Tag Archives: windows

Asus Project Precog dual-screen laptop: innovation in PC hardware, but missing the keyboard may be too high a price

Asus has announced Project Precog at Computex in Taiwan. This is a dual-screen laptop with a 360° hinge and no keyboard.

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The name suggests a focus on AI, but how much AI is actually baked into this device? Not that much. It features “Intelligent Touch” that will change the virtual interface automatically and adjust the keyboard location or switch to stylus mode. It includes Cortana and Amazon Alexa for voice control. And the press release remarks optimistically that “The dual-screen design of Project Precog lets users keep their main tasks in full view while virtual assistants process other tasks on the second screen,” whatever that means – not much is my guess, since is the CPU that processes tasks, not the screen.

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Even so, kudos to Asus for innovation. The company has a long history of bold product launches; some fail, some, like the inexpensive 2007 Eee PC which ran Linux, have been significant. The Eee PC was both a lot of fun and helped to raise awareness of alternatives to Windows.

The notable feature of Project Precog of course is not so much the AI, but the fact that it has two screens and no keyboard. Instead, if you want to type, you get an on-screen keyboard. The trade-off is extra screen space at the cost of convenient typing.

I am not sure about this one. I like dual screens, and like many people much prefer using two screens for desktop work. That said, I am also a keyboard addict. After many experiments with on-screen keyboards on iPads, Windows and Android tablets, I am convinced that the lack of tactile feedback and give on a virtual keyboard makes them more tiring to work on and therefore less productive.

Still, not everyone works in the same way as I do; and until we get to try a Project Precog device (no date announced), we will not know how well it works or how useful the second screen turns out to be.

Case sensitive directories now possible in Windows Explorer as well as in the Windows Subsystem for Linux

Experienced Windows users will know that occasionally you hit a problem with case sensitivity in file names. The problem is that on Linux, you can have files whose name differs only in case, such as MyFile.txt and myfile.txt. Windows on the other hand will not normally let you do this and the second will overwrite the first.

The latest build of Windows 10 (1803, or the April 2018 Update) has a fix for this. You can now set directories to be case-sensitive using the fsutil command line utility:

fsutil.exe file setCaseSensitiveInfo <path> enable

You can then enjoy case sensitivity even in Windows Explorer:

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This is not particularly useful in Windows. In fact, it is probably a bad idea since most Windows applications presume case-insensitivity. I found that using Notepad on my case-insensitive directory I soon hit bugs. I double-click a file, edit, save, and get this:

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Press F5 and it sorts itself out.

Developers may have written applications where a file is specified with different case in different places. Everything is fine; it is the same file. Then you enable case-sensitivity and it breaks, possibly with unpredictable behaviour where the application does not actually crash, but gives wrong results (which is worse).

If you are using WSL though, you may well want case-sensitivity. There are even applications which will not compile without it, because there are different files in the source whose name differs only by case. Therefore, WSL has always supported case-sensitivity by default. However, Windows did not recognize this so you had to use this feature only from WSL.

In the new version this has changed and when you create a directory in WSL it will be case-sensitive in both WSL and Windows.

There is a snag. In the full explanation here there is an explanation of how to adjust this behaviour using /etc/wsl.conf and also the warning:

Any directories you created with WSL before build 17093 will not be treated as case sensitive anymore. To fix this, use fsutil.exe to mark your existing directories as case sensitive.

Hmm. If you are wondering why that application will not compile any more, this could be the reason. You can set it back to the old behaviour if you want.

Should Microsoft have made the file system case-sensitive? Possibly, though it is one of those things where it is very difficult to change the existing behaviour, for the reasons stated above. Note that Windows NT has always supported case-sensitive file names, but the feature is in effect disabled for compatibility reasons. It is poor for usability, having files whose names differ only in case which are therefore easily confused. So I am not sure. Being able to switch it on selectively is nice though.

Notes from the field: “cannot open the Outlook window” in Windows 10. OneDrive the culprit?

A friend was having problems with Outlook on a new Windows 10 laptop. It had been set up with a POP3/SMTP email account. Everything worked fine at first, but then Outlook refused to open, displaying a message “Cannot open the Outlook window”. The version of Outlook was the latest Outlook 2016, purchased via personal subscription.

Presuming database corruption, I created a new profile and entered the email settings. It worked at first and then exactly the same error occurred, after Outlook had been closed and reopened a couple of times.

I looked more closely and noticed something odd. Outlook was saving the .pst database for this account to OneDrive. This is not something you would notice, since the location of this database is normally invisible to the user. However you can see it if you go into Account Settings and then Data Files.

Note: this screenshot comes not from my friend’s PC but from my own test install of Windows 10, which uses the defaults. I simply set up Outlook with a POP3 email account.

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Why was this happening? It is because Windows 10 sets OneDrive as the default location for documents if you set it up with a personal Microsoft account, which is the default for non-business users.

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Outlook creates .pst files in a sub-folder of the special Documents location, called Outlook Files.

Note: Outlook does not do this for .ost files used for Exchange, Office 365 or Outlook.com. It is only something you will see if you use an old-style POP3 email account, or possibly IMAP (I have not tested this).

Saving active .pst files in OneDrive is not a good idea. Even if it works, it brings no benefit, since you cannot get multiple versions of Outlook on different PCs to use the same synced .pst.

Worse, it is known to cause corruption. Check out this ancient post on the subject from the experts at Slipstick systems:

The answer: It won’t work in most services and is not recommended in any service. Outlook puts a lock on the pst file when the pst file is open. OneDrive (and other cloud solutions) continually syncs the local folder. It won’t be able to sync the pst because Outlook has a lock on it and as a result, the pst file could become corrupted and data loss occur.

Unfortunately it is not that easy to persuade Outlook to save the .pst elsewhere. The method I used was:

1. Open the Mail applet in Control Panel (always the first port of call if Outlook will not open).

2. Select a profile, even one that doesn’t work, and choose Properties.  Click Data Files tab and then Add. This lets you create a new, empty .pst in the location of your choice. Close this dialog.

3. When setting up the email account, choose Manual settings, and then select the option to deliver mail to an existing .pst. Browse to select the one you created.

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All of this is well buried and typical users will not find these settings.

The other solution is to reconfigure the location of the Documents folder to be on the local hard drive and not in the special OneDrive folder. Of course this will affect all your documents and not just Outlook. Saving everyday documents to OneDrive is not such a bad idea, since it gives you resilience in the case where your hard drive or SSD fails.

Note: There are multiple reasons for the “Cannot open the Outlook window” error so the above is not necessarily the fix you need, if you have come here in search of an answer. It only applies if you have this particular configuration and use POP3 email.

Why Subsystem for Linux in Windows 10 and Windows Server? And what are the implications?

Microsoft is busy improving Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), the compatibility layer that lets you run Linux on Windows. WSL is not an emulator. It accesses the same file system and you can launch Windows applications from WSL, and vice versa. It also runs actual Linux binaries.

The latest announcements cover copy/paste between Linux and Windows, and a tabbed console. Both enhancements are in the skip-ahead insider version of Windows 10, which means they are unlikely to be in the one about to be released, currently known as Spring Creators Update (but rumoured to be getting a name change). In other words, you may have to wait around six months for this to be generally available.

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These are not huge changes, but overall WSL is a big deal. Why is Microsoft doing it? One Betanews commenter says:

I still can’t figure out who this whole "Linux-on-Windows" thing is meant for. Developers who work on both platforms maybe? I guess it would be handy for people who just want to try out Linux before migrating to it, but that’s the last thing Microsoft would want to promote.

Microsoft has in fact stated the primary purpose of WSL:

This is primarily a tool for developers — especially web developers and those who work on or with open source projects. This allows those who want/need to use Bash, common Linux tools (sed, awk, etc.) and many Linux-first tools (Ruby, Python, etc.) to use their toolchain on Windows.

There is a bit more to it. Developers are small in number relative to general users, but disproportionately influential, since they make the applications the rest of us run, and if the applications are not there or are inferior, the ecosystem starts to fail and the operating system declines.

I am not sure when it was that developers started to prefer Macs, but I noticed this trend many years ago, perhaps from the time that OS X moved to x86 (2006). This was not just about preferring the Mac user interface. In 2008 Apple opened up iOS, its mobile OS, to third-party applications, and a Mac was required for iOS development (this is still the case). It has long been relatively easy to run a Windows emulator on a Mac, but not vice versa, so for developers who want to support multiple target platforms from one computer, the Mac makes sense.

OS X / macOS is a Unix-like operating system, based on BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). This means that moving between Linux and Mac is relatively smooth, from a developer perspective. The same tools are generally available. The internet runs mostly on Linux so the Mac has an advantage there as well.

In some cases this is more than just inconvenience. Windows has a long-standing issue with path lengths. MAX_PATH is defined as 260 characters. This limitation can be mostly removed if you have Windows 10 build 1607 or higher. Nevertheless, path issues have made Windows awkward for developing with Java, Node.js, and other languages or frameworks which typically use deeply nested directories. Open source developers perhaps did not care as much about these issues because they were mostly using Mac or Linux.

Microsoft has responded by improving Windows as a platform on which to develop applications. Visual Studio now targets Mac, iOS and Android as well as Windows. MAX_PATH has been alleviated as far as possible. WSL however goes much further. You can install and run Linux development tools and utilities such as gcc, perl, sed, awk, grep, wget, openssl, perl and more. There is no MAX_PATH issue. You can run the Linux build of Apache, PHP, MySQL and more. I used WSL to debug a PHP application and explained how here.

WSL is not perfect. Not everything is implemented. You can check the current issues here. Still, it is genuinely useful and mitigates the advantages of Mac or Linux for developers.

Microsoft has also added WSL to Windows Server. Why? The main focus here seems to be on administrators. There are times when it is handy to run a Linux command or script on Windows Server. It is not intended for production use as a server, though there is now support for background tasks; however it is still per-session so you would need to keep a user logged on in order to run, for example, a web server. More important, Microsoft has not designed WSL for production use as a server platform so it might not be as optimized or reliable as you require.

Implications of WSL

Where is this going? This is where it gets speculative. I will argue though that WSL is in part an admission of defeat. Windows remains an important development platform, but is now greatly outweighed by Unix-like platforms:

  • Web/Internet applications
  • iOS applications
  • Android applications

Where Windows support is needed, developers have many cross-platform options to choose from, a popular choice today being Electron, based on Chromium (the open source foundation of Google Chrome) and Node.js.

Today there seems little chance of Windows winning back market share as a mobile operating system, and the importance of desktop applications looks destined for long slow decline.

Windows Server remains a significant application platform, but Microsoft is focused more on driving developers to Azure cloud services than on Windows Server itself. SQL Server now runs on Linux, ASP.NET Core is cross-platform, and Azure has excellent support for Linux.

All of this leads me to think that WSL will continue to improve, perhaps to the point where production loads are supported on Windows Server, for example. Further, the ability to run Windows applications on Linux (which is more or less what happens in SQL Server for Linux) may become equally as important as the reverse.

The mysterious microcode: Intel is issuing updates for all its CPUs from the last five years but you might not benefit

The Spectre and Meltdown security holes found in Intel and to a lesser extend AMD CPUs is not only one of the most serious, but also one of the most confusing tech issues that I can recall.

We are all used to the idea of patching to fix security holes, but normally that is all you need to do. Run Windows Update, or on Linux apt-get update, apt-get upgrade, and you are done.

This one is not like that. The reason is that you need to update the firmware; that is, the low-level software that drives the CPU. Intel calls this microcode.

So when Intel CEO Brian Krzanich says:

By Jan. 15, we will have issued updates for at least 90 percent of Intel CPUs introduced in the past five years, with updates for the remainder of these CPUs available by the end of January. We will then focus on issuing updates for older products as prioritized by our customers.

what he means is that Intel has issued new microcode for those CPUs, to mitigate against the newly discovered security holes, related to speculative execution (CPUs getting a performance gain by making calculations ahead of time and throwing them away if you don’t use them).

Intel’s customer are not you and I, the users, but rather the companies who purchase CPUs, which in most cases are the big PC manufacturers together with numerous device manufacturers. My Synology NAS has an Intel CPU, for example.

So if you have a PC or server from Vendor A, then when Intel has new microcode it is available to Vendor A. How it gets to your PC or server which you bought from Vendor A is another matter.

There are several ways this can happen. One is that the manufacturer can issue a BIOS update. This is the normal approach, but it does mean that you have to wait for that update, find it and apply it. Unlike Windows patches, BIOS updates do not come down via Windows update, but have to be applied via another route, normally a utility supplied by the manufacturer. There are thousands of different PC models and there is no guarantee that any specific model will receive an updated BIOS and no guarantee that all users will find and apply it even if they do. You have better chances if your PC is from a big name rather than one with a brand nobody has heard of, that you bought from a supermarket or on eBay.

Are there other ways to apply the microcode? Yes. If you are technical you might be able to hack the BIOS, but leaving that aside, some operating systems can apply new microcode on boot. Therefore VMWare was able to state:

The ESXi patches for this mitigation will include all available microcode patches at the time of release and the appropriate one will be applied automatically if the system firmware has not already done so.

Linux can do this as well. Such updates are volatile; they have to be re-applied on every boot. But there is little harm in that.

What about Windows? Unfortunately there is no supported way to do this. However there is a VMWare experimental utility that will do it:

This Fling is a Windows driver that can be used to update the microcode on a computer system’s central processor(s) (“CPU”). This type of update is most commonly performed by a system’s firmware (“BIOS”). However, if a newer BIOS cannot be obtained from a system vendor then this driver can be a potential substitute.

Check the comments – interest in this utility has jumped following the publicity around spectre/meltdown. If working exploits start circulating you can expect that interest to spike further.

This is a techie and unsupported solution though and comes with a health warning. Most users will never find it or use it.

That said, there is no inherent reason why Microsoft could not come up with a similar solution for PCs and servers for which no BIOS update is available, and even deliver it through Windows Update. If users do start to suffer widespread security problems which require Intel’s new microcode, it would not surprise me if something appears. If it does not, large numbers of PCs will remain unprotected.

Windows Mixed Reality: Acer headset review and Microsoft’s (lack of) content problem

Acer kindly loaned me a Windows Mixed Reality headset to review, which I have been trying over the holiday period.

First, an aside. I had a couple of sessions with Windows Mixed Reality before doing this review. One was at IFA in Berlin at the end of August 2017, where the hardware and especially the software was described as late preview. The second was at the Future Decoded event in London, early November. On both occasions, I was guided through a session either by the hardware vendor or by Microsoft. Those sessions were useful for getting a hands-on experience; but an extended review at home has given me a different understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the product. Readers beware: those rushed “reviews” based on hands-on sessions at vendor events are poor guides to what a product is really like.

A second observation: I wandered into a few computer game shops before Christmas and Windows Mixed Reality hardware was nowhere to be seen. That is partly because PC gaming has hardly any bricks and mortar presence now. Retailers focus on console gaming, where there is still some money to be made before all the software becomes download-only. PC game sales are now mainly Steam-powered, with a little bit of competition from other download stores including GOS and Microsoft’s Windows Store. That Steam and download dominance has many implications, one of which is invisibility on the High Street.

What about those people (and there must be some) who did unwrap a Windows Mixed Reality headset on Christmas morning? Well, unless they knew exactly what they were getting and enjoy being on the bleeding edge I’m guessing they will have been a little perplexed and disappointed. The problem is not the hardware, nor even Microsoft’s implementation of virtual reality. The problem is the lack of great games (or other virtual reality experiences).

This may improve, provided Microsoft sustains enough momentum to make Windows Mixed Reality worth supporting. The key here is the relationship with Steam. Microsoft cheerfully told the press that Steam VR is supported. The reality is that Steam VR support comes via preview software which you get via Steam and which states that it “is not complete and may or may not change further.” It will probably all be fine eventually, but that is not reassuring for early adopters.

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My experience so far is that native Windows MR apps (from the Microsoft Store) work more smoothly, but the best content is on Steam VR. The current Steam preview does work though with a few limitations (no haptic feedback) and other issues depending on how much effort the game developers have put into supporting Windows MR.

I tried Windows MR on a well-specified gaming PC: Core i7 with NVIDIA’s superb GTX 1080 GPU. Games in general run super smoothly on this hardware.

Getting started

A Windows Mixed Reality headset has a wired connection to a PC, broken out into an HDMI and a USB 3.0 connection. You need Windows 10 Fall Creators Update installed, and Setup should be a matter of plugging in your headset, whereupon the hardware is detected, and a setup wizard starts up, downloading additional software as required.

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In my case it did not go well. Setup started OK but went into a spin, giving me a corrupt screen and never completing. The problem, it turned out, was that my GPU has only one HDMI port, which I was already using for the main display. I had the headset plugged into a DisplayPort socket via an adapter. I switched this around, so that the headset uses the real HDMI port, and the display uses the adapter. Everything then worked perfectly.

The controllers use Bluetooth. I was wary, because in my previous demos the controllers had been problematic, dropping their connection from time to time, but these work fine.

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They are perhaps a bit bulky, thanks to their illuminated rings which are presumably a key part of the tracking system. They also chew batteries.

The Acer headsets are slightly cheaper than average, but I’ve enjoyed my time with this one. I wear glasses but the headset fits comfortably over them.

A big selling point of the Windows system is that no external tracking sensors are required. This is called inside-out tracking. It is a great feature and makes it easier just to plug in and go. That said, you have to choose between a stationary position, or free movement; and if you choose free movement, you have to set up a virtual boundary so that you do not walk into physical objects while immersed in a VR experience.

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The boundary is an important feature but also illustrates an inherent issue with full VR immersion: you really are isolated from the real world. Motion sickness and disorientation can also be a problem, the reason being that the images your brain perceives do not match the physical movement your body feels.

Once set up, you are in Microsoft’s virtual house, which serves as a kind of customizable Start menu for your VR experiences.

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The house is OK though it seems to me over-elaborate for its function, which is to launch games and apps.

I must state at this point that yes, a virtual reality experience is amazing and a new kind of computing. The ability to look all around is extraordinary when you first encounter it, and adds a level of realism which you cannot otherwise achieve. That said, there is some frustration when you discover that the virtual world is not really as extensive as it first appears, just as you get in an adventure game when you find that not all doors open and there are invisible barriers everywhere. I am pretty sure though that a must-have VR game will come along at some point and drive many new sales – though not necessarily for Windows Mixed Reality of course.

I looked for content in the Windows Store. It is slim pickings. There’s Minecraft, which is stunning in VR, until you realise that the controls do not work quite so well as they do in the conventional version. There is Space Pirate, an old-school arcade game which is a lot of fun. There is Arizona Sunshine, which is fine if you like shooting zombies.

I headed over to Steam. The way this works is that you install the Steam app, then launch Windows Mixed Reality, then launch a VR game from your Steam library. You can access the Windows Desktop from within the Windows MR world, though it is not much fun. Although the VR headset offers two 1440 x 1440 displays I found it impossible to keep everything in sharp focus all the time. This does not matter all that much in the context of a VR game or experience, but makes the desktop and desktop applications difficult to use.

I did find lots of goodies in the Steam VR store though. There is Google Earth VR, which is not marked as supporting Windows MR but works. There is also The Lab, which a Steam VR demo which does a great job of showing what the platform can do, with several mini-games and other experiences – including a fab archery game called Longbow where you defend your castle from approaching hordes. You can even fire flaming arrows.

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Asteroids! VR, a short, wordless VR film which is nice to watch once. It’s free though!

Mainstream VR?

Irrespective of who provides the hardware, VR has some issues. Even with inside-out tracking, a Windows Mixed Reality setup is somewhat bulky and makes the wearer look silly. The kit will become lighter, as well as integrating audio. HTC’s Vive Pro, just announced at CES, offers built-in headphones and has a wireless option, using Intel’s WiGig technology.

Even so, there are inherent issues with a fully immersive environment. You are vulnerable in various ways. Having people around wearing earbuds and staring at a screen is bad enough, but VR takes anti-social to another level.

The added expense of creating the content is another issue, though the right tools can do an amazing job of simplifying and accelerating the process.

It is worth noting that VR has been around for a long time. Check out the history here. Virtual Reality arcade machines in 1991. Sega VR Glasses in 1993. Why has this stuff taken so long to take off, and remains in its early stages? It is partly about technology catching up to the point of real usability and affordability, but also an open question about how much VR we want and need.

The downside of “Windows as a service”: disappearing features (and why I will miss Paint)

Microsoft has posted a list of features that are “removed or deprecated” in the next major update to Windows 10, called the Fall Creators Update.

The two that caught my eye are Paint, a simple graphics editor whose ancestry goes right back to Windows 1.0 in 1985, and System Image Backup, a means of backing up Windows that preserves applications, settings and documents.

I use Paint constantly. It is ideal for cropping screenshots and photos, where you want a quick result with no need for elaborate image processing. It starts in a blink, lets you resize images while preserving aspect ratio, and supports .BMP, .GIF, .JPG, .PNG and .TIF – all the most important formats.

I used Paint to crop the following screen, of the backup feature to be removed.

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System Image Backup is the most complete backup Windows offers. It copies your system drive so that you can restore it to another hard drive, complete with applications and data. By contrast, the “modern” Windows 10 backup only backs up files and you will need to reinstall and reconfigure the operating system along with any applications if your hard drive fails and you want to get back where you were before. “We recommend that users use full-disk backup solutions from other vendors,” says Microsoft unhelpfully.

If System Image Backup does stop working, take a look at Disk2vhd which is not entirely dissimilar, but copies the drive to a virtual hard drive; or the third party DriveSnapshot which can backup and restore entire drives. Or of course one of many other backup systems.

The bigger picture here is that when Microsoft pitched the advantages of “Windows of a service”, it neglected to mention that features might be taken away as well as added.

Licensing Azure Stack: it’s complicated (and why Azure Stack is the iPad of servers)

Microsoft’s Azure Stack is a pre-configured, cut-down version of Microsoft’s mighty cloud platform, condensed into an appliance-like box that you can install on your own premises.

Azure Stack is not just a a new way to buy a bunch of Windows servers. Both the technical and the business model are different to anything you have seen before from Microsoft. On the technical side, your interaction with Azure Stack is similar to your interaction with Azure. On the business side, you are buying the hardware, but renting the software. There is no way, according to the latest pricing and licensing guide, to purchase a perpetual license for the software, as you can for Windows Server. Instead, there are two broad options:

Pay-as-you-use

In this model, you buy software services on Azure Stack in exactly the same way as you do on Azure. The fact that you have bought your own hardware gets you a discount (probably). The paper says “Azure Stack service fees are typically lower than Azure prices”.

Service
Base virtual machine $0.008/vCPU/hour ($6/vCPU/month)
Windows Server virtual machine $0.046/vCPU/hour ($34/vCPU/month)
Azure Blob Storage $0.006/GB/month (no transaction fee)
Azure Table and Queue $0.018/GB/month (no transaction fee)
Azure App Service (Web Apps, Mobile Apps, API Apps, Functions) $0.056/vCPU/hour ($42/vCPU/month)

This has the merit of being easy to understand. It gets more complex if you take the additional option of using existing licenses with Azure Stack. “You may use licenses from any channel (EA, SPLA, Open, and others),” says the guide, “as long as you comply with all software licensing and product terms.” That qualification is key; those documents are not simple. Let’s briefly consider Windows Server 2016 Standard, for example. Licensing is per core. To install Windows Server 2016 Standard on a VM, you have to license all the cores in the physical server, even if your VM only has one virtual CPU. The servers in Azure Stack, I presume, have lots of cores. Even when you have done this, you are only allowed to install it on up to two VMs. If you need it on a third VM, you have to license all the cores again. Here are the relevant words:

Standard Edition provides rights for up to 2 Operating System Environments or Hyper-V containers when all physical cores in the server are licensed. For each additional 1 or 2 VMs, all the physical cores in the server must be licensed again.

Oh yes, and once you have done that, you need to purchase CALs as well, for every user or device accessing a server. Note too that on Azure Stack you always have to pay the “base virtual machine” cost in addition to any licenses you supply.

This is why the only sane way to license Windows Server 2016 in a virtualized environment is to use the expensive Datacenter edition. Microsoft’s pay-as-you-use pricing will be better for most users.

Capacity model

This is your other option. It is a fixed annual subscription with two variants:

App Service, base virtual machines and Azure Storage $400 per core per year
Base virtual machines and Azure Storage only $144 per core per year

The Capacity Model is only available via an Enterprise Agreement (500 or more users or devices required); and you still have to bring your own licenses for Windows Server, SQL Server and any other licensed software required. Microsoft says it expects the capacity model to be more expensive for most users.

SQL Server

There are two ways to use SQL Server on Azure. You can use a SQL database as a service, or you can deploy your own SQL Server in a VM.

The same is true on Azure Stack; but I am not clear about how the licensing options if you offer SQL databases as a service. In the absence of any other guidance, it looks as if you will have to bring your own SQL Server license, which will make this expensive. However it would not surprise me if this ends up as an option in the pay-as-you-use model.

Using free software

It is worth noting that costs for both Azure and Azure Stack come way down if you use free software, such as Linux rather than Windows Server, and MySQL rather than SQL Server. Since Microsoft is making strenuous efforts to make its .NET application development framework cross-platform, that option is worth watching.

Support

You will have to get support for Azure Stack, since it is not meant to be user-serviceable. And you will need two support contracts, one with Microsoft, and one with your hardware provider. The hardware support is whatever you can negotiate with the hardware vendor. Microsoft support will be part of your Premier, Azure or Partner support in most cases.

Implications of Azure Stack

When Microsoft embarked on its Azure project, it made the decision not to use System Center, its suite of tools for managing servers and “private cloud”, but to create a new way to manage servers that is better automated, more scalable, and easier for end-users. Why would you use System Center if you can use Azure Stack? Well, one obvious reason is that with Azure Stack you are ceding a lot of control to Microsoft (and to your hardware supplier), as well as getting pushed down a subscription path for your software licensing. If you can handle that though, it does seem to me that running Azure Stack is going to be a lot easier and more productive than building your own private cloud, for most organizations.

This presumes of course that it works. The big risk with Azure Stack is that it breaks; and your IT administrators will not know how to fix it, because that responsibility has been outsourced to your hardware vendor and to Microsoft. It is possible, therefore, than an Azure Stack problem will be harder to solve than other typical Windows platform failures. A lot will depend on the quality control achieved both by Microsoft, for the software, and its hardware partners.

Bottom line: this is the iPad of servers. You buy it but don’t really control it, and it is a delight to use provided it works.

How to remove the WINS server feature from Windows Server

The WINS service is not needed in most Windows networks but may be running either for legacy reasons, or because someone enabled it in the hope that it might fix a network issue.

It is now apparently a security risk. See here and Reg article here.

Apparently Microsoft says “won’t fix” despite the service still being shipped in Server 2016, the latest version:

In December 2016, FortiGuard Labs discovered and reported a WINS Server remote memory corruption vulnerability in Microsoft Windows Server. In June of 2017, Microsoft replied to FortiGuard Labs, saying, "a fix would require a complete overhaul of the code to be considered comprehensive. The functionality provided by WINS was replaced by DNS and Microsoft has advised customers to migrate away from it." That is, Microsoft will not be patching this vulnerability due to the amount of work that would be required. Instead, Microsoft is recommending that users replace WINS with DNS.

It should be removed then. I noticed it was running on a server in my network, running Server 2012 R2, and that although it was listed as a feature in Server Manager, the option to remove it was greyed out.

I removed it as follows:

1. Stop the WINS service and set it to manual or disabled.

2. Remove the WINS option in DHCP Scope Options if it is present.

3. Run PowerShell as an administrator and execute the following command:

uninstall-windowsfeature wins

This worked first time, though a restart is required.

Incidentally, if Microsoft ships a feature in a Server release, I think it should be kept patched. No doubt the company will change its mind if it proves to be an issue.

Note: you can also use remove-windowsfeature which is an alias for uninstall-windowsfeature. You do need Windows Server 2008 R2 or higher for this to work.

Windows S: another go at locking down Windows, but the Store is not ready and making it ready is a challenge

There were two big ideas behind Surface RT and Windows RT, the 2012 Windows 8 project which left Microsoft (and some OEM partners) with a mountain of unsold hardware. One was to compete with iPads and Android tablets by making Windows a touch-friendly operating system. The second was that Windows had to move on from being vulnerable to being damaged or completely broken by applications. Traditional Windows applications have installers that run with full admin rights and there is nothing much to stop them installing files in the wrong places, setting themselves to start up automatically, or bloating the Registry (the central configuration database in Windows). “My PC is so slow” is a common complaint, and the cumulative effect of successive application installs is one of the key reasons. Vulnerability to malware is another problem, and one which anti-virus software can never solve completely.

Windows RT solved these problems by disallowing application installs other than via the Windows Store. At that time, Windows Store apps were also locked down, so that a malware infection was only possible if there were a bug in the operating system.

Why did Surface RT and Windows RT fail? The ARM-based hardware was rather slow, which was one of the issues, but a more serious flaw was the lack of compelling applications in the Store. Why was that? Complex reasons, but the chief one is that Windows RT was caught in a cycle of failure. Developers want to make money, and the Windows 8 Store was not sufficiently popular with users to give them a big market. At the same time, users who tried the Store found few applications worth their time, and therefore rarely used it.

The problem was compounded by the unpopularity of Windows 8, which was an unfamiliar environment for the existing Windows users who formed the primary market.

Nevertheless, the thinking behind Windows 8 and Windows RT was not completely off the mark. If only it could get over the hump of unpopularity and lack of apps, it could usher in a new era of Windows devices that were secure, touch-friendly, and resistant to performance decay.

It never did, and with Windows 10 Microsoft appeared to give up. The desktop was back, mouse and keyboard was again primary, and Store apps now ran in windows on the desktop. A special Tablet Mode attempted to make Windows 10 equally as touch-friendly as Windows 8, but did not succeed.

Windows still has those problems though, the ones which Windows RT was intended to solve. Could there be another approach which would fix those issues but in a manner more acceptable to users?

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Windows S and the Surface Laptop, announced today in New York, is the outcome. It is still Windows 10, but Microsoft has flipped a switch that enforces all apps to be installed from the Windows Store. This switch is already in the latest version of Windows 10, the Creators Update, but off by default:

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Microsoft has also taken steps to make the Store more attractive for developers. It is no longer necessary to develop apps on a new platform within Windows, as it was for the Windows 8 Store. Now you can simply take your existing desktop application and wrap it to enable Store download. This feature is called the Desktop Bridge, or Project Centennial. Applications so wrapped are not as secure as Windows 8 Store apps were; they can write to files anywhere that the user has permission. At the same time, Microsoft has taken steps to make Desktop Bridge apps better isolated than normal desktop applications. You can read the details of how this works here. It is arranged that applications install all files to a private location, instead of system locations, and that Windows hides this fact from the application code by using redirection. The same is true of the registry. This approach means that file version problems and registry bloat are much less likely. Such issues are still possible because the Desktop Bridge does not redirect file or registry calls outside the application package; these are allowed if the user has permission, for compatibility reasons. Nevertheless, it is a big advance on old-style Windows desktop application installs.

When the user removes a Desktop Bridge application, in most cases all its files and registry entries are cleanly removed.

An important additional protection is that applications submitted to the Store are vetted by Microsoft, so malicious or badly behaved instances should not get through.

Windows S will be installed by default both on Surface Laptop and on a new generation of low-end laptops aimed mainly at the education market.

The benefits of Windows S are real; but unfortunately Microsoft still has not solved the Store problem. Currently, your favourite Windows applications are not in the Store. Microsoft Office will be there, thanks to the Desktop Bridge, but many others are not.

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Microsoft’s big bet is that thanks to Windows S and other initiatives, the Store will be sufficiently attractive to developers, and sufficiently easy to target, that it will soon offer a full range of applications including all your favourites.

Right now though, if you get a Windows S laptop, you will probably end up buying the upgrade to Windows 10 Pro, for $49.00 or equivalent. Then you can install any Windows desktop application. However, by doing so you make it unnecessary for developers to bother using Desktop Bridge to wrap their applications – so they might never do so.

Windows S has a few other limitations:

Microsoft Edge is the default web browser on Microsoft 10 S. You are able to download another browser that might be available from the Windows Store, but Microsoft Edge will remain the default if, for example, you open an .htm file. Additionally, the default search provider in Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer cannot be changed.

In addition, it cannot join a local Windows domain (a problem for many businesses), though it can join Azure AD, the Office 365 directory.

Microsoft’s goal here is worthwhile: to move Windows into a new place in terms of security and resilience. Getting it there though will not be easy.