Monday, 29 June 2009

Castle walls

Just over a week ago, Microsoft held their Technet Virtual Conference – I found it a really useful event and there were a lot of interesting features. If you missed it then you might want to know that the material is still available from their main website.

During the day, items were split between technical and management; the first item in the management section was a recorded talk by Miha Kralj, one of their senior architects. He had a lot to say on the topic of where IT is likely to go over the next decade and it was delivered in a straight forward, humorous fashion. I found that I agreed with much of what he said – but there were a couple of items where I think he was a little bit out.

He talked about people in the workplace – how they fall into certain categories, Baby Boomers born the 20 years after WWII (which includes me!), Generation X, Generation Y and the latest additions to the work place, the Digital Natives. He stated that this latest generation are much more attuned to using computing devices and companies need to take this into account when planning for the future.

He argued that the Digital Natives are used to making use of newer technologies such as Instant Messaging, social networking sites such as Facebook, video sites such as YouTube or photo sharing sites like Flickr, and will expect to be able make use of these as part of their normal work routine. They are therefore unlikely to be happy conforming to corporate rules preventing the use of these products, and so companies need to “tear down the walls” to their networks.

When I heard this, my immediate reaction was one of horror – like many others, I have had to deal with issues such as virus or spyware infection caused by a user opening an email or downloading a file that is actually a piece of malware. The old saying “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” is very relevant for those of us at the front end.

I understand the value of making use of these products, and in fact we are looking at introducing some newer methods of communication to improve the way that people work. But I also am very concerned about the topic of security. The reality is that the majority of users are still very na├»ve about safety measures – those of us entrusted with system administration cannot afford to rely on the users to keep themselves safe, and we have to make sure that they are not put in a position where they can compromise the security of the network.

Unfortunately, the new Digital Natives may well know how to do things, but are not yet savvy enough to know if they should; or more importantly, why they should not do something (and for that matter, most other users are just as bad). We may be able to allow some windows into our secure networks, but to remove the protection completely would be a very foolish thing indeed.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Technet Virtual Conference June 09

One of the problems for many people working in IT is the tendency to work in small groups, possibly even alone – there are many more of us working in teams of 5 or less than there are that work in larger groups. Unfortunately, this can then cause us to develop a “silo” attitude to working. It’s then very easy to become blinkered in our attitudes and the way that we work.

For that reason, I try to get out of the business occasionally to attend various events, and I encourage my staff to do the same so that we can see what else is going on in the world. In the last few years we’ve been to various seminars that were on developing technology that we thought might be of use to us that we needed to learn more about, and of course we always try to get along to the supplier events (just a hint to the suppliers – guys, forget all the crappy junk that you hand out, it’s t-shirts we want!)

Over the years, I’ve seen the Tech-Ed events and have wanted to go; but the company won’t pay and I can’t justify stumping up the cash myself. So when it was announced that the Microsoft Technet team were planning to hold a “virtual” conference, I was intrigued. I work quite a bit with video-conferencing and audio-conferencing – and as part of my studies through the OU, I’m used to collaborative online work with forums, wikis and blogs. For me, making it an online experience makes a lot of sense – instead of spending money on event facilities, the resources can go into the content.

If you didn’t get the chance to attend the event, then most of the material is still available on-line at: http://vepexp.microsoft.com/govirtual
and I understand that this should remain available at this location until September 09 – I imagine that it will be available after that, but filed away somewhere else. I would suggest that there is something for everyone – plenty of useful material for the techie, and for the managers alike.

Now many people can get cynical about these sorts of things – they envisage it purely as a sales vehicle. I understand those concerns and yes, it could be argued that Microsoft is trying to sell us on the idea of buying more of their products. Well Duh! they are a commercial enterprise – of course they want to sell things. However, the event was much more about the ideas behind the use of the technology and the way that it can be used.

We are currently doing some evaluation work with Windows 7 and there were a couple of items during the event that discussed new features and the way that Microsoft sees it being deployed. These were very useful – they highlighted bits that we hadn’t actually seen and we will be making a point of checking them out at some stage. There was also information about some of the additional features in Server 2008 R2 that we want to look at – and there was a session on Data Protection Manager Server 2007 which my staff and I think is one of the most valuable / useful products we have ever bought.

A few minor criticisms – I had a couple of issues with some of the material, probably because I was watching on a laptop whilst doing some other work, so on occasion the videos were a bit jumpy and some of the lip synching was slightly off; the presentation slides could also be out of step with the talk. I had a problem with one of the sessions; it froze part way through and wouldn’t re-start. (OK, I need to buy more memory for my laptop, I only have 512M.) However, I went back to it the following day and watched all the way through. There was also an issue with the chat function – apparently even the Technet staff had this problem.

On the positive side, I would highlight one particular session that stood out for me – a look at the future in a session by Miha Kralj. Really thought provoking and delivered with sense of humour. I would have to say that I do actually take issue with some of his points and may even discuss it in more detail in subsequent blog posts. But don’t take my word for, go the site and hear what the man has to say for yourselves.

All in all, 2 thumbs up for a very useful resource produced by the guys and girls at Technet – I think that they all deserve a big pat on the back for a great job well done. I’m told that around 4,000 people took part on the day and I really hope that many more go back to the site to check out the resources in the next few months. I think that they also plan to hold more events like this in future and I for one would definitely be taking part if possible.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

You don't want to do it like that .....

A few weeks ago, I was invited to go to another company. Whilst there, I had the chance to talk to a couple of their IT people about some of the issues that they face.

One of the first things that I discovered was that they have a real problem with their Exchange Server – it regularly stops working because the database un mounts. I was interested to know why, because we have only had that happen to us once in 4 years; and that was just after we had migrated from Exchange 5.5 to Exchange 2003.

It appears that their mailbox database is 85 GB in size; quite a bit over the 75 GB that is referred to in all the material on Exchange. All of the stuff that I found indicates that this will cause regular un mounting of the database due to the limits of the product (Standard edition).

I was a bit surprised at the size of their mail store – ours is just over 16 GB in size and we have about the same number of users. I told them that we operate a rigid set of limits – 200 MB per user for their mailbox and no attachments over 5 MB in size. They were astonished that we could get away with that; they told me that their users would be very unhappy at such limits. But as I asked them, are the users happy that the email system goes offline several times a week?

We’ve found that if you allow certain people more space, they just push it to the limit and if you then give them more, they will just save more rubbish. We’ve had people delete files, then leave these in the deleted folder – just in case they want to refer to the mail. We’ve had people keep emails from 10 years ago – in many cases the sender or recipient concerned are no longer around. Unfortunately, our experience shows that users will not manage their mailboxes unless you force them to.

We also found that people were just emailing files without even thinking about what they were doing; no attempt to compress or even check if it was appropriate to email the files. The worst case was someone from a sister company sending in a .pdf file of 80MB – to make it worse, the recipient was the CEO and he only wanted the one page from the document, not the whole file. We also regularly get people sending large files to multiple recipients – a few weeks ago, someone tried to email a software attachment of 8 MB to 20 people.

So we enforce the limits with absolute rigidity, and for the most part our users are used to this. We do allow them to archive off some mail to data files that are stored separately on a server – and these are then backed up as part of our normal backup routine. As a result, we get very few problems – this would indicate that our way of working is efficient and therefore other people would be wise to follow what we do.

However, what works for us most definitely would not work for other people. I’m aware that there are people that need to keep emails for much longer and are not allowed to delete anything as they have to keep records of all contacts for regulatory reasons. There is a tendency for IT people to assume that what they do will work for everyone – a bit like the Harry Enfield character who insists “You don’t what to do it like that, you want to do ….”

Unfortunately, in many cases, the person so insistent that he knows the best way to do something is unaware of all the facts. I had exactly that a few years ago; someone insisted that I could fix a problem by doing a particular thing to the TCP/IP settings. When I pointed out that we were using IPX/SPX, it meant nothing to him – he had never worked with NetWare and didn’t understand the difference between the two networking protocols.

Despite this, I am of the view that we could do a lot more in the industry to pass information on good practice around between people. In our department, we regularly find hints and tips that we like to test out in case there is something that helps make our job easier or prevents problems from occurring. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t – but it’s all good.