Bringing engineering to life with some Key Stage 2 schoolchildren and K’nex

Last year, I signed up as a STEM Ambassador. With my employer’s backing, I can now volunteer to take part in events that are intended to bring Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects to life and demonstrate their value in life and in careers.

I receive regular invitations to take part in events but, until recently, I hadn’t been able to make them fit around my calendar. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw an invitation to run an engineering workshop with some Year 4-6 students as part of a school Science Day. The brief was to give a short presentation on:

  • What is STEM?
  • Why STEM skills are important
  • The story of what I was like at school and what I wanted to do for a job
  • What I do now
  • What I enjoy about my job

and then to facilitate an activity, breaking the children into small teams with a box of K’nex to build a tower that could support a small object.

I was pretty nervous about the activity – after all, I’m not a teacher! I spent quite a bit of time tuning the presentation and, taking advice from my own children (who are in years 6 and 8), making sure there were lots of images (that’s my style anyway) and animations. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the school, the animations were useless: PowerPoint 2010 didn’t like my 2016-based graphics so I quickly removed all of the transitions and animations – and the moral of the story there is don’t take advice from your 13 year-old…

I ran two workshops, each with a class of around 28 children. The teachers were present at all times (dealing with any disruptive children) and I found I just needed to be myself, to answer the children’s questions (which, of course, ranged from “what age can you start being an engineer?” to “what car do you drive?”) and to guide them during the activity.

I set out the activity as a challenge, with requirements and materials:

STEM engineering challenge, with requirements and materials

but I didn’t tell the children how to make a tower strong.

Time to test the towers

Only after we had tested it, did we spend some time talking about the things they had done to make their towers work (and all of them had managed this themselves, whether they did it consciously or not).

Making towers strong and stable

It was fantastic to see how each group approached the activity – each team had different ideas for how they might use the K’nex. Some children had played with it before whilst others needed some advice on how to make the connectors and rods fit together but almost every team completed the challenge successfully. The one team that didn’t complete the task had struggled because they had divided into two smaller groups and ended up with two short towers – that gave me an opportunity to talk about teamwork and also about project management (managing to time!).

I came away from school that afternoon with a great buzz. It’s wonderful to hear children say things like “I like your lessons – they’re fun!” and “Are you coming back next year?”. And, if you want to know more about STEM Ambassadors (either getting someone involved in an activity or event – or perhaps becoming one yourself), check out the website.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 refuses to power on: fixed with a handful of elastic bands

This week didn’t start well (and it hasn’t got much better either) but Monday morning was a write-off, as the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 that I use for work wouldn’t “wake up”.

I’d used it on Friday, closed the “lid” (i.e. closed the tablet against the Type Cover) and left it on a table all weekend. Come Monday and it was completely dead. I tried charging it for a while. I tried Power and Volume Up/Down combinations. I tried holding the power button down for 30 secs (at which point the light on the charging cable flashed, but that was all).

After speaking to colleagues in our support team, it seemed I’d tried everything they could think of and we were sure it was some sort of battery failure (one of my customers has seen huge levels of battery failure on their Surface Books, suspected to be after they were kept in storage for an extended period without having been fully shut down).

I was ready for a long drive to Stafford to swap it for another device, hoping that OneDrive had all of my data synced and that I didn’t get the loan Dell laptop with the missing key (I’m sure that’s a warning to look after our devices…).

Then I found a post on the Windows Central Forums titled “Surface Pro 3 won’t turn back on! – possible solution when all hope is lost”.

All hope was indeed lost. This had to be worth a read?

“My SP3 mysteriously stopped working yesterday morning. (Keep reading to the end for the solution that worked for me and maybe you too!)

It was fine the night before. […]

I spent the morning attempting to reboot the SP3. I thought maybe my charger wasn’t working even though I did see a white LED light on the adapter that connects to the Surface. I tried the hard reset, the 2-button reset, every combination of the volume up and down with the power button.


Finally, this morning, I caved in and call MS support. The tech said she would charge me $30 for a remote over the phone troubleshooting. I declined as I’ve tried everything I’ve found on the internet. Instead, I scheduled app with the MS store support in Garden City, NY (Roosevelt Field Mall).

I had the first or second app: 11:15am. The tech, I think his name was Adam, young guy in his 20’s. I told Adam my issue and that I’ve tried everything. I even had a USB LED light to show that the battery in my case wasn’t the problem. The USB LED light lit up for a few seconds when I pressed power. He said the problem was internal hardware and they there was no way to fix it. Since my SP3 was out of warranty, the only solution from MS was full replacement for $500. But, since I needed my files, a replacement won’t do me any good. So, the only other solution was have it sent to a third party data recovery place for $1000! They would basically destroy the SP3 and MS would then be unable to replace it.

Talk about bad options. Neither one seemed practical. I asked Adam if he’s seen this type of problem with any of the Surfaces before. He said maybe one or twice before. I was about to leave when another guy walked with his Surface, sat down next to me and said his Surface won’t boot up. I looked at Adam and I didn’t believe this was a rare issue with the Surface. MS probably train their techs to say that because they don’t want a class action law suit on their hand.

Anyway, just before I left, Adam, did say something, almost accidentally that I picked up. He said some guy had used a rubber band to hold down the power button for about a day and eventually the Surface woke up from sleep.

When I came home this afternoon, I was sure I had a $1100 paper weight with me. With nothing to lose, I took out some rubber bands and popsicle stick. I placed the popsicle stick flat against the power button and used the rubber band to apply pressure to keep the power button depressed the whole time. I can see the USB light connected to my Surface coming on and off as the power cycled. No sign of the Surface waking up.

Came back from dinner (that’s 5 hours later) and noticed the USB light didn’t come on and off any more. But still no sign the Surface was back. My 8 yr old sons comes into my office sees the contraption and says “what’s this” and pulls the popsicle stick off the Surface. I wasn’t even paying attention.

Lo and behold! the F—ing Surface logo flashed on the screen and booted up!!!!!
I immediately plugged in the charger and a backup HD and copied all my files!”

I was struggling to find any elastic bands at home but then, as the day’s post landed on my doormat, I thought “Royal Mail. Rubber bands!” and chased the postie down the street to ask if she had any spares. She was more than happy to give me a handful and so this was my setup (I don’t know what a “popsicle stick” is, but I didn’t need one):

A couple of hours later, I removed the bands and tried powering on the Surface Pro. I couldn’t believe it when it booted normally:

So, if your Surface Pro 3 (or possibly another Surface model) fails to power on, you might want to try this before giving up on it as a complete battery failure.

Explaining Office 365, with particular reference to the crossover between OneDrive, SharePoint and Teams

For most of my career, I’ve worked primarily with Microsoft products. And for the last three years, I’ve worked in a consulting, services and education organisation that’s entirely focused on extracting value for our customers from their investments in Microsoft technology (often via an Enterprise Agreement, or similar). So, living in my Microsoft-focused bubble, it’s easy to forget that there are organisations out there for who deploying Microsoft products is not the first choice. And I’ve found myself in a few online conversations where people are perplexed about Office 365 and which tool to use when.

I used to use the Office 365 Wheel from OnPoint solutions until I discovered Matt Wade’s “Periodic Table of Office 365”, which attempts to describe Office 365’s “ecosystem of applications in the cloud” in infographic format:

The web version even lets you select by licence – so, for most of my customers, Enterprise E3 or E5.

But, as I said, I’ve also been in a few discussions recently where I’ve tried to help others (often those who are familiar with Google’s tools) to understand where SharePoint, OneDrive for Business and Microsoft Teams fit in – i.e. which is used in what scenario?

A few weeks ago, I found myself trying to do that on the WB-40 Podcast WhatsApp group, where one member had asked for help with the various “file” constructs and another had replied that “not even Microsoft” knew that. Challenge accepted.

So, in short form for social media, I replied to the effect that:

  1. Teams is unfinished (IMHO) but built on top of Office 365 Groups (and very closely linked to SharePoint).
  2. SharePoint can be used for many things including a repository for team-based information – regardless of what those teams are (projects, hierarchy, function).
  3. OneDrive is a personal document store.

In effect OneDrive can be used to replace “home drives” and SharePoint to provide wider collaboration features/capabilities when a document moves from being “something I’m working on” to “something I’m ready to collaborate on”. Teams layers over that to provide chat-based workspace and more.

And then I added a caveat to say that all of the above is the way we work and many others do but there is not one single approach that fits all. And don’t even get me started with Yammer…

The key point for me is that organisations really should have an information management strategy and associated architecture, regardless of the technology choices made.

And, just in case it helps, this is how one UK Government department approaches things (I would credit my source, but don’t want to get anyone into trouble):

They split up documents into a lifecycle:

  1. Documents start life with a user, so can go in OneDrive.
    • As the user collaborates with colleagues those colleagues can gain shared access to the document in OneDrive.
    • They proposed the use of 2-year deletion policies on all OneDrive for Business files [I would question why… storage is not an issue with Enterprise versions of Office 365, and arbitrary time-based deletion is problematic when you go back to a document for a reference and find it’s gone…].
  2. If the original document leads to a scoped piece of work then the Documents are moved to an Office 365 Group, as that neatly fits in with a number of resources that are common to collaboration: Planner, Calendar, File Storage (SharePoint), etc. And O365 Groups underpin Teams.
    • However, this type of data is time limited.
    • They proposed the use of 2-year deletion policies on all O365 Groups [again, why?].
  3. If a document became part of organisational policy/guidance, etc. then the proposal was to create permanent SharePoint sites for document management or potentially to move such documents to the organisation’s Intranet service [which could be running on SharePoint Online], or other relevant location.

So, you can see the lifecycle properties:

  1. User (limited need to know).
  2. Group (wider need to know).
  3. Organisation (everyone can know).

This plan has the potential to allow the organisation to manage data in a better way and minimise the costs of the additional storage required for SharePoint. But, core to that is turning the idea that OneDrive for Business is personal use on its head. It’s a valid place to store business data, but users should manage the lifecycle of data better. And this needs to be plain for the user to understand so they can spend the minimum amount of time managing the data.

[i.e. they don’t like the idea that OneDrive for Business is a personal data store – it’s a data store provided to users as part of their job and they don’t like “personal” being part of that definition. My 4pth is that the limits of “personal” and “work” are increasingly eroded, but I can see that organisations have legal and regulatory concerns about the data held in systems that they manage.]

So, which Office 365 tool to use? There is no “one size fits all” but some of the above may help when you’re defining a strategy/architecture for managing that information…, GDPR and no more ads

You probably noticed that a new European regulation came into effect last month: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). I’d been inclined to follow the advice of Matt Ballantine (@Ballantine70), who expressed a view (I think on the WB-40 podcast) that, if you were compliant with existing data protection regulation, you were probably compliant with GDPR (the problem being that many organisations may not have been compliant with existing regulations but the GDPR penalties are more severe so they’re now taking them seriously). After all, I already had a privacy policy and data protection notice; I have a banner warning about cookies. I thought I was pretty well covered.

And then I read Mark Vale’s post on Does GDPR apply to you as a Blogger? It seems it might. Perhaps.

So, with help from the funny, sweary people at Writers’ HQ, I updated the site’s Privacy Policy. Then I bottled it and left in the serious bits from the old Privacy Policy and Data Protection Notice at the bottom. I still have the other Legal Notice too. But I’m not a lawyer and I don’t even run a company. I’m just a bloke who publishes stuff on the Internet, when he has the time.

I’ve also stopped running ads on this site. Not really anything to do with GDPR but Akismet wanted to charge me $5 a month for spam protection on a “commercial site”. Since Google Panda (an algorithmic change a few years ago), I only make about that much each month on the ads (and hosting costs me another £8 or so)… so I binned them off. So this site is now exclusively funded from my own pocket. Except that I may need to put them back on for a couple of weeks to get the £1.86 that will tip me over the trigger point for payment of the £58.14 I currently have stored up with Google Adsense…

Quantum Computing 101

There’s been a lot of buzz around quantum computing over the last year or so and there seems little doubt that it will provide the next major step forward in computing power but it’s still largely theoretical – you can’t buy a quantum computer today. So, what does it really mean… and why should we care?

Today’s computers are binary. The transistors (tiny switches) that are contained in microchips are either off (0) or on (1) – just like a light switch. Quantum computing is based on entirely new principles. And quantum mechanics is difficult to understand – it’s counterintuitive – it’s weird. So let’s look at some of the basic concepts:

Superposition Superposition is a concept whereby, instead of a state being on or off, it’s on and off. At the same time. And it’s everything in the middle as well. Think of it as a scale from 0 to 1 and all the numbers in-between.
Qubit A quantum bit (qubit) uses superposition so that, instead of trying problems sequentially, we can compute in parallel with superposition.

More qubits are not necessarily better (although there is a qubit race taking place in the media)… the challenge is not about creating more qubits but better qubits, with better error correction.

Error correction Particles like an electron have a charge and a spin so they point in a certain direction. Noise from other electrons makes them wiggle so the information in one is leaking to others, which makes long calculations difficult. This is one of the reasons that quantum computers run at low temperatures.

Greek dancers hold their neighbour so that they move as one. One approach in quantum computing is to do the same with electrons so that only those at the end have freedom of motion – a concept called electron fractionalisation. This creates a robust building block for a qubit, one that is more like Lego (locking together) than a house of cards (loosely stacked).

Different teams of researchers are using different approaches to solve error correction problems, so not everyone’s Qubits are equal! One approach is to use topological qubits for reliable computation, storage and scaling. Just like Inca quipus (a system of knots and braids used to encode information so it couldn’t be washed away, unlike chalk marks), topological qubits can braid information and create patterns in code.

Exponential scaling Once the error correction issue is solved, then scaling is where the massive power of quantum computing can be unleashed.

A 4 bit classical computer has 16 configurations of 0s and 1s but can only exist in one of these states at any time. A quantum register of 4 qubits can be in all 16 states at the same time and compute on all of them at the same time!

Every n interacting qubits can handle 2n bits of information in parallel so:

  • 10 qubits = 1024 classical bits (1KiB)
  • 20 qubits = 1MB
  • 30 qubits = 1GB
  • 40 qubits = 1TB
  • etc.

This means that the computational power of a quantum computer is potentially huge.

What sort of problems need quantum computing?

We won’t be using quantum computers for general personal computing any time soon – Moore’s Law is doing just fine there – but there are a number of areas where quantum computing is better suited than classical computing approaches.

We can potentially use the massive quantum computing power to solve problems like:

  • Cryptography (making it more secure – a quantum computer could break the RSA 2048 algorithm that underpins much of today’s online commerce in around 100 seconds – so we need new models).
  • Quantum chemistry and materials science (nitrogen fixation, carbon capture, etc.).
  • Machine learning (faster training of models – quantum computing as a “co-processor” for AI).
  • and other intractable problems that are supercompute-constrained (improved medicines, etc.).

A universal programmable quantum computer

Microsoft is trying to create a universal programmable quantum computer – the whole stack – and they’re pretty advanced already. The developments include:

Quantum computing may sound like the technology of tomorrow but the tools are available to develop and test algorithms today and some sources are reporting that a quantum computing capability in Azure could be just 5 years away.

Mark and Matt’s big bike ride for Kandersteg

Many readers of this blog will be aware that my family is a big part of my life – I have two sons who are growing up far too quickly! Cycling is another big part of my life – it’s one of the ways that I keep fit and it’s also one of my eldest son (Matthew)’s passions, which means I spend quite a bit of time supporting him in various cycling-related endeavours.

Another big part of our family’s activities relates to Scouting. I was a Cub Scout, a Scout, a Venture Scout (for a short while) and a Cub Scout Instructor in my youth – and I got a tremendous amount out of that experience. My sons are both Scouts too… which leads to this blog post…

Back in November, Matthew was lucky enough to be one of just 16 Scouts and Explorer Scouts across Milton Keynes District to be selected for one of two international trips in 2019 – to the International Scout Centre in Kandersteg, Switzerland and the World Scout Jamboree in the United States. Matthew was selected to go to Kandersteg and needs to raise quite a chunk of money to fund this amazing international trip.

As well as various group-related activities, Matthew was looking for an individual challenge that he could carry out in the hope that friends, family and other people who would like to support the cause could sponsor him.

Cycle route from Milton Keynes to Paddington Basin via the Grand Union CanalMatthew and I decided that a sponsored bike ride would be a good idea. But it had to be demanding. Not a few laps of the country park but something that would be a significant challenge for a 13 year-old – so we settled on a bike ride from Milton Keynes to London (in a day).

Because of the risks involved with road riding, we decided to use the Grand Union Canal, which actually makes it longer and a bit harder because not all of the surface is tarmac.

You can see our route on the image in this post – starting at Milton Keynes Central station, and ending at Paddington Basin (just along from the Microsoft offices at Paddington Central…).

I may have done a few 100 mile rides on the road for “fun” but ~70 miles (111km) on canal towpaths will be a stretch even for me… let alone for Matthew, whose furthest ride before we started training was 26 miles (40km). We’ve been training (up to around 75km) and this Saturday we’re hoping to do the ride for real.

Matthew on his bike, in Scout uniformSo, that’s what we’re doing – my ask of you is this:

If you’ve ever found my blog useful, or you have other reasons to support my son in his fundraising (it’s amazing how many people have themselves been on similar trips that have made a huge difference to their lives), please consider donating at Matthew’s crowd-funding page.

I’m sure I’ll be tweeting progress on Saturday… in the meantime – thank you in anticipation of your support.

If you’d like to know more about what we’re doing, there’s info on Matthew’s crowdfunding page and you can find details about the Kandersteg International Scout Centre on their website.

Kandersteg International Scout Centre logo

Thank you for your support.

[Update 11/6/18: Matthew and I completed the ride on Saturday and he was awesome. I’m incredibly proud of him. He got a bit tired around the 50-mile point but kept on powering through and nailed it. And then an over-zealous security guard at Paddington Basin’s Pocket Park (Merchant Square) told us we had to move our bikes…

Thanks to everyone who supported us on this endeavour – we smashed Matt’s fundraising target for the ride (raising nearly all the money we need for the trip from just this one effort!).

Huge credit is due to the family and friends who joined us at key points on the route as well to my wife Nikki and my youngest son Ben, who followed us along the route and provided food, drink and support.]

Booting a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with a broken screen

A few months ago, the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 that I use for work took a knock at one corner and developed a crack across the screen. I was gutted – I’d really looked after the device and, even though it was approaching three years old (and running like a dog), it was likely I’d be using it for a while longer. I could have swapped it for a conventional Dell laptop but I like to use the Surface Pen when I’m consulting. And now it was broken and beyond economic repair (Microsoft are currently quoting £492+VAT for a screen replacement!)

The screen still functioned as a display but the crack was generating false inputs that made both the Surface Firmware and Windows 10 think that I was touching the screen. That was “fighting” with the trackpad or a mouse, meaning that the device was very difficult to control (almost impossible).

I managed to get it up and running and to log on (just about) so that my support team could remote control the device and disable touch for me. The image below shows the two components that needed to be disabled in Device Manager (Surface Pro Touch Controller Firmware and HID-compliant touch screen):

Windows Device Manager, showing disabled devices to work around issues with a broken screen

The biggest problem was booting the device in the first place though – it would load to the Surface splash screen and then stay there. Presumably, the firmware had detected a problem but the hardware hadn’t actually failed, so there was no error message and no successful boot.

Then I found a forum post that gave me the answer:

  1. Hold Power and Volume Up together until the Surface splash screen appears, then let go of the power button.
  2. When presented with the UEFI menu, press ESC to exit.
  3. Press Enter to confirm that you want to quit without saving.
  4. At this point, you’ll see an underscore (_) cursor. Be patient.
  5. After a few seconds, the BitLocker screen will appear, after which the PIN can be entered and the device boots into Windows.

It’s a bit of a faff, but it’s worked for me for the last few weeks. Just before I handed in the broken device (for a replacement with a functioning screen), I recorded this video in my hotel room – it may come in handy for someone…

Weeknote 17: Failed demos, hotel rooms, travel and snippets of exercise (Week 18. 2018)

This week, I’ve learned that:

  • I must trust my better judgement and never allow anyone to push me into demonstrating their products without a properly rehearsed demo and the right equipment…
  • There are people working in offices today who not only claim to be IT illiterate but seem to think that’s acceptable in the modern workplace:
  • That operations teams have a tremendous amount of power to disregard and even override recommendations provided by architects who are paid to provide solid technical advice.
  • That, in 2018, some conference organisers not only think an all-male panel is acceptable but are hostile when given feedback…

I’ve also:

  • Gone on a mini-tour of Southern England working in London, Bristol and Birmingham for the first four days of the week. It did include a bonus ride on a brand new train though and a stint in first class (because it was only £3 more than standard – I’ll happily pay the difference)!
  • Taken a trip down memory lane, revisiting the place where I started my full-time career in 1994 (only to be told by a colleague that he wasn’t even born in 1994):
  • Squeezed in a “run” (actually more like a slow shuffle) as I try to fit exercise around a busy work schedule and living out of a suitcase.
  • Managed to take my youngest son swimming after weeks of trying to make it home in time.
  • Written my first blog post that’s not a “weeknote” in months!
  • Picked up a writing tip to understand the use of the passive voice:

So the week definitely finished better than it started and, as we head into a long weekend, the forecast includes a fair amount of sunshine – hopefully I’ll squeeze in a bike ride or two!

How to stay current with Windows as a Service and Office 365 ProPlus

For many organisations, particularly those at “enterprise” scale, Windows and Office have tended to be updated infrequently, usually as major projects with associated capital expenditure. Meanwhile, operational IT functions that manage “business as usual” often avoid change because that change brings risks around the introduction of new technology that may have consequential effects. This approach is becoming increasingly untenable in a world of regular updates to software sold on a subscription basis.

This post looks at the impact of regularly updating Windows and Office in an organisation and how we need to modify our approach to reflect the world of Windows as a Service and “evergreen” Office 365?

Why do we need to stay current?

A good question. After all, surely if Windows and Office are working as required then there’s no need to change anything, is there? Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple and there are benefits of remaining current for many business stakeholders:

  • For the CIO: improved management, performance, stability and support for the latest hardware.
  • For the CSO: enhanced security against modern threats and zero-day attacks.
  • For end users: access to the latest features and capabilities for better productivity and creativity.

Every Windows release evolves the operating system architecture to better defend against attacks – not just patching! And Windows and Office updates support new ways of working: inking, voice control, improved navigation, etc.

So, updates are good – right?

How often do I need to update?

We’re no longer in a world of 5+5 years (mainstream+extended) support. Microsoft has publicly stated its intention to ship two feature updates to Windows each year (in Spring and Autumn). The latest of these is Windows 10 1803 (also known as Redstone 4), which actually shipped in April. Expect the next one in/around September 2018 (1809). Internally to Microsoft, there are new builds daily; and even publicly there are “Insider” Preview builds for evaluation.

That means that we need to stop thinking about Windows feature updates as projects and start thinking about them as process – i.e. make updating Windows (and Office, and supporting infrastructure) part of the business as usual norm.

OK, but what if I don’t update?

Put simply, if you choose not to stay up-to-date, you’ll build up a problem for later. The point about having predictable releases is that it should help planning

But each release is only supported for 18 months. That means that you need to be thinking about getting users on n-2 releases updated before it gets too close to their end of support. Today, that means:

  • Running 1703, take action to update.
  • Running 1709, plan to update.
  • Running 1803, trailblazer!

We’re no longer looking at major updates every 3-5 years; instead an approach of continuous service improvement is required. This lessens the impact of each change.

So that’s Windows, what about Office?

For those using Office 365 ProPlus (i.e. licensing the latest versions of Office applications through an Office 365 subscription), Windows and Office updates are aligned (not to the day, but to the Spring and Autumn cadence):

So, keep Office updated in line with Windows and you should be in a good place. Build a process that gives confidence and trust to move the two at the same time… the traditional approach of deploying Windows and Office separately often comes down to testing and deployment processes.

What about my deployment tools? Will they support the latest updates?

According to Microsoft, there are more than 100 million devices managed with System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and SCCM also needs to be kept up-to-date to support upcoming releases.

SCCM releases are not every 6 months – they should be every 4 months or so – and the intention is to update SCCM to support the next version of Windows/Office ahead of when they become available:

Again, start to prepare as early as possible – and think of this as a process, not a project. Deploy first to a limited set of users, then push more broadly:

Why has Microsoft made us work this way?

The world has changed. With Office existing on multiple platforms and systems under constant threat of attack from those who wish to steal our data (and money) it’s become necessary to move from a major update every 3-5 years to a continuous plan to remain in shape and execute every few months – providing high levels of stability and access to the latest features/functionality.

Across Windows, Office, Azure and System Center Microsoft is continually improving security, reliability and performance whilst integrating cloud services to add functionality and to simplify the process of staying current.

How can I move from managing updates as a project to making it part of the process?

As mentioned previously, adopting Windows as a Service involves a cultural shift from periodic projects to a regular process.

Organisations need to be continually planning and preparing for the next update using Insider Preview to understand the impact of upcoming changes and the potential provided by new features, including any training needs.

Applications, devices and infrastructure can be tested using targeted pilot deployments and then, once the update is generally available and known to work in the environment, a broader deployment can be instigated:

Aim to deploy to users following the model below for each stage:

  • Plan and prepare: 1%.
  • Targeted deployment: 9%.
  • Broad deployment: 90%.

Remember, this is about feature updates, not a new version of Windows. The underlying architecture will evolve over time but Windows as a Service is about smaller, incremental change rather than the big step changes we’ve seen in the past.

But what about testing applications with each new release of Windows?

Of course, applications need to be tested against new releases – and there will be dependencies on support from other vendors too – but it’s important that the flow of releases should not be held up by application testing. If you test every application before updating Windows, it will be difficult to hit the rollout cadence. Instead, proactively assess which applications are used by the majority of users and address these first. Aim to move 80-90% of users to the latest release(s) and reactively address issues with the remaining apps (maybe using a succession of mini-pilots) but don’t stop the process because there are still a few apps to get ready!

You can also use alternative deployment methods (such as virtualised applications or published applications) to work around compatibility issues.

It’s worth noting that most Windows 7-compatible apps will be compatible with Windows 10. The same app development platform (UWP), driver servicing model, etc. are used. Some device drivers may not exist for Windows 10 but most do and availability through Windows Update has improved for drivers and firmware. BIOS support is getting better too.

In addition, there are around a million applications registered in the Ready For Windows database, which can be used for spot-checking ISVs’ Windows 10 support for each application and its prevalence in the wild.

New cloud-enabled capabilities to guide your Windows 10 deployment

Windows Analytics is a cloud-based set of services that collects information from within Windows and provides actionable information to proactively improve your Windows  (and Office) environment.

Using Azure Log Analytics, Windows Analytics can advise on:

  • Readiness (Windows 10 Professional): planning and addressing actions for upgrade from Windows 7 and 8.1 as well as Windows 10 feature updates.
  • Compliance (Windows 10 Professional): for regular (monthly) updates.
  • Device health (Windows 10 Professional and Enterprise): assessing issues across estate (e.g. problematic device drivers).

OK, so I understand why I need to continuously update Windows, but how do I do it?

Microsoft recommends using a system of deployment rings (which might be implemented as groups in SCCM) to roll out to users in the 1% (Insider), 9% (Pilot) and 90% (Broad) deployments mentioned above. This approach allows for a consistent but controllable rollout.

Peer-to-peer download technologies are embedded in Windows that will minimise network usage and recent versions support express updates (only downloading deltas) whilst the impact on users can be minimised through scheduling.

When it comes to tools, there are a few options available:

  • Windows Update is the same service used by consumers to download updates at the rate governed by Microsoft.
  • Windows Update for Business is a version of Windows Update that allows an organisation to control their release schedule and set up deployment rings without any infrastructure.
  • Windows Software Update Services (WSUS) allows feature updates to be deployed when approved, and BranchCache can be used to minimise network impact.
  • Finally, SCCM can work with WSUS and offers Task Sequences, etc. to provide greater control over deployment.

What about the normal “Patch Tuesday” updates?

Twice-annual feature updates don’t replace the need to patch more regularly and Microsoft continues to release cumulative updates each month to resolve security and quality issues.

In effect, we should receive one feature update then five quality updates in each cycle:

Where can I find more information?

The following resources may be useful:


The contents of this post are based on a webcast delivered by Bruno Nowak (@BrunoNowak), Director of Product Marketing (Microsoft 365) at Microsoft.

Weeknote 16: Anonymous? (Week 17, 2018)

This week has been another one split between two end-user computing projects – one at the strategy/business case stage and another that’s slowly rolling out and proving that the main constraint on any project is the business’s ability to cope with the change.

I can’t say it’s all enjoyable at the moment – indeed I had to apply a great deal of restraint not to respond to lengthy email threads that asked “why aren’t we doing it this way”… but the inefficiencies of email are another subject, for another day.

So, instead of a recap of the week’s activities, I’ll focus on some experiences I’ve had recently with “anonymous” surveys. I’m generally quite cynical of these because if I have to log on to the platform to provide a response then it’s not truly anonymous – a point I highlighted to my colleagues in HR who ask a weekly “pulse” question. “It’s not on your record”, I was told – yet progress is logged against me (tasks due, tasks completed, etc.) and only accessible when I’m logged in to the HR system. It’s the same for SharePoint surveys – if I need to use my Active Directory credentials, then it’s not anonymous.

I’m approaching my third anniversary at risual and I picked up an idea for soliciting feedback (for my annual review) from colleagues, partners and customers from my colleague James Connolly, who has been using a survey tool for a couple of years now. Rather than use one of the tools on the wider Internet, like Survey Monkey or TypePad, I decided to try Microsoft Forms – which is a newish Office 365 capability. It was really simple to create a form (and to make it anonymous, once I worked out how) but what I’ve been most impressed with is the reporting, with the ability to export all responses to Excel for analysis, or to view either an aggregated view of responses or the detail on each individual response within Microsoft Forms.

I went to pains to make sure that the form is truly anonymous – not requiring logon, though I did invite people to leave their name if they were happy for me to contact them about the responses. Even so, with a sample size of around 50 people invited to complete the form and a 50% response rate, I can take a guess at who some of the responses are from. By the same token, there are others where I wish I knew who wrote the feedback so I could ask them to elaborate some more!

I won’t be doing anything with the results, except saying “this is what my colleagues and customers think of me and this is where I need to improve”, but it does re-enforce my thinking that very little in life is truly anonymous.

Next week includes a speaking gig at a Microsoft Modern Workplace popup event (though I’m not entirely comfortable with the demonstrations), more Windows 10 device rollouts and maybe, just maybe, some time to write some blog posts that aren’t just about my week…