Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Microsoft got something right

I rarely, if ever, will say something like this. Microsoft got something right.

It took a while to put it together, because of other things we've been pursuing, but an innocent question today set me on a search that resulted in a remarkable discovery.

"Do we have any training material for Office?"

Well, no, we didn't. The closest we had was a CD Microsoft sent for Office 2003 named "Microsoft Office System Tips & Tricks". Good info - fast paced, and definitely a deep dive. We needed to finesse the videos to cut out products we didn't use, and chop them into product-specific components. Never got around to posting them, etc.

I looked around for that CD again, and eventually found it buried beneath some papers. Inside the mailer was a URL - Out of curiosity, I went there. Lo and behlod, this site has an unbelievable collection of docs, articles, and CBT material related to the Office suite.

If you've never been, you should visit. Anyone who uses Office or supports those who do should make use of this site. Better to teach people how to fish, than to catch the fish for them.

This is impressive because it's free, and it's good - two things not commonly associated with Microsoft products. At times like this it's obvious where the divisions are between product groups (there's no equivalent site for the Windows OS unless you're an IT professional looking to buy training materials). The folks at Office got it right, and should be commended. Even if it would put the Video Professor out of least they're not making money off of it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Zotob Worm

Microsoft paid us a visit yesterday, under the guise of a sales call, to ask questions and make statements that generally implied that they'd pay to have partners prop up MS software that competes with our current stacks to we could evaluate the two side-by-side.

After making several casts into our pool with no bites, they asked "What keeps you up at night?" My boss answered without being specific, that nothing related to technology keeps him awake - it's all about process, culture, and politics.

My answer was different. I said "I was sleeping pretty well until Monday."

"What happened Monday?", the salesperson asked.


We're not affected, mainly because of strict firewall policies and limited exposure to travelling systems. But we sure didn't have much time to react to the August 9th advisory.

Despite every Microsoft assurance since 2001 or 2002 that every line of code in Windows is reviewed, etc., the Plug and Play vulnerability in MS05-039 is present and patchable in every version of Windows from 2000 to XP and Server 2003. Zotob also proves that you don't have a 30-day grace period from the announcement of a Windows vulnerability to the presence of an exploit attack. There were less than 6 days between the release of the patch by Microsoft, and the very public effect it had on news outlet websites. In Norman, Oklahoma, the York Air Conditioning plant reportedly sent 650 employees home after Zotob pounded their facility.

When is the next Microsoft Windows OS release due? 2007.

I say again. 2007.

Despite all that, our management systems work very well. We're fully patched at this hour - something I was able to accomplish by myself with little effort. In fact, if someone called now and said there's a new critical patch, I could download it, distribute it to my 30+ field servers (one per location), and deploy it to all of my nearly 500 users, in under an hour. No lie. I'd be happy to show anyone how. Do that with SMS. Or with PatchLink. We've tried, and we're not bad at what we do. There remains nothing better than a properly architected ZENworks solution for centrally managing remote PC's in a large enterprise.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Growing Pains

I find myself asking a lot of inward-directed questions lately, about complacency and challenges and career fulfillment. There's a difference between being "challenged", and being overworked.

If you think you're overworked, you probably are, and despite what others may think, this statement is fundamentally true. Being overworked is, as much as anything, a state of mind. If you really, really enjoy what you're doing, you're ecstatic that you actually get paid for it too. Spending 80 hours doing something you love is most standards, people working 80 hours a week would be 'overworked'.

By contrast, if you have to spend even 41 hours a week doing something that is grueling, and don't see any relief or reward in sight, you're going to start feeling overworked. You're going to develop a sense of resentment toward your situation, your employer, your boss, your co-workers who don't carry the same weight you do, etc.

Vacations only serve to postpone & temporarily numb these sensations. They don't go away until something changes for the better. Either the light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter, the incentive to continue drudging on changes or improves, the duties or workload is altered to present new challenges, or you jump ship alltogether in search of something new.

The question remains, if you go through all of that and are still miserable, is the grass really greener anywhere else? The only consistent factor in one's misery - in this situation - is usually themselves. It is this place that I desperately hope I am not.

The sad thing is that, especially with talented people, companies that cannot keep them consistently challenged are not getting the return on investment that they could. When talented people get bored, you can argue that it's the fault of management that they aren't sufficiently stimulated. You can also argue that the individual's attitude and understanding of corporate life should allow them to absorb temporary (even year-long) lulls in exciting work. In fairness, reality is somewhere in between. But you can only keep a dog on the porch for so long...even good dogs.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Peter Jennings ABC Special

Watched a good hour of the special that ABC ran on Peter Jennings last night. I typically do not watch broadcast network news, because of people like Dan Rather and the goofs who have trodden through NBC. I never really gave ABC a shot, because Peter Jennings was so wholely unremarkable at first glance. We didn't watch ABC much either, for whatever reason, so I never knew about many of the "Peter Jennings Reporting" shows.

I'm kind of mad, in retrospect, that I was so jaded against the ability of network news anchors to be impartial and interesting as to have dismissed Peter Jennings' work completely.

I do however have a copy of the book he co-wrote, "In Search of America", which given what I now know about his outright love for my country, I will finish reading with great interest.

Peter's life is a testament to the greatness inherent in our country, and that meritocracies work. Much of his success it seems was not due to him being exceptionally smart or talented. In fact, he did not even graduate High School. It wasn't handed to him by someone else. He didn't fall into it.

His success was attributable to qualities that each and every human being conciously decides whether or not they want to exhibit. He completely defied the "Peter Principle". Peter was motivated, principled, fair, hard-working, and was unwilling to settle for mediocrity. He did not assume that he was above anyone, and didn't assume that his audience wouldn't understand complex stories. In short, he was humble. This is probably why he was basically a well kept secret, despite the millions of people who watched his broadcasts. He was simultaneously utterly remarkable, and utterly unremarkable.

I hardly knew him, but he certainly will be missed.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

ZEN and the art of Terminal Server Farm architecture

We're doing some pretty damned cool stuff with Win2K Terminal Services lately. When it's all said and done, we'll have basically Citrix-equivalent load balancing and application "publishing" capabilities, at a fraction of the cost. ZENworks really does make this powerfully simple - if you know what you're doing.

Imagine logging into an RDP session, and seeing only a Novell Application Launcher window with all of your apps. Internet explorer is there, but you can't browse to or run anything but a legitimate internet URL. Same with Windows explorer. You can add your own network printers to your session, but the printers at your location automatically appear each time you log in. If you need to use an application that hasn't been installed, it automatically installs and configures itself for you.

Behind the scenes, there are no roaming profiles. No group policies governing behavior or lock-down. No published applications. No Novell Client. There's not even eDirectory - that's been installed into a separate tree, being accessed by the ZDM middle-tier service. No local administrator requirement for application installs. One password to remember, thanks to DirXML. No Citrix. No hardware load balancers. Just one system acting as a load balancer/proxy for RDP, and five AD member-servers running Terminal Services. In fact, I can scale this architecture as fast as I can image new IBM BladeCenter HS20 systems, until the proxy system breaks. I put that point at over 1,000 users, which we won't get near for quite some time. At our expected load of 400 - 500, we should be flush.

For us, it will save $100k the first year, and $25k each following year for Citrix licensing. This doesn't include sunk costs in existing Citrix licenses, which we don't have enough of to facilitate short-term growth. We replace those costs with about $40k of new ZDM licensing, and roughly $8k / year in maintenance. Anymore, Citrix's only true value-add is robust load balancing in large farms, and seamless application windows. Certainly not enough to justify their exorbitant licensing costs. I know they cram a lot of products into the bundle, but I bet if they sold those features a la carte, many of their more experienced customers would reconsider what they've been buying.

Sadly, Novell Support told us that basically it couldn't be done. Shows what we know.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

"Cooling" noncertified skills

ComputerWorld's August 8th edition (Career Watch, page 44) listed five skills that, from a salary standpoint, have lost the most value during the past twelve months. It reads frighteningly like Novell's strategic technologies checklist:
  • XML
  • Java
  • Linux
  • and of course, "Novell" itself.

The fifth item mentioned - ActiveX - is confusing, but what do I know.

In case you're interested, the hottest noncertified skills (25% or more growth in skills pay premiums over the past 12 months) were:

  • SQL Server
  • WebSphere
  • Active Server Pages
  • Microsoft .Net


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Case In Point

At least it's not just us.

A recent article by Dave Kearns accurately, succinctly, painted a picture of what happens when a company with good technology and poor marketing & direction forces its customers to evaluate it's direction.

Coventry University just went through this exercise. Someone - probably at Microsoft's bequest - started asking "What does all of this Novell stuff really buy us?" Nobody had a good answer, so out with the Red "N", and in with the Evil Empire.

The formula for fixing this is very easy. Nothing groundbreaking here, the model exists in plenty of places. Cisco and Microsoft have proven unequivocally that style over substance works. Neither have the best technologies, but both do the best job of selling it. Do they win every deal? Probably not. But once someone calls Cisco or Microsoft, the deal is probably already theirs to lose.

Novell's sales process - pre, and post - is more often than not, abysmially amateur. They don't know how to sell into organizations at the right levels. They can't put together an effective message to CxO level executives. Making matters worse, Novell is now incenting (pressuring) their sales force to meet their sales targets with more than 66% new business.

There are bigger problems. They can't even get people working on the same campus to talk to each other enough to agree on management interfaces, password management, OS Service Pack levels, or Java Virtual Machine version requirements (don't get me started on Java). This certainly makes it harder for sales people and SE's to make a compelling argument with new or existing customers.

Perhaps the biggest problem Novell faces is the nearly insurmountable obstacles it continually throws in front of IT professionals that need to develop skills with their products. You can go virtually anywhere and find MCSE's, CCNA's, CCNE's, etc. to administer and manage Microsoft and Cisco networks. Last week, I created a two-disk mirror by adding hot-swap drives to a running Win2K server that was low on space. I'd never done it before in my life. I understood the basic concepts of initializing disks, creating a logical volume, assigning drive letters, etc. The GUI's in Win2K made it so mind-numbingly easy that anyone who couldn't do it should never be allowed in a server room.

Conversely, try to find a CNE in a market like Tulsa. See how many people know Nterprise Branch Office or NetWare Clustering. Even in markets like Dallas and Houston, there is not a very deep talent pool. Novell training classes are very, very expensive. $2,500 a week is a lot of money for a company to invest in what currently amounts to a niche skill set. It's hard enough for companies to short themselves an engineer for a week on purpose. Put that price tag on it, and multiply it by more than one technician who would need training, and the TCO figures that Novell always touts dwindle quickly.

I want so very badly for Novell to become the company that it can and should be. It has so much to learn, and so far to go.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Where did time go?

Talk about busy! Didn't even realize how long it had been since my last post.

We provided a summary of our upcoming projects to our Novell sales team, who indicated they'd be eager to brief us on their current technologies and ways they could help. We're doing some pretty exciting things with technologies from Novell, Microsoft, IBM, Network Appliance, and Cisco. Further bolsters our claim that if it works for us, it will work anywhere for anyone.

If we're successful, we will have upgraded equipment and services for all of our core offerings, and simultaneously saved the company $500k - $1 MM in one-time and recurring costs.

Maintaining productive relationships with vendors is much easier when you have executives with detailed understandings of technologies, and a team of people who closely and intimately understand those vendors' inner workings. We're spoiled. I bet there are very few customers as well connected as we are, and these are the customers that probably flock to Microsoft in droves.