Full circle for Microsoft database APIs as OLEDB for SQL Server is deprecated

Microsoft’s Eric Nelson has posted about how the OLEDB driver for SQL Server is being deprecated and will not be supported beyond “Denali”, the forthcoming version.

OLEDB was created to be the successor to ODBC – expanding the supported data sources/models to include things other than relational databases. Notably OLEDB was tightly tied to a Windows only technology (COM) whilst ODBC was not (Although we did try and take COM cross platform via partners)

ODBC never did get replaced. What actually happened is that ODBC remained the dominant of the two technologies for many scenarios – and became increasingly used on none Windows platforms and has become the de-facto industry standard for native relational data access.

ODBC was as I recall Microsoft’s first attempt at creating a universal database API.

The death of OLEDB will be slow, according to Nelson. The OLEDB driver for Denali will be supported for seven years following Denali’s release. He also says that OLEDB itself, as opposed to the SQL Server OLEDB driver, is not necessarily being deprecated; though frankly if Microsoft ceases supporting it with its own database I cannot see much future for it.

Note that ADO.NET, which to some extent replaced OLEDB, is not being deprecated. However ADO.NET is only usable from .NET applications. When you consider that Microsoft may be to some extent tilting away from .NET and towards native code, the deprecation of OLEDB becomes even more significant.

ODBC is not particularly easy to use in its raw form. However, you can wrap ODBC with, yes, an OLEDB provider or an ADO.NET provider; or you can wrap the whole lot in an object-relational framework such as Entity Framework.

One more chapter in the long, strange and tortuous history of Microsoft’s data APIs.

Heroku gets Java, Salesforce.com embraces HTML5 for mobile

Salesforce.com has made a host of announcements at its Dreamforce conference currently under way in San Francisco. In brief:

  • Chatter, the Salesforce.com social networking platform for enterprises, is being extended with presence status, screen sharing, approval actions, and the ability to create groups with customers as well as with internal users. Salesforce.com calls this the Social Enterprise.
  • Heroku, a service for hosting Ruby applications which Salesforce.com acquired in 2010, will now also support Java.
  • Salesforce.com is baking mobile support into its applications via HTML 5. The new mobile, touch-friendly user interface is called Touch.salesforce.com.


Other announcements include the general availability of database.com, a cloud database service announced at last year’s Dreamforce, and a new service called Data.com which provides company information though a combination of Dun and Bradstreet’s data along with information from Jigsaw.

I spoke to EMEA VP Tim Barker about the announcements. Does Java on Heroku replace the VMForce platform, which lets you run Java applications on VMWare using the Spring framework plus access to Salesforce.com APIs? Barker is diplomatic and says it is a developer choice, but adds that VMForce “was an inspiration for us, to see that we needed Java language on Heroku as well.”

My observation is that since the introduction of VMForce, VMWare has come up with other cloud-based initiatives, and the Salesforce.com no longer seems to be a key platform. These two companies have grown apart.

For more information on Java on Heroku, see the official announcement. Heroku was formed in part to promote hosted Ruby as an alternative to Java, so this is a bittersweet moment for the platform, and the announcement has an entertaining analysis of Java’s strengths and weaknesses, including the topic “How J2EE detailed Java”:

J2EE was built for a world of application distribution — that is, software packaged to be run by others, such as licensed software. But it was put to use in a world of application development and deployment — that is, software-as-a-service. This created a perpetual impedance mismatch between technology and use case. Java applications in the modern era suffer greatly under the burden of this mismatch.

Naturally the announcement goes on to explain how Heroku has solved this mismatch. Note that Heroku also supports Clojure and Node.js.

What about Database.com, why is it more expensive than other cloud database services? “It is a trusted platform that we operate, and not a race to the bottom in terms of the cheapest possible way to build an application,” says Barker.

That said, note that you can get a free account, which includes 100,000 records, 50,000 transactions per month and support for three enterprise users.

What are the implications of the HTML5-based Touch.salesforce.com for existing Salesforce.com mobile apps, or the Flex SDK and Adobe AIR support in the platform? “We do have an existing set of apps,” says Barker. “We have Salesforce mobile which supports Blackberry, iOS and Android. We also have an application for Chatter. Native apps are an important part of our strategy. But what we’ve found is that for customer apps and for broad applications, to be able to deliver all the functionality, we’re finding the best approach is using HTML 5.”

The advantage of the HTML5 approach for customers is that it comes for free with the platform.

As for Adobe AIR, it is still being used and is a good choice if you need a desktop application. That said, I got the impression that Salesforce.com sees HTML5 as the best solution to the problem of supporting a range of mobile operating systems.

I have been following Salesforce.com closely for several years, during which time the platform has grown steadily and shown impressive consistency. “We grew 38% year on year in Q2,” says Barker. This year’s Dreamforce apparently has nearly 45,000 registered attendees, which is 50% up on last year, though I suspect this may include free registrations for the keynotes and exhibition. Nevertheless, the company claims “the world’s largest enterprise software conference”. Oracle OpenWorld 2010 reported around 41,000 attendees.

Perfect virtualization is a threat to Windows: VMWare aims to embrace and extinguish

One advantage Microsoft Windows has in the cloud and tablet wars is that it it is, well, Windows. Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud computing product largely depends on the assumption that users want to run Office on their local PC or tablet. Windows 8 tablets will be attractive to enterprises that want to continue running custom Windows applications, though they had better be x86 tablets since applications for Windows on ARM processors will require recompilation.

On the other hand, if you can run Windows applications just as easily on a Mac, Apple iPad or Android tablet, then Microsoft’s advantage disappears. Virtualization specialist VMWare is making that point at its VMworld conference in Las Vegas this week. In a press release announcing “New Products and Services for the Post-PC Era”, VMWare VP Christopher Young says:

As our customers begin to embrace this shift to the post-PC era, we offer a simple way to deliver a better Windows-based desktop-as-a-service that empowers organizations to do more with what they already have. At the same time, we are investing in expertise and delivering the open products needed to accelerate the journey to a new way to work beyond the Windows desktop.

Good for Windows, good for what comes after Windows is the message. It is based on several products:

VMView: enables users to work on a remote Windows desktop from a machine running thick or thin client Windows, Mac, iPad or Android. Some versions let you check out a VM for offline working. Virtual desktops have advantages over local ones, in that they are more manageable, more secure, and more robust. Zapping and reinstating a virtual desktop is easier than rebuilding the OS on a physical machine. The new VMView 5.0 claims up 75 percent bandwidth improvement and better 3D graphics. Performance is always compromised to some extent, versus a local operating system, but for many business applications it is more than good enough.

VMWare Horizon: A cloud identity platform which centralizes authentication and access management. You can think of it as VMWare’s cloud-based replacement for Microsoft Active Directory. It is currently focused on access to web-based applications but at VMWorld the company announced its extension to virtual Windows applications, a capability to be in beta by the end of 2011.

Project AppBlast: Lets users run virtual Windows application in an HTML5-capable browser running on any device.

Project Octopus: a data synchronization service to enable collaboration and data-sharing, which will link to VMWare’s other services.

VMWare’s advantage is its strong technology and that Microsoft allowed its own virtualization technologies, including Hyper-V and Remote Desktop Services, to fall behind.

That said, Microsoft has made a substantial effort to catch up in the last few years. Hyper-V and System Center working together form the basis of Microsoft’s private cloud, and under the covers the Azure platform is based on Hyper-V virtual machines. Microsoft’s advantage is the notion that if you are running Windows server and Windows applications anyway, you will be better off with the built-in virtualization features rather than a third-party solution. Microsoft can also afford to undercut VMWare’s prices, because it is bundling virtualization with its operating system. Microsoft has made it easier to run mixed VMWare and Hyper-V systems by supporting VMWare with System Center.

An entrenched competitor is hard to shift though, and VMWare appears to have won the argument with Dell, which has announced the Dell Cloud based on VMWare’s vCloud multi-tenant services.

What is interesting here is not so much the question of who runs Windows applications best, in a variety of virtual scenarios, but the extent to which VMWare succeeds in establishing its own identify system as the heart of an application platform that lets enterprises move seamlessly to a non-Windows world. In other words, VMWare Horizon is now VMWare’s most strategic product. If it succeeds, then it is not only Microsoft that will need to pay attention.

Windows Live Messenger error message hell

Recently I tried to sign into Live Messenger on Windows 7, only to be informed of what appears to be a temporary interruption in service.


Show details, by the way, shows Error code: 80040154

I retried and got the same message, so I clicked the Get more information link, which took me here:


The help document says that the solution is to reinstall Windows Live Essentials. I confirmed this, not by reinstalling (yet), but by trying Live Messenger on another machine, where I could sign into the same account successfully.

A few observations about this:

  • The error message is incorrect, since the error is apparently on the client whereas the message states it is a temporary problem with the service.
  • Microsoft’s engineers know that the error message is incorrect, since the help document references both the message and the solution.
  • The error message has been incorrect for years, since it applies to both Windows Live Messenger 2009 and 2011.
  • The misleading error message is particularly annoying, since if the user wants to use Live Messenger urgently they may well wait as advised by the message, not realising that the problem can be fixed immediately.
  • The solution is a brute-force one that involves many other applications, including Live Mail and Live Writer (on which I am typing this post). Or is it enough just to reinstall Messenger? The message suggests not. However if you use Live Mail for all your email, you probably want to know whether the uninstall will delete all your email and contacts or not. The referenced article on uninstalling Live Essentials does not say.

How could Microsoft improve this? At risk of stating the obvious:

  • Give an accurate error message.
  • Give a solution which targets the exact problem rather than relying on an uninstall/reinstall procedure that changes many things that are working fine.
  • If this is impossible, at least advise the user in one place concerning their obvious questions, such as “what happens to my stuff”.

Update: I found the cause of this problem. A developer tool beta had overwritten my system path with its own, breaking this among other things. I do not blame any application for breaking in these circumstances. I fixed the Live Messenger problem by performing a Repair on Live Essentials – less risky than uninstall/reinstall, and in this case sufficient.

Another idea if you have this kind of problem is System Restore.

Nevertheless, the error message could do with some work!

Adobe says role of Flex and Flash has changed, makes play for mobile

Adobe’s Andrew Shorten has posted on the future of Flex, the developer-oriented tool for building applications for the Flash runtime.

This is one of the clearest statements I have seen from Adobe that recognises that the role of Flash on the web is diminishing:

There are countless examples where, in the past, Flex was (rightly) selected as the only way to deliver a great user experience. Today, many of those could be built using HTML5-related technologies and delivered via the browser, and at Adobe, we will provide tooling to help designers and developers create those experiences – Edge and Muse are two such examples.

Adobe is not giving up on Flash, of course, and states that it is still the best for certain categories of application:

We firmly believe that Flex is already the best technology for building complex, high fidelity enterprise applications such as business dashboards, line of business tools, real time trading applications and desktop replacement applications.

I would add both statements are written from the perspective of application developers. The role of Flash as a video and multimedia player is a separate issue. Flash is also important in that context. There is some overlap, in that if your application includes multimedia content then Flash is correspondingly more attractive.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that this repositioning of Flash makes it not so different from Microsoft’s Silverlight: a runtime for business applications.

Adobe is focusing on a new market for Flex in mobile. This overcomes the Apple iOS problem, since you can compile a Flex application to iOS native code. Adobe promises “additional mobile development capabilities” later this year and says:

In our next major release timeframe we expect that the need to build a fully-native application will be reserved for a small number of use cases.

I agree that cross-platform mobile development is a key area and one where there is no clear winner yet. It is a good opportunity for Adobe, though there is increasing competition from the products like Appcelerator Titanium and PhoneGap.

I also think that Embarcadero’s new RAD Studio XE2 will attract interest. This tool which will be released soon does native code compilation across Windows, Mac and Apple iOS, with Android promised, using the Delphi IDE and language.

jQuery usage soars as Adobe Flash shows slight decline

A press release from .appendTo, a company which offers jQuery-based services and training, states that “jQuery Overtakes Flash on World’s Top Websites”. I found it a curious claim insofar as jQuery is not really an alternative to Flash, though there is some limited set of graphical effects for which I guess you could use either.

I took a look at the source data from httparchive.org – note that the data at this link changes regularly. I compared the most recent stats, from August 15 2011, to the oldest available, November 15 2010, an interval of nine months. The data is based on the most visited sites based on various lists and seems to amount to between 15,000 and 20,000 URLs.

In November 2010, jQuery was found on 39% of the sites, whereas Flash was on 49%. In August 2011, the stats show jQuery on 48% of sites with Flash on 47%, hence the press release.

Other figures that caught my eye: in web servers, Microsoft IIS has moved from 21% to 20%, apache from 51% to 49%, nginx from 11% to 13%.

Google analytics is the most commonly found script, moving from 61% to 63% of these sites. The amount of data Google receives on internet traffic is remarkable.

The real story here is the ascendancy of jQuery rather than the decline of Flash. If you want your website to work on Apple’s mobile devices as well as on desktop PCs, then Flash is not an option.

Adobe does not make money from the Flash runtime, which is free. It makes money from design tools and server-side services, among other things. Although it is good for Adobe if everyone uses its Flash client, it can still succeed in an HTML 5 world.

Flash has other roles too. Adobe AIR uses the Flash runtime on desktop PCs and some smartphones, and an iOS compiler lets you build Flash apps for Apple’s iPhone and iPad.

There is also some evidence that Adobe is tilting its efforts a little more towards HTML, with products including the preview of Edge which is a motion and interaction design tool for HTML5, CSS and JavaScript.

Thoughts on Apple and Steve Jobs as he resigns as CEO


Steve Jobs has written to Apple’s board of directors:

I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.

I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.

As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.

I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.

Apple is at times an infuriating company, but it is infused with genius that Jobs has inspired and nurtured.

I do not know how the computing landscape today would look without his influence, but I am convinced that it would be very different and largely worse.

Under Jobs, Apple refined personal computing with successive versions of the Mac, reinvented the music industry with iPod and iTunes, made the first mobile phone that was a delight to use and freed us from the tyranny of mobile operators so that the promise of the mobile internet could be fulfilled, and created the first tablet computer that is sufficiently useable and affordable to bring touch computing to the mainstream.

I count that as four milestones, any one of which would be enough to make Apple a great company. Most companies live forever on their first and only breakthrough idea or technology; only Apple has continued reinventing itself.

Apple inspires devotion from its users not only because of its delightful products, but also because Jobs has fought on our behalf as users, rejecting who-knows-how-many ideas and features that were not quite there and would have spoilt our experience. These are the ideas that most companies deliver as version 1.0 of their product.

Jobs remains at Apple, but his letter suggests that his health is failing so my guess is that his role will be greatly reduced.

Apple after Jobs will be a different company and is unlikely to be a better one, though its strong culture and many brilliant engineers and designers remain. New CEO Tim Cook has been acting CEO for some time so the transition will be smooth.

Thank you to Steve Jobs for making computing better.

File operations in Windows: the good and the bad, the past and the future

Microsoft’s Windows chief Steven Sinofksy has posted details of what file operations look like in Windows 8. There are a few changes, including a consolidated view of all current file operations that lets you pause and resume any of them. You can also click for more details and get a pretty graph.


Microsoft has also worked on the conflict resolution dialog, the one that says “Copy and Replace”, “Don’t copy”, and “Copy, but keep both files”. I consider this a pretty good dialog, but the new one adds the ability to inspect the actual files or even open them to check which is which.

A few observations. First, file operations are hard to get right from a usability perspective. I guess we have all had the experience of trying to help a non-technical user over the phone with some operation like, say, downloading a zip file, extracting it, and doing something with the contents. A common problem is that the user cannot find what they downloaded. Then they are not sure whether they did download it, and do so again. Then they get confused by the ZIP file, which mostly behaves like a folder in Explorer but is not quite the same; and of course since Windows XP SP2 all downloaded files are “blocked” by default which is another source of perplexity.

If you add complications like hidden folders and hidden file extensions in Windows Explorer, what should be a simple task can be really awkward. Let’s say your user has a video file called somemovie.vob that needs to be renamed to somevideo.mpg before it will play. With the default setting, when you rename it you actually get somevideo.mpg.vob. You have to talk the user through showing file extensions before it will work, or maybe open up a command prompt and use ren which does actually work correctly. Microsoft could fix this with a “Change file extension” option in Windows Explorer, but I do not know if this has made it to Windows 8.

The problems with hidden files and hidden file extensions show that something is wrong with the underlying model. Showing them is wrong because they are ugly and confusing; hiding them is wrong because you sometimes need them. It is a partial abstraction that is only partly successful. 

Apple’s solution in iOS is to hide the file system completely. The user will never have these problems. However, this is an autocratic approach that introduces new difficulties. If you have a documents in Pages in iOS you cannot move it directly to DropBox, for example, because there is no accessible file system. You are limited by whatever options the Pages app gives you for doing something with a document.

I believe thought that Apple is on the right lines. The app-centric view makes sense to users, and abstracting the file system so that users do not generally need to care about the location of a file is a reasonable goal. If the File Explorer goes the way of the command prompt, and becomes a tool used rarely by most users, that will mean Windows usability has improved.

Cloud-centric computing has potential to improve this, with your local storage just a cache of your internet-stored documents and data.

Finally, it is worth noting that file operations have got significantly better in Windows. Using the clipboard to copy and paste files, which I think came in with Windows 95, was a big advance. Then Vista fixed another annoyance: multiple file operations would abort on the first failure, leaving you uncertain which files had actually been transferred. Vista broke performance though, and file operations could be hilariously slow as Windows “discovered” files or just seemed to hang with a spinning bagel. Service packs and then Windows 7 pretty much fixed that.

I still like ROBOCOPY though. Hey Microsoft – why doesn’t Explorer have “Copy new and changed files only” or “Mirror directory”?

Review: Verbatim’s USB audio bar – simple, well made, good sound

If you are in the habit of watching video or listening to music on a laptop, you will know that the average laptop has poor sound quality. That is partly because most laptop speakers are an afterthought, and partly because it is not easy to fit speakers of any quality into a laptop case.

External speakers are the answer, but while there are plenty to choose from, they can get in the way.

The Verbatim 49095 Portable USB Audio Bar Speaker is a neat solution. It is designed to fit on top of a laptop screen.


While that may sound precarious, the unit is cleverly designed with tabs at the front and a twist-down peg at the back which means it fits well on almost any laptop screen.


I was impressed with the sound, considering the modest price of this product, which retails at £14.99 or less. It is a vast improvement on the built-in speakers in the Dell laptop I tried. No, it is not as good as two separate loudspeakers positioned either side of the laptop; but the audio bar takes up almost no extra space and would easily tuck into most laptop bags when not in use.

Unfortunately you do need a laptop – running Windows 7, Vista, XP, or Mac OS X 10.1 or higher. Apple’s iPad has no USB port, and there is not an option to use an audio cable instead.

The unit is well made, works with USB 2.0 or 3.0, and claims output power of 2 watts RMS.


Continuous Integration vs Continuous Delivery vs Continuous Deployment: what is the difference?

I am reading the excellent book Continuous Delivery by Jez Humble and David Farley. But what is Continuous Delivery and how does it differ from the other “continuous” development methodologies?

It helps to understand that all these methodologies spring from the Agile software development movement, and the expression Continuous Delivery is a quote from the Agile Manifesto:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

Now, the starting assumption is that most software projects integrate a number of smaller projects, whether from third-parties or from team members. Since these pieces are developed to some extent independently there is a risk that changes made to one piece will require modifications to another piece; hence according to Humble and Farley:

Most software developed by large teams spends a significant proportion of its development time in an unusable state.

The business of getting all the parts to work together is called integration, and if this involves serious work you need to have an integration phase where this is the sole objective. This is a bad idea for all sorts of reasons, slowing development and preventing proper testing other than at the end of these integration phases.

The solution is called Continuous Integration (CI). You have a frequent automated build that assembles all the pieces from all the teams into a working application. If the build fails, or if automated tests run against the build fail, then this is a bug that should be fixed immediately, not later in some separate phase of development.

Tools for CI include Cruise Control, Hudson, TeamCity and others; .NET developers can also configure Visual Studio Team Foundation Server for CI.

The problem with CI alone is that the development environment is not the same as the production environment. What if the CI build works and tests pass, but once deployed the application breaks or performs badly? Perhaps the development environment runs a multi-tier application with all the tiers on a single box, but when deployed onto actual multiple machines or VMs, something goes wrong. Permission problems are another common source of errors.

Continuous Delivery means that you not only build the software, but also deploy it frequently. This usually means provisioning servers, which you can automate using a tool like Puppet for Unix-like servers, or with Virtual Lab Management in a Visual Studio environment. Automation is pretty much essential for this to work. The more closely the test environment matches the production environment, the better.

Generally though, Continuous Delivery means deployment to a test environment. What about taking the next step, and deploying continuously to production? That is the methodology called Continuous Deployment. It sounds risky; but if you have a very extensive and thorough set of automated tests, then the risks are mitigated, especially as the extent of the changes in any one deployment is reduced.

Other suggestions for reducing risk include deploying to a small subset of users first, called “canary testing”; and making rollback easy.

That said, to judge by the Humble/Farley book the distinction between Continuous Delivery and Continuous Deployment is just a little blurred. The authors acknowledge that continuous deployment into production is not always a good idea. They also imply that Continuous Deployment might mean only that your application is always ready and easy to deploy into production, not that you necessarily deploy it constantly:

Your implementation should make it possible to deploy any version of your application that has made it past the automated tests into any of your environments at the push of a button, given the correct credentials.

Compliance and security are also factors that may rightly make it impossible to automate deployment to production completely.

Client-installed applications present some special difficulties which Humble and Farley discuss.

In summary then:

Continuous integration: your application always builds and passes its tests, including all the pieces from different sub-teams.

Continuous delivery: your application always builds and deploys to a test environment and passes its tests.

Continuous deployment: your application is always ready to deploy to production through a largely automated process.

Update: I received an email from Martin Fowler about this post. He refers to Jez Humble’s post on Continuous Delivery vs Continous Deployment and adds:

– I would use your definition of Continuous Deployment for Continuous Delivery

– I would change the definition of Continuous Deployment to say something like "every good build is released to production"

However, I clarified with him that if you building for a test environment but are confident that any build that passes would be OK to deploy to production, then you are still doing Continuous Delivery. In the end, while I am sure you should use Fowler and Humble’s definitions rather than mine, it seems to me a fine distinction and that if you are doing Continuous Delivery properly then the transition to Continuous Deployment is largely a matter of policy.