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Reflections on VMworld

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It’s been over a year since I’ve posted a blog here.  The last time I posted, VMworld was just over and the feeling of community with the various people I’ve met was strong.  Now that almost a year has passed it’s time to look back on what VMworld actually meant to me.

What a year it’s been!  On the one hand, I haven’t written nearly as much – here, or anywhere else – as I would ideally like.  On the other hand, I’ve made a lot of headway getting various business-related arrangements dealt with.

In many ways my world now revolves around VMworld.  Before one VMworld is over I’m already working with clients to plan for the next.  Everything in tech marketing seems a sprint from one major conference to the next, but VMworld is the big one.

Looking back on VMworld

I spent an awful lot of time analyzing VMworld 2013 from an intellectual standpoint.  “What does it mean to your career” or “what does it mean in terms of making connections with vendors/the community/etc.”  I think I’ve been asked to write that schtick at least a dozen times since then.  It has been analysed and reanalyzed so many times that I think to rehash that from an intellectual level is pointless.

So instead, I want to analyse VMworld from an emotional standpoint.  Without allowing myself to head too deep into things, what are the surface memories?  The bright, sharp emotional moments that float to the surface?

My clearest memory of VMworld 2013 is vBeers.  It was a tweetup held in this hot, cramped bar called the Chieftain.  I remember sweltering.  I remember ordering too much to drink…and I remember encountering some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

The counterpoint to this would be a vendor party I attended that was absolutely flaccid.  There were very few attendees, a lot of marketing and chest-thumping by one of the company founders…and not a lot of prominent community members.

The entire event was basically some hoary old executives who all used work together way back when pretending they didn’t despise each other.  They managed it just long enough to see whose  social status had changed in the interim since the last phallus measuring contest, then it was back to trading pointed barbs and a quick evacuation of the premises.

I remember the worn, harried look on the faces of Matt Stephenson and Rick Vanover.  Normally possessed of boundless energy, the event sucked the life out of them and by the end they were mere shells so obviously needing a good vacation that I wished I could do something to help.

I remember certain influential individuals engaging in name calling on Twitter, where they attacked a startup full of good people for no better reason than that this startup had the termidity to compete with a startup their friend worked at.  I remember the sinking feeling of losing respect for those individuals who – until then – I had held in the highest of esteem.  It felt like having your childhood heroes die.

There were booths; so many that they blurred into insignificance and there were interviews and food that I wasn’t sure was food.

Above all, I remember the friends I made.  For all the exhaustion and the heat, the too many parties and the overdoing it on multiple fronts, I made some great friends at VMworld 2013, and that made every moment worth it.

How to succeed at throwing VMworld 2014 Parties

If you are running a VMworld party, let me give you some free advice: nobody cares about your product or your company.  What they care about is meeting and greeting the people they know, or have only “met” on social media.  They want to meet their friends’ friends.  They want to talk, and socialise and that has some very real consequences for how to design your party:

Make sure you have some “key influencers” going. I don’t mean “key influencers” in terms of “these people have highly read blogs.”  I mean “people that other people actually want to spend time with.”

You can have one of the top read blogs of all time but still be an arrogant, egotistical douchecanoe.  Don’t invite these people.  They probably feel they’re too good for you anyways and so you’ll just expend innumerable resources trying to get them, only to have nobody show up because – in truth – nobody can stand being in the same room as these guys.

Instead, troll the vExpert pages and do some research on twitter.  Who are people that other people seem to be eager to meet up with?  If you’re in a bind, reach out to other marketing types who know the VMworld scene for who the charismatic friendly types are.  The community is great, you will get helped.

Don’t try to talk about your product at the party. If your party is bumping, people will remember who you are.  Make sure you give away a bit of swag to all attendees that helps them remember who you are, maybe with a little “thanks for coming” note by your CEO and a very brief blurb about what you do and why people should care.  Give them a link to follow what will contain some nice short intro videos and your various whitepapers.

Don’t crank the music up to 11.  People don’t go to these parties to be deafened.  They want to talk to their friends.  To you.  To everyone.  They want to socialise, and they can’t do that if they can’t hear themselves think.

Don’t cram the place so full that people can’t move.  You want people to move, to mingle.  You want them to make friends and to associate your party with positive emotions a year down the line.  Those positive emotions will become associated with your company, and that right there is the holy grail of marketing.

Consider adding a panel discussion or two to your party.  You are at an event full of nerds.  Believe it or not, inviting a bunch of them to a place where you will give them intellectual stimulation in their chosen profession, food and tasty beverages pretty much guarantees they will like you.

Parting thoughts

People are tired, harried and stressed out at VMworld.  It is their natural state.  Try to work around the other parties going on during the event, and the major items at the event itself.  Many people will want to attend both your party and those of other vendors…even your competitors!  Consider pre-arranging transport not only to and from the event but also to and from other major parties.

Special needs should be taken into account.  Someone with a wheelchair might not be able to take a regular taxi (though a towncar or most of the vans will generally work.)  Someone with special food considerations might be a little upset if the only food on offer is yummy, yummy bacon.

What will really set you apart from the hundreds of other companies that blur into insignificance – either at an after party or in the event itself – is to make the people you are reaching out to feel special.  Virtually every vendor treats attendees like so much chaff to be sorted in the desperate search for wheat.

In the age of social media, remember that even that “chaff” that you dismiss and discard as not relevant to your short term tactical requirements can have far more influence than you suspect.

The goal of VMworld should not be sales.  Very few people attending VMworld are in a state of mind conducive to making rational purchasing decisions.  Your goal should be to raise awareness of your company amongst those who attend, and amongst those who don’t, by means of social media amplification.

Focus your resources on one singular question: “how can I make the lives of the people attending this conference less stressful?”  Succeed, and you will have turn a random bit of “chaff” into a staunch evangelist for your company.

Pull that trick off enough times and, instead of leaving this spectacularly expensive industry event with a handful of new customers and a few thousand e-mail “leads”, you’ll walk away with an unstoppable army of believers.

Addendum

Chris Dearden has a dissenting view to offer:

Its a great Article & I agree with many of the points in it – working for a vendor that I believe does VMworld pretty well ! It all comes down to knowing your audience-being able to staff a booth with smart people to talk technical, to providing something a little higher level for the less technical but influential people – many delegates will have come along with their boss, who ultimatly may hold the purse strings. If you can sucessfully connect at both levels that you have a really sucessfull event.

Panel sessions at a Vendor party ? possibly a little far for me ( personally ) There is a lot of info to take in at these things, so I’d personally want a little bit of time to let my mind rest.

I absolutely agree that “knowing your audience” is the key to victory, be it in love, a military campaign or in technology marketing.  My personal experiences and understanding of the VMworld event state that “non-technical individuals” are in the distinct minority at these events.  That said, I could be wrong.  Alternately, you could be desiring to target “non-technical individuals” instead of – or in addition to – technical ones.

In my opinion, there is no party or booth design, no marketing campaign, no sales pitch that is universally effective.  It is a statistics game.  Who are you targeting?  Why are you targeting them?

Are you targeting the exact same people or companies that every other startup – and all of the majors – are targeting?  Are you irrelevant in the face of overwhelming competition, or have you found a niche where you can be profitable, and expand outwards from there?

There is an old Native American saying that goes “if you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.”  No individual or company can please everyone.  You must decide whose affections you need to draw.

Where my advice differs from traditional marketing, sales and the established mantra of extant vendors and startups is that I honestly and earnestly do not believe that targeting the CIOs of the Fortune 2000 at conferences with slavish obedience is going to net you victory.

Every single vendor, sales geek and marketing nerd at every single conference wants a piece of those same individuals.  If you blur into insignificance for me, a nobody, imagine how antlike you appear to them.  How many times have they had the same pitch? Seen the same fevered desperation in someone’s eyes?

How likely, really, are they to leave their established “preferred vendors” and pick you…and do you honestly and truly believe in your heart of heart that it is the hurried pawing at them during a conference that will win the day?

The above reasoning is why I recommend a different, more community focused path.  It will help you reach out to more than just the same Fortune 2000 companies that everyone else is targeting.

This could well help you find a profitable niche.  But also because it could well help you create trust and respect amongst a community of vocal evangelists that could translate into a grassroots movement around your product…or even your community managers.  (See; Veeam, Unitrends and even VMware itself.)

I respect Mr. Dearden’s opinion in this matter, and I respect him as well.  He has a great deal of experience and knowledge, and – quite frankly – he plays in richer waters than I do.  For all my florid prose, I am still small time, and still a Silicon Valley outsider.

Consider both opinions.  Consider the evidence of your own experience.  Discuss with your coworkers and even your competitors.  Choose for yourselves the best path, and good luck to all of you.

Enjoy VMworld 2014!

Podcasting for Cancer

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If you’ve been paying attention to my twitter – or that of many other vBloggers and vExperts – then you’ve seen me talking about Podcasting for Cancer.  I have been asked by more than a few people why I started this.  What’s the point?  What am I trying to achieve?

Many questions have filtered in amongst the overwhelming support for the idea.  As the project is taking on a life it’s own more and more people are becoming involved.  I thought it would be a good time to talk a little about the whys and wherefores so that all those people who are doing excellent work are given the kudos they are due.

Why I did this is simple: a friend of mine – Gabriel Chapman – has just learned that his mom’s cancer has moved into her lungs.  This is after recently losing his dad to the disease and two of his grandparents before that.  Before I had heard of this, everything that could be said had already been said by others.  No amount of platitudes or sympathy will make something like this better.

I felt wholly inadequate in the face of that frustration and sorrow.  My own worries and concerns seemed small and petty.  Gabe is a good guy; a friend…and he is hurting.  The urge to do something about that is powerful, as is the feeling of inadequacy as I flailed about trying to thing of something that might make even the smallest amount of difference.

I’ve never lost anyone to cancer; not while I was old enough to remember.  Nonetheless, I tried to put myself in his shoes.  I could imagine feeling trapped, impotent, isolated; the whole world turned against you, everyone living their lives while you feel like you’re underwater, struggling for air.  I thought about this and decided that the one thing that I could provide for my friend was the feeling that he wasn’t alone.

vPeeps are amazing

Pushing a few knobs on Indiegogo and filling out some forms isn’t exactly a huge burden.  Putting some time and effort into social networking and rallying the troops around this also isn’t a big deal  I have spent enough time amongst the vBloggers, vExperts and vVendors that make up the VMware community to know that if I only pushed that first domino, they would rally behind it and we would make that $5000 goal.

Gabriel Chapman is well liked.  Cancer is a terrible disease that has touched almost everyone’s life.  Put these two things together and I knew that if we (the community) set out to raise money in the Chapman familiy’s name then that money would get raised.

More importantly, I hoped that Gabe would be shown that even in this very dark time, he is not alone.  He has made an impact on an entire community and made quite literally dozens of friends, all of whom are there for him in whatever way we can possibly help.

The community did not disappoint.

A life of its own

What I didn’t expect was exactly how quick and enthusiastic the response would actually be.  Everyone seems willing to donate time to being on a podcast or a webex as part of the effort.  People are spreading the information through social media, contacting vendors and trying to keep momentum going.  $5000 looks to have been a very shortsighted goal.

The driving forces behind this explosion of community have been Jon Harris and Jonathan Frappier. They’ve taken my very simple idea and infused it with energy, ideas and passion that look set to grow Podcasting for Cancer far beyond anything I could have imagined.

There is talk of tying the event in with Movember and even running it as a regular yearly thing.  Brainstorming and strategy sessions about how to drum up vendor support and really catalyze the community followed.  Discussions were had to get other community organisations – like vBrownbag, vDB and VMUG – behind the project.

In two days these gentlemen have taken an idea I hadn’t really thought out completely and turned the knobs up to 11.  They are amazing.

I set out on this journey with nothing more in mind than making a friend feel less lonely and helpless.  The community response – exemplified in the efforts of “the Jons” – might just change the world.  If there is a bag of kudos to be heaped here, it is upon them.

Thank you, all of you…and let’s keep on podcasting for cancer.

VMworld hats

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I’m a sysadmin attending a conference for sysadmins. I’m a journalist who wants to write up news, reviews and do in depth hands-on investigations of new and interesting technologies.

I’m a marketing consultant working as part of larger marketing teams organizing everything from booths at the event to the minute fiddly details of “the message”.  My clients are both startups, but one of them is parked inside the booth of a 13-billion-dollar company and I still can’t wrap my mind around the fact that not only do my ideas get airtime amongst their very experienced team, they are acted upon.

I’m a serial conference afterparty attendee but also someone who’s helping put one together. I’m a game/contest player and also someone helping organise them. I’m attending 5 webexes a day and helping run more than a few of my own.

There are even a few things I’m participating in which I can’t talk about yet because I’m under NDA. Oh, and I still have networks to take care of; at least two of which are undergoing some fairly major overhauls in preparation for the Q4 silly season.

Somewhere amongst all of this I am trying to train up some more sysadmin bloggers so that you lot can have a more diverse range of voices than just mine.  I’ve got a pair of them attending VMworld with me; others I’m bringing into interviews (or having them run interviews) in the hopes that they can skip some of the embarrassing faceplants that I had to go through.

I don’t sleep much anymore, but man, VMworld is going to be a blast.

Storage for the SMB

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As some of you following me on Twitter know, I am in the process of trying to spec out a storage and virtualisation upgrade for one of my clients.  The requirements are as follows:

12TB initial deployable storage, scalable to 50TB.
30K IOPS.
1TB of virtual host RAM across the network.
It can cost no more than $35K.

The client has several hosts already; 8x 64GB hosts are already in play given them an installed capacity of 512GB of virtual RAM.  The storage subsystem, however, is over 6 years old and 100% virtual-host local.  I am losing disks on this thing left right and center (300GB WD Velociraptors are crafted from the raw evil of the universe from whence politicians and lawyers spring) so the time to replacement on this is measured – at maximum – in the 3 month range.

This setup must be – quite literally – bulletproof.  I won’t be in the office 16 hours a day any more.  This has to be able to deal with hardware failure.

Call it paranoia if you must, but I don’t trust the standard SAN configurations.  Redundant PSUs, dual controllers, dual-port hard drives…but single motherboard, CPU and RAM.  The storage and power subsystems are redundant, but there are still single points of failure!  You’ll pardon me if I don’t place faith in platitudes that say “the statistics on motherboard/CPU/RAM failure are so low that the risk calculations make our product awesome!”

We are talking about a company betting their entire business on one device that has a single point of failure here.  There isn’t room for that company to ever be in the wrong spot on the statistical curve.

So my preliminary solution is block-level replication across multiple hosts.  In this case, a Supermicro server using an LSI controller with CacheCade running on Windows Server 2012.  Server 2012 gives me dedupe for file-level sharing, Distributed File System Replication to move file-level-shared items from primary to failover node as well as SMB 3.0 and MPIO support.  I plan to use the native Server 2012 target for block-level replication between the two hosts unless it proves unstable, at which point Starwind would do fine.

The LSI controller allows me to provide bulk storage using spinning rust, then accelerate that storage by simply plugging in SSDs and designating them as cache.  This makes the most frequently used blocks go faster, driving up IOPS while keeping the cost of overall storage down.

Preliminary calculations on the server hardware without disks have the following components for around $5000:

Chassis: Supermicro SC846BE16-R1K28B
Motherboard: Supermicro X9SRi-F
CPU: Intel Xeon E5-2620
RAM: Kingston 64GB (4x 16GB) DDR3-1600 ECC REG Kit
NIC: Intel X520-DA2 E10G42BTDA
RAID: LSI 9280-16i4e
RAID BBU: LSI LSI00264 MegaRAID LSIiBBU08 Battery Backup Unit
RAID Module: LSI LSI00292 MegaRAID CacheCade Pro 2.0
RAID Cables:   LSI Mini-SAS cable CBL-SFF8087SB-06M (x3)
OS: Windows Server 2012 Standard

Disks are another matter.  Fully laden we’re talking about $8800 worth of disks per server. 4x Crucial M500 960GB SATA 2.5″ 7mm SATA3 (CT960M500SSD1) for flash acceleration and 20 WD RE 3TB SATA3 (WD3000FYYZ).

That would make my storage nodes $13800 each or $27600 for the pair.  That could be a little higher if I need to use the Starwind iSCSI target.  Still, that leaves around $5000 to buy a pair of compute nodes with 512GB of RAM between them; entirely doable in today’s world.

More realistically, however, I would deploy these systems without being fully laden.  I would stick to 12 of the spinning rust hard drives and 2 of the SSDs.  That would put the disk load at $5000.  Which means $10K per node for ~30TB usable at ~30K IOPS with room to expand that by another 24TB of spinning rust and 2x SSDs.

So for ~20K$ I get ~30TB of storage at ~30K IOPS redundant enough that I can actually *shoot* one of the nodes and the system will keep working.   What’s more, when PernixData hits general availability (and assuming it is priced anywhere near reach for an SMB like this) then you can simply “make it go faster” by tossing some Intel 520 480GB SSDs into the compute nodes and enabling PernixData.  Instant upgrade!

This is a preliminary design, mind you.  There’s still a lot of work to be done – not the least of which is to see if off-the-shelf solutions can match or beat it – but it’s still really, really cool.

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I’m not exactly known for dissembling.  When I have a beef I say what’s on my mind; today I have a beef with subscriptions.  Specifically, I have a beef with Microsoft’s subscription policies and how they seem to be taking over for the pseudo-ownership of perpetual licensing that Microsoft themselves introduced us to.  (Much to IBM’s dismay.)

You are nothing but a wallet

Subscriptions give Microsoft power they simply didn’t have before; turn the knobs even a small amount and they can post growth every single quarter.  Tie it all together with massive amounts of vertical integration and they have a mechanism to perpetually drive up Average Revenue Per User (ARPU).

You’ll note that ARPU is a figure often bandied about by other monopolies, duopoloies and oligopolies.  Telecommunications providers, utilities companies and so forth use this as a measure of success.  They have as much market share as they are ever going to get in their markets; spending on R&D to enter adjacent markets isn’t a Wall Street sanctioned business strategy so they work on driving up ARPU with as little investment as humanly possible.

A great example is a telco/ISP entering the IPTV market; they can buy commercial, off-the-shelf technologies that allow them to use their existing infrastructure and investments to deliver a new service they can charge extra for.  This is bad for consumers; ARPU pushes are generally tied to anti-competitive action which pushes the limits of legality in order to prevent anyone else from offering the value add service in question cheaper or more conveniently.

More to the point, perhaps, is that end users have a vested interest in driving down the ARPU; generations of individuals have been raised to believe capitalism – the very foundation of western society itself – will provide more and better goods and services for less money over time.  Technology and automation are supposed to deliver more for less; people tend to be opposed to getting less and paying more.

Turn the knobs

Cutting to the heart of the matter, Microsoft wants the nice, steady, recurring revenue stream that subscriptions can offer.  That and tying everyone’s data up in their cloud locks them in such that Microsoft can now make hostages not only of enterprises on SA agreements but SMBs and even individual users too.

Microsoft have had a stranglehold on large enterprises for ages now. Every time they make a change to the SA agreement the market howls, but ultimately they have no choice to they pay up.  The subscription model looks like a great way to get at consumers and SMBs that have thus far resisted.

Microsoft want to milk those folks for more money as they see refresh cycles lengthening; people don’t buy computers (and thus new Windows, Office, etc licenses) every three years.  They are dragging it out; 6, 8 even 10 years between refreshes.  This is a tempting revenue stream.  But let’s face the truth: these people don’t have the money to give.  If Microsoft really pursues this as aggressively as it appears they are gearing up to do then they are going to spend more on PR trying to make up for squeezing these folks than they’ll ever get in return.

Another major problem is that the concept of subscriptions is inextricably tied to the perpetual upgrade model.  Microsoft has a noted history of rolling out massive user interface changes, user-hostile licensing changes and outright stinker versions of operating systems and applications without so much as a whoopsy-daisy.  There are users and businesses out there that simply do not want to be part of the perpetual upgrade scheme.  They fear – rightly, to my mind – that well-documented tendency to screw us.

It’s a trap!

This subscription thing is folly.  Microsoft’s position isn’t nearly so secure as it likes to think.  While it has the nuts of large enterprises in a vice, the same is absolutely not true of the consumer or SMB markets.  It can lose both entire markets.  Depending on whether or not you count tablets as computers you could rationally make the argument that on the consumer side it already has.

Microsoft is replicable.  If it becomes something that consumers and SMBs start seeing as a disposable vendor of tat – or gods forbid one amongst many competing and equal service providers – then Microsoft is done for.  That would put Microsoft into a market not unlike the mobile telcos; sure, it would be part of an oligopoly, but it would be loathed and despised.  Microsoft would be talked about in the same sentence as lawyers, politicians and the scum that grows on our shower tiles.

This is fine and dandy when you’re a monopoly; horrible when you’re part of an oligopoly of functionally interchangeable vendors.  When you’re the one at that party with the bad reputation then the user churn you are going to experience is frightful.  Unlike telecommunications, however, there aren’t 100 years of laws in place to prevent new entrants to the market.

“Any kid in his garage” can no longer enter the market and take away Microsoft’s toys, but any company large enough to front a decent public cloud very much so can.  For the first time in decades Microsoft needs to care about PR.  Unfortunately, their PR and marketing bodies aren’t prepared to fight this battle.

Speak the Lingo

Microsoft is at heart an enterprise vendor.  It is used to dealing with companies where all you have to do is wine and dine the right person to win a multi-million dollar contract.  Hookers and blow will get you in that world what honour and fair pricing never could.

Sadly, that isn’t the way of the rest of the world.  Consumers – particularly younger consumers – are functionally immune to marketing.  You can’t just lie to them and expect them to buy it.  Worse, these street smart young punks – increasingly with actual technical experience – are entering the executive level and taking jobs as CIOs.  These people won’t be bought with calamari and strippers; they need TCO, reliability and – believe it or not – a sense that they are getting treated fairly by their vendors.

Will Microsoft figure the above out before or after irreparable harm has been done to their reputation and/or market position?  How many more Apples and Googles do they need to create through their own astounding lack of understanding?  Microsoft can choose to own the market tomorrow, or they can piss it all away.  The choice is theirs.

Stepping back a bit…

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I’ve talked before on these pages about the tech support issues imposed by Windows 8’s new UI, as well as the licensing issues that make truly managing a mobile Windows 8 experience prohibitively expensive.  I want to dive into how this affects the wider Windows 8 experience and the ecosystem that surrounds it.

And we back this all up how?

Beyond the user interface issues, Microsoft’s vision of the future has another item that really bothers me: how exactly are we supposed to back this all up?  One of the reasons I like the VDI model is that it allows me to invest once in an expensive infrastructure designed to be resilient and reliable.  My home system has a RAID; it backs up to a NAS, that NAS synchronizes to a mirror counterpart at the office for off-site recovery.

In my vision of the world the endpoint is irrelevant; it is a disposable commodity designed for ease of use relative to the individual environment you happen to be in.  Kiosk, phone, tablet, notebook, desktop; where you are determines the best form factor to use and you simply log in and access your environment from there.

Any applications local to the machine should be cheap or free.  They should have a very similar interface across all devices and become a part of the “background” of using the device.  If you lose the endpoint – or the hard drive dies – it doesn’t matter; the critical stuff is centrally provisioned.  If you want to do this in Microsoft’s world, you have to pay; far more than individuals or most SMBs will ever be able to afford to.

In Microsoft’s vision we all use applications installed on physical devices to get things done.  We all buy a copy of each app for each physical device.  We have personal customized environments that synchronize with Microsoft’s cloud.  Our data synchronizes with the cloud using Microsoft’s <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SkyDrive”>Skydrive</a>.

Applications bought through the Windows Store will sync their settings too, so the obvious implication is that we should buy all of our applications there if we want our environment to be portable between devices.  Even Windows 8’s inbuilt repair options treat non-Windows-Store apps as irrelevant second-class software.

Microsoft is at the center of this universe.  Microsoft’s operating system, Microsoft’s applications, Microsoft’s store, Microsoft’s devices, Microsoft’s cloud services and Microsoft’s enterprise support applications.  Try to break out of this Microsoft on Microsoft on Microsoft synchronized to Microsoft and supported by Microsoft universe and your experience becomes decidedly second rate.

Utilizing a dominant position in one market…

Everything about the new Microsoft endpoint experience – including the very design of the user interface – is designed to lock you in to their ecosystem and keep you there.  Power users and SMBs who can’t afford the complete stack pay the price for Microsoft’s vertically integrated ambitions.

Similarly those companies and individuals with privacy concerns or who are subject to laws restricting where we can synchronize personally identifiable information are out of luck.  We are told we “aren’t the majority” (I beg to differ) and that “alternatives are available.”

Microsoft is very careful here.  They know vertical integration is a legal minefield for a company convicted of antitrust violations.  You can work around every issue mentioned here if you want to.  The workarounds range from frustrating to ruinously expensive.  The only way to get a relatively smooth experience is if your entire world is Microsoft, top to bottom.

I doubt this is illegal, not quite.  Microsoft aren’t preventing competition here, they are merely making competing offerings obviously less appealing by designing every individual product they make for maximum integration.  The morality of this is basically determined by if you believe the rights of the corporation to protect its profits outweigh the rights of consumers.

We’ve been fighting that ideological battle for so long I am not sure there is a middle ground to be had.  I sincerely hope there is.  Microsoft make great products; it would be a shame if they simply decided that the chunk of their market me and mine occupy was simply not worth supporting or listening to.

Bad for us; Microsoft makes great tech that we want to use.  Bad for them; we’re noisy, irritating types that tend to head on out and create alternative solutions when none are provided for us.  It’s generally pretty expensive to do so…but right now, so’s the alternative.

Tech support in Windows 8: not a fan

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It has taken me over a year, but I think I have finally been able to crystallize what it is about Windows 8 that bothers me so much.  Why exactly does this interface – which others seem to have no troubles with whatsoever – get under my skin so much?  By every reasonably measure, both Gnome 3 and Unity are far worse UIs; while I loathe both of those as well, there’s something extra-special about Win 8 that has been hard to define.  What gives?

Hello, IT

The real burden here is on anyone trying to do tech support.  Microsoft argues that tech support should be done via remote tools: GPOs, RSAT, PowerShell, InTune and System Center.  You aren’t supposed to actually log on to another individual’s computer; you are to use these tools to control another system from within your own heavily customized Windows 8 instance.  In practice, I’ve found a few bugs in this approach.

The first is that home users and the majority of SMBs cannot afford Microsoft’s expensive tech support suite, nor the systems administrators required to use it.  Tech support at the home level is usually a family member or friend; it is often done by accessing the person’s PC physically or through remote support tools such as VNC, LogMeIn or Teamviewer.

In this scenario the heavy customization of user profiles advocated by Microsoft is a support burden, but not nearly so much as the loss of high information density tools like the Start Menu.  Let’s take a moment to think about what that tool really was.

It was access to your system’s various mounted file systems via “My Computer.”  It allowed you to browse the local network via “My Network Places.”  Rick clicking on “My Computer” got you access both to the “Computer Management” MMC console (via the manage option) and to the “System” control panel (via properties.)  Right clicking on “My Network Places” got you to where you could change network adapter configurations (via properties).  You could map network drives, search for a file, launch an application from the run box get a list of installed applications (via “All Programs”) or go into the control panel if you needed to really get into it.

All the basic administration tasks were available here within a couple of clicks of each other.  All from one interface that hadn’t appreciably changed in over 15 years.  Someone familiar with one version of Windows could easily administer another one.  There was familiarity through consistency; a boon to the hordes of desktop administrators who were maintaining generations of different OSes for friends, family or as one more line item on their job description for their SMB employer.

The argument is frequently made that this is where the search functionality comes it.  “The majority of people” can simply do what needs to be done via search.  I disagree.

The names of things change over time; Microsoft seem to expect us to learn a whole new dictionary of terms with each OS iteration.  Search for “Network Properties” on Windows 8.  Try “Network Adapter”, “WiFi” or “NIC.”  Try “Local Security Policy”.  Some of these come up under “settings” if you search – which is yet another click to get at them – others don’t come up at all.

To top it off, the loss of the start menu means either using the slow charms bar or shortcut keys to get at search.  This doesn’t work so well through remote support applications, especially not if the individual doing remote support doesn’t full screen their remote support session.  That’s fairly typical in my experience; us techy types are typically doing research on our PCs; punching stuff in to Google to find the solution to whatever is plaguing Aunt Tilly.

We can have the same argument about the ribbon bar; it moves the buttons around on you, doesn’t quite have everything you need, can be a pig to add anything that isn’t “what the majority use every day” (such as reading headers on an email in Outlook) but it does offer customization.  Therein lies the issue; customization.

The Start Screen isn’t a replacement for the start menu.  It is a replacement for Quick Launch.  In fact, it is a fantastic improvement over Quick Launch; Live Tiles can provide a density of information about your most frequent apps not dreamed of since the Active Desktop days.  The ability to curate and pin applications of your choice to the front screen makes it very much a user-definable experience; it is what quick launch should have been.  It is, however, absolute crap if you want to access apps that aren’t among those most frequently accessed items.

That’s bad for tech support.  Things that make tech support harder make the new Windows seem worse than the old, even if that isn’t true for many portions of the operating system.  Overlooking tech support and power user needs will ultimately reflect poorly on Microsoft.  It’s a problem that ultimately affects us all.

Taking your experience with you; problems in Microsoft’s vision of the future.

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Windows 8 signifies the return of Microsoft to a very monopolistic way of thinking.  This has always been present in Microsoft’s actions and they’ve paid the price for it more than once.  But the past had always been marked with concessions to the concept that other options – or at least non-Microsoft designed and approved workflows – existed.  As I’ve started to put the pieces together I no longer feel this is the case…and it really bothers me.

Let’s start with the basics; Windows 8 is a fantastic UI with a lot to offer a user who is using a single device; a typical setup for a home user circa 2000. It is also functional across multiple devices in a very Microsoft proscribed way such as roaming profiles which takes your user settings from system to system where the installed application base is identical; a typical setup in very large enterprises.

Microsoft – and its most ardent apologists – are quick to explain that the “average” user doesn’t use more than a handful of applications.  Imposing a few extra clicks isn’t viewed as a bad thing for infrequently accessed items.  Besides, Microsoft wants us all to use the search to find applications.  A quick keyboard shortcut and type the name of the program and bam!  You’re there!  Again, these people are entirely correct.  This is how most people used to use their computers and how many still do; perhaps this is even still the majority usage pattern.

Underlying this entire conversation are assumptions regarding how people use devices.  Microsoft have gone to great pains to discover how people used to use their devices.  Microsoft also have some very specific ideas in mind about how we should use our devices.  Both of these are – at least for some of us – orthogonal to how we actually want to use our devices.

The new normal is anything but

The fundamental presumption of Microsoft’s approach to computing is that a device “belongs” to an individual.  At worst, a family may share a PC in a home setting; here, each user might customize their experience via their own unique profile on the PC.  The old, information-dense UIs of the past aren’t required in Microsoft’s vision of the future because individuals will “own” their devices.  They will know how these devices work, what’s installed on them and their individual quirks.

If you want to take your user experience with you, you can…by physically picking up a Windows device (preferably a Microsoft Surface) and taking it with you.  Your “user experience” – your individual customizations to the Windows operating system, the ribbon bars, individual applications and so forth – travel with you.

For home users, this is your only option.  The default configuration as provided by Microsoft for new users is functionally unusable; most people will take the time to fairly heavily customize the OS.  This means that with our new highly customizable environments we cannot simply saunter over to someone else’s computer and start using it; not without a great deal of frustration.  Nothing is in the right place; the buttons you need to get work done aren’t there.

Lacking an information dense tool like the start menu makes knowing what’s installed and available to use on a given computer just that frustrating bit more difficult.  I own and use enough computers – physical and virtual – that I have absolutely no idea which system has what on it.  Not only is this a problem for my personal fleet, but every SMB I manage has the same problem.

For a company with limited means, you can’t just go around installing Adobe’s creative suite on every computer because a handful of people require it.  Ditto Visio or Microsoft Office.  Lots of companies have alternative applications deployed to systems typically handled by those who only need to view a document or make minor changes.  The average office worker doesn’t care that they are using Libre Office instead of Microsoft Office, but the accountant will scream bloody murder if they don’t have the right version of Excel.

In a large enterprise, you get around this issue by throwing money at it.  “Make everything the same” is an acceptable solution, even if you essentially piss away millions on unnecessary licensing.  You don’t get that choice at most SMBs; so you need a quick and simple method to check if what you need exists.  That used to be the Start Menu. The Start Screen and/or search are poor replacements, especially when companies have large numbers of installed applications, or differing versions where the individual applications’ names have changed ever so slightly.

Take it with you

Microsoft isn’t stupid.  They thought about the above and tried to come up with solutions that still fit their paradigm of use cases.  Microsoft offer both Windows Sync and Windows To Go as solutions to the above problems.  Both are their own problems.

Windows Sync is a half-assed solution that doesn’t help anyone but Microsoft.  You can’t use your user as a template from which to craft another.  It doesn’t migrate installed applications, and only migrates Windows Store app settings.  Windows Store Apps are almost universally crap, so what good does that do end users?  The things we most desperately need (such as Classic Shell or Ribbon customizations for Office) don’t come with.  Additionally, citizens and businesses located outside the United States may have some legitimate concerns regarding storing all their information in Microsoft’s cloud.

Windows 8 To Go would seem to be an acceptable compromise.  Stick your copy of Windows 8 in an encrypted container on a flash drive and boot from it on any compatible PC.  This could be awesome; except for the part where it is enterprise-only.  It still doesn’t address that pesky tech support issue but would solve the discovery and utilization of the right set of installed applications…if only those who needed it could afford to – or were even allowed to – buy it.

What’s mine…isn’t

So we’ve come round to VDI at last.  The only real solution to taking your environment with you wherever you go across devices is not to do so.  Keep a nicely configured and curated environment in a central location and remotely access it.  This doesn’t solve the tech support problem, but it does – for many if not most – solve the discoverability and utilization of applications.  There is, of course, a hitch.

Microsoft’s licensing surrounding VDI is draconian.  The long and the short of it is that they do not want you to actually use it; certainly not as an individual user or SMB.  Enterprises are allowed to, but only if they pay through the nose and keep an eye on every single device that is used to access the central desktop.

Microsoft doesn’t think about VDI in a particularly common-sense way.  You or I might think to buy a license for Windows, Office and all my software and then install it on all on one central PC or VM.  We would then access that PC from anywhere in the world on any device.  That isn’t allowed.

You see Microsoft believes that every device you access that central desktop from should be licensed for Windows, Office and what-have you.  We see centralized desktop provisioning as a way to overcome the technical limitations of the software to more efficiently get things done.  Microsoft sees every access to that centralized desktop as a lost sale.

In Microsoft’s world you will pay to have a copy of each software application you use on every device you use it from.  That device could be a dumb terminal, an iPhone, a hotel PC, you name it.  If you want to take your environment and applications with you then you need to physically pick up the device and bring it.  Anything else is piracy.

Microsoft has created new licensing solutions for those of us who want to use our environments remotely.  For someone like me who might access his centralized desktop from over 300 devices over the course of a year they would mean personal bankruptcy.  (This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I will keep using my Windows XP VM until an RDP-class remote desktop protocol is developed for Linux.)

So what is the solution here?  Ultimately, will we be able to find some middle ground?  We will simply accept a limitation of the possible or will we rise up, demand Microsoft rescind the restrictions?  If we do; would Microsoft listen?  Will Microsoft make the move to change before we get all uppity, or will they stay the course of their vision no matter what?

I can’t say I know what the future holds; I can say I hope it holds something different than the offerings on the table today.  I feel the offerings today are holding back innovation and gutting competition.  They are sowing the seeds of discord and that isn’t good.  It won’t work out for Microsoft nor those who depend on their products.  The last thing we need is another yet war between one of Big Tech’s giants and its own customers.

Journalistic Capture; staying on message about Windows 8

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Windows 8 isn’t liked by everyone.  Many of us wish that they would approach not just UI design, but community interaction differently.  I can’t change Microsoft’s mind. I can put my time and effort into helping people get what they want to out of computers. I don’t have the programming skills to write a Classic Shell. I do have the schmoozing skills to put those sorts of people in rooms with others, the research skills to hunt that stuff down, and a couple internet soapboxes to publish the info. I hope it helps a few folks; getting the odd attaboy makes up for the effort.

I’d like to say “if enough of us spoke up, it might make a difference.” The truth is: it won’t. Voting with our wallets won’t matter either. If every prole on Earth decided they were going to fight the power on this one, it wouldn’t even tickle Microsoft’s income. Microsoft gets where they get because they have the ability to take decision makers at large corporations and government institutions out for fancy meals, shower them with perks, discounts and whatever political or personal clout is required to shift SKUs.

They shift those SKUs in the billions. Because these SKUs are forced on the hoi polloi by the powers that be, we all need to be “compatible.” If you are a small business, you need to speak the lingua franca of business: Microsoft formats. Choose not to and you don’t get a chance to interact with or bid on contracts from the larger entities. If you are an individual, you need to do follow the pack because we have evolved our society into one that is “always on:” the work-life balance is disrupted and we require the ability to work from home.

Couple this with a tame press (tech and otherwise) that daren’t speak out for fear of losing ad revenue and anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion is a marked man. To dislike the digital food shovelled onto your plate is to bear the stigma of being “afraid of change.” You are a Luddite; someone unwilling to “give X a chance” and unable to comprehend the obvious majesty and importance of the vision which created the product you malign.

For a press that exists only because of sensationalism and the magnanimity of vendors, the best way achieve these is to publicly evangelise The New whilst heaping scorn and derision upon the heathens clinging to The Old. Throw in some fanboys and most people who would even have thought to speak up are sick and tired of the bullshit before the product even hits shelves.

Consider a comment from the illustrious Ed Bott on Twitter: “if you write about Windows, and you take a screenshot using Windows XP, you’re doing it wrong.”

Really? How interesting. Just who is he to tell me – or anyone else – what they should or shouldn’t be running on their systems? I am “doing it wrong” because I use XP on my personal VM? Really? Why? Detail this explicitly. Where is the incentive to use anything else? Describe the ROI in moving away from something that has worked Just Fine for over a decade? Understand that I’m not asking about enterprise security or an operatins system for people who can’t use a proper browser: I’m talking about my personal VM here.

I’m not afraid of the new, but statements like Ed Bott’s above both upset me and make me realise how futile resistance truly is. Here we have one of the most respected voices in Microsoft punditry telling everyone that if you write about Microsoft it is your job to evangelise Microsoft’s latest. In this case the advocacy is subtle; you are to demonstrate that having the latest is “proper” by only showing the latest greatest as the operating system of choice in your screenshots. It is evangelising nonetheless.

It should come as no shock to my readers that I will take a screenshot off any operating system I damned well please. Maybe it’ll even be an XP VM remoted into from a Windows XP VM which I am in turn remoting into from a Linux box. It has been known to happen.

If I am discussing something specifically blowing up on Windows 8, maybe I should demonstrate that on Windows 8. If it affects multiple versions of Windows, what does it matter which version has the screenshot?

But…aha! There’s the subtle slant of it all. In the same vein as judicial capture (or regulatory capture,) I posit the concept of “press capture.” If a pundit covers a topic or vendor for too long, they begin to sympathise, even empathise with them.

Considering the complexity of the topics at hand, how can any journalist rise to the top if they haven’t been covering that vendor for ages? There is so much to know, it takes years to absorb it. So you, me…all of us…

…we’d best get used to Windows 8. Our voices are easily shouted down as heretical by the closed-minded echo chamber that has become the only thing vendors choose to listen to.

Use your “non-new” or “non-Microsoft” operating systems if you must. Just don’t talk about it unless you are prepared for scorn, marginalisation and other potentially serious repercussions. Be careful to whom you admit not keeping the faith. It could more than your internet reputation on the line. It could be your job.

Freedom of choice my hex-encoded ASCII.

Microsoft and the midmarket

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Microsoft’s licensing is a problem; for a company that makes its bread and butter on the midmarket, they sure can seem hostile to those of us who live and work in this arena.  Indeed, Microsoft’s licensing compares more accurately to other Enterprise players.  Oracle licensing is byzantine and overtly a profit-maximization approach, but it they don’t have anywhere near as many SKUs in play as Microsoft. IBM is a good comparison; they have a similarly O_o number of SKUs in play, and no incentive to make their licensing comprehensible to normal people.

Contrast VMware to Microsoft as a “complete experience.”  Microsoft’s offerings are incredibly powerful.  As this review clearly shows, the joined-up nature of the System Center suite can enable a “total package” that overwhelms anything VMware can bring to bear.   That said, VMware licensing is simple; the products  way easier to install and work with. Truly groking Microsoft’s licensing – enough to make sure you aren’t paying a dollar more than you have to – is a career. It requires the full time efforts of an intelligent, educated individual to keep on top of. 

VMware’s products are also comparative child’s play to install and administer.  It took me three weeks of concerted effort to install a test lab with enough software to test System Center Suite 2012 against its two immediate predecessors. To contrast, it takes less than an hour to do the same with VMware.

I like Microsoft’s technology. I think they make some of the best software in the world, and inarguably the best in several fields. That being said, I go out of my way to use competing products in many places because of the complexity of Microsoft licensing.  Other vendors may (or may not) be more expensive than Microsoft. That said; when an alternative vendor’s licensing is less opaque – and better tiered! – you don’t walk away from purchases wondering if you could have gotten a better deal if you had only known the ins and outs a little bit better.

Interaction with Microsoft’s licensing department always leaves me with the impression that I’ve been had; there’s a scam afoot and I’m not the one running it.

I can’t speak to how Microsoft treats their customers with over 1000 seats. My customers are all between 1 and 1000 seats. Most are between 50 and 250 seats. What I can say is that in this area, I dislike dealing with Microsoft intensely. Microsoft doesn’t want to deal with us “irrelevant” SMEs directly. They want us to use VARs.  Frankly, I don’t trust VARs at all. Not once in my experience with VARs have I been able to find one who was willing and able to optimise my licence usage. I have saves clients tens, even hundreds of thousands over VAR quotes by doing the legwork myself.

Instead, Microsoft position their products to be appealing if you have less than 25 seats, or greater than 250. If you live in the 50-250 seat range – where most of my customers do – then the licensing is not only hard to optimise, it is outright punitive. The Microsoft ecosystem between 25 and 250 seats constitutes a barrier to entry for any company; something Microsoft has no intention of addressing in their reckless bid to drive the middle of the bell curve into a subscription model that has a far higher TCO for midmarket organisations than a perpetually licensed item. Doubly so when you consider that most midmarket companies live on refresh cycles for their equipment of 5 or 6 years, not three.

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