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Good things from Microsoft in 2015

Posted by on Jan 1, 2016 in From the Cloud, From the Mind, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Good things from Microsoft in 2015

As a software development and services business that implements Microsoft technology, there are always ups and downs. This blog often has covered issues we’ve had while using Microsoft technology, however, it being the New Year, I thought it would be good to highlight some of Microsoft’s more generous actions we saw in 2015

1. Free Windows 10 Upgrades

There is a definitely a pragmatic element here; Microsoft wants as many people on Windows 10 in order to drive developers to the platform. Still, Windows 10 is a pretty great operating system to get as a free upgrade from Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1. And getting free assistance from a Microsoft Store, if one is close by, is a nice touch.

I have family who ran away from Windows 8, but feel very comfortable on Windows 10. I’ve installed Windows 10 on plenty of devices and overall, it has performed well, especially with the November update.

2. Free Visual Studio Community 2015

Microsoft first made Visual Studio Community 2013 available in late 2014, and continued this offering in 2015 with the release of Visual Studio Community 2015. This product is on feature parity with Visual Studio Professional, which is a paid version of the product. There are licensing limitations that restrict how Visual Studio Community can be used in a business setting, however, if you are a free-lancer, student, or hobbyist, you have access to an incredible development tool at no cost. Even on the business side of things, if you are in a small company or your company works on open source projects, there is a high likelihood you can use this tool on some level.

The reason for Visual Studio Community is likely pragmatic; Microsoft wants developers to learn and develop on their platforms. Still though, it’s an awesome giveaway.

3. Free Visual Studio Express 2015

I was really concerned that Visual Studio Express might go away in favor of Visual Studio Community. Fortunately, the free (for any use) Visual Studio Express 2015 line of products was also released by Microsoft. It’s a good thing for anyone with an inexpensive BayTrail Windows PC that only has 32 GB of storage; a lot of these $200 or so machines are still sold today, and Express for Web is small enough that it can actually fit on one. I had such a setup on my Dell Venue 8 Pro until its hardware went bad on me.

4.”Free” SAM Engagements (sarcasm)

OK, a little snark here. Microsoft pays consultants to call up its customers and help then validate whether they are in compliance with licensing. If not, it’s time to pay up. We’ll talk about this a bit in later blog posts, but overall, its not fun to go through. At least Microsoft pays for the process on their end.

5. More Accessible OneDrive

Yes, the story of the year is how Microsoft fumbled its OneDrive marketing, first promising an unlimited storage upgrade, and then reneging on that promise. As well as by reducing the amount of free storage offered. Perhaps what is missing is now that OneDrive is included by default with Windows 10 (an Operating System that is generally well received by millions), a lot more free OneDrive storage will likely be consumed by all. It’s clearly a play to get everyone in their ecosystem, but still, Microsoft is giving away a lot of free storage all around.

 

Concluding Thoughts?

Have I missed anything important here? Feel free to let me know at my Twitter handle @napkatz. Overall, I think 2015 has been a good year for Microsoft and its partners and customers, and I look forward to seeing what 2016 brings.

 

 

A Thoughtful Discussion with the Azure Team

Posted by on Dec 4, 2015 in From the Cloud, From the Mind | Comments Off on A Thoughtful Discussion with the Azure Team

Following the prior blog post, representatives from the Microsoft Azure Team requested a call with me to discuss the concerns I had with the service. I applaud them taking the initiative to set that up, and I feel the call was very productive and informational.

As with a lot of what Microsoft does, sometimes the issues are largely related to communication. Here’s some important clarifications regarding their Azure Support Offerings which are listed on this page (https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/support/plans/), as well as some other notes.

  1. Currently, there is no free technical support, even if flaws in the Azure Infrastructure are the cause of the issues customers might see. The phrase “Web incident submission” on the page is strictly limited to Billing and Subscription issues. Everyone on the call seemed to think the wording on the page was a little confusing, and supposedly, it might be revised in the future. I would revise it to “Billing Support” myself.
    1. On occasion, in the case of large outages affecting lots of customers, Microsoft does sometimes offer free technical support to customers who are having issues getting back online.  I would not recommend counting on this, as this feels very arbitrary.
  2. For a regular Support Plan to be guaranteed applicable to an Azure Subscription having technical issues, the Support Plan must be under the Microsoft Account that owns the subscription. If a Co-Administrator of an Azure Subscription has a Support Plan himself/herself, there is no guarantee that support plan will be usable to open a ticket for the Subscription they are administrating. Note that this is not spelled out on the Support Plan page, but is very important to know.
    1. So, if one of your customers is setting up Azure hosting and you are quoting the cost, make sure to bundle a Support plan into the estimate OR
    2. Convince your customer to setup the Azure Subscription under your Microsoft Account so your Support Plan will work with it.
  3. There are ways Microsoft Partners can gain special Partner Support Plans that let them support the Azure Subscriptions of their customers, but they either involve certifications and/or high monthly fees. Think $1,200 to $1,500.
  4. A key driver behind Azure’s recent pains and outages seems to be astronomic customer growth. And this growth isn’t projected to slow down.
  5. The Service Level Agreements for Azure services are solely about reimbursement for downtime. Whether an Azure Service has an SLA or not is not guaranteed to be correlated with up-time. Don’t use Azure SLAs as any promise of up-time when quoting to a customer; instead, insure to add-in things like SQL Azure Geo-Replication with Failover into your quote.
  6. I think changes to Azure Support is coming. I’m participating in a follow-up call in January, and while the Azure Team I was talking to could not discuss the future with me, they really wanted the follow-up call. I’m hoping there is new stuff to discuss in January. And I really hope some form of free support for Azure-caused issues will be part of the discussion.

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Microsoft Azure’s Current Uptime and Support Struggle

Posted by on Nov 20, 2015 in From the Cloud, From the Mind | 3 comments

Author’s note: Following this post, I had a productive call with a Microsoft Azure Team. Valuable Insights of that call are here.

Over the last couple of years, we at EfficiencyNext have become more bullish about how Microsoft Azure can help our clients. New features have been rolling out regularly, and extremely useful services like SQLAzure make the cloud platform unique. And Microsoft has been very bullish with their Service Level Agreements, guaranteeing with the promise of partial refunds up-times as high as 99.95%.

Unfortunately, at least for our Azure Subscriptions and those of our clients, up-time over the last couple of months has been less than terrific. IaaS Servers that lose their disks, SQLAzure databases that go offline for several hours, Web Apps that suddenly operate at 3% of their usual power, the Azure Cache service being suddenly unreliable for over 24 hours, effectively bring sites down. All this has happened to Azure-based systems we manage for our clients over the last couple of months, the vast majority of them on services backed by SLAs. And in most cases, the issues with these services were never reflected on the Azure Dashboard. We are on the 26th hour of a serious issue now, and yet, the Azure Dashboard is green.

What is just as alarming is Microsoft’s moves to shut off the valves on how users can report issues and receive help when it is the Microsoft infrastructure at fault. In theory, “Web Incident Submission” is included with all Azure Subscriptions (https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/support/plans/). At the very least, a way to submit technical issues to Microsoft as they happen is implied, if not promised. Unfortunately, this capacity doesn’t really exist, at least not in the way one would expect. In my experience, bringing up an issue to the Twitter handle @AzureSupport usually results in them recommending submitting a Billing Ticket to the Azure Portal. And then when you do that, the Billing Reps now regularly tell those seeking help that they need to pay extra for a paid Azure Support Plan; the standard one runs $300 a month. The situation has become so ridiculous that when this is protested, the folks at @AzureSupport are now telling customers to submit Billing Tickets and to lie by saying the issue to be resolved is the subscription portal not working. Evidently, that gets a tech on an issue, and then once they are engaged, one can bring up the actual problem. In other instances I know of, technical support plans have been setup with tickets then submitted. After that, the plan is cancelled with a refund by Billing Support after an issue has been fixed.

Limiting Customer Input is a Direct Threat to Up-time

The idea of restricting incoming information about outages and guaranteeing high up-time seems contradictory. Given that Azure’s Dashboard and health mechanisms clearly can’t catch every serious issue that occurs on the service, letting customers tell techs what is wrong seems very smart. An issue that affects one customer often likely affects hundreds more. With that option now limited to only those who pay for support, it’s my theory up-time has really suffered as a result. Whenever I bring up to Azure reps that SLAs are supposed to be backed by good faith efforts, they usually tell me its only about a promised partial refund, which as we all know often doesn’t cover the business cost for multiple hours and in some cases days of downtime. Call me old fashioned; I’ve worked with other hosting companies for over a decade and know from experience that good companies put real effort into actually making the up-time expressed in SLAs a reality.

So What Should You Do?

In the heat of the moment, it’s tempting to run over to AWS (Amazon Web Services). While they have paid support offerings, they also provide free high priority support if a service goes down when it is their fault; the key difference vs Azure is Microsoft makes their customers pay for reporting issues that are Microsoft’s own causing.

That said, Azure provides valuable capabilities and integration options with Microsoft development tooling that in my opinion are unmatched in the industry. SQLAzure for instance, is a great service, and a  great value, especially with the latest V12 upgrade. And once you get hold of a tech, they work hard to get you back online. So here are my recommendations if you plan on being on Microsoft Azure.

  1. Understand buying a paid support plan is a requirement. If up-time is fairly important, the $30 Monthly Developer’s Plan might work. If up-time is very important, then expect to pay $300 a month. Without one of these, it is usually impossible to even talk to a Microsoft tech when their own mistakes bring down services you are paying thousands of dollars for annually. Think of it as buying a PC without a manufacturers warranty, and thus needing to buy an extended warranty for any coverage.
  2. Budget extra development time to circumvent outages when necessary. Tonight, I’m working on changing dependencies on a client site with intermittent issues, as the critical service we depend on is still unreliable after over 26 hours. At some point, the fix has to transfer from an overwhelmed Azure team to perhaps a coding change, with all the regressive testing that comes with that.
  3. Minimize the number of Azure Services you use. An Azure Cache service can’t fail you if you aren’t using it. If up-time is important, keep the dependencies simple, and perhaps have backup services in another Azure data center at the ready.
  4. Finally, and I say this with a heavy heart, understand that up-time on Azure just won’t be as good as on some other hosting services. This is based purely on my own observations, but up-time is just worse than anything I’ve seen on any other major hosting service, at least over the last couple months. Perhaps its the rapid release of new capabilities or the surge in new customers. Or maybe its just cultural; Azure started more as an Application hosting service and later expanded to more website hosting; the up-time expectations of the latter perhaps don’t resonate yet. Whatever the reason, I now tell clients to just plan for some downtime. For their purposes, the SLA percentages aren’t real. In my opinion, it’s simply the price for using a constantly upgrading platform that has an increasingly large client base.

In Conclusion

I hope Microsoft will engage in good faith efforts to improve Azure up-time. Letting customers tell you when things are wrong seems like a good start. I’d argue it is Bad Faith to publish high up-time SLAs, promise free “Web Incident Submission” and then block customers from submitting information to techs that would help maintain the SLA targets.

The world needs Azure. I want to recommend Azure. But these days, I have to add serious qualifications…

With that, I turn over the floor. Current Azure customers, am I right? Wrong? Any defectors from Azure to AWS out there? Is the up-time better over there? And Microsoft Azure folks, please feel free to join the conversation.

 

Windows 10 Mobile’s Heart is Largely For Business

Posted by on Nov 6, 2015 in From the Mind | Comments Off on Windows 10 Mobile’s Heart is Largely For Business

Windows 10 Mobile 635

EfficiencyNext is largely a Microsoft-oriented development company, and as such, we keep tabs on a variety of Microsoft efforts, including their foray into mobile phones. I personally use a Lumia 820 running Windows Phone 8.1 as my daily driver, and have a Lumia 635 as a backup. With Windows 10 Mobile getting very close to RTM, I decided to install the Preview Build 10581 on the Lumia 635. Compared to the Lumia 820 running Windows Phone 8.1, I immediately noticed more of a business focus, with some classic Windows Phone visual cues and social features removed and new business capabilities added. This shouldn’t be too surprising, given Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s declaration that Microsoft is a productivity company, with business users being one of the three target audiences Windows 10 Mobile shoots for. Here are the winners and losers of this upgrade from Windows Phone 8.1, at least based on what I am seeing in this build:

Winner: Office Users

Windows 10 Mobile finally ships with mobile versions of Microsoft’s Office applications, which are quite decent. And they tie very well into OneDrive and OneDrive for Business. Ironically, Windows Phone 8.1 had the worst mobile Office capabilities among the mobile platforms as of late; Windows 10 Mobile completely corrects this, and I’m thrilled for it.

Winner: IT Organizations and Businesses

Like Windows 10, Windows 10 Mobile ships with built-in support for Student and Organizational Accounts. This is huge for organizations deploying phones to their employees, and makes the phone a natural extension of a well planned IT setup. In addition, the Universal App model makes it very cost efficient for organizations to build applications that run on the Windows 10 (desktop/laptop/tablet) and Windows 10 Mobile, using C# and the highly productive Visual Studio tools. For organizations where building custom applications is more important than having the most commercial apps available, Windows 10 Mobile is a compelling choice. Did I mention the handsets themselves are reasonably priced?

Winner: Windows 10 Users

If you feel your Windows 10 computer is still your primary computing device as opposed to your phone, then Windows 10 Mobile can be a compelling mobile choice. Missed call notifications from the phone appearing on the PC, the ability to send text messages from the PC through the phone, and shared Cortana reminders are some of the ways a Windows 10 Mobile device is a valuable compliment for a Windows 10 PC.

Loser: Horizontal Navigation Fans

Windows Phone 7 and 8 made significant use of Panoramas to create a smooth multi-page horizontal navigation experience in several of the phone’s apps and admin screens. It could look quite stunning and beautiful. And its pretty much gone in Windows 10 Mobile. Likely it was too much style at the expense of productivity. Individual app makers can still use panoramas, but its pretty clear Microsoft itself has backed away from them.

Loser: Social Integration Fans

This trend started with the Windows Phone 8.1 update, where-as integrated social network features started getting pulled from the Operating System. That’s true in Windows 10 Mobile even more so. The “Me” tile for quickly posting social updates is gone. Contact Groups in the People app do not have their own social feeds, a feature I personally loved (Microsoft, please bring it back!). LinkedIn is gone as an integrated social network. Windows Phone 7 was marketed as a People-First smartphone; that mantra is pretty much kaput in Windows 10 Mobile. I picked up my older LG Quantum Windows Phone 7.5 device a couple days ago, and was struck by how much I missed the original social features it came wih

Winner: Windows 7/8/8.1 App Developers

Your apps still work in Windows 10 Mobile! At least, they should. I tested a couple Windows Phone 7 apps I built years ago and they ran fine on Windows 10 Mobile.

Loser: Current Consumer Oriented Windows Phone Users

Frankly, the most exciting developments in Windows 10 Mobile are business oriented. Unless the consumer app-gap shrinks between Windows 10 Mobile and Android, it will only get harder for consumers to choose a Windows Phone running Windows 10 Mobile. As a business executive, I could easily see outfitting the staff with inexpensive reliable Windows 10 Mobile devices that work well in our infrastructure; I’m not sure I can recommend one to a consumer whose phone is likely going to be their primary computing device; there’s just too many banks and other services that don’t produce Windows apps, and perhaps alarmingly, more are electing not to even build mobile web sites. I really hope this changes, but I don’t see how. If one wants to play with MeerKat or Periscope on a Windows Phone, they are out in the cold. That isn’t to say there’s nothing for consumers; the game catalog is actually quite good. But so is the one on Android and iOS.

Potential Loser: Owners of Older Windows Phone 8 Hardware

I need to test this on my Lumia 820, but at least on my Lumia 635 (512 MB RAM), I found things like web browsing on Edge to be somewhat sluggish. It’s true, we aren’t at RTM yet, but still, I can feel the Snapdragon 400 processor being taxed. This is a bit concerning, as a bunch of Windows Phones use this processor(635, 640, 830). And the Snapdragon 400 is more or less equivalent to the processor power of chips in the first generation Windows Phone 8 devices (Lumia 820, 920, 925, etc..). Again, I need to test this on a 1 GB device on the RTM code; things might get better before RTM ships.

Winner: Those Who Like Free Things

Windows 10 Mobile is the second large free update Windows Phone 8 purchasers are getting for free. And it truly makes one feel like they once again have a new phone in their phone. Upgraders should understand though that some of the features that made Windows Phone unique are now gone. The place for the OS seems to naturally be rooted in business.

Paul Katz is the President of EfficiencyNext, a software developer, and a long-time follower of Microsoft tech.

Our new EfficiencySpring site!

Posted by on Nov 4, 2015 in From the Mind | Comments Off on Our new EfficiencySpring site!

We’re hard at work on the new EfficiencySpring site (http://www.efficiencyspring.com). For those of you who don’t work with us, EfficiencySpring is our home grown system development platform that allows us to spin up web-based databases, file sharing, workflow, and content management for our customers. It’s how we aim to deliver systems for our customers at a rapid pace and a controlled cost.

In the coming weeks, we hope to post demo videos on the site showcasing how impressive capabilities can be configured, as well as extended through code!

How We Would Have Written the OneDrive Reduction of Service Announcement

Posted by on Nov 4, 2015 in From the Mind | Comments Off on How We Would Have Written the OneDrive Reduction of Service Announcement

As a Microsoft Partner, we were shocked at Microsoft’s OneDrive service reduction announcement (https://blog.onedrive.com/onedrive_changes/). Perhaps most troubling is the given rationale for the new storage limitations, and Microsoft blaming their customers for using a service that was freely offered. It’s not surprising to us at EfficiencyNext that the Unlimited Storage promise would go away; it was an unsustainable promise. But as an exercise in PR writing, here is how I would have written their blog post, with frankness, honesty, and humility. Please note, these are my words, not Microsoft’s, although I invite them to reuse anything below they find helpful:


 

New OneDrive Storage Limits

Loyal OneDrive users, today the OneDrive Team has come to a difficult decision. Roughly a year ago, we pledged every Office 365 Personal and Home user would receive unlimited OneDrive storage, up from the established 1 TB limit. Some of our customers, being the most innovative in the industry, took us up on the offer for unlimited storage in ways we simply didn’t expect; massive amounts of PC backups, massive online video collection, etc… Let’s make one thing clear; these customers used what was freely offered to them by us.

That said, we cannot technically sustain our unlimited OneDrive offering; we need to revise it back down to a capacity that provides equitable sharing of resources among all our paid customers. Starting early 2016, we will be reducing the amount of OneDrive storage for Office 365 Personal and Home users from unlimited storage to 1  TB. For our customers needing more storage, we recommend they check out our professional grade Office 365 Enterprise offerings, which include SharePoint Online with unlimited storage expansion, and professional collaboration capabilities.

Finally, we must regretfully downgrade our free OneDrive storage offering to 5 GB from 15 GB, with an inexpensive expansion option made available of 50 GB for $1.99 monthly. As part of this, we will also be expiring our 15 GB free photo sync bonus. Through a new generation of cross platform apps, and the free arrival of Windows 10, more consumers are using OneDrive than ever before. It’s a level of use we now find ourselves needing to fund properly, similar to how Xbox Live Subscriptions fund the best online gaming network on the planet.

Office 365 Home and Personal customers who are using more than 1 TB of storage will have a year to bring their use of OneDrive down to 1 TB. And if you are a free user of OneDrive and store more than 5 GB of files, we invite you to enjoy a free one-year subscription to Office 365 Personal, which includes 1 TB of storage. We feel after a year you will agree it is worth its monthly price of $6.99. In any case, you will have access to all your files for a year after these changes go into effect.

For those who are disappointed with these decisions, we’re sorry. We aim to delight our customers in ways we can properly scale, such as the free upgrade to Windows 10, and the newly announced Xbox Games with Gold options for Xbox One, which provides backward compatibility with Xbox 360 games. We deeply regret that our promise of unlimited online storage was one we couldn’t keep.

Respectfully,

The OneDrive Team.

As a reminder, this is my take on what the OneDrive team should have said.