Category Archives: microsoft

A mild case of Azure bill shock: is this the most over-priced service on Microsoft’s cloud?

I have been experimenting with accessing Azure storage from remote PCs and tried out the option to use SFTP which was introduced last year. It works though there are limitations, like no support for SSH commands after connecting, no resume support for uploads, and no support for Azure AD authentication – this last is a bit of an issue since fine-grained permissions can only be done with local users, specific to the blob storage.

I actually thought I had turned this off after my experiment but I did not. So I had SFTP enabled on a test storage account, doing nothing. I spotted it of course when I got a large (for my usage) bill. Simply having SFTP enabled on a storage account costs around $220 per month.

To be fair to Microsoft, the cost is documented and there is a notice in the portal, in the details for the storage account, that enabling SFTP incurs a charge, though it does not say how much.

The cost for enabling SFTP

The price is remarkable though, especially given that it seems that the SFTP support is a bit of a hack. Perhaps Microsoft actually runs up a dedicated VM for this in the background, who knows?

“The cost is astronomical considering the service, it’s like $7.20 a day to use and roughly $220 a Month. It’s WAY cheaper to use a VM. This service is like 3x too much,” said a comment from another sufferer.

My advice is not to do this. My further advice is to track closely the actual spend on any new services you run up since is it the only reliable way to avoid this kind of problem.

Microsoft to remove Azure “Basic” IP number and load balancer in favour of pricier options

Microsoft is removing some features from Azure which were called “Basic,” in favour of alternatives which have more features but are also more expensive.

A load balancer is a network component which balances traffic to virtual machines. The Basic load balancer is free but has a few limitations, such as no compatibility with availability zones, support for only 300 instances, no SLA (Service Level Agreement), and no support for NAT Gateway. Microsoft has emailed customers saying:

On 30 September 2025, Azure Basic Load Balancer will be retired. You can continue to use your existing Basic Load Balancers until then, but you’ll no longer be able to deploy new ones after 31 March 2025.

The Standard load balancer routes to availability zones, supports up to 5000 instances, is secure by default, and has a 99.9% SLA, but it costs $0.025 per hour, or around $18 per month, for up to 5 rules.

A Basic public IP number costs  $0.0036 per hour or about $2.60 per month. It is a perfectly good IP number but does not support zone resiliency. A standard public IP number costs $0.005 per hour or about $3.60 per month, and does support zone resiliency. A similar email has been sent to users, with the same dates.

Although these extra charges will not make much of a ripple in enterprise accounts, they can be noticeable, for example if you are an individual developing an application and trying to keep within a strict budget.

Using an M1 Mac after a lifetime of mainly Windows

So I got an M1 MacBook Pro back in April and it is time for a quick brain dump on my experience. I am not travelling as much as I did pre-lockdown, so although I got the Mac as a replacement for an ancient Windows laptop it gets used at home too. My usual desktop PC is a few years old but a decent spec gaming PC withCore i7-7700 3.6 GHz, 16GB RAM and Nvidia RTX 2060 GPU. I have been happy with it; but I do find myself thinking “why not just use the MacBook” when needing to fire up a computer, a subconscious preference that bears examination. Most of my work is writing, web browsing and coding.

I do not particularly prefer the macOS UI to that of Windows. It is more consistent because Apple managed iOS vs macOS sensibly whereas Microsoft made a hash of Windows desktop vs Windows CE vs Windows Phone vs Windows 8 and has now settled on a thing called WinUI but scratch the surface of Windows and you still find UI that has not changed for decades.

I digress though. I do not mind the Windows UI, I am used to it. What I do mind though is annoyances like the always-broken Windows search, and the way certain actions cause lengthy pauses that make me wonder what my PC is doing. In my case, sorting a large directory in Windows Explorer takes an age. Another little issue is that creating a new folder works fine, but renaming it causes a long pause. There also seem to be some focus issues. I create a new folder, I rename it and press Enter. Eventually it renames, but half the time the focus mysteriously switches to a different folder.

I realise that these problems do not occur with a new install of Windows and that I could pop out and buy a Surface laptop and it would be fine. For a bit. Windows, it seems to me, still suffers from the cruft problem beautifully described by Verity Stob 20 years ago. I do not think Macs are completely immune (I had a Mac Mini where I upgraded the OS once too often and it crawled) but does seem to me more resistant.

There is another thing that I like about the MacBook. You close the lid and it sleeps. You open the lid minutes, hours or days later, and it wakes. This has never worked well for me on Windows, though it is meant to do the same. I can believe that it is hard to implement, but when it works it is a huge benefit.

There is also the unwanted advertising that has crept into the Windows UI especially since Windows 11. Working on the MacBook I do notice its absence; I can better focus on what I want to do.

From a developer perspective, the performance of the M1 Pro is a delight. I work mostly in Visual Studio Code on both platforms; even on Windows I have come to prefer VS Code for most types of work. There is also the fact that Unix-like operating systems have won in server and web applications, so there is less friction there.

Launchpad: reminiscent of the Windows 8 Start screen?

Microsoft came up with a great application launcher in the Windows 95 Start menu – and improved it until it reached its peak in Windows 7. I also like the Windows 8 full-screen version. Windows 10 and 11 are not so good though. You get inadvertent web searches, as well as the problem of apps that you search for not appearing for strange reasons. The Mac Launchpad, which reminds me of the Windows 8 full-screen Start menu, seems to work well. You type what you want and all the matches appear.

What do I miss when not using Windows? It is mainly a matter of working out new ways to do certain tasks. I do miss Hyper-V and WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux) though I have had success with UTM for running both Windows and Ubuntu on the Mac. The integration of WSL with the desktop OS is great though. Microsoft Office still works best on Windows though not to the extent of a few years back. There is no Paint or Notepad, and favourites like Notepad++ do not run natively, but Preview works for cropping images and alternatives to Windows utilities exist.

Sometimes you are pushed towards the command line which is not a bad thing. No WinSCP for example, so use scp instead, and do some helper scripts for common tasks. You end up saving time. (I realise you can script WinSCP as well). And no need for Putty; just type ssh or script the command line you need.

I do expect though to use Windows less in future, and for me that is a big change.

Microsoft moves towards UDP in place of TCP for Azure Virtual Desktop, claims lower latency and higher reliability

Microsoft has announced the public preview of Azure Virtual Desktop RDP Shortpath for public networks – a bit of a mouthful, but what this really means is a switch towards UDP as the first choice transport for remote desktop sessions on the Azure cloud.

“Long running TCP sessions are problematic” said Senior Program Manager Denis Gundarev. “UDP is more tolerant to the temporary network interruptions caused by wireless interference or by changes in dynamic routing.”

UDP in itself is not enough; for example, UDP “does not care about each individual packet’s packet order or delivery. It does not have built-in congestion or rate control,” explains Gundarev. The implementation for RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) uses a thing called URCP (Universal Rate Control Protocol) which Microsoft developed back in 2013, for real-time communications.

AVD already supported UDP for private networks, but many users do not have a private connection to Azure like ExpressRoute, hence the introduction of the public network version. Microsoft says that the benefits include lower latency, better network utilization, and high tolerance to packet loss.

Implementing the preview is done by setting a registry key on the AVD session host, so this can be done experimentally for just a few hosts in order to try out the feature. That said, it will not always be possible. “RDP Shortpath may fail if you use double NAT setups,” said Gundarev. Users should not notice as the old TCP-based connection will be used automatically instead.

Microsoft’s “new commerce experience” for 365 services: not just price increases

Microsoft stated in August that it is increasing prices for Microsoft 365 (formerly known as Office 365), the increase being around 20%, from March 1 2022. The company argues that prices have not changed substantially for ten years – perhaps contentious since it has introduced premium plans that are more expensive – and that “this updated pricing reflects the increased value we have delivered to our customers over the past 10 years.”

There has been inflation of around 2% per annum since 2011 and there have been need features, so a price increase is not unreasonable. However there are some other changes in the pipeline that are more difficult. This is the thing called the New Commerce Experience that impacts both customers and resellers. Finding out what has really changed is not that easy but if you dig through the fluff about “agility” and “alignment” and “streamlining”, there are some standout changes:

  • Customers that want the flexibility to reduce seat count will pay 20% more. Until now, it has been possible to reduce seat count without penalty, even though Microsoft presents its pricing as for an “annual term.” With NCE, customers can either pay by the month with premium prices but the ability to reduce seat count with a month’s notice, or pay less but commit to seats for one or three years. During that period, seat count can be increased but not decreased.

    Reasonable? The problem perhaps is that it means giving up one of the benefits of cloud, which is elasticity. Or at least, you can still have elasticity but it is going to cost more. We have also seen this with reserved instance pricing on AWS, Azure and Google Cloud Platform: the price comes down substantially if you commit to paying for one year or more.

  • There will be no cancellation allowed after the first 72 hours of a term, as explained here. This may impact partners more than customers. Scenario: partner sells 1,000 seats of Microsoft 365 for a 3-year term to some company. Three months into the term, the company goes bust. Partners are saying that this leaves them on the hook for the remaining cost. Here, for example, Australian distributor Dicker Data states that “If a customer (who has the agreement with Microsoft) no longer want or can finish the payment of the contract (bankruptcy for example), the partner will incur the costs of paying the remainder of the contract to Microsoft.”

One hopes that such matters are negotiable, but it is a significant risk especially in these unpredictable times of pandemic and climate change.

Exchange emails stuck in queue because “message deferred by categorizer agent”- Happy New Year admins!

The first day of a new year is a great moment to relax and prepare for what is ahead – but spare a thought for Microsoft Exchange administrators who may have woken up to seized up installations of their on-premises email servers. I was among those affected, but only on my tiny system. Messages were stuck in the submission queue, suspiciously since midnight or thereabouts (somehow a message sneaked through timed 12.14 am) and the last error reported by the queue viewer was “Messages deferred by categorizer agent.”

As usual I went down a number of rabbit holes. Restart the Exchange Transport service. Reboot the server. Delete the first message not to be delivered in case it was corrupt and somehow clogging up the queue. Check for certificate issues.

It was none of these. Here is the guilty party in the event viewer:

image

The FIPS-FS Microsoft Scan Engine failed to load, with the error can’t convert “2201010001” too long.

The impact was that the malware filter could not check the message, hence the error from the categorizer agent.

The solution is to run the Exchange Shell on the server and navigate to the Scripts directory where Exchange is installed, for example C:\Program Files\Microsoft\Exchange Server\V15\Scripts. Here you will find a script called Disable-AntimalwareScanning.ps1.

& $env:ExchangeInstallPath\Scripts\Disable-AntimalwareScanning.ps1

should work. Run it, restart the  Exchange Transport service, and email will start to flow.

Once the problem is patched, there is a companion script called Enable-AntimalwareScanning which restores it. Though I am not sure of the value of the Exchange malware filter since Microsoft considers that even on-premises installations should use the Microsoft 365 services for spam and malware scanning, and the on-premises protection features are not kept up to date, meaning that a third-party or open source spam and malware filter is a necessity anyway, unless you go the Office 365 route.

Another reason not to run Exchange on-premises – but Microsoft still says that hybrid systems using Azure Active Directory Connect should do so in order to manage mailboxes.

Note: the maximum value for a 32-bit signed integer is 2,147,483,647. Yesterday which was perhaps represented as 2,112,310,001 would have fitted within that whereas today 2,202,020,001 did not. Dates and times are awkward for programmers.

Update: Microsoft  has an official fix here. Thanks to Erik in the comments for the link.

Microsoft posts another strong set of results, does not know how to invest its profits

Microsoft has announced its quarterly financial statements, reporting revenue of $33.1 billion, up 14% on the same period last year (though fractionally down on the previous quarter).

It does not know how to invest the money it is making. It returned $7.9 billion to shareholders via dividends and buybacks.

What’s notable? The fastest-growing business is Azure, with revenue up by 59%, followed by Dynamics 365 up by 41%.

Office 365 commercial revenue up by 25%, Dynamics 365 up by 41%.

Microsoft notes that it is achieving “higher average revenue per user” on Office 365, indicating some success in adding premium features.

LinkedIn is performing well, revenue up by 25%.

Xbox hardware revenue is down by 34%, but gaming revenue overall down by only 7%. The next hope for gaming will be when the next generation of Xbox appears, Project “Scarlett”, expected this time next year.

In Windows. business revenue is up in both “commercial revenue” (Microsoft 365 and other license sales) and OEM Pro revenue (PCs with Windows 10 Pro installed). However consumer Windows is down 7%. Microsoft says “pressure in the entry level category”, but my guess is that home PCs are just not being replaced and that Chromebooks and iPads are eating into laptop sales.

Quarter ending Sept 30th 2019 vs quarter ending Sept 30th 2018, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 11077 +1306 4782 +901
Intelligent Cloud 10845 +2278 3889 +958
More Personal Computing 11133 +387 4015 +872

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

Finding the multi-factor authentication and authenticator options in an Office 365 account

Microsoft has done some good work enabling and promoting multi-factor authentication in Office 365, including use of the Microsoft Authenticator app.

Strangely though, it has made the user settings for this hard to find.

Logically it should be in the My Account – Security and Privacy section, but it is not.

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Where is it then? The easiest way to find it is here:

https://aka.ms/mfasetup

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Saving documents in Office 365 desktop applications

Those readers who also follow The Register may have noticed that I am writing more for that publication now, though be assured that I will still post here from time to time. My most recent piece is on saving documents in Office and reflects a longstanding annoyance that in applications like Word and Excel Microsoft mostly bypasses the standard Windows file save dialog in favour of its own Backstage,  now supplemented by an additional dialog which the team says  will help us “save your files to the cloud more easily.”

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Admittedly the new dialog is small and neat relative to the cluttered Backstage but it is not very flexible and if you use multiple sub-folders to organize our files you will be clicking More save options half the time, defeating the point.

There is also a suspicion that rather than helping us with something most of us do not need help with, Microsoft is trying to promote OneDrive – which it is entitled to do, but it is an annoyance if the software you have paid for is being used as a surreptitious marketing tool.

Microsoft earnings: strong quarter, but Xbox revenue dives

Microsoft has announced its quarterly financial statements, reporting revenue of $33.7 billion, up 12% on the same period last year.

The company stated that Azure revenue is up 64% year on year. Azure has overtaken the other two segments and is now the biggest, by a small amount. In addition, Azure gross margin has improved by 6% year on year.

Office 365 revenue is up 31% year on year.

Gaming was a black spot, declining 10% year on year – though Xbox Live monthly active users is at a record 65 million. The main problem is a 48% decline in the volume of Xbox consoles sold.

Quarter ending June 30th 2019 vs quarter ending June 30th 2018, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 11047 +1379 4344 +878
Intelligent Cloud 11391 +1785 4502 +601
More Personal Computing 11279 +468 3559 +547

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware