Getting back into Blogging

My last blog post before this one is July 2015.  As I mentioned in a previous post when I tried to revive my blog, a lot has happened since then.  It seems life is always ready to be interesting. 

In my yet another attempt to get back into blogging, I’d like to start 2016 off with some good news about the blogging tool I’m using now – Windows Live Writer 2012.  Windows Live Writer is a great blogging tool.  I’ve used it with WordPress for quite some time now and have even used it with blogger long ago.  Like many others, Windows Live writer became my tool of choice for writing blog content then publishing it.  I never liked many of the other tools out there – not even Microsoft Word. 

Unfortunately, Microsoft stopped supporting Windows Live Writer a while back.  Until now.  Well, at least in a way.  Microsoft has decided to open source Windows Live Writer, which I think is awesome.  For those of you who are thinking about getting back into blogging, like I am yet again trying to do, or if you want to try a really neat tool, check out the links below:

Download Windows Live Writer from Microsoft.

Official Wikipedia Page on Windows Live Writer.

Official Wikipedia Page for Open Live Writer, the open source fork.

I’m still using Windows Live Writer for now.  However, I’ll be writing about the new kid on the block, Open Live Writer, very soon.

I hope you are all looking forward to a great 2016.

JamesNT

SSIS: Why I’m Standardizing on ADO.NET Connection Managers

When connecting to a database with SQL Server Integration Services, you will most likely use ADO.NET, OLE DB, or ODBC.  Until I find reason not to, I’ll be standardizing on ADO.NET connection managers as much as possible.  Even if the other database, such as mySQL, has only an ODBC connection, I’ll use ADO.NET instead and wrap that around mySQL’s ODBC connector.  My reason for this is simple:  I use a lot of script tasks and script components in my SSIS packages.  It is far easier to work with connection managers in script tasks/components when those connection managers are ADO.NET.  Consider the following:

  • OLE DB and ODBC, from what I can tell, do not enlist the current transaction.  What this means is that if you, for example, have an Execute SQL Task that starts a database transaction (assuming the database connected to supports it), the script task/component will not handle it’s steps in that transaction.  The most common occurrence is your package crashes.
  • OLE DB and ODBC when used in the script task/component do not support the “Retain Same Connection” setting. 
  • The code to acquire an OLE DB connection is not as elegant as the ADO.NET connection.  This is the number one reason why I am standardizing on ADO.NET.

I’ll have more to say on the third part later on – which is the most important to me.  Now that Microsoft has finally fixed the Script Component such that you can debug into it starting with SQL Server 2012, the Script Component is now very useful.

JamesNT

Why Windows Server 2003 Will Be Around A While Longer

Hello, Everyone.

It’s been just over a year since my last post on my blog.  Things got really interesting last year both on the professional and personal fronts.  As time moves on, I’ll discuss many of those things here.  To start off 2015 with blog posts, I thought I would cover something I’m seeing a lot of that we saw last year:  The end of support for a major Microsoft product.  Last year it was Windows XP.  This year, it’s Windows Server 2003.

There have been lots of articles on the web recently about the end-of-life of Windows Server 2003.  Like its little brother, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 is to have support completely and permanently removed by Microsoft unless you are willing to pay Microsoft some additional money to extend support.  For more information on the Windows Server 2003 lifecycle, as well as the lifecycle of other MS products, visit the Microsoft Product Support Lifecycle page.  The problem I have with most of these articles is they generally fall into two categories:

  • People just don’t want to move; therefore, are being irresponsible.
  • It’s the economy, stupid!

But there is a third reason that I have seen and this third reason is more prevalent that any of the previous two mentioned above, in my opinion, as to why so many are delaying their migration off of Windows Server 2003:  Because there are still lots of applications out there that still will not run on more modern versions of Windows.  Especially applications written in VB6.

Windows Server 2003 is the last server operating system that will comfortably run VB6 applications without much fuss.  Once you hit Windows Server 2008 it’s pretty much game over for those applications.  While Microsoft does offer limited support for VB6 all the way through Windows 8.1, the problem with every VB6 app I have seen is that they break so many development rules that getting them to run on any version of Windows past Windows Server 2003 is practically impossible.  More modern versions of Windows have higher security standards and so forth that just won’t allow an errant application to do whatever it wants.  I realize that Microsoft has tools available to help with these things, but the point stands that getting many older applications to run on newer versions of Windows is painful, expensive, and the application may yet run less stable than before.

Some of you may wonder aloud why a company would still be on an application written in VB6 or, at the very least, old enough to not run on later versions of Windows.  Because moving line-of-business applications is HARD.  I’ve done this before, am in the process of doing it now, and I can tell you it is HARD.  Please consider the following:

  • Many line-of-business applications today are much more expensive than they were years ago.  A great example is the healthcare arena.  Practice Management and Electronic Medical Record systems that cost ~$5,000 10 years ago are well over ~$20,000 today.  That’s a big jump and most certainly hard to swallow.  One can’t help but wonder how many other applications cost more today than they did yester-year.
    • Along this line goes lack of expertise.  Just because you are on version 1.x of a software and need to go to 12.x doesn’t mean it’s easy.  You may need to phase your upgrades across virtual machines and so forth.  For example, what if the line-of-business software requires a different version of a database when going from Server 2003 to Server 2012 and you have to convert data?  What if the line-of-business application changed databases entirely (e.g. going from Advantage database to SQL Express)?  Who is going to handle all that?  Consultants with that kind of skill can cost a lot of money.  Congratulations, you just doubled the cost of your upgrade.
  • Moving to a new version of a line-of-business application may involve massive re-training.  With new features and changes to the user interface, staff may have to learn their way around all over again.  A good example is the big change from Office 2003 to Office 2007 with the advent of the Ribbon.  Personally, I love the Ribbon in MS Office, but nonetheless it required lots of retraining.
  • Your line-of-business application vendor may not exist anymore.  A lot of companies have gone bankrupt thanks to the housing crash of 2008.  Your company may have to switch line-0f-business application vendors entirely and that is a whole new ball of wax.

I could go on but you should see my point by now.  Even companies with very strategic plans on handling IT and software deployments are finding themselves in a crunch with Windows Server 2003.  Microsoft may find itself selling some extended contracts for many.

It may be time to be a bit more forgiving towards those that are still on Windows Server 2003 for a bit longer.  And, if you are a consultant familiar with older technologies and their newer counterparts, it may be time to start a new advertising campaign.

JamesNT

The Dangers of Giving Vendors too much Power

Back in the 90’s I worked for Sonoco. The capital project I was on was to install a new maintenance management software in an entire division of the company in order to, mostly, bring down the cost of spare parts inventory. During this project, many ideas for costs savings came up. One of them was that vendor reps should maintain parts usage history and stock the parts we bought for them in the parts room for us. I voice my concerns but since I was just a kid in my 20’s at the time with no college degree, I was promptly ignored and told to shut up.

This turned out to be a monumentally horrible idea as I predicted. Here’s why:

  • Let’s assume your vendor is a good guy. He’s only out for the benefit of you, the client and he wants to keep you as a client. Well, obviously, the last thing he wants is for you to run out of parts otherwise your machines will go down and you’ll yell at him. So the vendor may decide that, just to be on the safe side, he may need to stock a few extra bearings here and a few extra sprockets there because “you never know when they might have a spike in parts usage and we need to be careful and plan for those things.”
  • Let’s assume your vendor is a bad guy. He’s about $600 behind on his sales quota for the month and right now he’s not necessarily out to benefit you. So the vendor may decide that, since he’s the one stocking your parts room and you’ll most likely never notice, he may need to stock a few extra bearings here and a few extra sprockets there.

This is the danger of giving vendors too much power over your stuff. It doesn’t matter whether the vendor is a good guy or a bad guy, you’re screwed either way.

JamesNT

My Second Thoughts on the Retirement of TechNet

Previously, I wrote about the retirement of the TechNet Subscription and voiced some disagreement about Microsoft’s decision. However, I have begun to rethink my disagreement because of two reasons:

  • There really was a lot of piracy out there.

In thinking back over the years to all the different small offices I’ve been in – offices running Windows XP, Office, SBS 2003, etc. – I begin to remember all the times I would ask people where the license keys for their software was and how I could never get a straight answer. Or no one knew at all. I’ve been in some offices where I knew for a fact that the software came from a TechNet subscription – literally thousands of dollars of MS software installed on production equipment. And those are the ones I know about. But what about all the others where, when I asked for CD keys, shoulders were just shrugged? $400 a year for all that software is pretty tempting.

Microsoft doesn’t like the little mom-and-pop IT Pro or the individual who owns his own business. In fact, calling these people “IT Pro” gives them way too much credit. I cannot begin to count the times I have seen utterly hosed Small Business Server installations. Or backups of virtual machines that don’t work because the person who set up the virtual machines didn’t leave enough space for the volume shadow copy. And, of course, the person would not know how to solve that problem. I cannot begin to count the servers I’ve seen that had all kinds of anti-spyware and other utilities installed all over them – completely useless utilities. And, of course, when you question the “IT Pro” as to what kind of problems they are having, the first thing they do is BLAME MICROSOFT FOR EVERYTHING all the while they are racking up billable hours for the client. While this sounds great for the “IT Pro” in question, MS has been for quite some time getting tired of all the blame. And don’t get me started on the small DIY office that doesn’t even have an “IT Pro” on hand – employee or contract.

These small IT Pros are also the ones who are abusing the TechNet Subscription the most. They install $800 copies of Windows Server everywhere, bill the client for the full cost of the software, and have a mere $400/year tied up in expenses. And, I dare say, these small IT Pros are also the ones complaining the most about the retirement of TechNet – they are losing a very valuable revenue stream.

Microsoft has responded in what I consider to be the best way they can. Keep in mind that some of the stuff listed below I did mention in my previous post. Yes, I am backtracking. But then again, things like the retirement of the TechNet Subscription are what happens when you bite the hand that feeds you. Also, do note that some extra options have been added that MS has pointed out on their TechNet page since my last post:

  1. TechNet Evaluation Center: This option allows anyone to download free versions of MS software that is time-bombed for either 30, 90, or 180 days depending on the software. For small IT shops or individuals, I would consider this to be a viable option especially now that MS has added older versions of software to the list. I’m an IT Pro and I can certainly go through Mark Minasi’s books Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2 with probably one or two installs. Testing some client software for compatibility might require another reinstall or two, but again, no big deal. I would do this all in VM’s so the one real inconvenience would be backing up VM’s and reinstalling the host (or maybe I should just use Hyper-V Server.) This obviously isn’t a perfect solution and I would expect to waste a certain amount of time reinstalling and adding patches/service packs, but it’s not the end of the world, either. I do, however, recommend that Microsoft extend any software that is time-bombed for 30 days out to 90 days. Thirty days is just too short.
  2. TechNet Virtual Labs: My original opinion of this option stands. Great for the 5 cent tour, but not for deep dives.
  3. MSDN Subscriptions: To be honest, some IT Pros should consider this option. In fact, a lot should consider this option. For many of the small shops, as the cloud begins to take hold they are going to start finding themselves squeezed out. That’s all there is to it. Moving over to software development, including Azure and mobile, would be a great way to maintain their jobs. Moving over to software development of some sort might be the natural order for the IT Pro who finds the demand for his current skillset going down. Remember back in the 80’s and 90’s when all those tobacco farmers starting losing their farms because the tobacco industry started getting sued and the demand for tobacco went down? Have you noticed how all those wineries suddenly popped up in your area that weren’t there 20-30 years ago? Might be a connection there.
  4. Microsoft Partner Network: By becoming a registered Microsoft partner, you gain access to the Action Pack. The Action Pack is a lot like the TechNet subscription (and even costs about the same) only you can use the software in production (there are some other caveats as well). For the small IT Pro that has enough clients, this might truly be the way to go.

Of course, what about those of us who need to migrate clients off of Windows XP/Server 2003 and we need installation copies for testing? Microsoft did extend the TechNet Subscription for 90 days and you did have until the end of August to renew one last time. That means you have 1 year and 3 months of your subscription remaining that will allow you access to all that older software. I highly recommend beginning your migrations now. Big companies that have SA don’t care about the TechNet subscription as they have other agreements for testing in place.

In conclusion, what Microsoft is doing is very simple. They are trying to stop piracy and get rid of the small IT Pros who are a big chunk of their support call costs. Does that mean moving small business to the cloud? Perhaps so.

I’m not saying all the small IT Pros out there are bad, but I am saying too many of them are. And the good ones, like me, know that to be true.

JamesNT