Why your new 2TB or 3TB drive will not work with Windows Backup

When Windows Vista and Server 2008 were released, Microsoft turned its back on tape backup. The built-in backup utility only backs up to hard drives. Windows 7 and Server 2008 R2 continue this policy. The recommended strategy for Small Business Server 2008 and 2011, for example, is to have a bunch of external USB drives and to use them in rotation.

Windows Server Backup, and its command-line version wbadmin, work well enough, but users with growing storage requirements have been buying larger external drives. That seems fine: external USB drives with 2TB and 3TB capacities are now commonplace. Except that they often run into problems when used with Windows Server Backup. You might see error 2155348010 or 0x8078002A, or “The request could not be performed because of an I/O device error”, or some other error.

The reason is that most of these large drives have a 4K sector size, rather than the older 512 byte sector size. You can get a patch for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 that fixes most problems, but it does not fix the backup issue.

The further reason is that Windows Server Backup uses VHD virtual drives as its file format. The VHD format presumes the use of 512byte sectors, and the drivers that read and write data are optimised for this. You cannot create or mount VHDs on a disk with 4K sectors.

Microsoft has more information here and here.

Some drives have a firmware option to emulate 512byte sectors. These drives work, but with a performance penalty. Western Digital is one such, and you have a WD drive you may be in luck. See this post for details.

What is disappointing here is that these drives are mostly sold without any warning about these compatibility issues. The drive vendors will say that Microsoft should update its backup software; this is correct, but since the problem seems to be inherent to the VHD format it is not trivial to do so.

Another problem is that discovering whether or not the drive you are about to buy has a 4K sector size is not easy. Once purchased, you can find out by attaching the drive. opening an administrative command prompt, and running:

fsutil fsinfo ntfsinfo x:

where x is the drive letter of the target drive. This will show the sector size, and may even include the words “Not supported” in the output.

Windows Server 8 introduces the .VHDX format which both supports larger drives, and also fixes the issues with 4K sector sizes.


Backup and file history in Windows 8 Consumer Preview: a million options to confuse you

How is backup in Windows 8? Does it have online backup? Do files sync to SkyDrive like Apple’s iCloud?

Reasonable questions. I had a poke around in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Search for Backup in the Start menu:


Not that then. Search in Control Panel:


More promising. So what is File History, is that the essence of Backup in Windows 8?


The essentials seem to be: File History is off by default. If Windows finds a drive other than the system drive, it will propose it for File History as above, otherwise it invites you to connect an external drive. Here are the Advanced settings:


You had better make sure that everything you want to save is in a library, because while there is also an Exclude folders option, I cannot see an Include folders option.

But File History is not, to my mind, backup. It will not recover your system or your applications. Oddly, if you want to see all the backup options, do not search for backup; search for recovery.


This is where things get strange. Go into Windows 7 File Recovery, which sounds like some legacy thing, and there is the old backup – yes, it does backup as well as recovery:


Note that from here I can also create a system image or a repair disc.

Alternatively there is the new Recovery feature:


Reset seems clear enough: a clean install, or at least, restoration of the OEM install that came when your PC was new.

Refresh though is more opaque. What exactly happens if you click Refresh?

Refreshing your PC reinstalls Windows and keeps your personal files, settings, and any apps that came with your PC and apps that you installed from Windows Store.

It seems to me that Refresh is essentially a Reset followed by restoration of Windows Store apps, settings, and your files as defined by Windows, probably the same as in File History but who knows? If you have a folder in your C drive called “Important stuff”, my guess is that neither File History nor Refresh will pay it any regard. Don’t do that.

The disappointment of Refresh is that it does not preserve other application installs, you know, like AutoCAD, Photoshop, that custom business app written in VB6 and somehow persuaded to work, and so on. Refresh could be less than refreshing for some users.

Advanced tools includes an option to create a recovery drive. It is not clear to me though what gets included here. On my system I was invited to insert a USB flash drive with at least 256MB capacity, which suggests that not much gets recovered.

Finally, I mentioned SkyDrive and online backup.

There is an online backup service built into Windows Server 8, but which is only available to test if you are in the USA. Might this also be offered to Windows 8 client users? It seems to me possible, but I cannot see it in the Consumer Preview.

What about SkyDrive? Microsoft is promising some strong SkyDrive integration, which will let you:

  • Open and save documents direct to SkyDrive in Metro
  • Have a SkyDrive folder in Windows Explorer
  • Get files from your PC remotely via SkyDrive.com

All good stuff; but I cannot see the desktop SkyDrive app in Windows 8 Consumer Preview. Details are here, where Microsoft’s Mike Torres says:

we aren’t talking about availability right now – but it won’t be available this week.

where “this week” means Consumer Preview week.

I have the Metro SkyDrive app on a Windows 8 slate that is not domain-joined. On my desktop PC, I domain-joined the Windows 8 install. Tried to run SkyDrive and got this:


Hmm. Does that mean not using a domain-joined PC? I went to Users as instructed. There is no “Switch to a Microsoft account” option, but there is an option to “Connect your domain account to your Microsoft account to sync PC settings”:


Hang on a moment. What, exactly, does this do? In particular, what does that last option, “Sign-in info”, mean? That if someone hacks my Live ID they have my domain login too?

How are app settings synced if I have different apps installed? What about different versions of the same app, or is this just Metro apps that can be presumed to be kept updated? What about PCs with different hardware that needs different settings, say Aero enabled on one but not another?

Again, reasonable questions, but don’t bother pressing F1. Nothing will happen.

Conclusion? If you want to backup your files or your system in Windows 8, you are in luck; there are a million options. I do not think you can call this simple though, and my guess is that wrong choices will be made and will be costly. 

My choice? Personally I like what Microsoft now calls “Windows 7 recovery”. It does an incremental backup of your entire PC, apps, “C:\important stuff” and everything. And it works. I do not see that any of the newer options replicates this.

Microsoft deprecates Subsystem for UNIX, recommends open source instead

I am getting started with the Windows Server 8 beta and noticed this in the list of Features Removed:

The Subsystem for UNIX-based Applications (SUA) is deprecated. If you use the SUA POSIX subsystem with this release, use Hyper-V to virtualize the server. If you use the tools provided by SUA, switch to Cygwin or Mingw.

Cygwin and Mingw are open source tools which let you use some Unix tools on Windows. That said, my preference would be the virtualisation route, rather than installing these layers on Windows Server itself.

Crisis in Microsoft land: what next after the mixed reception for Windows 8 Consumer Preview?

Microsoft will have expected some users to find the transition from Windows 7 to Windows 8 challenging, but I doubt it was ready for the reaction from its own community that it is receiving for Windows 8 Consumer Preview.


The best place to start is the comments on Building Windows blog here and here – at the time of writing, around 1300 comments, most from users who have downloaded and tried the Consumer Preview. It is worth browsing through them if this is something you care about; some are knee-jerk negative reactions, but some others are thoughtful and wanting Microsoft to succeed.

Overall, the message is: don’t make us use Metro, let us stay in the desktop if we choose.

I’m still waiting for an explanation as to why my 30" desktop screen has to look like a smartphone, that’s what my smartphone is for.

My users range from tech savvy to plant workers and truck drivers. Like all of us, the start button is baked into our DNA … How can I make the desktop the default UI?  I’m not going to deploy metro desktop to my users as the default screen. I would rather deploy a slew of ipads and I’m no ipad fan that is for sure.

In 17 years of using Windows I have never used the Windows key. Interestingly I’ve never seen any user of a computer use the Windows key. I don’t want to learn and remember key combinations to do things that I can currently do trivially using the start menu.

Let me tell you something, I always have a gazillion webbrowser instances and tabs open (rarely less than 50 browser tabs and as much as 100) – I often run 5-10 Visual Studio instances simultaneously (and I know your usage statistics says average is 1, so you won’t make it easier to distinguish between them, but this is a different matter..) – usually have 10+ explorer windows – and I absolutely love working this way, I am productive this way and that’s what counts for me. I run 2 big screens with 2560×1440 resolutions to give me as much working space as possible, so I can easily switch between a lot of my open applications, browser tabs and explorer windows. Even if I had a use for some Metro UI application, I would be looking for a desktop alternative, so I could have it running side-by-side with my other applications – let’s be honest, one application at a time might be great for the average joe, but it’s a horrible solution for professional users.

Part of the problem here is that the Metro UI Windows 8 is more about solving a problem Microsoft has – how to compete with the iPad – than a problem its users face. It has been clear since Windows 8 was first previewed that the tablet UI and new Windows Runtime was Microsoft’s main focus, and that desktop users would get less value than they might normally expect from a major release. The reaction to the Consumer Preview though is more serious than that: many users are saying that Windows 8 is, for them, a substantial step backwards.

I am writing this in Windows 8 on a desktop and it is not that bad. Apps are easy to launch once you get the hang of Windows Key – Search, and there are workarounds for the annoyances. There is no doubt though: if you are working mainly in the desktop – which is inevitable for most users upgrading – the “immersive UI” does get in the way at times. Since it must run full screen, a Metro app obliterates the taskbar and handy features like the time and date which shows bottom right in the notification area. If there were an option to run Metro apps in a window, I would grab it.

The irony here is that the name “Windows” refers to the ability to run multiple apps in windows, as opposed to the single application UI offered by DOS.

Another issue is that if you switch between Metro and Desktop, you have to learn two ways to do common tasks. For example, I tend to use the taskbar previews to find browser tabs, since if you have numerous tabs open it is the quickest way to find the one you want. If you are in the Metro browser though, you have to right-click to show the tabs. Right-click by mistake in the desktop browser, and you get a context menu. Add to favourites? Different. History? Different. All friction if you just want to get your work done.

If you have multiple monitors, Microsoft’s “Move the mouse to the corner” idea for raising the Charms does not work well. The “Corner” is on the primary display, but if you have multiple displays it is not a corner but the border between two screens. You have to position the pointer just so to make it work.

There is more; but it is not my intention to iterate through every annoyance. I am more interested in the reaction overall and in what Microsoft will do next.

I will add that I admire what Microsoft has done from a technical standpoint in the Windows Runtime and that Windows 8 on a touch device with the right screen size has great promise as a new tablet operating system. It is my first choice for travelling; iPad and Android tablets are too limited, and I am more than ready to leave the bulky, awkward laptop at home.

Needless to say, few of those commenting will have tried such a device, for reasons I have described before. Windows 8 in a virtual machine is a worst case, and it is a shame that so many (for good reasons) are trying it that way.

What next for Windows 8?

It seems to me that Microsoft now has, broadly, three options for Windows 8.

1. Plough on regardless. This, I imagine, is the plan as it stands currently. Microsoft has deliberately made Metro unavoidable in Windows 8, I presume to ensure that it will not be ignored. There will be some refinements in the final release, improved discoverability of features users are struggling to find, but no fundamental change to the design approach. The plan as stated last month is that there will be no further beta, and the next public release will be the release candidate.

The question: can Microsoft do enough tweaking to win over a majority of its own community? Right now my sense is probably not. A negative reaction on release will be costly for the company and for all those third-parties who depend on its platform; yes, Windows 7 will have a prolonged life, but there will be loss of momentum for the platform overall.

2. Delay Windows 8 for further refinement. Go through the reactions to this broad public beta test, and work out how to fix the issues without losing the vision behind this “reimagined” Windows. Delay would be painful, of course, but less bad than a failed release.

The quick version of this would be to do what many are asking for: make the Metro-style personality in Windows 8 optional. Would that be such a disaster?

3. Release Windows on ARM (WOA) ahead of the full Windows 8. Most of the objections users have to Windows 8 do not apply to WOA, where Metro is primary, where all devices are touch tablets, and where those desktop applications (mainly Office) and utilities that are included are there to fill the gaps which Metro cannot yet fill. As for x86, users are still happy with Windows 7. When Vista was the current version, users could not wait for the next release, but there is no such pressure with Windows 7.

Why is MusicCityDownload.exe in my Windows folder?

I had this question, and did not find much on a quick search, so here is the answer.

I figured that MusicCityDownload.exe was probably not malware, since it looks so much like malware. I mean, surely a malware writer would call their executable spladmin.exe or something like that.

This proved correct. The clue was to look at the executable properties, discover that it is signed by MarkAny Inc which has some DRM technology, and then that it gets installed with Samsung’s Kies media management application. I doubt you will miss Kies so you might want to uninstall it, but it is not actually harmful as far as I am aware so you can stop worrying about MusicCityDownload.exe.

The best ear buds I have heard: Wolfson’s Digital Silence DS-421D with noise cancellation

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month I caught up with Wolfson Microelectronics, who make digital converter chips and other audio components. They do not sell many products to end users, but are making an exception for the Digital Silence range of noise-cancelling headsets.


The origin of the technology here is in the company’s 2007 acquisition of Sonaptic Ltd, specialists in micro-acoustics, or in other words getting good sound from mobile devices.

The Digital Silence range is unusual among ear buds in including noise cancellation. In other words, microphones on the outside of the buds pick up external sounds, phase reverse them, and add them to the input signal so that you hear more of the music (or voice, if listening to a call) and less of the external sound.

The new Digital Silence range has three models, of which I have been testing the DS-421D, which is set for general availability shortly.


What you get is a stereo headset with clip-on controller, spare ear foams, mini-jack adaptors to cope with the fact that some mobiles wire up their 4-pole mini-jacks differently, USB charging cable, and a black zip-up carrying case. As with most headsets, there is also a built-in microphone and answer button. By default they are iPhone-ready, but will work with pretty much any mobile or player with a standard 3.5mm mini-jack output.

The controller has a rechargeable battery, charged by a USB connection, and specified to last for 14 hours of playback. A switch on the controller enables ANC and lights a green LED to show that the battery is OK. The ear buds work without ANC as well, so if the battery gives out you still have music. In a quiet environment, you might also prefer not to use ANC in case it adds artefacts to the sound.

A button on the side of the controller marked Monitor has a dual purpose. Press it to mute the sound; or press and hold to change the ANC filter. There is no display, but the unit plays one, two or three beeps to indicate the selection:

General: 20dB cancellation across a wide frequency band

Aeroplane: Low frequency cancellation such as found in an aeroplane is emphasised.

Office: Speech frequency cancellation around 200Hz – 1kHz is emphasised

Other products in the range are the DS-101A (around £30.00) and the DS-321D (around £50). I do not have a price yet for the DS-421D itself but was told “Under £100”. The DS-101A does not have selectable filters or a call/answer button.

Sound quality

Enough of the technology, how is the sound? This is what counts, and I am impressed. The DS-421D headset sounds excellent even without ANC engaged. No amount of noise cancellation would make them good if they were poor to begin with, and I suspect this fundamental good design is actually more important than the clever processing.

I used a variety of ear-buds for comparison. My regular set are Shure SE210 noise-isolating (not cancelling) ear-buds which I find easily out-perform the ones that come free with smartphones and iPods. I was taken aback by how much better the 421D sounded. The biggest difference is in the bass extension, but the sound is also smoother but without loss of clarity. These are the first ear buds I have used where you do not feel you are compromising by not using over the ear headphones.

The noise cancelling works. Don’t have unrealistic expectations, these will not deliver “digital silence”, but they will substantially reduce the noise. It is a bit like shutting it behind a door. There is also a slight change in the quality of the sound, for the better in my opinion, being a little richer than before. I used the DS-421D on an aeroplane and on the London Underground and had worthwhile results in both cases. I could have the volume lower and still enjoy the music.

I also compared the DS-421D to a set of Sennheiser PXC 300 foldable noise-cancelling headphones. The PXC 300 was slightly more effective in killing background noise, but the reason I tend to leave these at home is that they are bulky and use two AAA batteries which give out if I forget to switch them off. The DS-421D is more convenient. As for sound quality, it is close and I might even give 421D the edge.

The DS-421D is mainly for music, but I found the headset functionality useful too. I used it for Skype on a Windows 8 tablet and it worked much better than using the built-in microphone.



The design of the DS-421D  is excellent in terms of technology, but I am not so sure about the ergonomics. The length of cable between the ear buds and the controller is short, so you cannot clip the controller to your belt. It must be on your collar or perhaps top pocket. You could leave it dangling, but it is heavy enough to be a nuisance if you do.

Visually, the design looks a bit geeky to me; not unattractive, but I can imagine the DS-421D losing out among the more fashion-conscious purchasers.


Regular traveller who likes music? I recommend you give these a try. Now you can have noise-cancellation and high quality sound and a small, light headset.

Technical addendum

Wolfson’s noise-cancelling system is called myZone ANC (Ambient Noise Cancellation) which the company says uses “feed-forward, rather than the usual feedback systems”.

What is that then? I hunted around and eventually found Wolfson’s white paper on the subject*. Here is an illustration of feedback versus feed-forward:


The figure on the left is a feedback system where the microphone is placed between the loudspeaker and the ear. In the feed-forward system the microphone is external so that the external noise is detected, inverted and added to the input. An advantage is that this does not require a sealed enclosure around the ear.

The main problem with implementation is time-aligning the cancellation signal with the input signal. Wolfson’s solution:

By placing microphones at the rim of the headphone, the ambient noise signal can be acquired and driven to the loudspeaker in advance of its arrival at the eardrum, thus compensating for the intrinsic response time of the loudspeaker.

The illustration in the paper shows a ring array of 5 microphones around each headphone, but since the DS-421D is a small earbud I doubt it has such an array. There is only one visible microphone aperture. Still, this gives some indication of the technology used.

Wolfson did not invent feed-forward as far as I know, so its innovation is in the area of how to achieve accurate time-alignment of the cancellation signal.

*The paper is called Ambient Noise Cancellation for Headphones and Headsets. I cannot find a direct link, but if you go here and search for resources for the WM2002 you will find it.

A hit: Wordament on Windows 8 Consumer Preview

Games do not matter; and yet they do, for many reasons. One is that a great game makes you want to pick up a tablet, which means you will probably end up using it for other things as well. I admit, one reason I like the iPad is because it has Funbridge, endlessly entertaining for Bridge players, and not available on any other mobile device (though Funbridge has become expensive and I play it less these days).

If Microsoft is to make a success of Windows 8 then, it needs some excellent games, and Wordament is the best so far. It is not dissimilar to Boggle, a shake-and-find-the-words game which has come to iOS courtesy of EA after enduring popularity in the physical world. Wordament offers a grid of 16 letters and you have to form words by dragging your finger over adjacent letters – I presume this also works with the mouse but have not tried it.


What makes Wordament fun though, in contrast to Boggle, is that after each 2 minute game you get to know how you did versus everyone else who played that game.


It is the same as with Funbridge: the fact that you are competing with others, even in a fairly anonymous manner and with no prizes, transforms the game into something compelling.

Three or four exclusive games as good as this, and everyone will want a Windows 8 slate.

Currently Wordament is also available on Windows Phone 7.

Microsoft’s platform nearly invisible at QCon London 2012

QCon London ended yesterday. It was the biggest London QCon yet, with around 1200 developers and a certain amount of room chaos, but still a friendly atmosphere and a great opportunity to catch up with developers, vendors, and industry trends.

Microsoft was near-invisible at QCon. There was a sparsely attended Azure session, mainly I would guess because QCon attendees do not see that Azure has any relevance to them. What does it offer that they cannot get from Amazon EC2, Google App Engine, Joyent or another niche provider, or from their own private clouds?

Mark Rendle at the Azure session did state that Node.js runs better on Windows (and Azure) than on Linux. However he did not have performance figure to hand. A quick search throws up these figures from Node.js inventor Ryan Dahl: 

  v 0.6.0 (Linux) v 0.6.0 (Windows)
http_simple.js /bytes/1024 6263 r/s 5823 r/s
io.js read 26.63 mB/s 26.51 mB/s
io.js write 17.40 mB/s 33.58 mB/s
startup.js 49.6 ms 52.04 ms

These figures are more “nothing to choose between them” than evidence for better performance, but since 0.6.0 was the first Windows release it is possible that it has swung in its favour since. It is a decent showing for sure, but there are other more important factors when choosing a cloud platform: cost, resiliency, services available and so on. Amazon is charging ahead; why choose Azure?

My sense is that developers presume that Azure is mainly relevant to Microsoft platform businesses hosting Microsoft platform applications; and I suspect that a detailed analysis would bear out that presumption despite the encouraging figures above. That said, Azure seems to me a solid though somewhat expensive offering and one that the company has undersold.

I have focused on Azure because QCon tends to be more about the server than the client (though there was  a good deal of mobile this year), and at enterprise scale. It beats me why Microsoft was not exhibiting there, as the attendees are an influential lot and exactly the target audience, if the company wants to move beyond its home crowd.

I heard little talk of Windows 8 and little talk of Windows Phone 7,  though Nokia sponsored some of the catering and ran a hospitality suite which unfortunately I was not able to attend.

Nor did I get to Tomas Petricek’s talk on asynchronous programming in F#, though functional programming was hot at QCon last year and I would guess he drew a bigger audience than Azure managed.

Microsoft is coming from behind in cloud -  Infrastructure as a Service and/or Platform as a Service – as well as in mobile.

I should add the company is, from what I hear, doing better with its Software as a Service cloud, Office 365; and of course I realise that there are plenty of Microsoft-platform folk who attend other events such as the company’s own BUILD, Tech Ed and so on.


This is the basis for the claim that node.js runs better on Windows:

IOCP supports Sockets, Pipes, and Regular Files.
That is, Windows has true async kernel file I/O.
(In Unix we have to fake it with a userspace thread pool.)

from Dahl’s presentation on the Node roadmap at NodeConf May 2011.

The most enduring software development techniques revealed at QCon London

I am in London for the QCon event, a vendor-neutral development conference which I have been fortunate to attend regularly over the last few years.


These events tend to have an underlying theme, which reflects the current thinking of developers and software architects. Each year I hear cogent and thoughtful explanations of why this or that approach will enable us to code better and please users more. Each year I also hear cogent and thoughtful explanations of why the fix proposed last year or the year before is actually a prime reason why projects fail.

Way back when it was SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) that was sweeping away the mistakes of the past. Next SOA itself was the mistake of the past and we got REST (Representational State Transfer). This year I am hearing how RPC is making a comeback, or at least not going away, for example because it can be more efficient when you want to transfer as little data as possible across the WAN.

Another example is enterprise Java. Enterprise Java Beans and J2EE were the fix, and then the problem, for scalable distributed applications. Rod Johnson came up with Spring, the lightweight alternative. Now I am hearing how Spring has become bloated and complicated and developers are looking for lightweight alternatives.

Test-driven development (TDD) brings fantastic benefits to software development, making it possible to change and improve your code while defending against the introduction of bugs. Yesterday though Dan North observed that TDD also has a cost, in that you write much more code. It is not uncommon for projects to have more test code than code that is active in production. If you did not write that code, you could be doing other productive work in the time made available. 

Agile methodologies like Scrum were devised to promote or even create communication and agility in software teams. Now every big enterprise vendor says it does Scrum and runs courses, but the result is a long way from the agile (with a small a) original concept.

This year I have heard a lot about over-optimisation, or creating code for situations that in fact never arise. This is the problem to which the solution is YAGNI (You Ain’t Gonna Need It). Since they apply across all the methodologies, I suggest that YAGNI, and its cousin DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself), and the even older KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) are the most enduring software methodologies.

That said, even DRY took a beating yesterday. Greg Young in his evening keynote said that rigorous DRY advocates can end up creating single blocks of code where really the procedure was only nearly the same. If your DRY functions are full of edge cases and special conditions, then maybe DRY has been taken to excess.

In the light of the above, I would therefore like to propose the first draft of my first theorem of software development:

There is no development methodology which will not become a burden when embraced rigidly

The other lesson I have learned from multiple QCons is that effective teams and smart developers count for much, much more than any specific tool or language or approach. There is no substitute.

How Amazon Web Services dominate infrastructure as a service

During Mobile World Congress I met with some folk from Twilio, the cloud telephony company, who said something that interested me. Twilio uses Amazon Web Service (AWS) for its infrastructure and told me that essentially there is no choice, AWS is the only cloud provider which can scale on demand quickly and smoothly as required.

Today at QCon London I met a guy from another major cloud-based company, which is also built on Amazon, and I put the same point to him. Not only did he agree, he said that Amazon is increasing its lead over the competition. Amazon is less visible than some, he said, because of its approach to PR. It concentrates on marketing directly to developers rather than chasing press stories or running big advertising campaigns.

Amazon has also just reduced its prices.

This is mixed news for the industry. In general developers I speak to like working with AWS, and its scalability is a huge benefit when, for example, you are entering a new market. You can do so without having to invest in IT infrastructure.

On the other hand, stronger competition would be healthy. My contact said that he reckoned his company could move away from Amazon in 12 weeks or so if necessary, so it is not an absolute lock-in.