Monthly Archives: November 2006

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Media junkie… Me?

I don’t know how, but all of a sudden this blog has started to generate a lot of interest. I’ve been quietly typing away, on the train, in my spare moments, and often late into the night, for over two years now and what started out as a project to store my notes in a format that was accessible from wherever I happened to be working has become something that I can no longer devote as much time to as I would like. I try to leave tech news to other sites that are better able to cover it but I do occasionally write some opinion posts in between the technical discoveries and presentation brain dumps that I hope are useful to others too.

Quite how they found me I’m not sure, but two journalists have been in touch this week – the first looking for a Windows Vista opinion piece which will hopefully appear in next week’s Computer Weekly and the second writing an article on blogging for this Saturday’s Independent.

Of course, the articles might never appear (or I might not be quoted) but it’s good for my ego to have the occasional burst of minor fame (I was quoted in IT Week a couple of years back, although that was a deliberate PR exercise by my employer at the time), but sadly I won’t be giving up the day job just yet!

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Does the world really need another search engine?

Windows Live
Two of London’s free newspapers for commuters (Metro and The London Paper) are featuring wrap-around ads for Microsoft’s Windows Live Live Search today. The front page is almost entirely blank, save for a search box which asks “Does the world really need another search engine?”:

Does the world really need another search engine?

As Google and Yahoo! have once again extended their lead on Microsoft in the search engine rankings and Google has become the most visited website in the UK, I have to wonder if Microsoft should be asking themselves the same question. It’s all very well emphasising the extra features that Live Search offers – like controlling the size of the results on a single page, hovering over images for more detail, providing bird’s eye views to accompany maps and directions (all very well for pilots and birds, but not so useful on the ground) and personalising results; however, of all organisations, Microsoft should be well aware that it’s not necessarily the product with the best feature set that gains the most market share. Having said that, Google came from nowhere a few years back – and who uses the pioneering Lycos, Excite and Altavista search engines today?

Live Search is certainly impressive and Microsoft’s ads state that:

“To us, search is in its infancy. This is just the start.”

Maybe Live Search will push Google into doing some work to integrate their disparate Web 2.0 applications (many of which seem to be in a perpetual beta state); in the meantime, the message seemed to be lost as I observed commuters at Canary Wharf – one of London’s major commercial centres – simply flicking past the four full page ads to get to the news.

Give Live Search a try at live.com.

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Entourage is eating my e-mail

Well, “eating my e-mail” is a bit of an overstatement, but I had a problem earlier whereby all of my e-mail was being removed from the Exchange Server and copied to Entourage’s local folders (thereby making it inaccessible from other mail clients – e.g. Outlook Web Access). I found a fix to the problem – deleting my mailing list rules from the Mailing List Manager. Not ideal, but something to watch out for.

Incidentally, whilst I was trying to find an answer to my issue (I didn’t find anything online, only an old newsgroup post from someone with a similar, unresolved, problem – in the end it was just process of elimination) I stumbled across a very useful MacTech article about Entourage and Mail with an Exchange Server.

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Sysinternals is back online

Windows Sysinternals
A few months back, Microsoft bought Winternals – including Mark Russinovich and Bryce Cogswell’s highly-regarded Sysinternals website with many utilities considered essential by Windows administrators. The site then went offline for a few months but it’s now back in the form of the Microsoft Technet: Windows Sysinternals microsite.

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Could the virtual appliance replace traditional software distribution?

For some time now, VMware has been pushing the concept of virtual appliances as a new method of software distribution – a pre-built, pre-configured and ready-to-run software application packaged with the operating system inside a virtual machine – and the company has many pre-configured VMware virtual machines ready for download. Now Microsoft has come onboard, encouraging users to download pre-configured .VHD virtual hard disk images for Virtual PC or Virtual Server.

Microsoft sees this as an opportunity for customers to quickly evaluate Microsoft and partner solutions for free in their own environment without the need for dedicated servers or complex installations. VMware’s vision is a little broader and their Virtual Appliance Marketplace holds links to hundreds of virtual appliances from software companies as well as the open source community.

It’s certainly an interesting concept. Instead of installing an application on an operating system and then configuring it to suit, I can take an existing image, pre-configured by the software developers according to their best practice and greatly reduce the time to deploy an application. Of course, there will be issues around standard operating system configurations (many organisations will not accept an application unless it runs on their hardened operating system build) but this use of virtualisation technology has huge potential – and not just for demoware.

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Getting iChat AV to work with users on other IM services

I find the PC vs. Mac ads that Apple is running at the moment amusing, but it does strike me as odd that a company with a brand as strong as Apple’s would drop to what is effectively bragging (even p***s envy?). It seems I’m not the only one either – from listening to TWiT episode 76 earlier today, it seems that “virtually everyone who watches it comes away liking the ‘PC guy’ while wanting to push the ‘Mac guy’ under a bus“!

PC guy - Mac guy

But hey… what’s my point exactly? Well, according to Apple’s get a Mac website (at the time of writing), reason number 1 to get a Mac is:

It just works. How much time have you spent troubleshooting your PC? Imagine a computer designed by people who hate to waste time as much as you do. Where all the hardware and software just works, and works well together. Get a Mac and get your life back.”

Wake up and smell the coffee guys. I love my Mac, but it does not “just work”. That’s why I’ve spent hours (literally) using a third party utility to get iChat AV working without forking out for a .Mac account. It’s not the first time either, I’ve blogged before about how getting things to work on a Mac is not always as straightforward as it should be. I love my Mac but it has problems, as does any PC running any operating system (open or closed, proprietary or open-source).

This is what I had to do…

Apple iChat AV (I’m using v3.1.5 on Mac OS X 10.4.8) supports .Mac and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) logins. It also supports Jabber – so I thought I’d prove the concept by getting it working with Google Talk (which is also based on Jabber). That turned out to be pretty straightforward – Google even provide instructions for configuring iChat for Google Talk. That’s all very well, but my contacts all use ICQ or MSN/Windows Live Messenger – wouldn’t it be great to get them all working within iChat? ICQ is another easy one… just add an AIM account to iChat and enter your ICQ number as the AIM screen name, but that still doesn’t help with any of the other services.

Luckily Melvin Rivera at All Forces has written a comprehensive article about iChat to MSN through Jabber. In theory, this should work for any service, since Jabber acts as a gateway for communication with the various IM networks. I followed Melvin’s article to:

  1. Download and install PSI.
  2. Create a Jabber account – I chose a UK provider – tuff.org.uk – largely because their site gives a lot of information.
  3. Register the Jabber account within PSI.
  4. Select the required services (I chose MSN and ICQ – I’ll probably add more later but an account is required on each connected service).

At this point, my MSN contacts all started to appear in the PSI client… although each one needed to be authorised (and the multiple alerts meant I had to force quit PSI a couple of times). Incidentally, if a load of contacts are stuck on waiting for authorization (this happened to me, and from reading the comments on Melvin’s article it’s not uncommon) right-clicking and selecting rerequest authorization from seemed to fix things (I then needed to open the alert which came back for each contact). I thought at first this meant getting all my contacts to approve me again but as long as the MSN servers know I’m not blocked from these contacts, the authorisation is immediate.

Now, here’s the bit that I didn’t work out immediately… once the contacts have been sucked out of MSN (or elsewhere) and into Jabber, quit PSI… otherwise all the IM conversations occur within PSI, instead of iChat.

Next, I configured iChat to use the tuff.org.uk Jabber server – the settings were the same as for Google Talk (except for the account name/password and the server). After that iChat was working with MSN and ICQ. For cross-platform instant messaging at least.

The next stage was to get video/audio conferencing working. This is where I roped in a friend, using another Mac, connected via ADSL from his home a few miles away. It took us a while to get things going – in the end it was a MacRiot article about port forwarding to avoid iChat AV no audio/video woes that gave the answer, referring us to Apple’s document about using iChat AV with a firewall or NAT router.

After opening TCP ports 5190, 5220, 5222 and UDP ports 5060, 5190, 5678 and 16384-16403 on my Internet-facing router, my friend was able to successfully invite me to an audio/video conversation (although for some reason I don’t see the icons to invite him). Incidentally, on a local network there will be additional ports required for client firewall configurations (UDP 5297, TCP/UDP 5298 and UDP 5353) and my Internet connection is NATted, so that is handled too. I just need to work out why I can’t see the options to invite contacts to audio or video chats (and to buy a webcam – my Sony CMR-PC1 is unsupported on a Mac and my DV camera turns itself off after a few minutes).

(Whilst I was cursing Apple for not making this easier, my mate Alex pointed out that getting video conferencing working on a Windows PC would probably be just as bad… I replied that Microsoft don’t state that their software “just works” – just as well really – and nor do Apple caveat their marketing rhetoric with “subject to firewall/network configuration”)!

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Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers

We have a birthday party planned for my son tomorrow and I need some sounds to entertain the toddlers. Okay, so 2 year-olds are probably more into Bob the Builder than Bob Sinclar but our portable CD player is… a bit weak. So when I saw Costco selling Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers for £117.48 I thought that they could be the answer to my problem (once the requisite childrens’ music has been ripped to my iPod). After going back to the car to get my iPod and trying them out in the store, I was convinced (blown away in fact).

Back in July, Mac Format ran a review on a bunch of iPod speakers and, predictably, the Apple iPod HiFi came out on top. Personally (before I’ve heard them), I think that the Apple speakers are ugly (unusual for an Apple product), and that Apple should have integrated the iPod into the unit instead of just placing a dock on the top. The iM7 still got 4 stars (not a bad review – especially as that’s more than the Bose SoundDock achieved) and, at half the price of the Apple product, they seem like a bargain to me.
Altec Lansing iM7
None of these products should be considered as a replacement for a decent HiFi system, but they are certainly good enough for portable music (holidays, parties, etc.). In fact, the only problem I’ve found is that the strong bass vibrates the cradle that allows my iPod Mini to sit comfortably in the dock!

My son likes them too… although he seems to be having difficulty understanding that they are not another birthday present for him!

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Recovering a mailbox in Exchange Server 2003

Last night I had a bit of a panic when I deleted a user account (and the corresponding Exchange Server mailbox). Strictly speaking, deleting the user and associated mailbox was not a mistake – but I deleted the wrong one. Luckily, it’s a pretty easy mistake to rectify – as described in Microsoft knowledge base articles 274343 and 823176.

There is one thing that it might be useful to be aware of – even though I kept running the cleanup agent the tombstoned mailbox didn’t show as disconnected (so I couldn’t reconnect or purge); however, like so many things in Exchange, I left it for a few hours (actually, it was overnight but I’m sure a few hours would have been fine) before refreshing Exchange System Manager and everything was as expected (after which I simply reconnected the mailbox to a new Active Directory user account and logged in successfully).

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Windows Vista imaging and deployment

However much I try to avoid it, as an IT infrastructure consultant, I always seem to get involved in operating system deployment. With that in mind, a couple of days back, I went along to an event at which Microsoft UK’s James O’Neill gave an interesting presentation on Windows Vista imaging and deployment.

Deployment of a PC operating system ought to be simple. It isn’t. Well, it can be, but only after a lot of hard work and planning. You see, unlike a closed system such as Apple Mac OS X, a Windows deployment typically has to support a plethora of different PCs – each with their own hardware variants (very few organisations have the luxury of a 100% standardised infrastructure – IT hardware simply changes too quickly for that). For many years now, the approach to deploying a PC operating system has been to use imaging software, e.g. Symantec Ghost, but there are complications around which images can be applied on what hardware, as well as licencing implications for any software included in the image – often images are created based on a combination of target hardware and end-user roles. Then there’s the data to consider – how are applications to be deployed, what will happen to user data (e.g. in an upgrade scenario), and what about system settings (Outlook profile, etc.). A managed deployment has many advantages around consistency (between images), manageability and reliability; however there is a huge cost attached to maintaining each image.

Since the creation of Windows NT, administrators have been able to automate Windows deployment using a system of answer files and either a product CD or a distribution share. This can be customised to roll out additional applications as well as to alter the Windows configuration and add OEM-specific items and it works well, but is slow to deploy and costly to maintain (often scripted installations are used to deploy to reference PCs from which images are taken).

Windows 2000 introduced the concept of booting a PC across the network using the pre-boot execution environment (PXE) to connect to a remote installation services (RIS) server and download an image. Later, this was extended to create the solution accelerator for business desktop deployment (BDD) and enhanced through the creation of Microsoft automated deployment services (ADS) – now renamed Windows deployment services.

Windows Vista employs a totally new deployment approach – using Windows Image (.WIM) files – look on a Vista DVD and there is no i386 folder (the main setup file on my Vista RC2 DVD is called install.wim). Those who have worked with BDD and ADS may already be familiar with an older version of the .WIM file format and the new version supports deployment to a new system, side-by-side installation, or in-place upgrades (actually, an in-place upgrade is a side-by-side installation which then transfers the settings from the old copy of Windows, which can safely be destroyed later). The Windows imaging approach supports modularisation of components, single instance storage, compression and file-based imaging – allowing many images and many image variants to be installed in a single .WIM file for deployment from optical media, or using deployment solutions such as BDD or Microsoft SMS. Importantly, deployment is non-destructive. Furthermore, Windows Vista does not have any of the restrictions around hardware abstraction layers (HALs) and so there is no requirement for hardware-specific images; and because the image is file-based (cf. disk block-based images), it can be mounted as a file system and manipulated offline.

.WIM files are structured as follows:

  • Header – with signature, version, GUID and indexes to images.
  • File resources – the actual image files.
  • Metadata – information about the files within the image.
  • Resource table(s) – effectively a directory tree for the files within the image, defining the file system.
  • XML data – information used to customise the image.

Windows imaging uses a system of filters, e.g. the .WIM file system filter (to edit image contents) and the WIM boot filter (not surprisingly to boot from an image). The main tool used for manipulation of .WIM files is imagex.exe (previously known as ximage.exe). imagex.exe allows the mounting and unmounting of .WIM files as a file system, whereby changes can be made before they are committed to the .WIM file. It is also used to create, append to and split image files, as well as for viewing the XML data about an image file. There’s also an API for programmatic manipulation of .WIM files – WIMGAPI. It’s important to note that, whilst there are both 32- and 64-bit versions of the Windows Vista deployment tools, they are compatible, so images created/modified with a 64-bit version of imagex.exe will still work on a 32-bit system, etc. Also worth noting is that the System Preparation Tool (sysprep.exe) still exists – images still need to be sysprepped – but there are new options around what the system should do on its first boot.

Whilst imagex.exe can be used to capture the contents of a running system, it’s not good practice, and Microsoft recommends that the Windows pre-installation environment (WinPE) is used instead. Because WinPE runs entirely in memory there are no issues around locked files and Windows PE 2.0 will be made more widely available than previous versions. James’ presentation also indicated that a file called winscript.ini can be used to specify exclusions (e.g. pagefile.sys, hiberfil.sys, \WINDOWS\CSC, \RECYCLER, System Volume Information, \$ntfs.log, etc.); however he’s since blogged that the .INI file is not required – the key point is that there are files which you will almost certainly want to exclude from an image.

Another important tool is the Windows System Image Manager – setupmgr.exe on steroids! This is used to build a catalog of .WIM file contents and then customise the file – e.g. to add components, or to customise settings, before validating the resulting unattend.xml answer file.

Other deployment tools, available for previous Windows versions but updated for Vista include the application compatibility toolkit and the files and settings transfer wizard (formerly the user state migration toolkit).

Bootable .WIM files are always called boot.wim. The boot process is as follows:

  1. Read boot configuration database (BCD) file. This tells the system what to execute and effectively replaces the boot.ini file found in previous versions of Windows NT/2000/XP/2003; however, unlike boot.ini it is not a text file – it must be edited using bcdedit.exe.
  2. Mount boot.sdi
  3. Attach boot.wim to boot.sdi
  4. Continue boot process.
  5. Install .WIM file system filter

The use of .WIM files is not limited to Windows Vista imaging – although they may be unsupported with other operating systems and there may be complications (e.g. I wrote a post last year about deploying Windows XP using ADS). Indeed, Windows Vista imaging technologies will also be used for the next Windows Server product (codenamed Longhorn), although because this is still a beta product, the details may be subject to change. Importantly, the tools provided for working with Windows Vista .WIM files are not all compatible with legacy operating systems.

It looks as though the new Windows Vista approach to imaging and deployment will be a steep learning curve for us all, but it should result in a more flexible, and manageable, approach to deployment – more information about Windows Vista deployment enhancements is available on the Microsoft website.

Waffle and randomness

Quiet please (but I want to hear the sound on my PC)

The PC that I use for most of my desktop work (actually it’s a Mac), is hooked up to an old amplifier and speakers in my den, cascaded from the living room when my wife made me replace my lovely 19″ hi-fi equipment (or “black loud crap” as she so tastefully referred to it) with something small and silver (or “girly” as I call it).

It sounds great (at least to me – an audiophile will probably tell me that 192k MP3s can never sound great) but has a drawback in that my den/office is opposite the childrens’ bedrooms and next to ours. This means that the lovely rich sounds which come through the amp run the risk of disturbing our sleep (and I have to remember to turn off the amp, lest an incoming e-mail – probably spam – wakes one of us in the night).

MaplinThis was proving inconvenient (I kept forgetting), so yesterday I bought a cheap 3.5mm stereo 2-1 adapter from Maplin and split the audio output from the PC to run to both the amplifier (rich, loud, quality sound) and the monitor speakers (small, tinny sound) – I could have used wireless headphones instead, but I don’t have any. Now I can hear the general PC system noises on the small speakers and when we’re all up and about I can turn on the amp to hear everything properly (the monitor speakers are still there, but the richer sound from the main speakers largely cancels them out – they effectively become repeaters). Now all I have to do is remember to turn off the amp when I leave the room…

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