Exchange up to low-cost SAS drives, as well as other things.

I have a buddy who’s known as “Foggy” (from “Foghorn Leghorn”), so called because he had a loud voice on the phone when he first joined Microsoft in a Product Support Services role. If you’re interested in DPM2007, just let me know and I’ll put you in touch with him – he’s “Mr DPM” in the UK and is keen to tell everyone just how good it is.


Back to Home Server. I’ve been beta-testing the “Q”/”Quattro” product for a while, and I think the finished Home Server looks really good. Have I got one at home? Yes. But then, I only have one other PC at home (besides the corporate laptops that occupy the place, and a few old machines that spend most of their time powered off) so I’m not sure I’d shell out for a Home Server (when they’re comercially available) just to protect that one box, and serve it content.


What I’d wish for Home Server

I’d love it if Windows Home Server could be a Media Center – ie I could whack a couple of TV Tuners in the WHS box, and it would stream that content to other PCs or Media Center Extenders around the house. Think of it like a Windows Media Center Server, if you like. I might even think about sticking the box in the loft, next to the Coax-amplifier which distributes TV signals around the house – especially if Bluetooth or WiFi remotes from around the house could control the Server, making the MCE experience available on remote PCs, Extenders and directly on TVs themselves.

I’d also really like some OEM to bring out a device which was hardened and much more appliance-like, maybe with some other features – I’m thinking like a box which had a Powerline-ethernet style built-in power supply (and corresponding remote adapter(s)) which would mean I could stick the box anywhere there was power and not worry about signal or CAT-5 cabling back to the wired/wireless network that all the PCs are on. I was thinking it would be quite cool to have a Windows Home Server in the garage. My garage is separate from the house (by about 6 ft) so if the house burned down, there is a chance the garage wouldn’t (though there’s probably enough combustible material in the garage to make it happen the other way around).

I thought if I could put a WHS in the garage, it would mean I wouldn’t need to cool the box much (even in the summer, the garage is going to be cooler than many places, and in the winter, it’s positively COLD) and apart from the odd spider invading the box, it’d probably be pretty hazard-free.

So in an ideal world, a Home Server would be a solid-state box with no vents or fans, which can draw network access through its power supply. There might be one company – Tranquil PC – who’ll be able to offer this nirvana sooner than most. Tranquil PC have some very interesting fanless technology, but for a regular PC there’s a payoff in terms of performance (ie to run their box cool enough so it doesn’t need a fan, it’s not exactly cutting edge) and price (there’s a premium for the design and low-volume nature). For a home server, you’re not bothered about quad core processors with 8Gb of RAM, so Tranquil’s offerings could well be in the sweet spot. Time will tell if the price point people are willing to pay will match these expectations.

Coming back to the ZDNet article – Adrian reckons that the average home user will spend $30 on backup. I know I’ve had hard disk failures but probably only back up to the USB disk I already have, every couple of months. Who’s going to buy Home Server this year, in time for Christmas? Tech-savvy folk who have multiple PCs at home, I’d think – maybe families where each of the kids have their own PC, but not exactly the less tech-literate types.

Maybe the time for Home Server is when it can not only stream data to remote devices, back them up and make sure they’re appropriately patched – but when users in the home can have the Home Server record stuff from the TV and distribute it directly to their device for later viewing.

Maybe that’s v2 functionality, who knows?

Dell’s “anti-crapware” initiative doesn’t go far enough

My wife’s small business has recently had a requirement to upgrade a couple of PCs, after 5 or 6 years. Since I am ultimately responsible for all their IT (and I am not proud of what they have – I cut all sorts of corners to make my life easy, but they don’t know how lean it is), I’ve always bought Dell kit for them since it’s been good quality, relatively cheap, it’s quick and easy.

Looking around on their site, I figured the new Dell Vostro desktop range might be worth a look – and since the machines were shipped with “Just the Software you need – no Trialware installed” then it would save me time in rebuilding the systems when they arrived (as I’d generally do).


There’s a great discussion over on Steve Clayton’s blog, about tweaking Vista, and on Computerworld on how to take the garbage off your new system. I’d hoped to avoid any of this by just going with a well-tested, modern, high-volume desktop, so that everything just works with software that’s been available for the best part of a year, on Vista Business (no downgrade to Windows XP for us – even if Dell is now offering it as a “feature”).


The Out-Of-Box-Experience was typical of a decent PC – lots of boxes, lots of packaging, printed manuals in about a dozen languages (which all go straight in the bin). It’s pretty straightforward plugging everything together now, and in no time we’re up and running.

I bet if this was a new Mac, it would have a lot less spurious cables and bits of paper.

No Trial-ware but plenty of crap-ware

ZDnet has talked about the problems of “crapware” (including relative to Dell) cluttering up new PCs, slowing things down, frustrating end users and annoying power users by giving them hours of work to clean things up.

On starting up the PC, we had Google Desktop indexing everrything, even though Vista was doing that already. We had a Dell/Google Browser Helper Object just waiting to redirect every bad URL or search, to a site that showed Dell adverts (called Dell’s Browser Address Redirector). Welcome to the world of “choice” – I’m almost surprised they didn’t install Firefox, Opera and Safari, just in case the end user felt like installing a different browser without bothering to download it. Pity the users who don’t want all this guff and have to take it off.

There are 3 separate ISP sign-up applications which are irrelevant to this small business, as well as a bunch of other bits & pieces which come from neither Dell nor Microsoft. Each of them has a program group in the start menu, and an entry in Control Panel’s Remove Programs section.

There are obviously some useful 3rd party addons (though I was going to rip out the – trial version – McAfee anti-virus, spyware and firewall, and replace with OneCare), such as DVD decoder, or CD burner. But even they don’t always work smoothly – there’s some Roxio software which as well as writing CD/DVDs, also seems to monitor folders on disk for some sharing function.

These machines are sold for small business use – why would I want to have 3rd party software cluttering up the system tray and occupying memory & CPU, monitoring folders for sharing media, on the LAN? In looking to switch off the monitoring, I right-clicked on the system tray icon and (not seeing any other option), choose an option to do with Managing the folder sharing, on the basis that it might give me an option of switching it off.

Boom. Visual C++ 6.0 runtime error. Every time. On both machines.

I don’t want to beat up on Dell specifically, but this is an example of a poor customer experience that is 100% down to the PC OEM to fix. Don’t install all this software on a PC unless it’s essential – or at least make it easy for users to revert to some kind of vanilla OS.

How many customers would assume this C++ runtime error was a Windows problem? Or would blame a slow machine on spurious Vista performance issues, when it’s every bit as likely to be caused by unnecessary and unwanted software running on the background, because the ISV has paid the OEM to include it on new machine builds..?

Maybe Microsoft should get into building PC hardware, and at least will have soup-to-nuts control over the hardware and software experience.

Gibson Guitars “Riffs on OCS” (boom, boom)

Information Week reported that Gibson, makers of the iconic Les Paul guitar (as used by just about everyone, maybe most famously Jimmy Page of Led Zep or Slash from Guns N Roses), are doing great stuff with Office Communication Server, and singing its praises. They found the level of integration with OCS with the other applications that the users had, was the most obvious benefit to using it – echoing what David Berlind from ZDNet said after seeing a pre-release version in action…

So deeply and contextually can Office Communicator’s DNA be integrated into the rest of Microsoft’s solutions that there is probably no other glue in all of Microsoft’s portfolio that so elegantly demonstrates the company’s strategic vision for making knowledge workers more productive at what they do.

Indie IPR1 Solid Anniversary Limited EditionWell good luck to Gibson.

I’ve always been a Fender man, myself – but then since they migrated from Linux to Windows Server, they could always follow suit and adopt the same technology.

As an aside, the last time I bought a guitar, I was humming and hawing between a new US Fender Stratocaster or a straight-up Les Paul standard – then I came across the Indie Guitar company. In the end, I got an instrument which I think is as good if not better than both, and it worked out cheaper too…

Custom presence states in Communicator, reprise

A quick follow on to my post the other day about having custom presence states in Office Communicator 2007 – the Communicator Deployment Guide has a couple of minor errors which could frustrate you, as one commenter pointed out, and I’ve had comments from a couple of people who’ve had trouble getting it working.

There may be some gotchas with the XML file you create, too (especially if you accidentally end up with an invalid XML file as I did at first attempt). A tip would be to check that your XML will render in Internet Explorer OK (by double-clicking) – if it doesn’t, then Office Communicator isn’t going to like it. Also, you’ll need to make sure you use the correct language codes – English being 1033, something that’s not all that obvious in the documentation

Here’s my XML – if you want to, just copy this to Notepad, save it as OCSSTATUS.XML and make sure the URL in your registry points to the location where you put that XML file (see below…)

<?xml version=”1.0″?>
<customStates xmlns=



       <customState ID=”1″ availability=”online”>
              <activity LCID=”1033″>Working from Home</activity>
       <customState ID=”2″ availability=”online”>
              <activity LCID=”1033″>Fine and Dandy</activity>
       <customState ID=”3″ availability=”busy”>
              <activity LCID=”1033″>Meeting with Customer</activity>
       <customState ID=”4″ availability=”do-not-disturb”>
              <activity LCID=”1033″>Presenting and Projecting</activity>

To add the value to the registry, either do it manually or else copy the following block of text to Notepad and save it as OCSSTATUS.REG file, then double-click on that to import to the registry.

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00


Note the format of the URL – unless you’re picking up the XML file from a network resource, it will be a file: type, but the correct formatting of that URL is to use three forward slashes before the drive letter.

Hope this helps!