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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

10 reasons why Windows 8 may appeal to consumers

Takeaway: Will Windows 8 be a hit with consumers? Maybe. Here are a few things that could win them over.
We have talked a lot about how Windows 8 will mean significant changes for software developersand how Windows 8 will affect (or not affect) businesses. But it’s important to keep in mind that plenty of Windows computers get sold directly to consumers, and those are the sales that are most likely threatened by non-Windows devices right now, like smartphones and tablets. Here are some Windows 8 features that consumers may find interesting.

1: Games

One of the things that struck me about Windows Phone 7 was just how many games were quickly brought over from Xbox Live. Windows 8, with a similar infrastructure under the hood, looks like it will be the same way. I have always been a sucker for unique, quirky games, and by bringing the Xbox Live game set over, we should see lots of those for a low cost on Windows 8.

2: Tablets

Tablets may not be for everyone, but if you are or may become a tablet user, Windows 8 has appeal. It is tough to see how you wouldn’t want to consider a tablet that can potentially run all your existing applications (assuming you get an x86/x64 tablet). Microsoft has worked hard to give Windows 8 a touch-friendly UI, and having used the MetroUI on a Windows Phone 7 device for more than a year now, I think it is a great touch system. I’m eager to use it on a tablet.

3: Messaging

Windows 8 integrates messaging from common providers like Facebook, Live, and Twitter into one spot. It is nice not to have to go to different Web sites and leave a page open to monitor various data streams or get a bunch of third-party applications to do the same. The integrated messaging system is very slick and builds off of the unified contacts system. This is another feature borrowed from Windows Phone 7, and it is a great one.

4: App store

Windows has had an official app store in the past, though it was not terribly obvious and few people used it. With Windows 8, the app store is hard to miss. Not only is it the easiest way to load Metro applications onto Windows 8 devices, it will handle updates automatically too. The days of having out-of-date software or dealing with a zillion update applications is finally over! And if you need to replace a machine, there’s no need to dig up piles of installation discs or remember what apps you installed and downloaded from what sites and hope you still have serial numbers — you can easily reinstall them from the store.

5: Reduced security risk exposure, increased stability

The WinRT API that Metro applications are built on top of is designed to severely limit what Metro applications can do to the underlying system, as well as to user data and with each other. Internet Explorer running in Metro (but not the traditional Desktop) will not allow third-party plug-ins to run at all, either. This may be a curveball for developers, but for users it means that the risk of malware is significantly decreased. It will be very tough for applications to damage the system or affect user data maliciously or inadvertently.

6: Unified UI

Microsoft has been moving more and more of its systems to the Metro UI. With Windows 8, all the big form factors (PC, phone, tablet, and video game consoles) will be using the same UI principles and styling. That makes it a bit easier to get a handle on how to use new devices and new applications across platforms.

7: Cloud sync

Built into Windows 8 is cloud-based synchronization. By signing into a Windows 8 machine with a Live ID, all sorts of unified data is available across devices. For example, when I signed into a fresh Windows 8 Consumer Preview installation, all my Twitter, Facebook, and Live Messenger accounts were immediately established because I use the same Live ID on my phone. Changes I make to this data will instantly be reflected across the board as well. That’s pretty nice. It is especially helpful when replacing a device, because you don’t have to reestablish all these connections or re-import (or re-create) data.

8: Integration with services and applications

As I’ve mentioned, there is some neat integration around messaging and data in Windows 8. The integration goes much deeper, though. For example, My Pictures in Windows used to be nothing more than a directory that got special treatment from Windows Explorer. Now it has the notion of Albums and Libraries, which represent where the pictures come from. Services like Flickr and Facebook are integrated by default as Libraries, and third-party applications can tap into this functionality as well.
Likewise, the People Hub collects information about people you know from a variety of sources (Facebook, email accounts, LinkedIn, etc.) and puts it all in one place. Instead of an application-centric view of data, Windows 8 presents a data-centric view, minimizing the number of places you need to go to get access to data, while at the same time increasing the number of places it can be used.

9: Email

Windows Phone 7 gets a lot of kudos for its excellent email client. This email client has been brought over to Windows 8 and scaled up to the larger screen size. Unlike some previous versions of free email clients bundled into Windows, it is quite capable and for many people will be a significant upgrade. Like other parts of Windows 8, it provides a concentration of data from different places (in this case, email accounts) and presents a unified view that makes it easy to work with and respond to emails.

10: Simplicity

One of the key things in Windows 8 is that if you stick with Metro applications, it is a very simple system to deal with. Power users will not necessarily be thrilled about losing the control that they are used to (although they can still have it if they head to the Desktop on x86/x64 machines). But those who just want to sit down and “get stuff done” will appreciate how the OS gets out of the way and lets you do what you want to do.
Things like the highly reduced maintenance of applications (thanks to the app store), concentration of all email in one place (rather than the need for a native client and a few Web clients), and messaging add up to a simplified experience. You’re no longer switching between dozens of applications and Web pages but working around a small number of Hubs on the system based on your current needs. It is a refreshing change from the current overload of system tray notifications, buzzers, noises, and flashing taskbar icons that typify the current Windows system.

Monday, 19 March 2012

10 reasons Windows 8 will be painful for developers

Takeaway: If you plan to develop Windows 8 native apps, be prepared for some hurdles. Justin James looks at some of the biggest problems you’re likely to face.
Since the release of the Windows 8 Developer Preview, people have had a lot to say about the experience of playing with it. But few folks are talking about the changes it represents for developers. Windows 8 is the biggest update to the Windows development model since the move from Windows 3.X to Windows 95. While there are lots of good things, there are also a lot of pain points. If you are looking to develop Windows 8 native applications with the new Metro UI and WinRT API, be careful of these 10 things.

1: Market reboot

If you want your applications to be fully compatible with Windows 8 (including running on ARM CPUs), you’ll need to do a full rewrite in Metro/WinRT. This may be great for developers looking to break into markets with established players. But if you are the established player, you are suddenly back at square one.

2: The asynchronous model

Windows 8 development is highly dependent upon asynchronous operations for anything that is long running. While that may be a cute trick in some scenarios, it is downright frustrating in others (like trying to download a file). It isn’t just the work needed to handle the async call; it’s things like error handling and reporting problems back to the user. It requires a whole new approach to the UI from what developers (especially WinForms developers) are used to.

3: Lack of direct disk access

Windows 8 cuts off direct access to the system in quite a few ways, but the one that will hurt typical developers the most is the lack of disk access. Windows 8 follows an extreme isolation model for applications, and if your application requires access to data outside its own confined little world (including networked services you can access), you can forget about porting it to Windows 8.

4: Touch UI paradigm

Unless you have been writing a lot of mobile apps, shifting to the new UI style, which is designed for touch interaction, is going to pretty tough. It took me a long time to get a feel for what works well and what doesn’t. To make things more difficult, what looks and works well on a screen using a mouse and keyboard can be a poor experience with touch, and things that work well with touch often are a struggle to use on the screen. It’s a tricky balancing act, and as the uproar over the Metro UI in Windows 8 shows, even Microsoft is struggling to get it right despite having had a few years of Metro experience.

5: Playing by Microsoft’s app store rules

If you want to be using the Microsoft app store, you will need to learn to play by its rules. While the rules are fairly reasonable, it will be a jarring experience if it is anything like the WP7 App Hub. For starters, Microsoft rigorously inspects the application and looks for all sorts of things, like unhandled exceptions and circular UI paths. Although this ensures a high quality app, it can be a surprise to developers. In addition, you need to work with an approval process. The details of the Microsoft application store are still under wraps, but recent experience with WP7 suggests that it won’t be fun.

6: Heavy emphasis on cloud

While there is no mandate to use the cloud, Web services, and other off-premise techniques and technologies, it is most definitely encouraged. Things like automatic syncing of settings and data between devices (regardless of how it is done) will become the rule, not the exception, and users will be expecting it. Windows 8 makes this easy (you can have your locally saved information synced automatically with Live), but you will want to be judicious about how you do it for sensitive data. Encryption and other privacy and security techniques will become more important than ever.

7: Shift to “contracts” and “interfaces” for interop

One unique aspect of the Windows 8 paradigm is the idea that applications can provide services to the OS (such as acting as a source of contacts or pictures), as opposed to just dumping the data into a common directory. This allows all sorts of sweet application concepts. But even though this is easy at the technical level, it’s difficult to figure out how to leverage at the conceptual level.

8: Market uncertainty

Now we get into the more high-level pains. Microsoft is clearly pushing Windows 8 for tablets and maybe even phones. Right now, we’re seeing Android struggle in the tablet space, and at the same time, it seems like the Metro UI is universally panned by people who have tried the Developer Preview. But again, the Metro experience is geared for touch, and the Preview is usable only on a virtual machine, so the true tablet experience will be much different.
In addition, the people who have seen the Developer Preview simply do not represent the typical user one bit. Will the market adopt Windows 8 or reject it? Will Microsoft cave in and let people skip the Metro UI entirely? Will the tablet market for Windows 8 take off? These are all questions that won’t be answered until it is far too late to be a first mover in the market. If you are going to bet on Windows 8, you simply can’t properly assess the risks right now.

9: Lack of tablet hardware

Speaking of the disliked Developer Preview, not having tablets to try Windows 8 on is a major problem. There is just no good way right now to get an idea of what the user experience will be like for your applications on those tablets. Not just in terms of the UI either, but of performance. Can the tablet CPUs run your app well? Is it too “chatty” for a device on a cellular connection? Are you using more storage than makes sense for the typical tablet we’ll see? Without a few tablet models easily available, we don’t know the answers here.

10: The trail of dead tech

This is the one that really breaks my heart. Microsoft has a history of pushing a technology as “the next big thing” and then leaving it dying on the vine a few years later. We don’t know if Microsoft will back off its Windows 8 strategy before launch, right after launch (Kin), or a few years down the road (Zune, Silverlight). If the new Windows 8 paradigm is not a success, Microsoft may very well change course in a way that renders all your hard work on Windows 8 native applications a waste of time.

Analyze server performance with Microsoft Advisor: How to get started

Takeaway: Benefits of using Microsoft Advisor (part of the Software Assurance program) to analyze how well your servers are tuned to get the best performance out of them.
System Center Advisor (or just “Advisor”) is a benefit of the Software Assurance (SA) license program for organizations running Microsoft SQL Server 2008 (and later versions), and Windows Server 2008 (and later versions). Advisor collects on-premise configuration data from supported Microsoft server installations, analyzes it in the Microsoft Azure cloud, and provides feedback in emailed reports and through an online portal. Potential issues (such as missing security patches) or deviations from identified best practices with regard to configuration and usage are identified.
Advisor is an effort to share the expertise of Microsoft support teams, in the form of proactive recommendations, delivered to server and application administrators, before availability or performance issues occur. Advisor is not a monitoring service — it does not offer real-time alerting and does not measure application delivery. It’s been described as an automated Best Practice Analyzer and configuration history database for supported server technologies. Microsoft is expected to add other server technologies to Advisor soon and on a continuing basis in the future.

Figure A

The benefits to the Software Assurance customer for using the System Center Advisor benefit.
Figure A (from the Microsoft System Center Advisor web portal entry page) illustrates the ultimate goal for the customer: Reduced downtime. There is also the opportunity for improved server performance by informing administrators when servers are unpatched or misconfigured. Should things go wrong and you have to open a Microsoft support case, you can resolve issues faster by providing Microsoft with access to current and historical configuration data, which is stored by Advisor in the cloud.
There are two on-premise software components to the Advisor architecture: the gateway and the agent. A prerequisite to run the Advisor installer is the .NET Framework 3.5.1, which is enabled via the Features page of Windows Server Manager.
  • Gateway: An Internet-connected server on your network that can upload data collected from agents to System Center Advisor. The gateway uses TCP port 443 for encrypted transmission of the configuration of servers with Advisor agents to the Advisor web service at Microsoft.
  • Agent: Collects information from a server on your network and sends that information to a gateway. The agent uses TCP port 80 for communication on your network between Advisor agents and gateways.
System Center Advisor is hosted in the Microsoft Azure public cloud at datacenters in the United States. Gateways upload data daily in a batch process, and a weekly email summary of issues detected by Advisor is delivered. The language of Advisor today is English, but the service is available in a number of additional countries.

Getting started with System Center Advisor

Anyone can request activation of a free 60-day trial of System Center Advisor (trial link here). Existing volume license users with Software Assurance can start using a licensed instance of Advisor (SA link here). When you visit the System Center Advisor web portal and log in with the Live ID associated with your Advisor account, Advisor knows who you are and stages the right downloads for you in an Azure storage blob.
There are two files to download. An executable setup file (AdvisorSetup.exe), and a registration certificate file that digitally authenticates this Advisor gateway computer as part of your Advisor subscription. Figure B demonstrates downloading the two files with your web browser and kicking off an Advisor gateway installation.

Figure B

Download two files and run a setup wizard to install a System Center Advisor gateway. You can repeat the download process with the web browser at each computer that needs an agent or gateway. Alternatively, you can copy the setup file to a network share or removable media and repeat the install with the shared media. When installing a gateway server, you need to point the Advisor setup to the registration certificate file downloaded along with the executable setup file, but the certificate is only needed for gateway install and should not be widely distributed.

Steps to configure Advisor on servers

  1. After installing Advisor on a server, the Advisor Configuration Wizard program item appears on the server’s Start menu. The configuration wizard also runs automatically after first installing the software.
  2. There is an option to restrict connections to an Advisor gateway to a specific set of agents in your domain. This option provides an Advisor customer with an additional layer of filtering to confirm an exact list of agents allowed to send configuration data to Advisor.
  3. After completing the Advisor configuration wizard, within 24 hours you will see data in your account at the Advisor online portal.
  4. No configuration or application data is collected from a gateway server just by installing the Advisor gateway server component.
    • You need to expressly enable the Advisor agent component on the gateway server at the time you install the gateway, if you want the gateway server configuration analyzed by Advisor.
    • If you install a gateway without an agent, you can later re-run the setup executable (AdvisorSetup.exe) and select the Change option. Then select to activate the Advisor agent component as well as the gateway component.
  5. Finally, after installing a gateway server, you need to install agents on the servers to be analyzed by Advisor in the cloud. To install the Advisor agent, run AdvisorSetup.exe on each computer than needs an agent. The Advisor agent configuration wizard needs to know the fully qualified domain name (FQDN) of your Advisor gateway.

Monday, 12 March 2012

10 low-stress jobs for IT Pros

Takeaway: If you love IT but the stress levels are wearing you down, you might consider one of these less-intense job roles.

It is hard to say that there are any truly low-stress or stress-free jobs in the IT industry. IT workers operate on tight deadlines, mistakes can take entire companies down (or worse), and there never seem to be enough people to do the job. To make it even harder, IT pros are often asked to work with and even take direction from people who really have no clue about the technical details. But it is still possible to have a job in the IT industry that reduces many or even most of these pain points. Here are 10 IT industry jobs with relatively low stress levels.

1: Computer sales

As far as IT jobs go, being a salesperson at a computer store is about as stress-free as it gets. Sure, you need to deal with customers who often have no idea what they are talking about but come armed with a bunch of misinformation from the Internet and from their friends. But you know what? Sales folks don’t take their work home or have to deal with deadlines, and that alone makes a huge difference in the stress levels.

2: Desktop support technician

Desktop support can be tough, for sure. People’s PCs are not working and you need to get them back up and running as quickly as possible. The good news is, you should have a supply of PCs ready to go to get the user back up and running quickly if the problem is bad, so you can fix the broken machine in the shop. And yes, you are often forced to support a wide variety of applications, many of which you rarely have to work with. At the same time, most of the problems you see are the same list of issues, like bad hard drives and broken mice. Most important for the stress levels, while someone’s personal work (or a project) may get delayed until you fix the issue, systems administrators and network engineers have to fix problems that often affect entire departments, buildings full or people, or even the entire company.

3: Backups administrator

Believe it or not, some companies are big enough to have folks dedicated completely to managing backups. The beauty of this job is that while needing to restore from backup is a super-critical task, it is a rare issue. The majority of your day is spent doing routine tasks that are not under the gun on deadlines.

4: Configuration (or presales) engineer

If you’ve ever dealt with a company to spec out a server, you’ve worked with a configuration engineer. They come in a variety of flavors, but the common theme is that they are not the ones doing the actual implementation — which is where the stress of timelines and things not going right come into play. Once the purchase order is authorized, the configuration engineer has moved on to the next client. Again, this is a customer-facing job. But your customers tend to be knowledgeable, which takes a lot of the stress away.

5: Computer lab support

When I was in college, we had many computer labs on campus, and one of the much-coveted on-campus jobs was to be one of the support folks for these labs. Many colleges still have computer labs, despite the proliferation of student-owned PCs. For me, this was the easiest, least stressful IT job ever. All I had to do was answer basic questions (like how to save a file), keep the printers full of paper and toner and jam-free, clean one or two computers per shift, and file a ticket if a computer broke. I wasn’t there to troubleshoot. I’d just reboot the computer if it gave the user grief. The only stress from this job was the low paycheck.

6: Application architect

Of the wide variety of development jobs, I tend to see application architects as having the least amount of direct pressure on them in general. All development jobs are stressful in their own way, but architects’ code usually doesn’t deal with the troubles caused by actual users since the architects mostly write libraries that other developers use and guide the overall development of the application. Architects are often more separated from deadlines than other developers because the bulk of their work occurs at the front end of a project.

7: Build engineer

The build engineer is the person responsible for automating the processes and procedures for building software from source code to running code. Many times, they will fold in a lot of other work as well, such as creating unit tests (or setting up unit tests to be run), making setup kits, handling automatic deployment of code to test machines on a regular basis, and managing the source control system. Like the architect, this job seems to butt up against timelines the least and requires minimal contact with people outside IT. While it is a difficult job that requires knowledge of a large number of technologies, it is the kind of position where you are left in relative peace and quiet to do your work.

8: Installation technicians

The installation technician is the person who performs the initial installation and configuration of a piece of hardware, especially things like cable boxes and DSL modems. The beauty of this job is that while you are on a timeline and have a schedule, any major problems found at the client’s site are justifiable grounds for delaying the installation and are generally understood by the customer. As a rule, any mission-critical installations are performed well in advance of their deadline, which keeps a lot of the stress levels down.

9: Trainer

Trainers have a great job: They come in, present their materials, and leave before the real carnage occurs. Yes, trainers are there to educate, and it can be frustrating at times to be a teacher. And of course, speaking for much of the day — and often on your feet for most of it — can be difficult. Trainers may spend a fair amount of time traveling, too. But all the tensions that the typical IT staff has to deal with, like projects, crashes, end users, just are not there.

10: IT industry analyst

Without a doubt, one of the best jobs in the IT industry is that of industry analyst. These are the people who talk to industry leaders and then write reports filled with predictions of the IT future. Of course, like most folks, they do operate on a deadline. And to make things a bit more stressful, they tend to not be well respected by the rank-and-file IT workers. At the same time, though, they never have to actually implement anything. Even better, their mistakes do not result in dead servers, security breaches, or buggy applications. And by the time it is possible to find out whether their predictions were right, no one remembers them — or if they do, the “uncertainty of the rapidly evolving industry” is a perfectly acceptable scapegoat for mistakes.
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