Weeknote 15/2020: a cancelled holiday, some new certifications and video conferencing fatigue

Continuing the series of weekly blog posts, providing a brief summary of notable things from my week.

Cancelled holiday #1

I should have been in Snowdonia this week – taking a break with my family. Obviously that didn’t happen, with the UK’s social distancing in full effect but at least we were able to defer our accommodation booking.

It has been interesting though, being forced to be at home has helped me to learn to relax a little… there’s still a never-ending list of things that need to be done, but they can wait a while.

Learning and development

Last week, I mentioned studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials Exam and this week saw me completing that training before attempting the exam.

It was my first online-proctored exam and I had some concerns about finding a suitable space. Even in a relatively large home (by UK standards), with a family of four (plus a dog) all at home, it’s can be difficult to find a room with a guarantee not to be disturbed. I’ve heard of people using the bathroom (and I thought about using my car). In the end, and thanks to some advice from colleagues – principally Steve Rush (@MrSteveRush) and Natalie Dellar (@NatalieDellar) – as well as some help from Twitter, I managed to cover the TV and some boxes in my loft room, banish the family, and successfully pass the test.

With exam 1 under my belt (I’m now an AWS Certified Cloud Practitioner), I decided to squeeze another in before the Easter break and successfully studied for, and passed, the Microsoft Power Platform Fundamentals exam, despite losing half a day to some internal sales training.

In both cases, I used the official study materials from Amazon/Microsoft and, although they were not everything that was needed to pass the exams, the combination of these and my experience from elsewhere helped (for example having already passed the Microsoft Azure Fundamentals exam meant that many of the concepts in the AWS exam were already familiar).

Thoughts on the current remote working situation

These should probably have been in last week’s weeknote (whilst it wasn’t the school holidays so we were trying to educate our children too) but recently it’s become particularly apparent to me that we are not living in times of “working from home” – this is “at home, during a crisis, trying to work”, which is very different:

Some other key points I’ve picked up include that:

  • Personal, physical and mental health is more important than anything else right now. (I was disappointed to find that even the local Police are referring to mythical time limits on allowed exercise here in the UK – and I’m really lucky to be able to get out to cycle/walk in open countryside from my home, unlike so many.)
  • We should not be trying to make up for lost productivity by working more hours. (This is particularly important for those who are not used to remote working.)
  • And, if you’re furloughed, use the time wisely. (See above re: learning and development!)

Video conference fatigue

Inspired by Matt Ballantine’s virally-successful flowchart of a few years ago, I tried sketching something. It didn’t catch on in quite the same way, but it does seem to resonate with people.

In spite of my feelings on social video conferencing, I still took part in two virtual pub quizzes this week (James May’s was awful whilst Nick’s Pub Quiz continues to be fun) together with trans-Atlantic family Zooming over the Easter weekend…

Podcast backlog

Not driving and not going out for lunchtime solo dog walks has had a big impact on my podcast-listening…

I now need to schedule some time for catching up on The Archers and the rest of my podcasts!

Remote Work Survival Kit

In what spare time I’ve had, I’ve also been continuing to edit the Remote Work Survival Kit. It’s become a mammoth task, but there are relatively few updates arriving in the doc now. Some of the team have plans to move things forward, but I have a feeling it’s something that will never be “done”, will always be “good enough” and which I may step away from soon.

Possibly the best action film in the world…

My week finished with a family viewing of the 1988 film, “Die Hard”. I must admit it was “a bit more sweary” than I remembered (although nothing that my teenagers won’t already hear at school) but whilst researching the film classification it was interesting to read how it was changed from an 18 to a 15 with the passage of time

Weeknote 14/2020: Podcasting, furlough and a socially-distanced birthday

We’re living in strange times at the moment, so it seems as good as ever an opportunity to bring back my attempts to blog at least weekly with a brief precis of my week.

In the beginning

The week started as normal. Well, sort of. The new normal. Like everyone else in the UK, I’m living in times of enforced social distancing, with limited reasons to leave the house. Thankfully, I can still exercise once a day – which for me is either a dog walk, a run or a bike ride.

On the work front, I had a couple of conversations around potential client work, but was also grappling with recording Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA) skills for my team. Those who’ve known me since my Fujitsu days may know that I’m no fan of SFIA and it was part of the reason I chose to leave that company… but it seems I can’t escape it.

Podcasting

On Monday evening, I stood in for Chris Weston (@ChrisWeston) as a spare “W” on the WB-40 Podcast. Matt Ballantine (@Ballantine70) and I had a chat about the impact of mass remote working, and Matt quizzed me about retro computing. I was terrible in the quiz but I think I managed to sound reasonably coherent in the interview – which was a lot of fun!

Furlough

A few weeks ago, most people in the UK would never have heard of “Furlough Leave”. For many, it’s become common parlance now, as the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme becomes reality for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of employees. It’s a positive thing – it means that businesses can claim some cash from the Government to keep them afloat whilst staff who are unable to work due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus crisis restrictions are sent home. In theory, with businesses still liquid, we will all have jobs to go back to, once we’re allowed to return to some semblance of normality.

On Tuesday, I was part of a management team drawing up a list of potentially affected staff (including myself), based on strict criteria around individuals’ current workloads. On Wednesday it was confirmed that I would no longer be required to attend work for the next three weeks from that evening. I can’t provide any services for my employer – though I should stay in touch and personal development is encouraged.

Social distancing whilst shopping for immediate and extended family

So, Thursday morning, time to shop for provisions: stock is returning to the supermarket shelves after a relatively small shift in shopping habits completely disrupted the UK’s “just in time” supply chain. It’s hardly surprising as a nation prepared to stay in for a few weeks, with no more eating at school/work, no pubs/cafés/restaurants, and the media fuelling chaos with reports of “panic buying”.

Right now, after our excellent independent traders (like Olney Butchers), the weekly town market is the best place to go with plenty of produce, people keeping their distance, and fresh air. Unfortunately, with a family of four to feed (and elderly relatives to shop for too), it wasn’t enough – which meant trawling through two more supermarkets and a convenience store to find everything – and a whole morning gone. I’m not sure how many people I interacted with but it was probably too many, despite my best efforts.

Learning and development

With some provisions in the house, I spent a chunk of time researching Amazon Web Services certifications, before starting studying for the AWS Cloud Practitioner Essentials Exam. It should be a six hour course but I can’t speed up/slow down the video, so I keep on stopping and taking notes (depending on the presenter) which makes it slow going…

I did do some Googling though, and found that a combination of Soundflower and Google Docs could be used to transcribe the audio!

I also dropped into a Microsoft virtual launch event for the latest Microsoft Business Applications (Dynamics 365 and Power Platform) updates. There’s lots of good stuff happening there – hopefully I’ll turn it into a blog post soon…

#NicksPubQuiz

Saturday night was a repeat of the previous week, taking part in “Nick’s Pub Quiz”. For those who haven’t heard of it – Nick Heath (@NickHeathSport) is a sports commentator who, understandably, is a bit light on the work front right now so he’s started running Internet Pub Quizzes, streaming on YouTube, for a suggested £1/person donation. Saturday night was his sixth (and my family’s second) – with over 1500 attendees on the live stream. Just like last week, my friend James and his family also took part (in their house) with us comparing scores on WhatsApp for a bit of competition!

Another year older

Ending the week on a high, Sunday saw my birthday arrive (48). We may not be able to go far, but I did manage a cycle ride with my eldest son, then back home for birthday cake (home-made Battenberg cake), and a family BBQ. And the sun shone. So, all in all, not a bad end to the week.

WB-40 appearances

Several years ago, I met Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70), when he was working at Microsoft. Over the years, we’ve had many conversations in person, online and over social media and I’ve been listening to his WB-40 podcast with Chris Weston (@chrisweston) since they started it in 2016.

WB-40 Podcast logo

In recent months, I’ve been fortunate to feature a few times on the podcast:

Appearing on WB-40 (and on The Flexible Movement) has made me think a little about maybe starting a podcast of my own. James Bannan (@JamesBannan) and I had a podcast called Coalface Tech for a while a few years ago but we found working on opposite sides of the planet and recording decent audio challenging at the time. At the moment I struggle to write blog posts so, let’s see if that ever gets off the drawing board.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in the intersection of IT and business then I recommend checking out WB-40, which will also transition from its online form to the physical world next week, with a live event in London.

Weeknote 7: Traffic, snow and an awesome party (Week 49, 2017)

Another week means another weeknote and this one finished on a high because last night was the risual Christmas Party!

risual does Christmas parties rather well and I won’t go into the details here but suffice to say, a good time was had. I knew the weather forecast though and needed to be sober today (Mrs W wasn’t too happy about the idea of driving home in the snow) so I can bask in the delight of not-having-a-hangover.

Anyway, it was a joy to wake up in a Country House hotel this morning and see how the landscape was transformed. I took quite a lot of photos on my iPhone but Dropbox is currently refusing to upload them for me, complaining that one is corrupt (but not telling me which one!). I’ll edit them next week and post them then…

Then I drove home in the snow and ice. England can’t cope when it snows (or indeed with any other extremes of weather: too wet; too sunny; too windy). We do mild-grey really well though.

The week

My week was the usual mix of consulting (paid work), training and pre-sales. I was fortunate to spend a day at Microsoft in Reading on Tuesday, topping up my Microsoft 365 (Office 365, plus Windows 10, plus Enterprise Mobility + Security) knowledge. I’m hoping that, time permitting, some blog posts will come out of that.

I’ve been driving around the UK almost 30 years, and driving for work for most of them. This week drove home to me (excuse the pun) just how overloaded the UK’s road infrastructure is, when it took me more than 5 hours to drive to Reading and back (about 75 miles each way), then around 4.5 hours the next day to drive 190 miles on nothing but motorways and trunk A roads (180 miles of which were dual carriageway). It seems likely that the first place autonomous vehicles can take a hold is on major routes like this and I for one can’t wait. Maybe one day we’ll have segregated autonomous driving lanes on the motorways, where the cars can drive closer together (in constant communication and not constrained by human reaction speeds) and maybe even faster (if the law is changed).

This week also saw the quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night, which I’m proud to have attended every one of! I’ve made a lot of contacts over the 5½ years it’s been running – some of whom I can now count as friends and this event had one of the best set of talks in a long while including:

  • Simon Collison (@colly) on “The Internet of Natural Things”
  • Laura Sutton (@L_Coull)’s “Non-geek’s guide to the Galaxy”
  • Dr Neil Smith (@neilnjae) showing us “Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: using data science to prove which band is best”!
  • Joe Leech (@MrJoe) wrapping up with “UX, Psychology and the Power of 100”

The next one clashes with my wedding anniversary, and Mrs W has even agreed to come along with me as an honourary geek!

At home

We’re hoping to convert our loft next year and the initial notice has been submitted for planning purposes. It seems that, now that councils are better at sharing information, marketers are scraping it to bombard us with offers of storage, home improvements, etc. Apparently, our neighbours will be getting mailshots from lawyers too… all very irksome…

Around town

I missed this event which was part of Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday celebrations – a floating carnival of decorated boats looks like quite a spectacle on the canal!

It’s really noticeable how many people are now sleeping rough on the streets of Milton Keynes. The Bus Shelter are trying to do something about that – but they need to raise funds to convert a double-decker coach to provide emergency shelter. To quote from their website:

“Homelessness can hit anyone – most of us are just three pay packets away from losing our home. With your help we can provide over 5800 safe, warm nights for people forced to sleep on the streets and help them find a positive future.”

Look out for the bus in the Intu part of the Shopping Centre (Midsummer Place) and please donate, if you can:

At the other end of the scale… I passed a man on the mean streets of MK proudly proclaiming that the best place to get a car parking space is the electric charging bays… it may not be illegal to park a petrol/diesel car in an electric space but it is selfish (especially as there are normal spaces free)…

Other stuff

Barclaycard sent me a new credit card “for security reasons”. It was nice to find that my Apple Wallet updated automatically on my phone and my watch. Sadly the many websites where I had the details stored for recurring payments (Apple iTunes, Microsoft, Amazon, M6 Toll, Transport for London, etc.) didn’t.

That reminds me… I wonder when my Curve card will show up… It seems I’ve been stuck with about 1500 people ahead of me in the queue for weeks now… in fact, the number seems to be going up (but if you use my referral link above, I can move back up the queue…)!

On the topic of referrals, my energy switch to Bulb completed this week. It was painless (though I will have to wait to get my credit from First Utility, my previous provider – who seem more interested in selling broadband to me now than reducing my energy bills…). Unfortunately, neither I nor my friend have received our promised referral credits from Bulb. Enquiries are ongoing…

My son and I needed to force-quit an app on my Amazon Fire TV Stick but weren’t sure how. This blog post helped by pointing us to Menu, Settings, Manage All Installed Applications where Force Stop is one of the options.

Sadly, Amazon and Google’s inability to play together nicely means my Fire TV Stick won’t play YouTube videos from 1 Jan 2018. One is not amused:

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s series about Donald Trump’s rise (An American Dream). I’ll leave the politics aside but it’s fascinating to see how the wealthy can grow to take such a position of power…

I noticed that my Nextbase Dashcam was showing the wrong time (1 hour ahead) and every time I changed it, it reverted after the next power cycle… then I realised there was a timezone setting and it was still on GMT+1 (BST). After changing to GMT, all was good. It seems that it picks up the time from the GPS, so the timezone is the important setting…

I’m torn about the use of the new HEIC image format on my iPhone. On the one hand, I want to store the best quality images I can, on the other, I need them to be readable on all my devices

Whilst I was at MK Geek Night this week, I spotted that War Horse is coming to Milton Keynes Theatre next autumn. I enjoyed the film and I’ve heard good things about the National Theatre production too, so tickets are booked for a family cultural treat:

My phone has decided that, when I get in the car, I’m headed for the local Tesco Express… that’s a little worrying (I wonder how does Siri determine my travel patterns?):

Podcasts

I’ve mentioned before that I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of these is the Microsoft Cloud Show. Sometimes, it can be a bit too developer-focused for my tastes but I enjoyed Episode 223, which pretty much encapsulates the conversations I have with customers as an Architect working with the Microsoft cloud!

I also got the chance to catch up with Matt Ballantine this week (one half of the WB-40 Podcast). It’s been a while since Matt and I had a chat but I really enjoyed bouncing around our thoughts on modern collaboration and team working. and team-working. Like Matt, I’m finding myself drawing/writing on screen more (at least when working, using a Surface Pro – my MacBook lacks any sort of touch capability) though it’s also showing how unpracticed I’ve become at writing!

Wrap-up

Anyway, before I get too far into Sunday evening I need to sign-off and check my children haven’t continued building their snow-wall across the neighbours’ drives…

Next week looks like it should feature a lot less travel (at least by road) and a return to cyclocross with my son. I might even be home a few evenings and maybe, just maybe, I’ll write a blog post that’s not one of these weeknotes! I live in hope…

Weeknote 6: User group and MVP events; a new smartwatch; ghost trains; and the start of Christmas (Week 48, 2017)

Milton Keynes – Rochdale – London – Leicester. Not quite New York – London – Paris but those are the towns and cities on my itinerary this week.

Every now and again, I find myself counting down the days to the weekend. This week has been different. It was manic, squeezing work in around lots of other activities but it was mostly enjoyable too.

The week at work

My work week started off with an opportunity to input to a report that I find quite exciting. I can’t say too much at the moment (though it should be released within the next couple of weeks and I’ll be shouting about it then) but it’s one of those activities that makes me think “I’d like to do more of this” (I already get referred to as the extra member of the risual marketing team, which I think they mean as a good thing!).

Bills have to be paid though (i.e. I need to keep my utilisation up!), so I’ve also had some consulting in the mix, writing a strategy for a customer who needs to modernise their datacentre.

On Wednesday evening, I managed to fit in a UK Azure User Group (@UKAzure) meeting in London, with Paul Andrew (@MrPaulAndrew) talking about Azure Data Factory – another opportunity to fill some gaps in my knowledge.

Then, back to work on Thursday, squeezing in a full day’s work before heading to the National Space Centre in Leicester in the afternoon for the UK MVP Community Connection. I’m not an MVP anymore (I haven’t been since 2011) but I am a member of the MVP Reconnect Programme, which means I still get invited to some of the events – and the two I’ve been to so far have been really worthwhile. One of my favourite sessions at the last event was Tony Wells from Resource IT (the guys who create the Microsoft Abbreviation Dictionary) talking about storytelling. This time we had a 3-hour workshop with an opportunity to put some of the techniques into practice.

The evening started with drinks in the space tower, then an IMAX film before dinner (and a quiz) in the Space Centre, surrounded by the exhibits. We returned the next day for a Microsoft business update, talks on ethics and diversity, on extending our audience reach and on mixed reality.

Unfortunately, my Friday afternoon was hijacked by other work… and the work week also spilt over into the weekend – something I generally try to avoid and which took the shine off things somewhat…

Social

I’ve had a full-on week with family too: my eldest son is one of six from Milton Keynes who have been selected to attend the Kandersteg International Scout Centre (KISC) in 2019 and, together with ten more who are off to the World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, we have a lot of fund-raising to do (about £45,000 in total). That meant selling raffle tickets in the shopping centre for the opportunity to win a car on Monday evening, and a meeting on Tuesday evening to talk about fundraising ideas…

So, that’s out every evening, and a long day every day this week… by Friday I was ready to collapse in a heap.

The weekend

No cyclocross this weekend (well, there was, but it clashed with football), so I was on a different sort of Dad duty, running the line and trying not to anger parents from the other team with my ropey knowledge of the offside rule

It’s also December now, so my family have declared that Christmas celebrations can begin. Right from the moment I returned home on Friday evening I was accused of not being Christmassy enough and I was forced to listen to “Christmas Music” on the drive to my son’s football match (the compromise was that it could be my Christmas playlist).

Even I was amused to be followed in my car by a certain jolly chap:

My part in decorating the house consists of getting everything down from the loft, putting up the tree and lights, and then finding myself somewhere to hide for a couple of hours until it all looks lovely and sparkly. Unfortunately, the hiding time was actually spent polishing a presentation for Monday and fighting with Concur to complete my expenses… not exactly what I had in mind…

New tech

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that we now have a teenager in the house and my eldest son has managed to save enough birthday money to buy a smartwatch. He was thinking of a Garmin device until I reminded him how bad their software is when we sync our bike computers so he went for a Samsung Gear Sport. It looks pretty good if you have an Android phone. I have an iPhone and an Apple Watch (as you may recall from my recent tales of woe) but if I was an Android guy, I think the Gear Sport would be my choice…

Ghost trains

I forgot to add this tale to last week’s week note but I was travelling back home from Stafford recently when I noticed a re-branded Virgin Pendolino at the platform. My train wasn’t due for another 10 minutes so I didn’t check out where this one was going, so I was a little surprised to pass it again as I arrived in Milton Keynes two hours later, after I’d gone the long way (via Birmingham) and changed trains…

Checking on Realtime Trains showed me that I could have caught a direct train from Stafford, but it wasn’t on the public timetable. Indeed, although it stops at several stations, it’s listed as an empty coaching stock working (which is presumably why it is pathed on the slow lines including the Northampton loop). So, in addition to trains that stop at Milton Keynes only to set down (southbound) or pick up (northbound), it seems that Virgin run “ghost trains” too!

Listening

I listen to a lot of podcasts when I’m in the car. This week I spent a lot of time in the car. I recommend these two episodes:

Twitter highlights

I’m no GDPR expert but this looked useful:

Company branding is great until it makes the information you give out next-to-useless:

Credit is due to the social media team handling the @PremierInn account for Whitbread, they quickly confirmed that it is a J not an I (though I had worked it out).

@HolidayInn were equally on the ball when I complained about a lack of power sockets (and traffic noise insulation) at their Leicester City Centre hotel. Thankfully they replies were limited to Twitter and email – not midnight calls as my colleague Gavin Morrisson found when he tweeted about another Holiday Inn!

This made me smirk (I haven’t “elevated” my Mac yet…):

If you don’t get the joke, this should provide context.

I like this definition of “digital [transformation]”:

This short video looks at how we need to “debug the gender gap”:

The full film is available to stream/download from various sources… I intend to watch.

And, to wrap up with some humour, I enjoyed Chaz Hutton’s latest Post-it sketch:

(for more like this, check out InstaChaz on Instagram)

Finit

That’s it for now… more next week…

Coalface Tech: Episode 4 (Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2)

Coalface Tech podcast graphic
Remember the Coalface Tech podcast that James Bannan and I kicked off? Well, after a long break, we finally got another episode out. To be fair, I didn’t have a lot to do with it – the logistics of scheduling podcast recordings between the UK and Australia, battling with VoIP technology, editing audio, losing our hosting provider and fitting it in with work and family life was all a bit too much. Episode 3 was recorded but, by the time we had it ready, it seemed a bit past its sell by date, so James has recorded episode 4 with a new member of the team: Craig Fiegert, who is a Melbourne-based consultant.

The closure of APC Pro magazine caused us some issues and we’ve moved everything across to the coalfacetech.com domain (which is currently working off James’ site). For existing subscribers, we hope to be able to put some redirects on to point to the new feeds but, for the time being, you can either listen to Episode 4 via the web or resubscribe at:

Coalface Tech (MP3 podcast) Coalface Tech (MP3 podcast).
Coalface Tech (AAC podcast) Coalface Tech (AAC podcast with chapter markings and context-sensitive links, etc.).

The iTunes feed (which is the one that gets us recognised) should be back and running as soon as the redirects go in and I’ll also look into submitting the podcast to the Zune Store. Meanwhile, Google Feedburner will tell us if anyone is actually listening!

In short – thank you for bearing with us. Hopefully we’ve got through the worst of the infrastructure issues and James hopes to get new episodes out more regularly now. I’ll still be involved in the background and will make an occasional appearance but, until then, enjoy James and Craig’s discussion of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.

What happened to Coalface Tech?

Coalface Tech podcast graphic
Last year, James Bannan and I launched a podcast called Coalface Tech
. At the time we thought we were the only guys doing a podcast for IT Pros, by IT Pros (since then, I’ve discovered and started listening to RunAs Radio) but, to be honest, we broke the golden rule of podcasting/blogging and didn’t post regularly (frequency is less of a concern, but if you post monthly, then that’s what people expect you to continue doing).

The main problem was one of hosting. APC Pro Magazine, who were hosting our episodes, closed down. Episode 3 was recorded and edited, but had no-where to go to. There were also scheduling issues (two guys on opposite sides of the planet, with limited time for recording), and some fairly major family events for each of us.

We do hope to get the podcast going again at some point, and I was heartened when a listener dropped me an e-mail to say “where have you guys gone?” All I can say is, please keep our feed in your reader and, hopefully, there will be a new episode there one day.

Coalface Tech: Episode 2 (interview with Microsoft’s Michael Kleef and Jason Leznek)

Coalface Tech podcast graphic
After some late-night editing, Episode 2 of the Coalface Tech podcast that James Bannan and I produce is online at the APC Magazine Pro website.

As a result of my timezone blindness, combined with Skype problems, James and I didn’t manage to record our usual conversation for this episode but, a couple of weeks back, James hooked up with Microsoft’s Michael Kleef and Jason Leznek to chat about some of the management features in the Windows client and server operating systems as well as how we can start to prepare ourselves for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.

If you like what you hear, then you might like to consider subscribing – there are two podcast feeds available (MP3 and AAC) – if you use iTunes then I recommend the AAC version as that’s the enhanced podcast with chapter markings and context sensitive links but MP3 should work for just about everyone. The AAC feed is also included in the Podcasts directory on iTunes:

Coalface Tech (MP3 podcast) Coalface Tech (MP3 podcast).
Coalface Tech (AAC enhanced podcast) Coalface Tech (AAC enhanced podcast) (or subscribe via iTunes).

If you don’t like it, please tell us why. We’re still learning how to do this podcasting stuff and there’s a lot to take on board but we really would like feedback – including suggested topics for discussion.

Going forward, James and I hope to get an episode out every month. They are time-consuming to produce though, so please bear with us if the schedule is not as regular as we’d like.

Finally, here are the show notes for episode 2:

  • Mark introduces the podcast.
  • James interviews Michael Kleef and Jason Leznek:
    • We start off with the guys introducing themselves.
    • Michael explains that group policy management is core to both the server and client versions of Windows 7, and how Windows PowerShell provides command line access to group policy objects.
    • Starter GPOs in Windows Server 2008 R2 are enhanced – providing templates of ADMX settings to kickstart creation of a new template.
    • Group Policy preferences are not known by many customers but are new in the Windows Server 2008 and Vista SP1 RSAT tools to do more than policy allows. Whereas policy enforces fixed settings, preferences are more like suggestions and can be targetted to provide a variety of settings, which can also persist across logons and in many cases remove or reduce the requirement for logon scripts.
    • James asks why GPO administration would need to be scripted – Michael explains that automation can be applied to backups, reporting and any other repetitive operations.
    • Jason suggests another scenario where different business units have similar but different settings and how scripting the policy creation can reduce the effort in creating the new objects.
    • Michael explained that these features will work downlevel where the client operating system supports the settings – not all settings will be applicable to downlevel operating systems and so policies may need to be written accordingly.
    • When asked what IT Pros can do to get ready for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008, Michael suggests getting familiar with group policy preferences (and you only need a Vista SP1 machine – no domain changes needed – you could still be using Windows Server 2003). Jason added that it’s the RSAT tools that are required (including an updated version of GPMC). [of course there’s far more to do in order to prepare for a new operating system release but this needs to be taken in the context that Michael and Jason are subject matter experts for specific areas of Windows.]
    • Michael talked about how to work in a mixed environment – you might need separate policies for XP and Vista [and 7] in certain circumstances but many settings will work cross-platform.
    • When asked how the upgrade path will work as Windows Server 2008 R2 comes in – Michael stressed that fresh 64-bit installs will be required (R2 is 64-bit only and there is no direct upgrade path from 32-bit) but that services will co-exist between versions of Windows Server.
    • When asked about the implications for organisations moving to Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 in terms of business value, Jason explained that there is a better together concept with many new features benefitting from the latest client and server releases – for example: Direct Access enabled an end user to access network resources seamlessly without the need for a VPN; or branch cache, which allows files to be cached locally for efficient use of network bandwidth.
    • Like a dog after a bone, James keeps on digging to find business value in Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 for those organisations that have already deployed Windows Vista. Jason talked about features like Bitlocker to go, which not supports the encryption of data on removable devices in Windows 7 as well as the productivity improvements that the technologies Jason had already highlighted could potentially provide.
    • Michael then explained how group policy applies to remote connections.
    • Just as the interview draws to a close, the conversation turns to application compatibility [probably the biggest sticking point when it came to Vista deployments and just as critical for a Windows 7 deployment…] and Michael referred to one of James’ articles in which he recommends that customers start testing applications on Windows Vista SP1 in preparation for Windows 7.
  • Please give us your feedback!

(Next time, we should be back to the normal format and we have a new team member as Alistair Weddell joins us to perform the post-production work that is the bulk of the effort in producing this podcast.)

Coalface Tech: Episode 1 (Microsoft PDC 2008)

Coalface Tech podcast graphic
Last month, James Bannan and I released a pilot episode of a new podcast called Coalface Tech – the idea being that IT Pros should have a slightly different take on IT industry developments to the professional journalists that cover this.

We’ve taken on board the feedback that we received and, whilst it’s still a bit rough around the edges, Episode 1 is now online at the APC Pro magazine website.

In this episode, we look at some of the major announcements from Microsoft’s 2008 Professional Developers’ Conference – Windows Azure and Windows 7 – as well as some interesting things to come out of Microsoft Research.

PDC may seem like old news now, but our aim is not to report the news – like this blog the intention is that we provide a commentary from the perspective of those who actually implement the technology.

If you like what you hear, then you might like to consider subscribing – there are two podcast feeds available (MP3 and AAC) – if you use iTunes then I recommend the AAC version as that’s the enhanced podcast with chapter markings and context sensitive links but MP3 should work for just about everyone. We’ve also submitted the AAC feed to the iTunes store (it’s still under consideration but will hopefully be in the index soon).

Coalface Tech (MP3 podcast) Coalface Tech (MP3 podcast).
Coalface Tech (AAC enhanced podcast) Coalface Tech (AAC enhanced podcast).

If you don’t like it, please tell us why. We’re still learning how to do this podcasting stuff and there’s a lot to take on board but we really would like feedback – including suggested topics for discussion.

Going forward, James and I hope to get an episode out every month. They are time-consuming to produce though, so please bear with us if the schedule is not as regular as we’d like.

Finally, here are the show notes for episode 1:

  • 00’00” Introduction (agenda) and summary of feedback from the pilot episode (excuse the ums and ers, we do get more confident after a few minutes; Mark should remember he’s not an Aussie; hopefully we’ve improved the production a little in this episode).
  • 02’23” Windows 7: James’ first view of Microsoft’s forthcoming OS release (he’s also written about Windows 7 for IT Pros); no massive changes between Vista and 7 – slicker and some new features but not a major release; touchscreen – a real possibility or just a niche technology?; Conchango/Tesco prototype WPF front end for online groceries; boot from VHD; Application compatibility is just as key to a Windows 7 deployment as it is to Vista – even the 6.1 version number is to maintain application compatibility!
  • 15’53” Slight diversion to discuss Mark’s plans for Windows 7 on Lenovo IdeaPad S10 netbook; and it turns out that James has been running Vista Enterprise SP1 on an Acer Aspire One; if you’re using an SSD drive then consider the NTFS partition alignment.
  • 19’25” Windows Azure: James interviewed Greg Stone (Microsoft Australia CTO); Azyure or Azuuure? (or Red Dog!); a hosted services platform to provide a flexible infrastructure, leveraging from existing development tools; watch out for spiraling bandwidth costs; not buying infrastructure looks attractive – as does rapid provisioning; a lot of the details are still to come (support, costs, etc.); usage-based billing may represent a challenge for some organisations; KPI-based model; this model will not suit everyone but Software plus Services is a little more realistic that software as a service; Microsoft Online Services are already competing with partners – what’s the impact on our jobs if the infrastructure goes into the cloud; Microsoft has proved that it does have a strategy for cloud computing.
  • 33’07” Microsoft Research: Surface becomes SecondLight; you can build a primative surface table with a cardboard box, a sheet of paper, a sheet of perspex and a webcam; heat sensors used to control building environmental systems; Microsoft Research is more interested in academic computer science than in new products.
  • 41’06” We want your feedback!
  • 41’37” Closedown: how to find James and Mark; a thank you to our sponsors – Australian Personal Computer, Internode and Sun Microsystems.
  • 42’36” End

Coalface Tech: a podcast produced by IT pros for IT pros

Coalface Tech podcast graphicWay back in June, I wrote that James Bannan and I were thinking of launching a podcast – the theory being that we are both full-time IT guys who write about IT in our spare time, rather than professional journalists who write about IT but don’t need to worry about keeping the lights on.

Well, last month, we finally recorded the pilot episode for what has become known as “Coalface Tech”, and APC Mag has kindly given us a home on the web (multimedia downloads would blow my bandwidth allowance for this site very quickly!) – please do check it out and let us know what you think.

Please bear in mind that this is a pilot and we still have some work to do on the audio production (next time I will use a headset!) and the RSS feeds (for MP3 and AAC versions of the podcast) are not live yet so you can’t subscribe via iTunes (we’re working on it!). James and I are looking to schedule another recording soon but, in the meantime, check out the pilot episode – and please do leave a comment if you have any constructive feedback about podcast length, frequency, potential topics or anything else that seems relevant!