VLC efforts targeting WinRT with open source tools could enable more open source ports

An email from VideoLAN concerning the port of the open source VLC media player to WinRT, the tablet platform in Windows 8, provides insight into some of the technical difficulties facing open source developers.

Large Orange VLC media player Traffic Cone Logo

This is the heart of the problem:

The build process of VLC is not integrated with Windows Tools, notably Visual Studio, because VLC uses Unix Tools to run on all platforms. This is one of the reasons why VLC media player works on Windows, Linux, BSD, Solaris, iOS, Android, OS/2 and so many other operating systems.

In order to qualify for Windows Store distribution, apps must pass Microsoft’s security requirements, avoiding prohibited API calls. The VLC developers have done most of that successfully, but hit a problem with the Microsoft C Runtime, MSVCRT. Many open source projects use the ancient version 6.0 for maximum compatibility, but:

on WinRT, one MUST use MSVCRT 11.0 in order to pass the validation. This meant that we had to modify our compiler and toolchain to be able to link with this version.

When we asked Microsoft, some engineers told us that this could not possibly succeed, since the validation would not allow application compiled with 3rd party compilers to link with MSVCRT110. We did not want to believe them, since this would have killed the project.

And, they were wrong. We did it, but this took us way more time than anything we had anticipated. The final work was shared and integrated in our toolchain, Mingw-W64. All other open source applications will benefit from that, from now on.

Apparently the final piece of work is working out how to call the WinRT interop layer (the bit that looks like COM but is not COM) from C code. That is now working too so VLC is now completing the work of rewriting headers to call these new APIs.

This work could have wider consequences. Since VLC is open source, all these efforts are available to others, which means that porting other open source projects that use a similar tool chain should be easier.

This is especially significant for Windows RT, the ARM port, where it is not possible to install desktop apps.

VideoLAN’s work could be a great benefit to the WinRT Platform. Microsoft’s engineers should be doing everything they can to help, rather than (as the email implies) telling the developers that it cannot work.

Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2, SQL Server 14: what’s new, and what is the Cloud OS?

Earlier this month I attended a three-day press briefing on what is coming in the R2 wave of Microsoft’s server products: Windows Server, System Center and SQL Server.

There is a ton of new stuff, too much for a blog post, but here are the things that made the biggest impression.

First, I am beginning to get what Microsoft means by “Cloud OS”. I am not sure that this a useful term, as it is fairly confusing, but it is worth teasing out as it gives a sense of Microsoft’s strategy. Here’s what lead architect Jeffrey Snover told me:

I think of it as a central organising thought. That’s our design centre, that’s our north star. It’s not necessarily a product, it goes across some things … for example, I would absolutely include SQL [Server] in all of its manifestations in our vision of a cloud OS. Cloud OS has two missions. Abstracting resources for consumption by multiple consumers, and then providing services to applications. Modern applications are all consuming SQL … we’re evolving SQL to the more scale-out, elastic, on-demand attributes that we think of as cloud OS attributes.

If you want to know what Cloud OS looks like, it is something like this:


Yes, it’s the Azure portal, and one of today’s big announcements is that this is the future of System Center, Microsoft’s on-premise cloud management system, as well as Azure, the public cloud. Azure technology is coming to System Center 2012 R2 via an add-on called the Azure Pack. Self-service VMs, web sites, SQL databases, service bus messaging, virtual networks, online storage and more.

Snover also talked about another aspect to Cloud OS, which is also significant. He says that Microsoft sees cloud as an “operating system problem.” This is the key to how Microsoft thinks it can survive and prosper versus VMWare, Amazon and so on. It has a hold of the whole stack, from the tiniest detail of the operating system (memory management, file system, low-level networking and so on) to the highest level, big Azure datacenters.

The company is also unusual in its commitment to private, public and hybrid cloud. The three cloud story which Microsoft re-iterated obsessively during the briefing is public cloud (Azure), private cloud (System Center) and hosted cloud (service providers). Ideally all three will look the same and work the same – differences of scale aside – though the Azure Pack is only the first stage towards convergence. Hyper-V is the common building block, and we were assured that Hyper-V in Azure is exactly the same as Hyper-V in Windows Server, from 2012 onwards.

I had not realised until this month that Snover is now lead architect for System Center as well as Windows Server. Without both roles, of course, he could scarcely architect “Cloud OS”.

Here are a few other things to note.

Hyper-V 2012 R2 has some great improvements:

  • Generation 2 VMs (64-bit Server 2012 and Windows 8 and higher only) strip out legacy emulation, UEIF boot from SCSI
  • Replica supports a range of intervals from 30 seconds to 15 minutes
  • Data compression can double the speed of live migration
  • Live VM cloning lets you copy a running VM for troubleshooting offline
  • Online VHDX resize – grow or shrink
  • Linux now supports Live Migration, Live Backup, Dynamic memory, online VHDX resize

SQL Server 14 includes in-memory optimization, code-name Hekaton, that can deliver stunning speed improvements. There is also compilation of stored procedures to native code, subject to some limitations. The snag with Hekaton? Your data has to fit in RAM.

Like Generation 2 VMs, Hekaton is the result of re-thinking a product in the light of technical advances. Old warhorses like SQL Server were designed when RAM was tiny, and everything had to be fetched from disk, modified, written back. Bringing that into RAM as-is is a waste. Hekaton removes the overhead of the the disk/RAM model almost completely, though it does have to write data back to disk when transactions complete. The data structures are entirely different.

PowerShell Desired State Configuration (DSC) is a declarative syntax for defining the state of a server, combined with a provider that knows how to read or apply it. It is work in progress, with limited providers currently, but immensely interesting, if Microsoft can both make it work and stay the course. The reason is that using PowerShell DSC you can automate everything about an application, including how it is deployed.

Remember White Horse? This was a brave but abandoned attempt to model deployment in Visual Studio as part of application development. What if you could not only model it, but deploy it, using the cloud automation and self-service model to create the VMs and configure them as needed? As a side benefit, you could version control your deployment. Linux is way ahead of Windows here, with tools like Puppet and Chef, but the potential is now here. Note that Microsoft told me it has no plans to do this yet but “we like the idea” so watch this space.

Storage improvements. Both data deduplication and Storage Spaces are getting smarter. Deduplication can be used for running VHDs in a VDI deployment, with huge storage saving. Storage Spaces support hybrid pools with SSDs alongside hard drives, hot data automatically moved, and the ability to pin files to the SSD tier.

Server Essentials for small businesses is now a role in Windows Server as well as a separate edition. If you use the role, rather than the edition, you can use the Essentials tools for up to 100 or so users. Unfortunately that will also mean Windows Server CALs; but it is a step forward from the dead-end 25-user limit in the current product. Small Business Server with bundled Exchange is still missed though, and not coming back. More on this separately.

What do I think overall? Snover is a smart guy and if you buy into the three-cloud idea (and most businesses, for better or worse, are not ready for public cloud) then Microsoft’s strategy does make sense.

The downside is that there remains a lot of stuff to deal with if you want to implement Microsoft’s private cloud, and I am not sure whether System Center admins will all welcome the direction towards using Azure tools on-premise, having learned to deal with the existing model.

The server folk at Microsoft have something to brag about though: 9 consecutive quarters of double digit growth. It is quite a contrast with the declining PC market and the angst over Windows 8, leading to another question: long-term, can Microsoft succeed in server but fail in client? Or will (for better or worse) those two curves start moving in the same direction? Informed opinions, as ever, are welcome.

Acer announces 8.1” Windows tablet – but will desktop Windows work in this format?

Acer has announced an 8.1″ Windows tablet, the Iconia W3:

  • Intel Atom 1.8Ghz dual-core Z2760 CPU
  • 8 hr battery life
  • 1280 x 800 screen
  • 2GB RAM
  • Front and rear 2 MP cameras
  • Micro HDMI
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • GPS
  • 32 or 64GB storage
  • Micro SD
  • Bundles Office 2013 Home and Student
  • Optional keyboard $79.99
  • $379.99, available this month


Anything wrong with this picture? Certainly it could be handy for using Windows on the go, being more compact than a Surface (though how much more, if you include the keyboard?) and much cheaper than Surface Pro.

There are some snags though. This device runs full Windows 8 rather than Windows RT, the ARM version, so you can run all your desktop apps; but many will be no fun to use on an 8.0″ screen, or without keyboard and mouse. The Modern – that is, Metro-style – apps should be fine, but the Windows 8 app ecosystem is still weak so you may struggle to get by on those. There is Office – and it is smart of Acer to bundle Home and Student – but will you be squinting to use it on such a small screen?

My hunch is that Windows will not sing on small tablets until there is a version of Office for the Modern UI.