Technology

Short takes: Shrinking Outlook OSTs; locating and removing “stale” Yammer users; editing GPS tracks

Some more snippets of blog posts…

Reducing the size of your Outlook offline store

Tim Anderson commented recently that he’d noticed how recreating his Outlook offline store (.OST) file was more effective than compressing it.  I decided to give mine a go (especially as my recently shrunken Inbox means there wouldn’t be much to re-sync).

Unfortunately, my IT admins appear to have locked down my configuration via group policy so I couldn’t disable/re-enable cached mode. @p3rfact came up with a suggestion that worked though:

As it happens, my file was not that large – although recreating it did reduce the size by around 25%.

Clearing out users from Yammer

Yammer  networks can be synchronised with Active Directory using Yammer Directory Sync but ours is not (for various reasons). There is a pretty simple workaround though for clearing out users from Yammer who have left the company (credit due to @AlanPurchase for working this one out):

  1. From the Network Admin view in Yammer, export a .CSV file with all the users in the network.
  2. Open the .CSV file in Excel and filter on the state field to show active users and on the email field to include domains that you are interested in (for example, I only wanted those in our UK organisation).
  3. Cut and paste email addresses into a new email in Outlook, then use Ctrl+K to resolve the names against the Global Address List. Anyone that isn’t in the GAL will not have their email address resolved.
  4. In Yammer, remove each of the users that are no longer in the organisation – you have the option to remove their posts or leave their posts and remove the account (more details in Microsoft knowledge base article 2820235).

GPS Track Editing

I’ve blogged before about how I log all of my bike rides, runs, etc. – it’s sad, but I like to see where I went on a map – and to know how I performed. Every once on a while, things go wrong though – like one time last summer when my Garmin suddenly decided I was several miles away and the route I was following became nonsense. The only answer was to reset the thing and start tracking again (breaking my ride into multiple tracks).

I found a free GPS Track Editor that helped me to merge/edit tracks (directly editing the XML in GPX files is a chore) and create something that at least represented the route I was on (although it does have one section that is a dead straight line “joining the gap” between my two usable tracks – it should actually follow the road via Whittlebury)!

Technology Waffle and randomness

A manifesto for improved use of email

Email. A critical business communication tool: ubiquitous in its use; with global reach – it’s clear to see how the benefits of improved, anytime, anywhere communication have broken down barriers and created efficiencies. But has email reached a tipping point – where the volume of messages and the need to respond have changed the focus from email as a tool that helps us to perform our work to one where email has become the work itself?

The problem of email overload has led some people to call for “no email days”, or to consider the “email rapture” (i.e. what would we do if email suddenly didn’t exist) and some organisations (most famously Atos) have initiated programmes to reduce or remove the use of internal email, using evocative terms like “information pollution”. (Forrester Analyst Philipp Karcher has an interesting view on this too.)  Others have targeted other drains on productivity (e.g. Coca Cola’s crackdown on voicemail) but it’s clear that there is a huge hidden cost associated with unproductivity in the way we communicate in the workplace.

I became an “email bankrupt” recently where, on return from the Christmas holidays, I processed the new items in my Inbox and moved everything else to an archive – starting a new year fresh with a new (empty) Inbox and vowing to stay on top of it (tidy Inbox… tidy mind).  Many of the archived messages were over a year old and whilst I intended to take action on them, there just wasn’t enough time in the day.  Mine is not an isolated case though – there are many stories on the Internet of those who have found it cathartic to start afresh – and many more with suggestions for keeping on top of things. Some ideas have gained traction, like the Inbox Zero approach evangelised by Merlin Mann or Scott Hanselman’s Outlook rules for processing email but the problem was perfectly summed up for me late in 2014 when I saw Matthew Inman’s cartoon depicting email as a monster that craves attention.

A cultural issue?

Many of the issues associated with email are cultural – in that it’s not the technology that’s at fault, but the way that people use it. For example, email is an asynchronous communication mechanism – i.e. the sender and recipient do not both need to be online at the same time for the message to be sent and received; however many email users seem to expect an immediate, or at least rapid response to email.  Multiply this by many tens or hundreds of emails sent/received a day – and their replies (possibly in various threads as people are copied or dropped from the distribution) – the resulting volumes of email become significant, as does the effort required to process it.  Consider the cost of this email mountain and the numbers are staggering (one infographic estimates the cost of processing email in North America alone to be around $1.7 trillion) – so anything that can be done to reduce the volume of email has to be positive.

In an age of smartphones and mobile communications, out of office messages may seem a little quaint (although we all need to take holidays – and that should include a break from business communications – although that’s a topic worthy of its own discussion) but the need to say “I’m travelling so my response may be delayed” is indicative of an organisation whose culture expects emails to be answered quickly – and where email is used as a task manager, rather than an information-sharing and collaboration tool. Not that there’s anything wrong with using email as a task manager within a workflow system – that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology – but when knowledge workers send an email asking someone to do something (often without context) as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility for a task and passes the baton to another, email becomes a giant “to do list” over which the owner has no control!

Paradoxically, the rapid response to email (fuelled by notifications each time a new one arrives) is feeding the email habits of others – if your colleagues are used to receiving rapid responses, late night replies, etc. to their emails then you make the problem worse by continuing to respond in that manner – a conditioned reflex which could be thought of as “Pavlov’s Inbox” (credit is due to Matt Ballantine for that observation).

Time for change – an email manifesto

In the 1990s, as email was rolled out to large populations in government and commercial organisations, it was common practice to include training on email etiquette. Back then, the focus was on use of informal language for business communication and the implications of emailing other organisations, forwarding/replying/replying to all/copying, capital letters (shouting), emoticons, etc. but maybe we’ve reached a point where we need another round of cultural change – a new email etiquette for 2015 – an email manifesto?

  1. Email should only be used where appropriate. If an immediate/rapid response is required, consider alternatives such as instant messaging, or a phone call. Save email for communications that are not time-sensitive. Use other systems (e.g. enterprise social media platforms and RSS-based newsfeeds) for collaboration/knowledge sharing.
  2. Emails should include a clear call to action. If it’s not clear what is being asked, you’re unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. Email sent does not equal action taken. Consider that emails may not be received, may not be read, or may be ignored. Just because something is a priority to one person, department, or company doesn’t mean it is to another and, if you need someone to do something, make sure they are on-board and ready to work with you. If you don’t hear back, follow up later – but consider using another method of communication.
  4. Carbon copy (CC) or blind carbon copy (BCC) means “for information”. If you expect someone to take action (see previous point), make sure they are on the “To” line.
  5. The subject heading must be relevant to the content of the email. Topics sometimes branch off in new directions as the conversation develops and if someone new is brought in to the discussion then it really helps to have a relevant subject line!
  6. Keep it brief (but not too brief). Emails should be concise – a couple of paragraphs – any more and it won’t be read. If you have to spell things out in more detail use bullets, etc. but consider the reader – they might be reading the message on a mobile device and if you make it easy to understand you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  7. Check your email before you send it. Brevity is good but does your message make sense? All too often one line responses require the recipient to decipher ambiguity or read through pages and pages of message history to understand the context.
  8. Check calendars when scheduling meetings. This is only tangentially related but, if the email system includes calendar functionality, take the time to check availability before sending a meeting request. It may be the best time for you – but is everyone else free? On a related note, emails to groups of people asking “when’s best for a meeting” are a waste of everyone’s time – use the calendar scheduling tools!
  9. Consider the cost of email. Not the cost of running the systems but of continually checking email. Multitasking is a myth. Turn off email notifications and try to get out of the habit of glancing at your smartphone in meetings. Focus on one thing at a time and do that thing well. Think before you send email and consider that every email costs money and time!
Technology

Moving on from an #HourOfCode to 20 hours of code…

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Hour of Code events that are running as part of Computer Science Education Week and, last Thursday, I took my 10 year-old son to our local Apple Store to take part in an event. Unfortunately his younger brother wasn’t interested (“I don’t really like programming” was the response) but I’m not going to push it – not everyone likes the same things and I do at least know he’ll be exposed to some coding at school (Scratch was part of the ICT curriculum at their school, even before the recent shake-up in computer science education here in the UK).

Using a Scratch-like user interface, the Hour of Code used a sequence of puzzles to guide Angry Birds through a route to find some pigs, the Zombies and Plants, and Squirrels and Acorns… with the opportunity to view the resulting JavaScript code at each stage.  Working up from simple steps forward/turns to repeat [for] loops, repeat until [while] loops, if statements and if/else statements it was great to see my son asking “what are all the funny brackets” when he viewed the code (and equally great to be able to use some of the C he’s tweaked with the Arduino as an example of passing parameters).

At the end of the session we were pointed at another twenty hours of code available at the code.org studio, allowing kids (and adults) to build up confidence and knowledge of basic computer science principles but the real buzz for me was seeing my son’s browsing history the next morning, spotting the Google search for “20 hours of code” and the fact he’d got stuck in to some of the puzzles to create his own game without any nudging from his geek father. That put a big smile on my face.

Technology

Reconfiguring a PlusNet ADSL router (Technicolor TG582n)

This post is probably not much interest to many people but it might help some if, like me, you’re trying to re-configure a Technicolor TG582n ADSL router from PlusNet. Just make sure you read all the way to the end and save yourself some time!

For the last 11 years, my ADSL connection has been running with an elderly Solwise SAR110 ADSL modem/router, provided by PlusNet when we first connected to 512Mbps ADSL. Those were the days – half a meg download speeds seemed so fast back then! Whilst fibre has (just about) reached my neck of the woods, my ADSL 2 connection is working well, most of the time, and I get about 6Mbps down and 0.7Mbps up these days. Indeed, the connection actually seems to have become more responsive lately (my theory is that the contention rate has dropped in line with people switching to fibre)!  I did have cause to call PlusNet for support last week though, and they agreed to ship me a new router if I signed up to one of their current packages (which, incidentally saved me money too as we were still on a very old tariff).

The new router is a Technicolor TG582n and I finally got around to setting it up tonight. I was told that I might get slightly faster speeds but there’s no evidence of that based on the tests I’ve run so far (that may change in a couple of days when we roll into a new billing month and onto the new service) [Update: after a few reboots my speed has doubled to around 12Mbps]. For now though I just want to swap the old router out for the new one.

The first thing I found was that the default configuration sets the router’s IP address to 192.168.1.254. That’s the IP address of my wireless access point, and all of my devices are expecting a gateway address of 192.168.1.1.  So, I downloaded the router configuration (Technicolor Gateway -> Configuration -> Save or Restore Configuration).  This gave me a file called user.ini, which I then searched for all instances of 254 and looked like they were part of an IP address (ignoring one which was part of a long string of numbers) and replaced 254 with 1.  I then uploaded the new configuration and, hey presto, the browser refreshed giving me back the config for my wireless access point on 192.168.1.254 and the router was responding on 192.168.1.1.  That seems a bit of a kludge and there should be another way to do this, but I couldn’t find it in the GUI (at least not with software release 10.2.2.B).

Then, reading around I found that the router also has a DHCP server enabled by default. I don’t want that right now (my Raspberry Pi is doing that job for me) so I started to investigate switching that feature off. Again, I couldn’t find it in the GUI, so I tracked down a copy of the CLI guide for the router (from another ISP – Demon – albeit for an older release) and, sure enough, after telnetting onto the box the dhcp server config command told me it was enabled so I corrected that with the following commands:

dhcp server config state=disabled
saveall

After all that, I found the config that I needed – it seems that the location to make the changes is Home Network -> Interfaces -> Local Network -> Configure.

There I found some handy checkboxes to turn on/off DHCP servers (IPv4 and IPv6) as well as the static address for IPv4 addresses!

After all this, I may well switch over to one of the popular open source firmware packages on the router… but I’ll leave it alone for now…

Technology

Learn the basics of computer programming in an #HourOfCode

Next week (8-14 December 2014) is Computer Science Education Week and the Hour of Code is coming to the UK. More than 3 million people have tried an Hour of Code already, in an initiative that aims to dispel any myths that computer programming is difficult and to provide parents, teachers and students across the nation with an enjoyable introduction to coding. Code.org hope that this will help build awareness of and confidence in the changes that have come in the September 2014 English school curriculum.

It’s not just in schools either – my employer has 24 “hour of code” workshops scheduled all over the country for our technical staff to give non-techies a one-hour introduction to the basics of computer programming and there’s been a fantastic sign-up rate.

Other IT companies are getting involved too (actually, there’s an extensive list of partners) including Apple, who are hosting Hour of Code workshops in Apple Stores across the world on 11 December (I’m hoping to get at least one of my sons to come along with me). It’s billed as “no experience needed” and for “ages 6-106″.

If computer programming is a mystery to you but it might be something of interest, find out more about the hour of code on the Code.org UK website or follow @codeorg on Twitter.

And if the Hour of Code whets your appetite, you might like to check out some of these resources:

[Update 10 December 2014: added Microsoft Imagine to the list]

[Update 14 December 2014: added 20 hours of code to the list]

Technology

Short takes: Unicode characters in Windows; OS X Remote Disc goes AWOL

More micro-posts from the collection of open tabs in my browser…

Unicode characters in Windows

Sometimes, when tweeting, it’s useful to be able to type the unicode horizontal ellipsis (…) rather than three full stops (…). It might look similar, but that’s two less characters out of 140.  I remember back in early days of Windows I could enter special characters using the numeric keypad but it seems that still works (sort of): FireFormat.Info has some useful information on entering Unicode characters in Microsoft Windows.

Mac OS X Remote Disc goes AWOL whilst installing Adobe Lightroom

My new Mac Mini doesn’t have an optical drive. That’s not generally a problem except I needed to install Lightroom on it, so I used OS X’s Remote Disc technology to share the DVD drive from my old MacBook across the network.  The software installation was progressing nicely until, right at the end, the Adobe installer wanted me to insert the disc! As I was already connected to a logical disc, I had no way forward but to abandon the installation, connect a USB DVD drive and try again.  Seems it’s not the universal solution to accessing optical media that I had hoped…

To add insult to injury, I then found (thanks to the Lightroom Queen) that the Lightroom downloads on the Adobe website are the full programme, so I could have downloaded the software and installed it locally – all I really needed was my license key!

Technology

Choosing an Office 365 identity model (when to use ADFS)

At the time of writing, Microsoft Office 365 has the ability to work with three identity models:

  • Cloud identity (stored in Microsoft Azure Active Directory).
  • Synchronised identity (a copy of the objects from an on-premises Active Directory is made in Microsoft Azure AD), optionally with synchronised password hashes.  This is also known as same sign on (not single sign on as there are still two separate objects, albeit two objects that are kept synchronised).
  • Federated identity, using a federation service (such as Active Directory Federation Services, but others are supported) to authenticate users in an on-premises directory following which authorisation can be granted to Office 365 resources. This is also known as single sign on.  In this instance, directory synchronisation is still used to populate the Azure AD with user objects, although authentication happens on-premises.

Whilst the majority of small businesses will be fine with cloud identities, many of my conversations with enterprise customers start off in the directory synchronisation space. Generally, synchronisation is performed using the Office 365 DirSync appliance (a customised version of Forefront Identity Manager) although, more recently a new tool (Azure AD Sync) has been released that will eventually replace DirSync.  At the time of writing the main difference is that Azure AD Sync supports multiple forests (DirSync is a single forest solution) but it doesn’t support password synchronisation (still a major advantage for DirSync).

In general, the approach I recommend is to choose the simplest model for the organisation’s needs. The cloud identity model can work well when there is no on-premises directory service or there is no requirement to integrate; synchronised identity is the most commonly used (assuming there is an existing Active Directory) but sometimes federation is required:

  1. If there is an existing ADFS infrastructure.
  2. If a third party federated ID provider is in use.
  3. If Forefront Identity Manager 2010 is in use (which does not support password synchronisation).
  4. If there are multiple on-premises Active Directory forests (although Azure AD sync may negate this requirement).
  5. If smart cards or other third-party multi-factor authentication solutions are in use (Azure AD does have an MFA capability, although there are some restrictions on its use).
  6. If custom hybrid apps or hybrid search are in use (SharePoint).
  7. If a hybrid Lync solution is in use (i.e. placing users with enterprise voice capabilities on premises and those that don’t need voice in Lync Online, sharing the same SIP namespace).
  8. For self-service password reset via a web service (only administrators have self-service password reset in Office 365).
  9. If there is a requirement to audit logins and/or immediately disable accounts.
  10. If there is a requirement for single sign-on (i.e. accessing Office 365 workloads with the same user credentials as on-premises).
  11. If there is a requirement to restrict client logins by time or location.
  12. If the organisational security policy prevents the synchronisation of password hashes to Azure AD.

On a related topic, the Microsoft Online Services Sign-in Assistant (MOSA) for IT Professionals only exists to simplify the user experience (handling tokens, etc.) and is generally not required with modern versions of Office. Administrators using PowerShell may still need it though.

Finally, if ADFS is down, there is no way for users to authenticate. For that reason, federated infrastructure needs to be highly available (e.g. multiple ADFS proxies and multiple ADFS servers).  One method that’s starting to be commonly recommended is an “ADFS safety net”, using DirSync as a fall back (it’s possible to move between identity models on demand) but obviously that’s only an option if your organisation’s security policy allows the synchronisation of identities (including password hashes to minimise the impact on end users).

For reference, the PowerShell commands are:

Convert-Msol-DomainToStandard -DomainName domainname.tld -SkipUserConversion $true
Convert-Msol-DomainToFederated -DomainName domainname.tld

Set-Msol-DomainAuthentication -Authentication Managed -DomainName domainname.tld
Convert-Msol-DomainToFederated -DomainName domainname.tld

Credit is due to Michel de Rooij (@mderooij) for the ADFS safety net tip.

Technology

My new Office 365 Resource Centre

I’ve been doing a fair amount of work with Office 365 in recent months (including passing certification exams) and, along the way, I’ve found a lot of snippets of useful information. Normally I’d write a blog post but I expect to be constantly adding to the information so I thought I’d create a different solution this time.

So, I’ve started to create what’s currently known as Mark’s Office 365 Resource Centre. It’s work in progress – and I’m sure the structure will change as it grows over time – but at least I’ve found something to do with the public website on my Office 365 subscription!

Technology

Déjà vu: buying and upgrading another Mac Mini

Eight years ago, I was writing blog posts about buying a Mac Mini and upgrading its inner workings. Then, last weekend, I bought a new one.  Well, actually I bought the outgoing model at a knock-down price, thanks to a tip-off from Dom Allen (@ca95014).  A 2.3GHz Core i7 late-2012 model should happily replace my aging MacBook and, unlike the late-2014 model that Apple recently announced, it has upgradable RAM (up to 16GB) rather than memory integrated on the main logic board (I believe the term is planned obsolescence and I find it deeply cynical…).

As usual, I bought my memory from Crucial but, whilst I was waiting for it to arrive, I introduced my eldest son to the Apple unboxing experience…

The memory turned up a day or so later and now I’m in the process of transferring all of my images and photo-editing software to the new Mac… I’m sure there will be more posts to follow on that experience.

With some more hard disk space and a faster Mac, maybe I’ll start taking more pictures (lost my “photo mojo” of late, although I did grab a few shots when I went to watch the Revolution Series track cycling a couple of weeks ago).

Waffle and randomness

Dreaming of a better commute

Travelling in and out of London this week for the course I’ve been attending has reminded me why working from home (mostly) is a huge blessing. At least 4 hours’ travel a day for a relatively simple 60-mile commute? No thank you!

I did, however, use two different routes with contrasting experiences and that made me think – why does it have to be this way? And what might it be like one day?

Commute route 1: Olney to London via Bedford (Thameslink/East Midlands Trains)

After driving to Bedford and finding a space in the car park (not always easy), the next question was where are the ticket machines? The option to pay and display with optional mobile phone/SMS/app payment seems to have been replaced by a system to pay as you leave the car park on foot (albeit with an optional mobile app). It uses ANPR to recognise my car but the user interface is confusing and there’s no option for contactless payment (surely a perfect use case for fast commodity transactions like this?). At £7.90 for a day’s parking (when the only reason you would ever park there is to catch a train!), it’s expensive too.

Then, at the station I bought a ticket – again falling foul of a confusing user interface (not helped by Thameslink’s corporate colours not really highlighting what I need to see). I switched to another machine and followed a different (but more familiar) purchase journey on the touch screen whilst another customer switched queues because of a broken card reader in the machine she was using.

Catching the train is simple, with frequent services but lots of stops and the (07:34) train is packed well before reaching London.

The good thing about this route (on Thameslink – not on East Midlands Trains) is that it goes right to the heart of the city (not the West End) although I change at Farringdon to get on the underground towards Tower Hill. Sadly, with no barriers to pass through and crowds of commuters I didn’t see an Oyster touch in/out machine, which I realise after boarding the train – wouldn’t it be good if there were more of these machines or if you could swipe on the train!? I touch out at the end of the journey but am charged the full fare and it takes me a lot of time on the phone waiting to sort out the charging…

Commute route 2: Olney to London via Milton Keynes (London Midland/Virgin Trains)

After a faster drive to Milton Keynes (MK is famous for its roundabouts but there’s a real benefit in the national speed limit grid road network), I park close to the station. The actual station parking is extortionate (so much so that I know some people who don’t pay, preferring to take the risk of an occasional fine) but off-street parking is available and half price if I pay by phone (£4.18).

I buy a ticket at the station but know to always allow time for queuing: there are 6 machines and 4 booths but that’s never enough! It’s 06:54 so I dash for the 06:55 London Midland service, but see that the (faster) 06:53 Virgin train has only just arrived (even though it’s showing as “on time”).

We set off towards London, only to be delayed by a vehicle striking a bridge at Watford and are overtaken by the slower London Midland service that I nearly caught earlier! Eventually, we get moving and arrive in London 20 minutes late…

A dream of a better commute

These real world stories are just single journeys and it could all be so different on another day. So let’s compare with what it could be like:

  • My calendar shows that I’m planning to be in London for the day.
  • My alarm wakes me with enough time to get ready, and the lights in the house gently warm up to wake me from my slumber.
  • I drive to the station and, as I park my phone recognises my location and that I’m stationary, asks me if I need to pay for parking and then takes care of the details.
  • Arriving on the station concourse, my digital personal assistant has pre-bookèd my train ticket and there’s a boarding pass on my phone. No paper tickets are required as the barriers can simply scan a QR code on my screen (or even use NFC?)
  • There’s a steady flow of trains (on time of course!) and as I switch to the Underground, payment is dealt with as I pass through turnstiles using a contactless payment card – and, even if I end up on the platform via a different route I can pick my boarding point (verified using location services) and ensure I’m correctly billed, using a smartphone app…
  • Realising there are delays on the line, my phone reschedules appointments as required, or otherwise ensures that contacts are aware I will be delayed.

It’s not difficult – all of this technology is available today but it just doesn’t quite work together… all of this talk of an Internet of Things brings it tantalisingly close but train companies, car park operators and other organisations still cling on to outdated methods. So it seems I’ll be dreaming for a little while longer…

 

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