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.

New year, new web site

I took the opportunity of the Christmas break to move itwriting.com to a new server.

The old server has worked wonderfully for many years, but in that time a lot of cruft accumulated.

The old WordPress template was also out of date. Today it is necessary not only to have a site that works well on mobile, but also one that is served over SSL. I am taking advantage of Let’s Encrypt to give itwriting.com trusted SSL support.

On the old site I ran three blogs. itwriting.com, aimed at professionals. Gadgets.itwriting.com aimed at consumers. Taggedtalk.com for when I occasionally wanted to blog about music. Running three blogs is a hassle and I decided to combine them into one despite the differences in content. The idea is to use WordPress categories to make sense of this but this too is work in progress.

The price of this migration is broken links. Content that is migrated from the old itwriting.com blog is mostly fine, though there are some images linked with http that will need to be fixed. Content from the other two blogs is more problematic and I have some work to do tidying up the images. There is also the old pre-wordpress blog which is now offline. This was active from 2003 to 2006 and I am undecided about whether to reinstate it.

Apologies then for the disruption but I hope it will be worth it.

Google’s Digital Garage, hosted by UK City Councils

I have recently moved into a new area and noticed that my (now) local city council was running a Google Digital Garage:

Winchester City Council is very excited to be partnering up with The Digital Garage from Google – a digital skills training platform to assist you in growing your business, career and confidence, online. Furthermore, a Google digital expert is coming to teach you what is needed to gain a competitive advantage in the ever changing digital landscape, so come prepared to learn and ask questions, too.

I went along as a networking opportunity and learn more about Google’s strategy. The speaker was from Google partner Uplift Digital, “founded by Gori Yahaya, a digital and experiential marketer who had spent years working on behalf of Google, training and empowering thousands of SMEs, entrepreneurs, and young people up and down the country to use digital to grow their businesses and further their careers.”

I am not sure “digital garage” was the right name in this instance, as it was essentially a couple of presentations which not much interaction and no hands-on. The first session had three themes:

  • Understanding search
  • Manage your presence on Google
  • Get started with paid advertising

What we got was pretty much the official Google line on search: make sure your site performs well on mobile as well as desktop, use keywords sensibly, and leave the rest to Google’s algorithms. The second topic was mainly about Google’s local business directory called My Business. Part three introduced paid advertising, mainly covering Google AdWords. No mention of click fraud. Be wary of Facebook advertising, we were told, since advertising on Facebook may actually decrease your organic reach, it is rumoured. Don’t bother advertising on Twitter, said the speaker.

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Session two was about other ways to maintain a digital presence, mainly looking at social media, along with a (rather unsatisfactory) introduction to Google Analytics. The idea is to become an online authority in what you do, we were told. Good advice. YouTube is the second most popular search engine, we were told, and we should consider posting videos there. The speaker recommended the iOS app YouTube Director for Business, a free tool which I later discovered is discontinued from 1st December 2017; it is being replaced by Director Onsite which requires you to spend $150 on YouTube advertising in order to post a video.

Overall I thought the speaker did a good job on behalf of Google and there was plenty of common sense in what was presented. It was a Google-centric view of the world which considering that it is, as far as I can tell, entirely funded by Google is not surprising.

As you would also expect, the presentation was weak concerning Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Facebook in particular seems to be critically important for many small businesses. One lady in the audience said she did not bother with a web site at all since her Facebook presence was already providing as many orders for her cake-making business as she could cope with.

We got a sanitised view of the online world which in reality is a pretty mucky place in many respects.

IT vendors have always been smart about presenting their marketing as training and it is an effective strategy.

The aspect that I find troubling is that this comes hosted and promoted by a publicly funded city council. Of course an independent presentation or a session with involvement from multiple companies with different perspectives would be much preferable; but I imagine the offer of free training and ticking the box for “doing something about digital” is too sweet to resist for hard-pressed councils, and turn a blind eye to Google’s ability to make big profits in the UK while paying little tax.

Google may have learned from Microsoft and its partners who once had great success in providing basic computer training which in reality was all about how to use Microsoft Office, cementing its near-monopoly.

The annoyance of mistaken email addresses – an example from Netflix

One of the reasons email is broken is that many companies do not bother to verify email addresses when setting up accounts. If someone by accident or design opens an account with an email other than their own – yours, for example – the person who actually has that email address may get bombarded with unwanted emails. Mostly you can just block them with all the other spam but it can be problematic. You may run into difficulties if you try to open your own account with the same organization. If there is money involved you may also get pursued by email for the other person’s debts; presumably this sort of thing can be sorted out but in some cases passively accepting the problem might not be the best idea.

What should happen is that all email addresses are verified. The company where the account is set up sends ONE email to the address given, with a magic link to verify that it really is you that set up the account. If you ignore that email you should never get another one. Sometimes there is even a link to say “this is not me” or “disavow”, which is even better.

Unfortunately it can be hard to inform the organisation of the wrong email address. In the majority of cases, emails come from a “do not reply” address. Often you are meant to log into the account (that is not your account) to make changes or contact support. You would have to change the password of course. That seems a bad idea and might even be considered a tacit acceptance that it is your account, or a hack attempt.

When this happens to me I mostly ignore it, but sometimes resort to things like Twitter support contacts or web chat. It can still be awkward. Here’s my chat transcript when Netflix (which should know better) sent me a welcome email for my new account (nothing to do with me):

Me
Someone has created a Netflix account with my email address. Please delete it.

[Rep] Netflix
Hi there 🙂

[Rep] Netflix
Sure!! No problem

[Rep] Netflix
Could you please tell me what’s your email address?

Me
*************************

[Rep] Netflix
I could find any active account with this email address… don’t you have another email address?

Me
I have just received a welcome email

[Rep] Netflix
To that email? *************************

Me
yes

Me
Hey there, My name is ****. I work at Netflix and help our newest members get started. If you’d like to chat before you start your free month, you can call 1-***-***-**** with any questions. Also, don’t worry about being billed by surprise — we always send a reminder before your free trial ends. If you’re all set, finish your account setup to start watching. If there’s anything you need help with, don’t hesitate to contact us. Cheers, **** netflix.com

[Rep] Netflix
Oohh!!! That’s definetely not from us!!

Me
it passes DKIM

[Rep] Netflix
This is a phising email

[Rep] Netflix
phishin*

Me
ARC-Authentication-Results: i=1; mx.google.com; dkim=pass header.i=@netflix.com

Me
so it is from your domain

[Rep] Netflix
Please tell me the email address who sent you the email
Me

Me
***********************

[Rep] Netflix
OOH!! O.O

[Rep] Netflix
Please wait a second

[Rep] Netflix
I’m checking here… please hang on there

Me
thanks

[Rep] Netflix
It looks like someone took your email information and created an account, but don’t worry, I’m cancelling the account right now

Me
thanks
Me

that is what I said at first 🙂

[Rep] Netflix
Yes… I know xD but I really needed to confirm all the information

[Rep] Netflix
I’m on it now 🙂

[Rep] Netflix
Done 🙂

Me
thanks

[Rep] Netflix
I was a pleasure 🙂

[Rep] Netflix
And one more thing, if you wouldn’t mind, please stay online for a one question survey.

I declined the one question survey.

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?