Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Is it a Role or a Feature?

I had an interesting experience today.  Without boring you with the details let's just say I'm no richer for the experience save for providing the catalyst for the following instructional tidbit.  The catalyst in this case was a question posed to me.  I was asked what the difference was between a Role and a Feature when configuring a Windows server.

Now most of you who have any experience at all in Windows Administration may not necessarily be comfortable with the concepts of Server Roles and Features.  It's been a slow but steady evolution from an abstract label to a shortcut in Server Manager. 

Since Windows 2000's introduction of Active Directory, the concept of a server role took on new meaning.  Instead of being limited to just designating a server as a Primary or Backup Domain controller now we had multiple roles that made the old labels moot.

Yeah, I'm talking about the most confusing collection of server "Roles" ever introduced to the Windows Universe, the FSMO or Flexible Single Master Operation.  5 labels that have confused Windows Administrators for a decade. 

I mean, the PDC emulator is fairly intuitive, for example.  We know what that's for right?  Well only partially because that role handles a lot more than just  Primary Domain Controller services for Windows NT (non AD) networks.  It also provides Time synchronization, Group Policy replication, and account lockout and password change services for an entire windows domain.  If the server that holds this role fails you're going to have a very bad day until you move it to another server.

Relative ID master?  All that does is keep all the names on your network unique.  It's function is to keep combining computer or user object Identifiers (SIDS) with a pool of unique Identifiers managed by this role (RID)  Combining the two values ensures that no two objects on an AD network are alike even if everything else about them is the same.  The RID master can't allow its pool of RIDS to go empty or it won't have anything to combine with the new SIDS that come from a new user or computer account.  Yeah, that's real obvious.

How about the Infrastructure Master?  It's a role and its function is... uhh...Oh yeah, it makes sure that if someone from one domain gets rights to something in another domain their specific information is recognized properly.  How come such a serious sounding name for such a tiny function that's so rarely used?  Whatever..

Those three roles are considered the "Domain" roles in Active Directory networks.  That means they only affect the immediate domain they serve.  There are two other roles that are considered Forest or Enterprise level roles.  That means they live at the top of your AD network above all the domains (assuming there's more than 1) that branch off of the "trunk" of your "forest". 

In case all this talk of Directories and Forests is confusing try a different metaphor.  Think of AD in the context of a Phone Book instead of a forest.  You usually have one Phone book for a town and it contains all the names and numbers of the people with phones.  Those names and numbers can be thought of as domains.

Now say your aunt Bessie changes her phone number.  The phone book is going to need to be updated to reflect the change or she'll be very lonely because nobody will be able to call her anymore.  That would be sad for Aunt Bessie and nobody wants that!

If the phone company decides to change the area code for your town then all the people listed in the phone book have to tell their out of state relatives what the new area code is or they won't be able to call them anymore.  Changing the area code, by the way, would be considered an enterprise event to the people listed in the phone book.  So would changing the name of the town by the way. 

It's the concept of changing names within an organization that leads us to the first of the two "Forest" or "Enterprise" level roles in Active Directory.  Coincidentally, it's called the Domain Naming Master and the simplest way to explain its role is to refer back to our theoretical phone book. 

Remember when Aunt Bessie changed her number?  Well she's a spry old gal and decided to get hitched up to a nice older gent.  That meant her last name changed.  To make sure everyone can find the happy newlyweds we'll need to get the phone book entry updated.  To accomplish that, she had to call the phone company and ask them to change it.  The phone company is responsible for changing Bessie's name in the phone book and they are the only ones that could do it.  If the phone company is closed nothing changes just as no domain names throughout the enterprise can change if the Domain Naming Master goes offline.

The second and final enterprise FSMO role is easier to understand since its name is a little more descriptive than the others.  It's the Schema Master and if you have any experience with databases its function will be instantly recognizable.  If you remember that all the information in Active Directory is stored in a database then you know that something has to control the way its organized.  That's the function of the Schema Master along with copying (replicating) any changes that occur to the Schema to the rest of the Enterprise. 
Going back to the phone book example, the Schema Master would be the guy who decides how the phone book is going to be organized.  Will it be sorted by name or phone number? How much information will each listing contain?  These questions are all answered by the guy printing the phone book.  He is the Schema Master.

Ok maybe not so dramatic but the Schema Master is an important Role.  Without it Active Directory couldn't exist.

I've actually went a bit deeper into FSMO roles than I planned but it's important information.  It's also important to know how Microsoft tends to overload their terminology.

In the previous discussion I've laid out what Microsoft defines as a "Role" in the context of functions that support Active Directory.  There's another definition of a server role, however, that has nothing to do with supporting Windows but rather defines services for users. 

You may have noticed that I haven't said much about "Features" to this point.  That has everything to do with Microsoft's overloaded terminology again.  In the context of an FSMO role a feature is nothing more than a facility for management of a given role.

In the context of a Server Role, however, features become very important.  A Server Role in Windows 2000 and later is designated set of services that support user activities.  Examples are File and Print services, Application Server and DNS Server roles.  Each of these roles is task based defining a set of services to be offered to users by the server. 

Server Roles can be viewed more as containers than mechanisms.  They are comprised of programs and services tailored to the support of the role.  Features are usually the programs and services that provide the functionality of the role.  Think of it as the option list on a new car.

A new car has one role, to provide transportation.  It's price, however, is dependent on the number of features it has.  A base model won't have as many amenities but will still satisfy the core requirement to provide transportation.  Many times you can specify additional equipment to tailor its function to better match your needs.  This affords additional functionality or "Features" without affecting the core requirement of providing transportation.

It's really that simple.  Roles define a task and features support it. 

That's about enough, I really don't want to write the word "Role" anymore..

Friday, January 18, 2013

Speed Channel BJ2013 Fantasy Bid FAIL

It never ceases to amaze me.  You can have a multimillion dollar media company with production resources second to none and they'll still cheap out on the IT department.  Case in point, the 2013 Speed Channel Fantasy Bid webpage for the Barrett-Jackson auction coverage. 

Now I know it's just a webpage but it's one of the primary promotional vehicles (pardon the pun) for Speed's auction coverage.  They've offered the online fantasy bid for most of the past decade so you'd expect they'd have all the wrinkles out by now.  At least you'd think so...
It seems this year something's gone wrong.  In prior years 10s of thousands of fantasy bids from auction fans were handled without incident.  This year during the Thursday and Friday broadcast the system frequently failed with a fraction of that number.  Friday and Saturday are high viewership days but the problem started almost immediately upon the start of the Fantasy Bids on Thursday. 

If it were just a vanity contest it wouldn't be a big deal but the Hagerty Fantasy bid offers multiple tiers of prize offerings with a grand prize of a new Shelby Mustang.  That makes it a contest which suddenly makes easy participation paramount.  Considering you're forced to opt-in to sales communications to play there is an effective transaction of sorts.  That means players have the right to expect to access to the game in exchange for extra spam in their inbox.  An expectation not met acknowledged by a popup once I was finally able to log in on Friday.

Remember, I'm an IT guy so I have some idea about web servers and capacity planning.  That said, my assessment is that they've either outsourced the back end processing for the game or they've made a major change that nobody bothered to load test.

Either way it smacks of poor planning, inadequate resources and incompetent IT personnel.  Which is exactly the results you can expect when you go with the lowest bidder.  Results not price is the real definition of a good value in anything. 

For 2013 is appears Speed is getting exactly what it's paid for.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Goodbye Messenger, hello Skype

Today was a sad day for the masochist.  Microsoft has announced that it is officially pulling the plug on Windows Live Messenger on March 15th in favor of its latest acquisition, Skype.  While not much of an improvement the cries of the old guard of Internet social interaction bemoan the transition to a platform seemingly made worse by Microsoft's acquisition. 

Skype has become a staple of streaming podcasts in the past few years which while buggy was still adequate for real time interaction.  Once Microsoft picked it up for a cool 8.5 billion in 2011 it was obvious that it was to be the centerpiece of a new social strategy.  To that point, disparate applications usually woefully lacking left those in the Microsoft centric universe looking elsewhere. 

Of course as with any new acquisition Microsoft had to put their stamp on it.  A move that many podcasters (the most vocal group) found irritating if not debilitating.  Many of whom refused to upgrade from the Pre-Microsoft version of the application when "new" features effectively locked them out of their livelihood. 
It was still better than Live Messenger though.  A leftover from the days when AOL's instant Messenger (AIM) was the de facto IM client of record.  As it aged, it became the foundation for Microsoft's Office Communications manager (Lync) for corporate centered messaging.  For casual users it could be counted on to fail at inopportune moments often forcing a reboot to regain functionality.

570425_Up To 60% Off w/ Free Shipping 120x90Skype can make (mostly) free phone calls too, a feature messenger could never hope to achieve on its creaky underpinnings. If we want to peer into our crystal ball,  it's not inconceivable for Microsoft to be eyeing Skype as a professional VOIP solution.  That would provide them with a viable alternative to offerings from companies like Cisco and RingCentral.  Not unlike the DirectAccess product meant to replace VPN's from Cisco and Checkpoint.   

If you were wondering why Microsoft has decided to put Messenger out to pasture, look no further than the balance sheet.  Messenger's features are free for the most part, Skype's are not.  Even with free accounts, regular use eventually demands a credit card with subtle reminders in the app of how much better your life would be if you'd just "upgrade" your experience to the paid version.

So while today spelled out mandatory retirement for our cranky old social companion, we can look forward to the equal annoyance of Skype to salve (or open) our wounds. 

Where's open source when you need it..

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Microsoft's pot calls out Google's kettle

Article first published as Microsoft's Pot Calls Out Google's Kettle on Technorati.

A friend of mine sent me a few links to a Microsoft blog where the company's legal department apparently has issues with the recent FTC ruling on Google's alleged anti-competitive practices. I could write paragraphs of babble but I think a direct quote sums up Microsoft's position best.

"Unfortunately, this agreement appears to be less demanding than the pledge the U.S. Department of Justice received from Apple and Microsoft nearly a year ago."

Microsoft's ruffled feathers come from Google's apparent blocking of the Microsoft YouTube app from Windows phones going back as far as 2010.  A service available to Apple and Android users by the way.  Again we'll let a direct quote tell the story...

"Google often says that the antitrust offenses with which it has been charged cause no harm to consumers. Google is wrong about that. In this instance, for example, Google’s refusal deprives consumers who use competing platforms of a comparable experience in accessing content that is generally available on the Web"

A more classic case of a jealous pot bashing the upstart kettle there has never been.  Replace "Google" with "Microsoft" in the preceding quote and it's 1996 all over again.  And there's the rub.  Microsoft doesn't think Google is getting punished enough and has somehow equated an inferior YouTube experience on Windows phones with Google's apparent monopoly on Internet search.

" We are concerned that the FTC may not have obtained adequate relief even on the few subjects that Google has agreed to address."

Microsoft appears to want to link two largely unrelated topics in their complaint which in spite of their claims to the contrary equate to little more than sour grapes. Microsoft's assertions bank on the short memory of the Internet and consumers in general.  Ironically a Google search can correct that.

Remember that the FTC went after Microsoft not because they had the leading operating system but because they abused their market position with it.  The tight integration of Internet Explorer with Windows operating systems starting with Windows 95 made competing browsers inferior on the platform.  It also allowed Microsoft to claim that the Browser and the Operating System were too closely interrelated to expose the details to competing browsers.  To do so would allegedly expose their trade secrets.  The FTC didn't buy it.

As for search, if Microsoft Bing is damaged by Google's dominant position in search and Google's related products it has less to do with anti-competitive business practices than it does with poor execution.   Let's be honest, nobody goes around saying, "I'll Bing that." Google's about search and has managed to leverage that simple fact in all of its products.  Bing isn't a poor search engine because of Google, It's just a poor search engine.

Consumer preference can be influenced but not controlled.  That's why Bing has been and always will be an also ran search engine just like Yahoo and the bygones like altavista or askjeeves.  Windows Phone still holds less than 5% of the worldwide Smartphone market and will likely continue to do so until it offers the features that can lure consumers away from Apple or Android.

Neither Google nor Apple have any obligation to help them improve that number.  A fact driven home by Google's impending removal of support for syncing Microsoft Exchange accounts (via Exchange Activesync) to its Gmail service as of January 30th.  Luckily Microsoft has it's hotmail service to fall back on.  Yes, that's a joke.

The bottom line is that right now Google's services are the consumer's choice for web applications.  Apple learned that the hard way with the Apple Maps fiasco but to their credit at least they tried.  Instead of complaining about being excluded from Google's services Microsoft should be trying to create a better competing service.  After all, software and servers are their thing, right?

Then again what else would you expect from a Microsoft legal blog?

570425_Up To 60% Off w/ Free Shipping 525x133