IT Forum ’05 highlights: part 1

Microsoft UK IT Forum Highlights
A few years back, I used to try and persuade my employer to send me to Microsoft TechEd Europe each year, on the basis that lots of 75 minute presentations on a variety of topics provided a better background for me than a few days of in depth product training (I can build experience later as I actually use the technology). The last time I attended TechEd was back in 2001, by which time it had become more developer-focused and the IT Forum was being positioned as the infrastructure conference (replacing the Microsoft Exchange Conference). For the last couple of years, I haven’t been able to attend the IT Forum due to family commitments (first it clashed with my the birth of my son and then subsequently its been in conflict with his birthday, as it is again this year) but luckily, Microsoft UK has been re-presenting the highlights from IT Forum as free-of-charge TechNet events (spread over two days) and I’ve managed to take some time out to attend them.

Yesterday’s event covered a variety of topics. Unfortunately there was no concept of different tracks from which I could attend the most relevant/interesting sessions, so some it went completely over my head. One of those topics was upgrading to SQL Server 2005, so apologies to the presenter – I was the guy nodding off on the front row.

In the next few paragraphs, I’ll highlight some of the key points from the day.

Upgrading to SQL Server 2005
Presented by Tony Rogerson, SQL Server MVP and UK SQL Server Community leader, this session gave useful information for those looking at upgrading from SQL Server 2000 (or earlier) to SQL Server 2005. I’ve blogged previously with a SQL Server 2005 overview, why SQL Server 2005 is such a significant new product and on the new management tools but the key points from Tony’s presentation were:

  • Upgrades (in-place upgrades) are supported, preserving user data and maintaining instance names in a largely automated fashion, as are side-by-side migrations (mostly manual, copying data from an old installation to a new and then decommissioning the old servers).
  • SQL Server versions prior to 7.0 cannot be migrated directly and SQL Server 7.0/2000 need to be updated to the latest service pack levels before they can be migrated. For SQL Server 2000 that is SP4, which might break some functionality for SP3A users, so the upgrade needs to be carefully planned.
  • The database engine (including subcomponents like the SQL Agent, tools, etc.), analysis services, reporting services and notification services can all be upgraded, and data transformation services can be migrated to integration services.
  • All product editions can be upgraded/migrated (32/64-bit, desktop, workgroup, personal, standard, developer or enterprise editions), as can all SQL Server 7.0/2000 released languages.
  • A smooth upgrade requires a good plan, breaking tasks into:
    • Pre-upgrade tasks.
    • Upgrade execution tasks.
    • Post-upgrade tasks (day 0, day 30, day 90).
    • Backout plan.
  • Microsoft provides the SQL Server 2005 Upgrade Advisor as a free download to analyse instances of SQL Server 7.0 and SQL Server 2000 in preparation for upgrading to SQL Server 2005. This can be used repeatedly until all likely issues have been resolved and the upgrade can go ahead.
  • Migration provides for more granular control over the process that an upgrade would and the presence of old and new installations side-by-side can aid with testing and verification; however it does require new hardware (although a major investment in a SQL Server upgrade would probably benefit from new hardware anyway) and applications will need to be directed to the new instance. Because the legacy installation remains online, there is complete flexibility to fail back should things not go to plan.
  • Upgrades will be easier and faster for small systems and require no new hardware or application reconfiguration; however the database instances will remain offline during the upgrade and it’s not best practice to upgrade all components (e.g. analysis services cubes).
  • Upgrade tips and best practices include:
    • Reduce downtime by pre-installing setup pre-requisites (Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0, SQL Native Client and setup support files) – some of these are needed for the Upgrade Advisor anyway.
    • If planning a migration using the copy database wizard, place the database in single-user mode (to stop users from modifying the data during the upgrade) and make sure that no applications or services are trying to access the database. Also, do not use read-only mode (this will result in an error) and note that the database cannot be renamed during the operation.
    • Be aware of the reduced surface attack area of SQL Server 2005 – some services and features are disabled for new installations (secure by default) – the surface area configuration tools can be used to enable or disable features and services.

Leveraging your Active Directory for perimeter defence
Presented by Richard Warren, an Internet and security training specialist, I was slightly disappointed with this session, which failed to live up to the promises that its title suggested. After spending way too much time labouring Microsoft’s usual points about a) how packet filtering alone is not enough and ISA Server adds application layer filtering and b) ISA Server 2004 is much better and much easier to use than ISA Server 2000, Richard finally got down to some detail about how to use existing investments in AD and ISA Server to improve security (but I would have liked to have seen more real-world examples of exactly how to implement best practice). Having been quite harsh about the content, I should add that there were some interesting points in his presentation:

  • According to CERT, 95% of [computer security] breaches [were] avoidable with an alternative configuration.
  • According to Gartner Group, approximately 70% of all web attacks occur at the application layer.
  • Very few organisations are likely to deploy ISA Server as a first line of defence. Even though ISA Server 2004 is an extremely secure firewall, it is more common to position a normal layer 3 (packer filtering) firewall at the network edge and then use ISA Server behind this to provide application layer filtering on the remaining traffic.
  • Users who are frightened of IT don’t cause many problems. Users who think they understand computers cause most of the problems. Users who do know what they are doing are few and far between. (Users are a necessary evil for administrators).
  • Not all attacks are malicious and internal users must not be assumed to be “safe”.
  • ISA Server can be configured to write it’s logs to SQL Server for analysis.
  • Active Directory was designed for distributed security (domain logon/authentication and granting access to resources/authorisation) but it can also store and protect identities and plays a key role in Windows managability (facilitating the management of network resources, the delegation of network security and enabling centralised policy control).
  • Using ISA Server to control access to sites (both internal and external), allows monitoring and logging of access by username. If you give users a choice of authenticated access or none at all, they’ll choose authenticated access. If transparent authentication is used with Active Directory credentials, users will never know that they needed a username and password to access a site (this requires the ISA Server to be a member of the domain or a trusted domain, such as a domain which only exists within the DMZ).
  • ISA Server’s firewall engine performs packet filtering and operates in kernel mode. The firewall service performs application layer filtering (extensible via published APIs) and operates in user mode.
  • SSL tunnelling provides a secure tunnel from a client to a server. SSL bridging involves installing the web server’s certificate on the ISA Server, terminating the client connection there and letting ISA server inspect the traffic and handle the ongoing request (e.g. with another SSL connection, or possibly using IPSec). Protocol bridging is similar, but involves ISA server accepting a connection using one protocol (e.g. HTTP) before connecting to the target server with another protocol (e.g. FTP).

Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Release 2 (R2) technical overview
Presented by Quality Training (Scotland)‘s Andy Malone, this session was another disappointment. Admittedly, a few months back, I was lucky to be present at an all day R2 event, again hosted by Microsoft, but presented by John Craddock and Sally Storey of Kimberry Associates, who went into this in far more detail. Whilst Andy only had around an hour (and was at pains to point out that there was lots more to tell than he had time for), the presentation looked like Microsoft’s standard R2 marketing deck, with some simple demonstrations, poorly executed, and it seemed to me that (like many of the Microsoft Certified Trainers that I’ve met) the presenter had only a passing knowledge of the subject – enough to present, but lacking real world experience.

Key points were:

  • Windows Server 2003 R2 is a release update – approximately half way between Windows Server 2003 and the next Windows Server product (codenamed Longhorn).
  • In common with other recent Windows Server System releases, R2 is optimised for 64-bit platforms.
  • R2 is available in standard, enterprise and datacenter editions (no web edition) consisting of two CDs – the first containing Windows Server 2003 slipstreamed with SP1 and the second holding the additional R2 components. These components are focused around improvements in branch office scenarios, identity management and storage.
  • The new DFSR functionality can provide up to 50% WAN traffic reduction through improved DFS replication (using bandwidth throttling remote differential compression, whereby only file changes are replicated), allowing centralised data copies to be maintained (avoiding the need for local backups, although one has to wonder how restoration might work over low-speed, high latency WAN links). Management is improved with a new MMC 3.0 DFS Management console.
  • There is a 5MB limit on the size of the DFS namespace file, which equates to approximately 5000 folders for a domain namespace and 50,000 folders for a standalone namespace. Further details can be found in Microsoft’s DFS FAQ.
  • Print management is also improved with a new MMC 3.0 Print Management console, which will auto-discover printers on a subnet and also allows deployment of printer connections using group policy (this requires use a utility called pushprinterconnections.exe within a login script, as well as a schema update).
  • Identity and access management is improved with Active Directory federation services (ADFS), Active Directory application mode (ADAM – previously a separate download), WS-Management and Linux/Unix identity management (incorporating Services for Unix, which was previously a separate download).
  • For many organisations, storage management is a major problem with typical storage requirements estimated to be increasing by between 60% and 100% each year. The cost of managing this storage can be 10 times the cost of the disk hardware and Microsoft has improved the storage management functionality within Windows to try and ease the burden.
  • The file server resource manager (FSRM) is a new component to integrate capacity management, policy management and quota management, with quotas now set at folder level (rather than volume) and file screening to avoid storage of certain file types on the server (although the error message if a user tries to do this just warns of a permissions issue and is more likely to confuse users and increase the burden on administrators trying to resolve any resulting issues).
  • Storage manager for SANs allows Windows administrators to manage disk resources on a SAN (although not with the granularity that the SAN administrator would expect to have – I’ve not seen this demonstrated but believe it’s only down to a logical disk level).
  • In conclusion, Windows Server 2003 R2 builds on Windows Server 2003 with new functionality, but with no major changes so as to ensure a non-disruptive upgrade with complete application compatibility, and requiring no new client access licenses (CALs).

Management pack melee: understanding MOM 2005 management packs
Finally, a fired up, knowledgeable presenter! Gordon McKenna, MOM MVP is clearly passionate about his subject and blasted through a whole load of detail on how Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) uses management packs to monitor pretty much anything in a Windows environment (and even on other platforms, using third-party management packs). There was way too much information in his presentation to represent here, but Microsoft’s MOM 2005 for beginners website has loads of information including technical walkthoughs. Gordon did provide some additional information though which is unlikely to appear on a Microsoft website (as well as some that does):

  • MOM v3 is due for release towards the end of this year (I’ve blogged previously about some of the new functionality we might see in the next version of MOM). It will include a lightweight agent, making MOM more suitable for monitoring client computers as well as a Microsoft Office management pack. MOM v3 will also move from a server-centric paradigm to a service-centric health model in support of the dynamic systems initiative and will involve a complete re-write (if you’re going to buy MOM this year, make sure you also purchase software assurance).
  • There are a number of third-party management packs available for managing heterogeneous environments. The MOM management pack catalogue includes details.
  • The operations console notifier is a MOM 2005 resource kit utility which provides pop-up notification of new alerts (in a similar manner to Outlook 2003’s new mail notification).

A technical overview of Microsoft Virtual Server 2005
In the last session of the day, Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill presented a technical overview of Microsoft Virtual Server 2005. James is another knowledgeable presenter, but the presentation was a updated version of a session that John Howard ran a few months back. That didn’t stop it from being worthwhile – I’m glad I stayed to watch it as it included some useful new information:

  • Windows Server 2003 R2 Enterprise Edition changes the licensing model for virtual servers in two ways: firstly, by including 4 guest licenses with every server host licence (total 5 copies of R2); secondly by only requiring organisations to be licensed for the number of running virtual machines (currently even stored virtual machine images which are not in regular use each require a Windows licence); finally, in a move which is more of a clarification, server products which are normally licensed per-processor (e.g. SQL Server, BizTalk Server, ISA Server) are only required to be licensed per virtual processor (as Virtual Server does not yet support SMP within the virtual environment).
  • The Datacenter edition of the next Windows Server version (codenamed Longhorn) will allow unlimited virtual guests to be run as part of its licence – effectively mainframe Windows.
  • Microsoft is licensing (or plans to licence) the virtual hard disk format, potentially allowing third parties to develop tools that allow .VHD files to be mounted as drives within Windows. There is a utility to do this currently, but it’s a Microsoft-internal tool (I’m hoping that it will be released soon in a resource kit).
  • As I reported previously, Microsoft is still planning a service pack for Virtual Server 2005 R2 which will go into beta this quarter and to ship in the Autumn of 2006, offering support for Intel virtualization technology (formerly codenamed Vanderpool) and equivalent technology from AMD (codenamed Pacifica) as well as performance improvements for non-Windows guest operating systems.

Overall, I was a little disappointed with yesterday’s event, although part 2 (scheduled for next week) looks to be more relevant to me with sessions on Exchange 12, the Windows Server 2003 security configuration wizard, Monad, Exchange Server 2003 mobility and a Windows Vista overview. Microsoft’s TechNet UK events are normally pretty good – maybe they are just a bit stretched for presenters right now. Let’s just hope that part 2 is better than part 1.

One thought on “IT Forum ’05 highlights: part 1

Leave a Reply