Building a branch office in a box?

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

For many organisations, branch offices are critical to business and often, rather than being a remote backwater, they represent the point of delivery for business. Meanwhile, organisations want to spend less on IT – and, as IT hardware and software prices fall, providing local resources improves performance for end-users. That sounds great until considering that local IT provision escalates support and administration costs so it makes more financial sense to deliver centralised services (which have a consequential effect on performance and availability). These conflicting business drivers create a real problem for organisations with a large number of branch offices.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at a branch office consolidation exercise at a global organisation who seem to be suffering from server proliferation. One of the potential solutions for consolidation is using Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V to provide a virtualised infrastructure – a “branch office in a box”, as Gartner described it in a research note from a few years ago [Gartner RAS Core Research Note G00131307, Joe Skorupa, 14 December 2005]. Windows Server 2008 licensing arrangements for virtualisation allow a server to run up to 4 virtualised operating system environments (with enterprise edition) or a single virtual and a single physical instance (with standard edition). It’s also possible to separate domain-level administration (local domain controllers, etc.) from local applications and infrastructure services (file, print, etc.) but such a solution doesn’t completely resolve the issue of maintaining a branch infrastructure.

Any consolidation at the branch level is a good thing but there’s still the issue of wide area network connectivity which means that, for each branch office, not only are there one or more Windows servers (with a number of virtualised workloads) to consider but also potentially some WAN optimisation hardware (e.g. a Cisco WAAS or a Riverbed Steelhead product).

Whilst I was researching the feasibility of such as solution, I came across a couple of alternative products from Cisco and Citrix which include Microsoft’s technology – and this post attempts to provide a high level overview of each of them (bear in mind I’m a Windows guy and I’m coming at this from the Windows perspective rather than from a deep networking point of view).

Cisco and Microsoft Windows Server on WAAS

When I found the Windows Server on WAAS website I thought this sounded like the answer to my problem – Windows Server running on a WAN optimisation appliance – the best of both worlds from two of the industry’s largest names, who may compete in some areas but still have an alliance partnership. In a video produced as part of the joint Cisco and Microsoft announcement of the Windows on WAAS solution, Cisco’s Vice President Marketing for Enterprise Solutions, Paul McNab, claims that this solution allows key Windows services to be placed locally at a reduced cost whilst providing increased flexibility for IT service provision; whilst Microsoft’s Bill Hilf, General Manager for Windows Server marketing and platform strategy, outlines how the branch office market is growing as workforces become more distributed and that the Windows on WAAS solution combines Windows Server IT services with Cisco WAAS’ WAN optimisation, reducing costs relating to infrastructure management and power usage whilst improving the user experience as services are brought closer to the user.

It all sounds good – so how does this solution work?

  • Windows on WAAS is an appliance-based solution which uses virtualisation technologies for Cisco WAAS and Microsoft Windows Server 2008 to run on a shared platform, combined with the advantages of rapid device provisioning. Whilst virtualisation in the datacentre has allowed consolidation, at the branch level the benefit is potentially the ability to reconfigure hardware without a refresh or even a visit from a technician.
  • Windows Server 2008 is used in server core installation mode to provide a reduced Windows Server footprint, with increased security and fewer patches to apply, whilst taking advantage of other Windows Server 2008 enhancements, such as improved SMB performance, a new TCP/IP stack, and read-only domain controllers for increased directory security at the branch.
  • On the WAAS side, Cisco cite improved application performance for TCP-based applications – typically 3-10 times better (and sometimes considerably more) as well as WAN bandwidth usage reduction and the ability to prioritise traffic.
  • Meanwhile, running services such as logon and printing locally means that end user productivity is increased.

Unfortunately, as I began to dig a little deeper (including a really interesting call with one of Cisco’s datacentre product specialists), it seems that this solution is constrained in a number of ways and so might not allow the complete eradication of Windows Server at the branch office.

Firstly, this is not a full Windows Server 2008 server core solution – only four roles are supported: Active Directory Domain Services; DHCP server; DNS server and Print services. Other services are neither supported, nor recommended – and the hardware specifications for the appliances are more akin to PCs (single PSU, etc.) than to servers.

It’s also two distinct solutions – Windows runs in a (KVM) virtual machine to provide local services to the branch and WAAS handles the network acceleration side of things – greatly improved with the v4.1 software release.

On the face of it (and remember I’m a Windows guy) the network acceleration sounds good – with three main methods employed:

  1. Improve native TCP performance (which Microsoft claim Windows Server 2008 does already) by quickly moving to a larger TCP window size and then lessening the flow once it reaches the point of data loss.
  2. Generic caching and compression.
  3. Application-specific acceleration for HTTP, MAPI, CIFS and NFS (but no native packet shaping capability).

All of this comes without the need to make any modifications to the existing network – no tunnelling and no TCP header changes – so the existing quality of service (QoS) and network security policies in place are unaffected by the intervening network acceleration (as long as there’s not another network provider between the branch and the hub with conflicting priorities).

From a support perspective Windows on WAAS is included in the SVVP (so is supported by Microsoft) but KVM will be a new technology for many organisations and there’s also a potential management issue as it’s my understanding that Cisco’s virtual blade technology (e.g. Windows on WAAS) does not yet support centralised management or third party management solutions.

Windows on WAAS is not inexpensive either (around $6,500 list price for a basic WAAS solution, plus another $2,000 for Windows on WAAS, and a further $1,500 if you buy the Windows licenses from Cisco). Add in the cost of the hardware – and the Cisco support from year 2 onwards – and you could buy (and maintain) quite a few Windows Servers in the branch. Of course this is not about cheap access to Windows services – the potential benefits of this solution are much broader – but it’s worth noting that if the network is controlled by a third party then WAN optimisation may not be practical either (for the reasons I alluded to above – if their WAN optimisation/prioritisation conflicts with yours, the net result is unlikely to result in improved performance).

As for competitive solutions, Cisco don’t even regard Citrix (more on them in a moment) as a serious player – from the Cisco perspective the main competition is Riverbed. I didn’t examine Riverbed’s appliances in this study because I was looking for solutions which supported native Windows services (Riverbed’s main focus is wide area application services and their wide area file services are not developed, supported or licensed by Microsoft, so will make uncomfortable bedfellows for many Windows administrators).

When I pressed Cisco for comment on Citrix’s solution, they made the point that WAN optimisation is not yet a mature market and it currently has half a dozen or more vendors competing whilst history from in other markets (e.g. SAN fabrics) would suggest that there will be a lot of consolidation before these solutions reach maturity (i.e. expect some vendors to fall by the wayside).

Citrix Branch Repeater/WANScaler

The Citrix Branch Repeater looks at the branch office problem from a different perspective – and, not surprisingly, that perspective is server-based computing, pairing with Citrix WANScaler in the datacentre. Originally based around Linux, Citrix now offer Branch Repeaters based on Windows Server.

When I spoke to one of Citrix’s product specialists in the UK, he explained to me that the WANScaler technologies used by the Branch Repeater include:

  1. Transparency – the header is left in place so there are no third-party network changes and there is no need to change QoS policies, firewall rules, etc.
  2. Flow control – similar to the Cisco WAAS algorithm (although, somewhat predictably, Citrix claim that their solution is slightly better than Cisco’s).
  3. Application support for CIFS, MAPI, TCP and, uniquely, ICA.

Whereas Cisco advocate turning off the ICA compression in order to compress at the TCP level, ICA is Citrix’s own protocol and they are able to use channel optimisation techniques to provide QoS on particular channels (ICA supports 32 channels in its client-server communications – e.g. mouse, keyboard, screen refresh, etc.) so that, for example, printing can be allowed to take a few seconds to cross the network but mouse, keyboard and screen updates must be maintained in near-real time. In the future, Citrix intend to extend this with cross-session ICA compression in order to use the binary history to reduce the volume of data transferred.

The Linux and Windows-based WANScalers are interoperable and, at the branch end, Citrix offers client software that mimics an appliance (e.g. for home-based workers) or various sizes of Branch Repeater with differing throughput capabilities running a complete Windows Server 2003 installation (not 2008) with the option of a built-in Microsoft ISA Server 2006 firewall and web caching server.

When I asked Citrix who they see as competition, they highlighted that one two companies have licensed Windows for use in an appliance (Citrix and Cisco) – so it seems that Citrix see Cisco as the competition in the branch office server/WAN optimisation appliance market – even if Cisco are not bothered about Citrix!

Summary

There is no clear “one size fits all” solution here and the Cisco Windows on WAAS and Citrix WANScaler solutions each provide significant benefits, albeit with a cost attached. When choosing a solution, it’s also important to consider the network traffic profile – including the protocols in use. The two vendors each come from a slightly different direction: in the case of Cisco this is clearly a piece of networking hardware and software which happens to run a version of Windows; and, for Citrix, the ability to manipulate ICA traffic for server-based computing scenarios is their strength.

In some cases neither the Cisco nor the Citrix solution will be cost effective and, if a third party manages the network, they may not even be able to provide any WAN optimisation benefits. This is why, in my customer scenario, the recommendation was to investigate the use of virtualisation to consolidate various physical servers onto a single Windows Server 2008 “branch office in a box”.

Finally, if such a project is still a little way off, then it may be worth taking a look the branch cache technology which is expected to be included within Windows Server 2008 R2. I’ll follow up with more information on this technology later.

Deleting a Live Meeting from Outlook without sending a cancellation request

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Sometimes Live Meeting is infuriating. I recently sent a meeting invitation to a colleague for a webcast I’m running later this month and he then sent a new invitation to several of our colleagues (including me), which I duly accepted but that left two near-identical appointments in my calendar. I wanted to delete the original but Live Meeting’s calendar integration would only let me send a cancellation or leave the request as it was.

No problem – just send a cancellation with an empty recipient list. Outlook complains that there are no recipients, then asks if you want to save the meeting. Click yes to save and what actually happens is that the delete request is processed, removing the meeting altogether(which is what I really wanted to do).

Confusing – yes, possibly. But it saved me from cancelling a meeting with my colleague and then him thinking I was cancelling the one with 100 more people confirmed… then multiple calls/e-mails to explain what was happening.

Trusting a self-signed certificate in Windows

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

All good SSL certificates should come from a well-known certification authority – right? Not necessarily (as Alun Jones explains in defence of the self-signed certificate).

I have a number of devices at home that I access over HTTPS and for which the certificates are not signed by Verisign, Thawte, or any of the other common providers. And, whilst I could get a free or inexpensive certificate for these devices, why bother when only I need to access them – and I do trust the self-signed cert!

A case in point is the administration page for my NetGear ReadyNAS – this post describes how I got around it with Internet Explorer (IE) but the principle is the same for any self-signed certificate.

First of all, I added the address to my trusted sites list. As the ReadyNAS FAQ describes, this is necessary on Windows Vista in order to present the option to install the certificate and the same applies on my Windows Server 2008 system. Adding the site to the trusted sites list won’t stop IE from blocking navigation though, telling me that:

There is a problem with this website’s security certificate.

The security certificate presented by this website was not issued by a trusted certificate authority.

Security certificates problems may indicate an attempt to fool you or intercept any data you send to the server.

We recommend that you close this webpage and do not continue to this website.

Fair enough – but I do trust this site, so I clicked the link to continue to the website regardless of Microsoft’s warning. So, IE gave me another security warning:

Security Warning

The current webpage is trying to open a site in your Trusted sites list. Do you want to allow this?

Current site: res://ieframe.dll
Trusted site: https://
mydeviceurl

Thank you IE… but yes, that’s why I clicked the link (I know, we have to protect users from themselves sometimes… but the chances are that they won’t understand this second warning and will just click the yes button anyway). After clicking yes to acknowledge the warning (which was a conscious choice!) I could authenticate and access the website.

Two warnings every time I access a site is an inconvenience, so I viewed the certificate details and clicked the button to install the certificate (if the button is not visible, check the status bar to see that IE has recognised the site as from the Trusted Sites security zone). This will launch the Certificate Import Wizard but it’s not sufficient to select the defaults – the certificate must be placed in the Trusted Root Certification Authorities store, which will present another warning:

Security Warning

You are about to install a certificate from a certification authority (CA) claiming to represent:

mydeviceurl

Windows cannot validate that the certificate is actually from “certificateissuer“. You should confirm its origin by contacting “certificateissuer“. The following number will assist you in this process:

Thumbprint (sha1): thumbprint

Warning:

If you install this root certificate, Windows will automatically trust any certificate issued by this CA. Installing a certificate with an unconfirmed thumbprint is a security risk. If you click “Yes” you acknowledge this risk.

Do you want to install this certificate?

Yes please! After successfully importing the certificate and restarting my browser, I could go straight to the page I wanted with no warnings – just the expected authentication prompt.

Incidentally, although I used Internet Explorer (version 8 beta) to work through this, once the certificate is in the store, then all browsers any browser that uses the certificate store in Windows should act in the same manner (the certificate store is not browser-specific some browsers, e.g. Firefox, implement their own certificate store). To test this, I fired up Google Chrome and it was able to access the site I had just trusted with no issue but if I went to another, untrusted, address with a self-signed certfiicate (e.g. my wireless access point), Chrome told me that:

The site’s security certificate is not trusted!

You attempted to reach mydeviceurl but the server presented a certificate issued by an entity that is not trusted by your computer’s operating system. This may mean that the server has generated its own security credentials, which Google Chrome cannot rely on for identity information, or an attacker may be trying to intercept your communications. You should not proceed, especially if you have never seen this warning before for this site.

Chrome also has some excellent text at a link labelled “help me understand” which clearly explains the problem. Unfortunately, although Chrome exposes Windows certificate management (in the options, on the under the hood page, under security), it doesn’t allow addition a site to the trusted sites zone (which is an IE concept) – and that means the option to install the cerficate is not available in Chrome. In imagine it’s similar in Firefox or Opera (or Safari – although I’m not sure who would actually want to run Safari on Windows).

Before signing off, I’ll mention that problems may also occur if the certificate is signed with invalid details – for example the certificate on my wireless access point applies to another URL (www.netgear.com) and, as that’s not the address I use to access the device, that certificate will still be invalid. The only way around a problem like this is to install another, valid, certificate (self-signed or otherwise).

I’m a what?

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Yesterday evening, I was watching Channel 4‘s satirical political show, “Bremner, Bird and Fortune“, when a Microsoft “I’m a PC” ad ran in one of the breaks. I was surprised – firstly because I thought the campaign was US-only (although I must confess that I don’t watch much commercial TV anyway) but also because it seemed to miss the point that 1 billion PC users run Windows. All we got was Sean the Apple PC guy lookalike, followed by lots of people saying “I’m a PC” and the final “Windows – Life without Walls” graphic.

As for this being effective or not – for me the question was answered when my wife – a middle class 30-something marketing professional (presumably in the demographic that these ads are aimed at) – said something to the effect of “I don’t understand! Why I’m a PC?”

That’s just one example of why these ads don’t work: the Mojave Experiment made a point (until Microsoft shot themselves in the foot with all the Windows 7 news and speculation about a 2009 release effectively killing Vista off prematurely); Windows without Walls works (especially with the recent web services announcements); Gates and Seinfeld – probably best not yo go there; but as for I’m a PC? It’s fine to be highlighing all the things that a billion people do with PCs… but this campaign is just not hitting the mark.

[Update: 11 November 2008]: In conversation, Garry Martin made a very good point that I failed to comment on in the original post: if you’ve seen the Apple ads, then I’m a PC makes sense and show that PCs are not dull and boring but that they are used for many exciting and worthwhile things across the globe; however, many people in the UK have not seen those ads.

As far as I know, Apple’s Mac vs. PC ads didn’t run on TV here (although there were some UK versions produced which may have done for a short while) – either way they are more of an Internet thing for geeks/Mac fanboys and so most people miss the point entirely – resulting in a confused response to I’m a PC.

Access denied when echoing files using SyncToy

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Whilst Windows Live Mesh and FolderShare provide me with an effective means to keep files and folders in sync, some of my devices do not run Windows or OS X (e.g. my NetGear ReadyNAS) and I’ve been using the SyncToy v2.0 tool for data that I just want to copy from one location to another (e.g. backing the file data on the notebook PC that I use for work up to a file share).

Unlike FolderShare/Live Mesh, which automatically keep folders in sync, SyncToy is intended for performing on-demand tasks (e.g. backups), as described by Gina Trapani at Lifehacker (and by yours truly a couple of years back when it was still at v1.2).

A few days ago, I was echoing the contents of a large directory to a remote share, but was mystified by some files which would not write to the remote volume. I had full NTFS access to the files but SyncToy produced an error which said:

Error: Cannot write to the destination file. Access is denied. (Exception from HRESULT: 0x80070005 (E_ACCESSDENIED)) Copying C:\Users\username\filename

After a while, I worked out that the problem files all had the read-only attribute set and that removing this allowed SyncToy to copy the files successfully. I can only assume that the problem was the echo (i.e. file copy, rather than two-way sync) and that the file attributes were being written before the file copy took place, resulting in insufficient permissions to write the file contents.

Live Mesh reaches out to the Mac

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Graphic showing files moving between devicesOn the same day that I published my recent post about Windows Live FolderShare, I heard that the current Live Mesh beta is now available on a Mac.

Despite already being a Mesh user, I tried to add my Mac as a device but was disappointed to read that the Live Mesh Tech Preview was out of invitations so I tried again this evening and was pleased to find that it accepted me and let me install the software.

First impressions were good, with a really straightforward installation and good client support – working like a Mac application (not a Windows application running on OS X) and with support for both Safari and Firefox.

Then I realised that Mac-PC synchronisation in Mesh still needs to go via the Live Desktop (i.e. out to the ‘net and back), as evidenced when I tried to sync a folder that was not fully replicated:

The current version of Live Mesh cannot synchronize a folder with a Mac computer unless the folder is also synchronized with your Live Desktop.

This lack of LAN-based peer-to-peer support, combined with Mesh’s 5GB storage limit means that FolderShare is still the sync option for my work in progress (be prepared for a long wait if you’re syncing via the web and an ADSL connection – ADSL downloads are fine, but uploads are s…l…o…w…).

Predictably, some features are Windows-only too (like the remote desktop capability). There’s mobile device support too but it does depend on the phone – for example my Apple iPhone 3G was recognised as a Mac, after which Safari refused to install anything (I didn’t expect it to work but I just had to try!).

I don’t want to sound negative – Live Mesh is has so much potential and it is still a beta – over time new features will be added and it will be fantastic. Right now it’s still a little confusing – with the feature sets of Windows Live Skydrive, Mesh, FolderShare and Office Live Workspaces all overlapping slightly it’s sometimes difficult to fathom out the best tool to use – and those are just the Microsoft options! Hopefully this will all shake down over the coming months and the vision of my digital life being available wherever I am will become a reality.

More on the BT Home Hub

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

Last year I blogged about the dangers of BT Home Hub users using WEP for “Wi-Fi Security”, pointing out that WEP is generally considered insecure and that WPA or WPA2 should be used instead. Then I set up my Dad’s Home Hub for him (just as an ADSL router/modem at this time… possibly with some of the other features later) and this is what I found:

  • The Home Hub is an elegant piece of hardware and BT have made cabling straightforward with colour-coded cables.
  • Following the instructions (which is what I did) involved installing a lot of software on the PC… just to connect to a router. I imagine that most of it can be disregarded (Customised browsers, BT Yahoo! sidebar etc.).
  • The setup failed to recognise that there was already an ADSL modem connection and that I was replacing that with a LAN-based connection (eventually I found a setting deep on the BT Broadband Help system to change that, after which uPnP jumped into life and the router was located).
  • The supplied password for BT Yahoo! Broadband didn’t work, resetting it required answering a security question that had never been set (chicken… egg…) and calling for support involved speaking to a well-intentioned but not very efficient call centre operative somewhere on the Indian subcontinent (who apologised for the quality of the phone line… ironic given that this service was on behalf of one of the World’s largest telecommunications providers)

Returning last week to finish the job, I found that BT have been updating the router firmware automatically for him and now he has options for WPA/WPA2 (which I duly configured). I also found a great link for information on the home hub (a rebadged Thomson device) – the The Frequencycast Home Hub FAQ – which told me useful things like to access the configuration via http://bthomehub.home/ and that the authentication prompt for administrator access does not requires the BT Broadband username and password but the username admin and password of admin (or the serial number of the device) until it is reset to something more memorable. If you need to know something about the BT Home Hub, the chances are it’s in this FAQ. Also worth a look (particularly if you have a Mac that’s not playing nicely with WPA-TKIP – although my OS X 10.5.5 MacBook seemed to be fine with Home Hub software 6.2.6.E) is the BT Home Hub page on hublog – and there is also a command line interface reference for the Home Hub.

Running VMware Server on top of Hyper-V… or not

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

A few days ago, I came across a couple of blog posts about how VMware Server won’t run on top of Hyper-V. Frankly, I’m amazed that any hosted virtualisation product (like VMware Server) will run on top of any hypervisor – I always understood that hosted virtualisation required so many hacks to work at all that if it saw something that wasn’t the real CPU (i.e. a hypervisor handling access to the processor’s hardware virtualisation support) then it might be expected to fall over in a heap – and it seems that VMware even coded VMware Server 2.0 to check for the existence of Hyper-V and fail gracefully. Quite what happens with VMware Server on top of ESX or XenServer, I don’t know – but I wouldn’t expect it to work any better.

Bizarrely, Virtual PC and Virtual Server will run on Hyper-V (I have even installed Hyper-V on top of Hyper-V whilst recording the installation process for a Microsoft TechNet video!) and, for the record, ESX will run in VMware Workstation too (i.e. hypervisor on top of hosted virtualisation). As for Hyper-V in VMware Workstation VM – I’ve not got around to trying it yet but Microsoft’s Matt McSpirit is not hopeful.

Regardless of the above, Steve Graegart did come up with a neat solution for those instances when you really must run a hosted virtualisation solution and Hyper-V on the same box. It involves dual-booting, which is a pain in the proverbial but, according to Steve, it works:

  1. Open a command prompt and create a new [boot loader] entry by copying the default one bcdedit /copy {default} /d "Boot without Hypervisor"
  2. After successful execution copy the GUID (ID of the new boot loader entry) including the curly braces to the clipboard.
  3. Set the HyperVisorLaunchType property to off bcdedit /set {guid} hypervisorlaunchtype off [using] the GUID you’ve previously copied to the clipboard.

After this, you should now have a boot time selection of whether or not to start Hyper-V (and hence whether or not an alternative virtualisation solution will run as expected).

Ready for an Xtremely Technical seminar on Windows Server 2008?

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’ve always been impressed with John Craddock and Sally Storey’s presentations on Active Directory and related topics so, a couple of weeks back, I was pleased to catch up with them as they presented at the inaugural meeting of the Active Directory User Group.

In that session, John and Sally gave a quick overview of the new features in Windows Server 2008 Active Directory as well as the new read only domain controller (RODC) functionality and, if that whet your appetite (or if you missed it and think you’d like to know more), it may be of interest to know that John and Sally are running one of their XTSeminars later this month, looking at Windows Server 2008 infrastructure design, configuration and deployment. Topics include:

  • Building virtual environments with Hyper-V.
  • Creating high-availability with application and virtual machine clustering.
  • Windows imaging and the Windows Deployment Services (WDS).
  • What’s new in the Active Directory.
  • The benefits and caveats of Read Only Domain Controllers (RODC).
  • Windows networking with IPv6 and Network Access Protection (NAP).
  • Managing Server Core.

This is a chargeable event but I’ve never been disappointed by one John and Sally’s presentations, which are dedicated to delivering good technical content in a highly consumable format. For more information, and to book a place, visit the XTSeminars website.

(For a limited time only, using the code CC349, you can attend this two day event for just £349 For other seminars, try TN1384 for a 35% discount.)

Windows Live FolderShare – an example of Microsoft’s cloud computing platform that’s here to use today

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I started off writing this post on the train, as the stacation (taking a break from work but staying at home) part of last week became the vacation part (a few days by the seaside with my wife and sons – the fact that I woke up to snow in Buckinghamshire didn’t seem to put the boys off wanting to build sandcastles in Dorset… even with their winter coats on).

The point of this is that I wanted to use the time on the train to good effect – and that meant catching up on my writing. Despite having spent a few days decommissioning my old file server in favour of a new NAS box, I still have a certain amount of local data that I need to access – spread across multiple Windows and Macintosh PCs. This is where Microsoft’s web services platform comes in. I’ve been using the Live Mesh CTP for a while now, but the current version of Mesh is just a starting point and there is another Live service in beta that I’m using here – Windows Live FolderShare.

FolderShare is a web service for distributed folders across multiple devices – either personal or shared folders. If you’ve used Windows Live SkyDrive as file storage in the cloud, then imagine if that data was hosted on your PCs (phones, and other devices) rather than in cyberspace – and replicated automatically.

Over time, I expect to see FolderShare move into Live Mesh and, in my coverage of the recent PDC keynote, I wrote about how:

Live Mesh bridges [islands of information] with a core synchronisation concept but Mesh is just the tip of the iceberg and is now a key component of Live Services to allow apps and websites to connect users, devices, applications and to provide data synchronisation.

My personal file data may not be the scale of enterprise service Microsoft plans for Windows Azure but Windows Live FolderShare does nicely demonstrate the concept in a way that most of us can appreciate. Here I am, creating content on the train using my Macintosh PC and I know that, when I hook up to a network, FolderShare will sync this (via Windows Live Services) to people/devices that I want to share the data with – for example my Windows PC in the home office. Then, whichever device I’m using, I can continue my work without worrying about where the master copy is. Add a phone into the mix and one would expect me to be able to access that data wherever I am as well as creating additional content – for example photos, or location specific data.

Jasdev Dhaliwal has an interesting article about Microsoft’s cloud computing announcements over at the Web Pitch. Jas’ post includes: Microsoft’s “Overnight Success” video which talks about the greater sum of software plus services “moving beyond devices and across borders to capture the imagination of the world… a world where the richness of software and the ubiquity of services are rapidly converging”; a BBC interview with Ray Ozzie where he talks about how it has become burdensome to manage the computer we’ve got at work, the computer we have in the den, childrens’ PCs, a cellphone with contacts, photos and information, cable boxes with recorded movies and how “Windows in the sky” can bring all of those devices together and make it easier to manage – more than just applications in the cloud but a total computing infrastructure; another BBC film where Rory Cellan-Jones visits one of Microsoft’s vast datacentres; and finally Microsoft’s “Synchronizing Life” video where a Mum takes a picture of a child at play using her mobile phone and that picture appears on a display many miles away in Dad’s office, on his PC, on his Mac, and how the Live Mesh extends to his media player, phone, into the car and to the childrens’ games console.

I started this post on the train, using a Mac. Now I’m ending it in the office, on a Windows PC – and I haven’t had to think about which copy of the data is current – it just works. That’s what connected synchronicity is about – it’s not about uploading everything I do to some website but about a mesh of devices working together to make my local data available globally… synchronising my life.