A few weeks back, I registered a new domain name for this blog, along with my other IT-related activities. markwilson.co.uk will still remain in place (and will be the primary domain name, so as to preserve my Google PageRank) but over a period of time (as some page re-writes will be required) the IT-related content will also be made available at markwilson.it.
The .it top level domain is intended for Italian sites but as, in English, IT is also an abbreviation for information technology, it makes sense to register it for my IT-related activities.
It’s the first time that I’ve used the EuroDNS domain name registration service and I’m pleased to say that the process was extremely smooth (despite La Naming Authority Italiana‘s insistence on the use of a written contract, which delayed things for a while). EuroDNS were able to send me the contract electronically (together with an English translation) and I was able to send the signed copy back in electronic form too. Something else I found (which is extremely important as domain name registrars are generally notorious for poor support) was that, after the application had gone into a black hole at La Naming Authority Italiana, EuroDNS were helpful and responded to my e-mails to get things moving again.
Interestingly, Microsoft still don’t seem to have written off the idea of a second beta, but the February CTP is feature complete. Quoting from the e-mail I received “This build is not beta quality but is being provided as a preview of our progress towards Beta 2. It should allow you to confirm the many bugs fixed since the last build and best of all, you can begin to explore the full Windows Vista feature set as we are now feature complete!”.
Yesterday evening, I bumped into Microsoft UK’s John Howard (not to be confused with the current Australian Prime Minister). For the last year and a half, I’ve known John as an “IT Professional Evangelist”, covering a variety of Windows infrastructure topics, but anyone who’s seen him present on virtualisation will understand it is one of his main interests.
Back at the end of January, John had told me that he’s moving to Redmond to join “Corp” and take up a position as a Program Manager in the Windows Virtualisation team and whilst it wasn’t the biggest secret in the world, he did ask me to keep quiet until it was all confirmed. Well, it’s confirmed – John’s published the news on his blog, so it’s okay for me to talk about it now!
It’s a big move, selling up in the UK and moving the whole family to North-West America, so I’d like to wish John all the very best for that, to say thanks for all the help and advice – and thanks for being a friendly face around Microsoft UK.
I still can’t say who’s stepping into John’s shoes but I worked it out for myself at a recent event so it’s not that difficult. Purely by coincidence, I was idly wondering a couple of months back if there were any positions vacant in the IT professional technical evangelist team at Microsoft UK (it sounds like a great job to me), but I didn’t see the post advertised externally and I’ve not been back at Fujitsu for long so I plan to be staying put for a while – anyway, I’m an unofficial Microsoft evangelist right here!
You can buy everything in the supermarket these days. Last night I was doing our grocery shopping in Tesco (I hate the fact that they make so much money, that they are alleged to be anti-competitive, that I find their customer service to be appalling, and that the shelves are half empty after the weekend, but for some reason I still shop there for the grocery items that we don’t buy locally – generally in person rather than online) and I came out with two Tesco Internet Phone voice over IP (VoIP) handsets…
…So there I was, back home, groceries packed away, with some new toys to play with. I’ve been avoiding VoIP up until now but the Tesco deal included two USB handsets and Â£10 of call credit for Â£30 (i.e. Â£20 net), with promises of 2p a minute call charges to fixed phone lines and selected international calls, free calls to other Tesco Internet Phone subscribers and just 10p a minute to mobile (cell) phones. I reckon that at those rates we ought to be able to save some money on our daytime calls (probably not in the evening though) and my wife should be able to call me for free, whenever I’m at my PC and connected to a broadband Internet connection (anywhere in the world). I’m sure Skype is just as competitive but I was put off Skype a few years back when I used it for instant messaging (in addition, SkypeIn and Skype Voicemail are subscription-based, whereas the Tesco Internet Phone offering includes a land line number and voicemail with no ongoing fees, just pay-as-you-go call charges).
Installation of the software was easy, although I found it strange that the phone software was downloaded from the Internet even when installation was launched from the setup CD. One minor complaint would be that I needed to change the capitalisation on the default foldername and program group names but apart from that I just needed to decide whether or not I wanted a desktop icon.
Upon launching the phone software, I needed to let my firewall unblock tescoip.exe but that was a simple click when prompted by the firewall software (the two PCs I used had either Windows Firewall or Zone Labs Integrity Client installed) and then (somewhat confusingly) register online (not as part of the setup wizard) to get a phone number and a password. Although the instructions had led me to believe that I would get a choice of numbers with a local area code based on the supplied post code, in practice it’s not quite that straightforward. Tesco don’t yet support multiple numbers on a single account, so I had two separate account registrations running in parallel to get consecutive numbers for myself and my wife. That worked but, for some strange reason, the process provides four-digit area codes (UK area code prefixes are generally 3 or 5 digits) and none of the towns local to me (Northampton, Wellingborough, Bedford or Milton Keynes) were offered. The closest I could get was Luton (normally 01582, but 0158 according to Tesco), which I believe is still classified as a local call from our area (Bedford – 01234), but not for my family and friends in Northampton (01604). Once the registration process was complete, the account required activation, using a link in an e-mail, following which I could finally complete the setup wizard and connect the USB handset.
Everything looked good until I made a test call between my two Tesco Internet Phone accounts and spent the next hour trying to work out why I could make a call and hear the phone ring, but then there was no-one there when I picked up the call. After playing with firewall settings on the client and my ADSL router (creating various rules to allow UDP port 4569), I found that the issue was much simpler than that – the setup routine had simply left the volume for the soft phone turned right down to zero! Once I had sorted that out, I successfully connected to the test line (*70001234) and set up my voicemail (*123) but was still having problems when I tried calling between my two Tesco Internet Phone accounts (the phone stopped ringing at the receiving end but was still ringing for the caller). That turned out to be a mismatch on my voicemail settings, where the delay before diverting is set both in the phone software and in my online account details.
The Tesco Internet Phone service is based on Firefly from Australian VoIP operator Freshtel (not to be confused with Firefly mobile). Using the system is relatively straightforward and calls can be made using either the soft phone on the PC or the USB handset. Status can be set (online, busy, away or invisible), notifications shown when contacts come online (as for many instant messaging clients) and contacts can be either other Tesco Internet Phone users (with status), or normal phone numbers (invisible status). The phone software itself is actually Virbiage Cubix, skinned to Tesco’s design and I’m sure there are other themes available as Virbiage have published a Cubix Skinning Guide.
From my point of view the jury’s still out on Tesco’s VoIP service. The installation routine could do with some work, the online help is patchy (at the time of writing) and the call quality seems a bit tinny (but that happens with cheap handsets on fixed phone lines too)… we’ll see how I get on over the next few weeks. Right now the first disappointment is that my Vodafone
mobile (cell) phones report connection errors when dialling my VoIP number (it works from a BT fixed line though).
At last week’s IT Forum ’05 highlights (part 2) event, Microsoft UK’s, Brett Johnson gave a presentation about the next version of Exchange Server (codenamed Exchange 12). Microsoft is positioning Exchange 12 around three “themes”:
Control for the IT professional: e-mail is a mission critical system; e-mail systems are too complex and expensive to run (involving too much firefighting and very little proactivity); management tasks are tedious and are not automated.
Inbox value and access for the information worker: users want to access all of their communications easily; mobile devices are increasingly common; calendaring is frustrating (especially when finding resources).
Active protection in a security situation: security is a top concern (make it secure by default); unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE) and viruses compromise the e-mail experience (filter these using less CPU cycles); regulatory compliance is critical in many industries.
Exchange 12 is still work in progress, so the feature set is by no means set in stone; however beta 1 has been released to a limited group of testers (although I haven’t used my copy because the non-disclosure agreement would stop me writing about it – the information in this post is all from the public domain). The main enhancements for IT administrators included with beta 1 include:
A new administrative console, based on the MMC v3.0, with a simplified hierarchy and an actions pane.
Larger attachments (and a greater number of them).
More unique client devices per user.
A growing use of calendaring.
More granular security rights.
More users per server.
All of this adds up to a need for more memory (improved stability and more “elbow-room” for the operating system allowing new functionally) and a larger cache (increasing performance, enabling further server consolidation and reducing the cost of large mailboxes).
64-bit computing delivers reduced cost and complexity with reduced input/output to bigger, cheaper disks allowing more databases per server. Some are quoting a 70% performance increase over 32-bit systems. Continuous database replication with local or clustered log shipping means that maintenance activities can be moved from nightly to weekly and a new content indexer allows for efficient multi-mailbox searching with a low CPU impact and fast re-index.
Secure messaging is facilitated by protecting messages in transit and at rest. Intra-organisational e-mail is encrypted by default and signed by default. Business-to-business (B2B) integration requires no special client requirements, with automatic Exchange 12 to Exchange 12 gateway encryption. Messaging policies can be used to enable corporate, regulatory and litigation compliance with: transport rules for journalling, archiving, encryption and routing; storage rules for e-mail retention; and multi-mailbox searching.
From a client perspective, as for previous versions of Exchange, although legacy clients can be used, Outlook 2007 (previously codenamed Outlook 12) will provide the richest experience. OWA has an Outlook “feel” and like previous OWA versions offers many of the Outlook features, but is really a reduced-functionality client for hot-desking. There’s also access for Windows Mobile devices, and Outlook by phone – allowing a user to call into Exchange and control their e-mail using speech or touch tones to interface with an auto-attendant.
Having seen some of the Exchange 12 functionality demonstrated to me, I’m impressed. Just a few points that jumped out for me were:
OWA is fast, and looks to be even better than in Exchange Server 2003.
The out of office assistant (OOOA) can be set on a time period, so it will know when you expect to be back in the office and turn itself off again.
Contact properties include a map to the address (a feature borrowed from Mozilla Thunderbird) as well as the organisational hierarchy (or “steps to heaven” as it is known in Microsoft, demonstrating just how hierarchical Microsoft is).
The unified messaging looks great. In the demonstration I saw, Microsoft UK’s Ewan Dalton left a voicemail in an mailbox and the system picked up his caller ID to say who it was from, leaving a voice clip attached to the message. Where caller ID wasn’t available, the message was from “Anonymous Caller”. Upon playback, audio notes could be added in the message body. Later, he called into the unified messaging server again, using voice-activation to report that be was running late and so to move his first appointment, to clear the calendar until a specified time and to append a voice message to the meeting cancellation(s). The attendant (predictably) had a north-American accent, but coped admirably with Ewan’s Scottish tones and although beta 1 only includes voice activation for calendar, beta 2 will include e-mail too. Pretty soon I will be checking my e-mail as I drive down the M40 towards Slough… then maybe I won’t spend the first hour of my day in Outlook.
Exchange builds on the Exchange messaging platform (which has been around since 1996 now) and the significant improvements in Exchange Server 2003 SP2, to provide even more options for enterprise messaging and communications. I’m particularly pleased to see edge services (dropped from previous releases) and unified messaging (which has been talked about for years, but looks like it will finally make it into the product). I haven’t seen a product roadmap (in terms of timelines, or further enhancements in the next release) but I expect to see organisations putting this technology into production from 2007 onwards.
Whilst the Windows product group seems to have dumped year-based product naming in favour of monikers like XP (for eXPerience) and Vista (because of the views) it has been announced that the next version of Office, with it’s new “ribbon” interface, is to be called plain old Office 2007. Actually, that doesn’t bother me at all – as a corporate user, it tells me that it is most likely to be released late in 2006, and that because it doesn’t have a consumer-focused name it might actually include some new features for business.
“Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007, the new name for a significantly updated release of Microsoft Office Professional Enterprise Edition 2003, will deliver improved information management and teamwork solutions through integration with new Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 capabilities, as well as inclusion of Microsoft Office Communicator.”
As far as impulse purchases go, this has to be the coolest one I’ve made in a while: at lunchtime today, on the way back from grabbing some sarnies in M&S, Toffa and I dropped into Dixons and I came out with a 24mm x 24mm x 24mm cube (called a Q-BE) that weighs just 18g, includes 1GB of memory and is an MP3/WMA player.
The manufacturers claim that this is the smallest MP3 player in the world.
The Q-BE also includes a graphic equaliser with 6 settings, an OLED display and a clock. The built-in lithium-ion battery is charged via a USB to 3.5mm headphone adaptor cable, which is also used to copy music files to the device. As it appears as a removable drive in Windows, I can see no reason why it couldn’t also be used for data. According to the instruction manual, there is an optional FM radio capability, but I can’t find anything else about that; although the Q-BE website indicates that it will soon include software updates for download. The Q-BE also comes with earphones and a lanyard, as well as a protective case.
I haven’t mentioned the best bit yet. I don’t know why (maybe it hasn’t sold well and they’re dropping it?) but, in the UK, Dixons and Currys are selling the 512MB version for Â£24.99 (was Â£74.99) or the 1GB version for Â£39.99 (was Â£99.99). I’d find it hard to buy a USB stick with that capacity for that price – let alone one with MP3 capabilities that looks this cool!
Thomas Lee‘s second session at the recent IT Forum ’05 highlights (part 2) event was a Windows Vista overview and roadmap. I blogged about Vista a few months back, based on a marketing-led presentation that I seen. Thomas’ slide deck was also marketing-led, but I was pleased to see that he only followed it loosely and talked about the technology instead. These were some of the points that jumped out for me:
PC technology trends are shifting. 64-bit computing is finally going mainstream (the Longhorn server wave of products will be 64-bit only). At the same time, the x86 architecture is proliferating with new compact PCs (and even new Intel-based Apple Macs). Graphics processor improvements are exceeding Moore’s law (hence the reason for designing the operating system around graphical capabilities). Networking is increasingly wireless. Multi-core CPUs are now appearing on the market. Storage availability is rising, with a tremendous variety in flash-based devices. Memory is faster (and we’re using more of it). Flat-screen monitors are now the norm, getting larger (and drawing less power than their CRT-based counterparts). Windows Vista is designed to take advantage of all of these technology trends.
Windows Vista has new some new/updated administrative tools including enhancements to computer management (the diagnostic console and reliability monitor) and a vastly improved event viewer (featuring many more logs, and an XML view).
My recent post about opening multiple home pages in Firefox was thanks to Thomas highlighting this feature in Internet Explorer (IE) 7, along with tabbed browsing, RSS integration and a phishing filter which highlights suspect URLs in yellow and has a feedback mechanism so that often-reported sites show up with a red highlight). One item that I think is particularly cool is the Quick Tabs view with a thumbnail of each open browser tab.
Control Panel got bigger (more granularity).
Desktop search actually works.
Fast user switching is available for domain-connected PCs and there is the new user access protection (UAP) functionality. For example, if I try to change the date/time (an incorrect time would be critical to Kerberos) on a Vista machine, UAP kicks in and prompts me before allowing the change. I’m going to try and run using an unprivileged account and switch users where I absolutely need to be an administrator. As Thomas put it, this is effectively helping out the naive without holding back advanced users.
On the deployment side – forget everything you know about NT/2000/XP deployment. Windows Image (.WIM) files replace setup folders and there are new tools such as ximage to manipulate them.
Although not deployed by default in Windows Vista, the Microsoft command shell (codenamed Monad) can be used to automate a variety of functions.
Windows Vista is a huge investment (both for Microsoft and for organisations upgrading from Windows 2000/XP). I have to agree with Thomas when he says that instead of concentrating on the negative (the current version is buggy, slow, and there is stuff missing), let’s remember that this is a beta product! I don’t really care about the new interface (I think many corporates will find this a burden both in terms of hardware requirements and end-user re-training) but there are a whole host of features that I can’t wait to get into production.
Whilst driving to work this morning, I heard a piece on Slashdot Review about how 50% of PCs will be prevented from running Windows Vista, citing problems with graphics capabilities and the Aero interface. Wrong. The operating system will run – just it will be without some of the new graphical features. I’m running the December CTP (build 5270) on a 2 year old 1.5GHz Pentium 4 Mobile notebook PC with 256MB of RAM. Granted, it’s not what you might call fast (a bit more RAM would fix that), but it runs. Whilst I may not have the Aero “glass” eye-candy, Vista is there, along with all its other features. If, however, I want high-end graphics, then I’ll have to upgrade my machine.
Apart from a short post announcing the arrival of Exchange Server 2003 service pack 2 (SP2), I haven’t written much on the topic. Often the first service pack for a product brings functionality that didn’t quite make it in time for the release. Second service packs are more likely to include features that have become significant in the market – for Windows XP that was security and for Exchange, that’s mobile messaging and tackling UCE – but SP2 also brings a number of other improvements:
Probably the most significant change for small businesses (and branch office deployments) is the increased storage potential for Exchange Server 2003 standard edition (now limited to 75GB, rather than the 16GB limit that existed previously). Of course, enterprise edition is still “unlimited”, but for those organisations running the standard edition, 16GB might only have been a few mailboxes!
SP2 also enhances some of the management tools – particularly with a “panic button” to prevent public folder replication (a lengthy process that was previously difficult to stop once started).
Finally, on the mobile messaging front, SP2 adds direct push support, device and message security, and support for device policy provisioning.
I’m planning a separate post on tacking unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE – commonly known as spam) using the IMF so here I’ll concentrate on the mobile messaging improvements in SP2.
At last week’s IT Forum ’05 highlights (part 2) event, Ewan Dalton (one of the Microsoft Exchange team members) demonstrated some of the new mobile technologies. I was quite impressed – up until now, Windows Mobile users only really had POP/IMAP/HTTP e-mail whilst Blackberry users were bragging about their instant delivery (“push” e-mail). Actually, none of it is instant – there’s actually a polling mechanism in place and push does involve some pulling (as does it for Blackberry), but even so it’s pretty good.
The ActiveSync direct push process works as follows:
The mobile device sends a request to the Exchange Server front end server.
The server holds the request pending until the heartbeat interval expires (default 15 minutes) – effectively keeping a connection open, but with no traffic).
If no mail arrives before the heartbeat interval expires, the device sends another request but if new mail arrives in the meantime, the server notifies the device that changes have occurred in the mailbox.
Upon receiving a response from the server, the device immediately issues a synchronisation request to pull e-mail. Once synchronised, the process restarts at step 1.
In practice, I’m told that mail will probably be on the mobile device before it would arrive in Outlook in cached mode.
When asked about the cost of keeping the device connection open using the heartbeats, Microsoft replied that their testing indicates an extra 1MB of traffic per month; however, because the new ActiveSync is using GZIP compression, traffic levels have dropped by 50%, so it could actually result in lower bandwidth charges.
Another improvement with SP2 is the new mobile device policy functionality, allowing organisations to enforce device security requirements, e.g. password length, complexity, inactivity timeout, refresh interval and also the ability to wipe the device after a specified number of attempts (the handset would still be usable, but it would no longer contain any data). All of this can optionally be overridden with exceptions (e.g. for older devices which do not support the policy). Certificates are also supported in place of username and password/PIN combinations; however these need to be provisioned over a corporate network (not the mobile operator’s network).
Microsoft also demonstrated the ability to wipe a device when chosen from a list of devices associated with a user, sending a dummy contact which effectively applies a new policy and wipes the device. Because this is a notification, not an SMS message, it is effective immediately.
With Windows Mobile and Exchange Server 2003 SP2, there is no middleware and devices connect via HTTPS straight into the corporate infrastructure:
In practice, this looks something like the following:
Microsoft recommend using a domain-joined ISA Server with one NIC in the corporate network and another in a DMZ (i.e. behind another firewall) to pre-authenticate user requests. In this manner the front-end server no longer has to be located inside the DMZ and there are less firewall ports to be opened for Active Directory connectivity, decreasing the attack surface for the corporate network.
For scalability, Microsoft quote their own metrics from internal deployment.
Worldwide, the software giant has 106,000 user mailboxes with four front end hubs. About 25% of these mailboxes use mobile devices – and two thirds of these are smart phones with the remaining third running Pocket PC Phone Edition.
In Redmond alone, there are 60,000 mailboxes with all mobile services running on three Exchange Server 2003 SP2 servers (dual CPU and 2GB RAM). This breaks down to 20,000 simultaneous HTTP sessions per server (although they do concede that a more realistic benchmark would be 10-15,000 sessions). The same servers are used for Outlook Web Access (OWA) and Outlook RPC over HTTP.
ActiveSync uses a single HTTPS connection.
OWA uses 3 or 4 connections.
RPC over HTTP typically uses between 10 and 12 connections.
In the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region, 9000 users are supported from one 5-node Exchange Server cluster in Dublin. Two of these are front end servers but one would be sufficient – the second is for resilience.
In order to use the new Exchange Server mobile functionality there are some device and server requirements:
The device must be running Windows Mobile 5.0 (older devices will work, but will not benefit from the SP2 improvements). Also, the messaging security feature pack (MSFP) is required for much of the new functionality – this is part of the adoption kit ROM update 2 (AKU2), currently being tested by network operators and expected to ship during March/April 2006. Device manufacturers can use an image update to refresh older Windows Mobile 5.0 devices that are already on the market.
The front end server needs to have Exchange Server 2003 SP2 installed. In addition, Microsoft recommend that the IIS and firewall HTTPS timeout is increased for the ActiveSync virtual directory (to between 15 and 30 minutes).
Other OEMs are licensing Exchange technologies so the new features will be supported on a broader range of devices (Palm, Nokia, Motorola, etc.). Another option is the use of third-party software, like the Java-based DataViz RoadSync.
Unusually feature-packed (for a service pack), SP2 is expected to be the last major functional improvement for Exchange Server 2003 but it brings a whole host of valuable functionality. Watch this space for more about the next version of Exchange Server (codenamed Exchange 12).