Thursday, 5 November 2009

Media Center

After using Windows 7 on my work laptop for some time now, I decided to make the leap and purchase a new Media Center for home.

I settled on a custom build option using an Antec case with Media (MCE) Display, 7.1 surround, dual tv tuner, Intel 8200 Quadcore CPU, 4gb DDR2 800mhz RAM, and of course a dedicated display pcie card, blue ray player and Windows 7 64! ...muwahha :)

Hopefully it should be delivered tomorrow (fingers crossed), and then I can start to play with it.

Just to complete the line up I have ordered a Microsoft Wireless Desktop 7000 keyboard and mouse, to perfectly complement it.

Having played with my laptop, connecting it to my SONY TV, and watching DVDs I was really impressed with the Media Center controls, getting onscreen information about the film, and also related films I may be interested in.

I will keep you posted as to how it goes.

Technorati Tags: Microsoft,Windows7, Blueray,Antec

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Windows 7 has landed on my company laptop

Just had Windows 7 Enterprise Installed on my DELL Precision M4300 laptop, all hooked up to the domain. My first job was to get all the correct drivers for the display, network card, bluetooth interface, sound card - Windows 7 default drivers allowed everything to work but my Windows Experience Index was at a measly 1!

After installing the NVIDIA Quadro FX 360M driver, Broadcom NetXtreme gigabit controller, SigmaTel High Def Audio this allowed me to re-run the System Rating, my results are below:

This then allowed the Aero theme to be chosen (as previously only Basic was available):

Happy times! Looks great. One issue I had was that initially I made the changes to my profile but on logging off and logging back on again Windows said my profile information was in use by another user, then defaulted to what looked to be a safe mode. On logging out and back in again my real profile appeared, less any of the theme changes made before. All very strange, but has not happened since!

Connecting to my network printers proved more of a pain, mainly because the network drivers are not compatible with this new 64bit O/S. Downloading then from the HP website proved equally impossible, but got there eventually.

Adobe 6 Professional was re-installed, and patched, but failed to add the "Print to PDF" option within my Printers dialog - the thing I use the most. Not sure what I am going to do about this.

Firefox - for some reason will fail to display web pages (including the link to this very blog), but WILL work in IE8 - strange but true. Wonder if anyone else has noticed this?

Finally an error with my CISCO IP Communicator - on loading shows the following error (cannot find a mention of the same error on google):

On looking at new tools for 7 I came across this fantastic bit of kit from Stardock called "Fences". It has a small footprint and allows you to "contain" all your desktop icons into meaningful categories. I was a bit sceptical at first as to whether this would be of any real benefit, but after using it for 2 days its great! Definitely recommend this:

Anyway that's all for now, so far so good and long may this trend continue. The distinct Windows 7/Vista start up and login sounds, along with its visually striking interface is already creating a stir amongst the office (they are just jealous) :)

Friday, 25 September 2009

What a busy week!

Finally got some time this morning to sit down and write about the busy week I have had! It's not often I get to travel away from the office as my role is in Support, but this Monday I had the first of hopefully many meetings at Microsoft.

This is a continuation of my involvement in the IT Persona Program, aka the Microsoft Community Council where a group of specifically targeted professionals get together to share common ideas.

The meeting on Monday was very exciting, train & tube to London Victoria, and then meeting at the Microsoft office to meet fellow team members for the first time face to face (good to meet everyone). We started by introducing ourselves, a little about what we do in our roles, and some of the pros' and cons' we currently face, it was a good way to get to understand other peoples challenges and not just your own!

For me, coming from a very Technical Background and now as a Team Leader I was interested to know what I could actually add to the discussions, but further on realised that its not the tech that matters, its what we do that's important.

When it was my turn to talk I explained my "excitements" were working in Virtualizaton, managing the EMEA Virtualization Labs for Quest in the UK. It certainly allows me to get my hand's dirty, building and configuring templates and labs in Windows, Linux etc. My "challenges" were of course - Time and managing my team in terms of escalations and rotaring.

One of my biggest issues is maintaining licencing and building of Labs (nearly 200 of them), whilst about to double the server capacities from 2 to 4 blade servers and an additional 5 Terabytes of space! The problem comes in policing this resource, setting quota's is always hard to do when you don't initially know what business groups will use in terms of physical CPU, MEM, and SAN Space, part is trial and error, and then adjust later. Once the 2 new blades go live later next week I shall be keeping a close eye on them!

Dynamic Environments cause other headaches as well, such as when cloning and deploying from templates, this hardware change (new NIC for example) can sometimes cause Microsoft Licencing to kick in and needs to be re-applied. This can cause issues where the Support Engineers have permissions to Clone and Deploy through VIC, but don't have the licence keys as they are carefully controlled. I guess it's just one of those things...

Look forward to writing more about upcoming events at Microsoft, unfortunately I was not able to attend the Windows 7 event at Wembley - maybe next time.

Internal Developments - I have been busy this week writing Active Server Pages to deliver webpages to Support Engineers around the world, where they can enter specific Java Error Stack messages, and save to a SQL 2008 Database. So far its going well, it’s an adoption of code I wrote 5 years or so ago - just needs a bit of re-jigging! This will be later hooked up to a complex PERL script being written by one of our Technical Specialists to scrape log files and provide feedback based on pre-defined Q&A's from the 2008 Database.

Finally - this week I have made changes to the flexi-shift pattern employed by our team of support engineers. You may have already seen a previous post on my blog about how to change outlook to dynamically change the colour of calendar events based on commonly used fields such as "Subject", well it meant I had to go in and change these rules again this week.

Question to Microsoft - have you got any piece of software that can handle my rota requirements, when people are in/out and shift patterns & reporting? If not, can I have something please :)

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Windows 7 - missing it already

Further to my last post on Windows 7 and my experiences on using it, just wanted to add another post now about my RC coming to an end. It will soon be time to remove from my machine, and have started the transition back to using the corporate XP version until I can work out where to go next.

Needless to say, I am already missing Windows 7, it's smoothness, functionality and general good fun whilst using it - it's been a real pleasure so far!

Highlights using it still include the most useful tools for me day to day - the snipping tool for sending screen shots to customers, the aero alt-tab, the new toolbar design and grouping of applications, the free-to-move gadgets (love the stock ticker) to name a few.

My experience with speed has also been consistent throughout, quick boot-up times, application focus quick after logging in, few issues with Outlook - however this was because the machine was not on the domain therefore proxy auth kept popping up all the time. On a production machine obviously this would go away and would not be an annoyance!

During my time using it I had no application crashes, no errors, blue screens etc which also made a change, also the IE8 shipped with Windows 7 was found to be stable and reliable using it on our web-based applications.

Our IS department have now issued a statement regarding Windows 7 and it's release to developers only. Unfortunately until our internal applications are certified for running Windows 7 it will not be officially rolled out. Certainly for me at least, most if not all of the work I do is through a browser - Firefox/IE8 through to our Clarify Support System, therefore these can easily be emulated through User Agent String Utils or things like IE tab for Firefox.

Will start to prepare our Virtual Labs for Windows 7 once fully released providing a client base for our applications to run on.

Roll-on 22nd October.….:)

Friday, 31 July 2009

Music Streaming - my journey so far

For many months now I have been looking at implemeting some sort of media streaming at home, to store all my music in one place, and then be able to play it all around the house - integrated speakers, or through phono to amp.

Problem is - all seems to lead to the same conclusions such as "Too expesive", "Too fiddly", or involves drilling lots of holes into walls and ceilings (which I want to avoid).

For a while now I have been reading up on things like the squeezebox - great idea, love how it looks, and the price seems also to be quite reasonable. Sonos also have a similar setup whereby you can stream wirelessly from internet, mp3 lockers such as, or from a central storage system.

I have been trying the mp3 tunes recently, to see how long it takes to upload a double cd to the vault, seems to take far too long (upload on broadband not so great), but may still be an option as the logitech duet can read media from such sources.

Then there is the storage option, get a readyNAS, install SqueezeCenter (formally SlimServer), and bob's your uncle (or so you may think). Many reviews on this subject have said that using a NAS with this software on NetGear or QNAP causes problems with streaming the content out to your Squeezeboxes - and the fact that a NetGear NAS can be upwards of £300 alone!

So - leaves me again in a quandary - as I don't necessarily want a media center humming away in the lounge, even if it’s a Shuttle PC, and I don't want a NAS if performance for media is poor!

Looking at iPOD docks at the moment, I know it's not the same but maybe a good interim solution?

Who would have thought something so apparantley easy would be so hard.

The search continues...however I am swaying towards the Sonos option..stay posted!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Hardware Issues

Must be the weather I keep telling myself. Seems the heat may be getting to more things than just me. I have a Dell Precision M4300 which for the last few months makes this very strange sound - sometimes 3 times a day, other days silent. My team mates find it rather amusing as it always makes a noise at the wrong moment.

This is not the only time I have had issues with Dell Laptops, I have had 5 or so in the last few years at work, and all have had similar "strange noises" coming from beneath the bonnet. My most reliable Dell purchase was some 6 years ago when I was contracting - at the time my Dell Inspiron 5100 was expensive at just over £1k but I beefed up the graphics and to this day still performs fantastic as a home pc after upgrading to 1GB RAM.

I wonder whether Dell - as many other companies do - when they expand so much, the quality disappears. My new M4300 is less than a year old but already looks tired - the brushed chrome on the cover looks a right mess - looked great when new however.

Now I see my Blackberry also has given up the ghost - intermittently hard rebooting itself with no warning, due to be replaced next few days so lets see if the new one lasts longer than 9 months!

Maybe we are pushing the boundaries of technology now, everything has to be "NOW", real-time, at-hand, in a compact design. This along with competition for companies and individuals budgets seems that cost cutting is showing, so I guess the hot weather is not really the problem here, its; the fact that we should not always insist that cheaper is better :)

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Windows 7 instead of Vista?

I have been running Windows 7 RC dual boot for some time now and have to say I am very impressed with the speed, look and feel and built in functionality.

Within our company the standard roll-out build of operating system is Windows XP, however more recently laptops have been coming out if IS running Windows Vista. Certainly playing with Windows Vista and Windows 7 side-by-side the reports are true about initial response times, pre-loading and performance gains on Windows 7.

The version I am running is Ultimate Edition which includes the Media Center option which with my ATI graphics card looks great in Aero view mode. I am pleased to see that useful features such as the great snipping tool are still there from Vista - I use this all the time when screen shotting and sending to customers (much easier than cut and paste/paintbrush/crop etc).

I also like the free-to-drop-anywhere gadgets which previously had to be snapped onto a gadget bar in Vista - works very well on dual monitor mode.

I am looking to build a new media center pc at home (well have been for a year or so now) but been holding off, I think now may well be the time to do this with Windows 7, all I need to do now is save up :)

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Virtualizing our environment

Over the past year I have been leading a project to Virtualize and consolidate our EMEA Support Test Lab environments using VMWare ESXi, moving away from various rack mounted servers and ailing desktop machines.

I started off by cataloging what we had "physically", and virtually (stored on PCs running Microsoft Virtual Server, and VM Ware Server 1.0.x). The result was that over half of the physical machines would benefit from conversion to ESX, and that environmentally we would be removing old hardware which could then be recycled, a good idea all round!

One major factor was to improve the availability of lab machines for all EMEA support consultants, and to be able to build various Virtual Machines using high-spec hardware, providing performance improvements of the labs. The ability to deploy from templates pre-built with OS, Patches and core-software was also required.

Since installing the new blade servers and Shared SAN storage we now have around 150 Virtual lab environments with operating systems ranging from Cent OS, Redhat Enterprise, Windows 2k3, 2k8, Vista, and Windows 7.

Running on these Operating Systems we have various in house products that we support, as well as databases such as sybase, oracle, sql server and clustered solutions.

At present we have reached the capacity of the two DELL blade servers (each 32GB ram) and 4TB SAN space and are looking to upgrade this as soon as possible to continue building more lab environments.

Other problems faced over the past year include managing permissions to the Virtual Center, the availability of command line (root) access to run vmtools commands for Thick Disks (Clustering), as well as High Availability Support which has had to be turned off to allow full usage of the available RAM on the blades.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Managing Outlook 2007 Shared Calendars

I recently decided to move away from using Excel 2007 to manage my team's shift rota's. I wanted to use a shared Calendar in Outlook 2007, but had problems using categories as a method of changing the way items looked. If you research on the Internet for how to use Microsoft Office Categories to manage the way your shared calendars work, you will find mixed results on how to achieve this. It seems since office 2007 categories can no longer be exported between machines as in previous versions of Outlook.

I wanted Outlook to automatically colour the entries depending on what they were (Holiday, Early shift etc). Seems that when you implement category rules this only applied to your own Outlook profile, therefore when shared between the team they cannot see any of the custom colour attributes.

I have found a nifty way around this problem via the use of Outlook Views. My steps are below on how to implement a shared Outlook calendar with custom views:

First create the Shared Calendar:

Get the calendar visible under your own Outlook profile first selecting option File> New Calendar. Once this is available we then need to make a copy of the current view so we can modify it to suit our needs.

Next Step - use the Custom View organiser:
Before we make any changes to the current view it's best to make a copy and modify this one. So select the following option:

View > Current View > Define Views. Once here we need to select the default view (normally Day/Week/Month) and select the "Copy" option.

Make sure you select the "This folder, visible to everyone" option as this will then make the view selectable by everyone you share the calendar to (you will see where later on):

Customise the way the View will work:

Next Outlook allows you to control the way in which the View works with data that is added and displayed in the shared calendar. After clicking "OK" on the above dialog box it will present you with the "Customize" option below:

Here Click on the "Automatic Formatting" option:

In this dialog you define each view rule condition by giving it a name, and Colour, then set the "Condition" by clicking this button:

Here you can see I am using the Location field to determine the Colours of the Calendar entries.

Finally Apply the view to the Calendar:

Click on "Apply View" which will save the view configurations to your Outlook Profile. Then right Click your Calendar and select "Share . Send it to your team mates and they will be able to open it.
Then can then select View > Current View > "Kevin - Day/Week/Month" in my case which will automatically change the colours depending on the text in the "Location" field:

Friday, 22 May 2009

Just got off a call with Microsoft regarding blogging best practice, tools to use, all very useful and opened my eyes to some things I did not know.

Microsoft Community Blogger

I am now part of the Microsoft Community Council!

I have been asked by Microsoft UK to be part of a new initiative representing the voice of Support technicians around the world.

The aim is to drive deeper connection with IT professionals through independent customers representing certain Job Roles and being the voice of the customer to and from Microsoft. This will build on the success we have had with the Audience Marketing Managers (AMMs) and the IT Evangelists (ITEs) being the public face of Microsoft to all IT Professionals in the UK.

The result of this is that I shall be more active on blogging regarding my job role - around 2 blogs a week at least, giving people an insight into what challenges, opportunities and successes I have.