Technical Writing

Welcome to IT Writing. This site is edited by Tim Anderson, a techncal journalist. Here you will find comment, articles and reviews on a variety of subjects. A few words of guidance on navigating the site:

  • On the home page you will find posts relating to professional technology.
  • Consumer technology is covered in the Gadget Writing section on the top menu.
  • Occasional posts about music are found in the Music Writing section on the top menu.

Quick thoughts on Salesforce and Google Cloud Platform alliance

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Yesterday Salesforce and Google announced a strategic partnership:

1. Salesforce named Google Cloud as “a preferred public cloud provider”. Salesforce says it “continues to invest in its own data centers”. However it will use public cloud infrastructure “for its core services” as well, especially in “select international markets.” Why is Google Cloud Platform (GCP) just a preferred partner and not the? Well, “AWS is a great partner”, as the release also notes.

2. New integrations will be introduced between Salesforce and G Suite (Gmail, Docs, Google Drive and Calendar for business), and there is a promotional offer of one year’s free G Suite for Salesforce customers. Note that the release also says “restrictions apply, see here”, with the see here link currently inactive.

3. Salesforce will integrate with Google Analytics.

Google has also posted about the partnership but adds little of substance to the above.

Why this alliance? On Google’s side, it is keen to build momentum for its cloud platform and to catch up a little with AWS and Microsoft Azure. Getting public support from a major cloud player like Salesforce is helpful. On the Salesforce side, it is an obvious alliance following the public love-in between Adobe and Microsoft Azure. Adobe competes with Salesforce in marketing tools, and Microsoft competes with Salesforce in CRM.

Google will also hope to win customers from Microsoft Exchange, Office and Office 365. However Salesforce knows it has to integrate nicely with Microsoft’s email and productivity tools as well as with G Suite. The analytics integration is a bigger deal here, thanks to the huge reach of Google’s cloud data and tools.

One thing that’s worse in Windows 10 Fall Creators Update: uncontrollable application auto-start

One thing I’ve noticed in Windows 10 recently is that Outlook seems to auto-start, which it never did before. In fact, this caused an error on a new desktop PC that I’m setting up, as follows:

1. Outlook has an archive PST open, which is on a drive that is connected over iSCSI

2. On reboot, Outlook auto-started and threw an error because it could not find the drive

3. In the background, the iSCSI drive reconnected, which means Outlook could have found the drive if it had waited

All very annoying. Of course I looked for the reason why Outlook was autostarting. In Windows 10, you can control startup applications in Task Manager. But Outlook was not listed there. Nor could I find any setting or reason why it was auto-starting.

Eventually I tracked it down. It is not really Outlook auto-starting. It is a new feature in Windows 10 Fall Creators Update that automatically restarts applications that were running when Windows was last shutdown. Since Outlook is pretty much always running for me, the end result is that Outlook auto-starts, with the bad result above.

I presumed that this was a setting somewhere, but if it is, I cannot find it. This thread confirms the bad news (quote is from Jason, a Microsoft support engineer):

This is actually a change in the core functionality of Windows in this development cycle.

Old behavior:
– When you shut down your PC, all apps are closed

– After reboot/restart, you have to re-open any app you’d like to use

New behavior:

– When shutting down your PC, any open apps are “bookmarked” (for lack of a better word)

– After reboot/restart, these apps will re-open automatically

If you want to start with no apps open (other than those set to auto-start via Task Manager/Start), you’ll need to ensure all apps are closed before shutting down or restarting the PC.

Why?

The desire is to create a seamless experience wherein, if you have to reboot a PC, you can pick back up quickly from where you left off and resume being productive.  This has far-ranging impacts across the OS (in a good way).

Not everyone agrees that this “far-reaching impact” is a good thing. The biggest gripe is that there is no setting to disable this behaviour if it causes problems, as in my case. Various entries in the official Windows feedback hub have been quick to attract support.

Workarounds? There are various suggestions. One is to manually close all running applications before your restart. That is an effort. Another is to use a shortcut to shutdown or restart, instead of the Start menu option. If you run:

shutdown /f /s /t 0

you get a clean shutdown; or

shutdown /f /r /t 0

for a restart.

As for why this behaviour was introduced without any means of controlling it, that is a mystery.

Which Azure Stack is right for you?

I went in search of Azure Stack at Microsoft’s Ignite event. I found a few  in the Expo. It is now shipping and the Lenovo guy said they had sold a dozen or so already.

Why Azure Stack? Microsoft’s point is that it lets you run exactly the same application on premises or in its public cloud. The other thing is that although you have some maintenance burden – power, cooling, replacing bits if they break – it is pretty minimal; the configuration is done for you.

I talked to one of the vendors about the impact on VMware, which dominates the market for virtualisation in the datacentre. My sense in the VMware vs Hyper-V debate is that VMware still has an edge, particularly in its management tools but Hyper-V is solid (aside from a few issues with Cluster Shared Volumes) and a lot less expensive. Azure Stack is Hyper-V of course; and the point the vendor made was that configuring an equivalent private cloud with VMware would be possible but hugely more expensive, not only in license cost but also in the skill needed to set it all up correctly.

So I think this is a smart move from Microsoft.

Why no Dell? They told me it was damaged in transit. Shame.

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Lenovo

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Cisco

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HP Enterprise

Microsoft announces Office 2019, Exchange Server 2019 and SharePoint Server 2019

This was not one of Microsoft’s most surprising announcements, but even so, confirmation that some of the company’s most significant products are to receive updates a year or so from now. The announcement was made at the SharePoint and OneDrive session at the Ignite event here in Orlando.

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If you have an hour or so spare, you can view the session here:

Note that fewer people now use these products; that is, increasing numbers of users are on Exchange Online and Office 365. These are the same but not the same, and get updates earlier than the on-premises equivalents. Still, we may well see a makeover for Office 365 at around the time Office 2019 is released.

Either way, we should not expect a radical departure from the current Office. Rather, we can expect improvements in the area of collaboration and deeper integration with cloud services.

You will also need to think about the following dialog, if you have not already (the exact wording will vary according to the context):

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The deal is that you send your document content to Microsoft in order to get AI-driven features.

Microsoft Ignite: where next for Microsoft’s cloud? The Facebook of business?

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Microsoft has futuristic domes as part of its Envision event, running alongside Ignite here in Orlando. Ignite is the company’s main technical event of the year, focusing mainly on IT Pros but embracing pretty much the whole spectrum of Microsoft’s products and services (maybe not much Xbox!). With the decline of the PC and retreat from mobile, and a server guy at the helm, the company’s focus has shifted towards cloud and enterprise, making Ignite all the more important.

This year sees around 25-30,000 attendees according to a quick estimate from one of the PRs here; a little bigger than last year’s event in Atlanta.

Microsoft will present itself as an innovative company doing great things in the cloud but the truth is more complex, much though I respect the extent to which the business has been transformed. This is a company with a huge amount of legacy technology, designed for a previous era, and its challenge has been, and still is, how to make that a springboard for moving to a new way of working as opposed to a selling opportunity for cloud-born competitors, primarily Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google, but also the likes of Salesforce and Dropbox.

If there is one product that has saved Microsoft, it is probably Exchange, always a solid email server and basic collaboration tool. Hosted Exchange is the heart of Office 365 (and BPOS before it), making it an easy sell to numerous businesses already equipped with Office and Outlook. Email servers are horrible things to manage, so hosted has great appeal, and it has driven huge uptake. A side-effect is that it has kept customers using Office and to some extent Windows. A further side-effect is that it has migrated businesses onto Azure Active Directory, the directory behind Exchange Online.

Alongside Office 365, the Azure cloud has matured into a credible competitor to AWS. There are still shortcomings (a few of which you can expect to be addressed by announcements here at Ignite), but it works, providing the company with the opportunity to upsell customers from users of cloud infrastructure to consumers of cloud services, such as Azure IoT, a suite of tools for gathering and analysing data.

The weakness of Microsoft’s cloud efforts has been the moving parts between hosted services and Windows PCs, and legacy pieces that do not work as you would expect.  OneDrive has been a persistent annoyance, with issues over reliable document sync and limitations over things like the number of documents in a folder and the total length of a path. And where are my Exchange Public Folders, or any shared folders, in Outlook for IoS and Android? And why does a PC installation of Office now and again collapse with activation or other issues, so that the only solution is removal and reinstall?

At Ignite we will not hear of such things. Instead, Microsoft will be presenting its vision of AI-informed business collaboration. Think “Facebook of business”, powered by the “Microsoft graph”, the sum of data held on each user and their files and activity, now combined with LinkedIn. The possibilities for better-informed business activity, and systems that know what you need before you ask, are enticing. Open questions are how well it will work, and old issues of privacy and surveillance.

Such things also can only work if businesses do in fact commit more of their data to Microsoft’s cloud. The business case for this is by no means as simple as the company would have us think.

VMware Cloud on AWS: a game changer? What about Microsoft’s Azure Stack?

The biggest announcement from VMWorld in Las Vegas and then Barcelona was VMware Cloud on AWS; essentially VMware hosts on AWS servers.

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A key point is that this really is VMware on AWS infrastructure; the release states “Run VMware software stack directly on metal, without nested virtualization”.

Why would you use this? Because it is hybrid cloud, allowing you to plan or move workloads between on-premises and public cloud infrastructure easily, using the same familiar tools (vCenter, vSphere, PowerCLI) as you do now, presuming you use VMware.

You also get low-latency connections to other AWS services, of which there are far too many to mention.

This strikes me as significant for VMware customers; and let’s not forget that the company dominates virtualisation in business computing.

Why would you not use VMware Cloud on AWS? Price is one consideration. Each host has 2 CPUs, 36 cores, 512GB RAM, 10.71TB local flash storage. You need a minimum of 4 hosts. Each host costs from $4.1616 to $8.3681 per hour, with the lowest price if you pay up front for a 3-year subscription (a substantial investment).

Price comparisons are always difficult. A big VM of a similar spec to one of these hosts will likely cost less. Maybe the best comparison is an EC2 Dedicated Host (where you buy a host on which you can run up VM instances without extra charge). An i3 dedicated host has 2 sockets and 36 cores, similar to a VMware host. It can run 16 xlarge VMs, each with 950GB SSD storage. Cost is from $2.323 to $5.491. Again, the lowest cost is for a 3 year subscription with payment upfront.

I may have this hasty calculation wrong; but there has to be a premium paid for VMware; but customers are used to that. The way the setup is designed (a 4-host cluster minimum) also makes it hard to be as flexible with with costs as you can be when running up individual VMs.

A few more observations. EC2 is the native citizen of AWS. By going for VMware on AWS instead of EC2 you are interposing a third party between you and AWS which intuitively seems to me a compromise. What you are getting though is smoother hybrid cloud which is no small thing.

What about Microsoft, previously the king of hybrid cloud? Microsoft’s hypervisor is Hyper-V and while there are a few features in VMware ESXi that Hyper-V lacks, they are not all that significant in my opinion. As a hypervisor, Hyper-V is solid. The pain points with Microsoft’s solution though are Cluster Shared Volumes, for high availability Hyper-V deployments, and System Center Virtual Machine Manager; VMware has better tools. There is a reason Azure uses Hyper-V but not SCVMM.

Hyper-V will always be cheaper than VMware (other than for small, free deployments) because it is a feature of Windows and not an add-on. Windows Server licenses are not cheap at all but that is another matter, and you have to suffer these anyway if you run Windows on VMware.

Thus far, Hyper-V has not been all that attractive to VMware shops, not only because of the cost of changing course, but also because of the shortcomings mentioned above.

Microsoft’s own game-changer here is Azure Stack, pre-packaged hardware which uses Azure rather than System Center technology, relieving admins of the burden of managing Cluster Shared Volumes and so forth. It is a great solution for hybrid since it really is the same (albeit with some missing features and some lag over implementing features that come to the public version) as Microsoft’s public cloud.

Azure Stack, like VMware on AWS, is new. Further, there is much more friction in migrating an existing datacenter to use Azure Stack, than in extending an existing VMware operation to use VMware Cloud on AWS.

But there is more. Is cloud computing really about running up VMs and moving them about? Arguably, not. Containers are another approach with some obvious advantages. Serverless is a big deal, and abstracts away both VMs and containers. Further, as you shift the balance of applications away from code you write and more towards use of cloud services (database, ML, BI, queuing and so on), the importance of VMs and containers lessens.

Azure Stack has an advantage here, since it gives an on-premises implementation of some Azure services, though far short of what is in Microsoft’s cloud. And VMware, of course, is not just about VMs.

Overall it seems to me that while VMware Cloud on AWS is great for VMware customers migrating towards hybrid cloud, it is unlikely to be optimal, either for cost or features, especially when you take a long view.

It remains a smart move and one that I would expect to have a rapid and significant take-up.

Unhealthy Identity synchronization Notification: a trivial solution (and Microsoft’s useless troubleshooter)

If you use Microsoft’s AD Connect, also known as DirSync, you may have received an email like this:

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It’s bad news: your Active Directory is not syncing with Office 365. “Azure Active Directory did not register a synchronization attempt from the Identity synchronization tool in the last 24 hours.”

I got this after upgrading AD Connect to the latest version, currently 1.1.553.

The email recommends you run a troubleshooting tool on the AD Connect server. I did that. Nothing wrong. I rebooted, it synced once, then I got another warning.

This is only a test system but I still wanted to find out what was wrong. I tweaked the sync configuration, again without fixing the issue.

Finally I found this post. Somehow, AD Connect had configured itself not to sync. You can get the current setting in PowerShell, using get-adsyncscheduler:

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As you can see, SyncCycleEnabled is set to false. The fix is trivial, just type:

set-adsyncscheduler –SyncCycleEnabled $true

Well, I am glad to fix it, but should not Microsoft’s troubleshooting tool find this simple configuration problem?