BM-Bloggers

The blogs of Black Marble staff

Social Networking: The double-edged sword of maintaining an online presence

Exploring the new frontier

I’m writing this post whilst watching my Windows Home Server slowly copy data onto an external drive. I mention that not because of its pertinence, but to indicate why I found myself having time to join Facebook.

The other reason was the excellent session given by Eileen Brown at our most recent event. After Eileen had finished admonishing me for not taking my online presence (and therefore reputation) seriously enough I took the step of installing the Twitter Notify plugin for Live Writer so I could connect two of my online personas together.

But that wasn’t enough. I’ve had an online profile on LinkedIn for some time now, which I find very useful for business contacts. Ping.fm offered a very useful service of allowing effective cross-posting of status updates between my online services, so I signed up (on Elaine’s most excellent advice) and could then amplify the volume of my random thoughts across multiple networks.

Perhaps foolishly, however, I didn’t stop there. I now have a Facebook profile. This has turned out to be almost my making and undoing, all at once. Suddenly I can see why people I know lose hours of their lives hooked into their online circle of friends. At the same time though, there are so many people out their on Facebook that I haven’t seen or spoken to in years and suddenly I have a mechanism which allows me to reconnect with them (with varying degrees of passive- or activeness, depending on both sides’ level of enthusiasm).

The Twitter Notify plugin has now been replaced by xPollinate – a Ping.fm plugin for Live Writer. Once more, projecting my voice across the vastness of cyberspace.

And now I find myself wondering whether I’ve done the right thing. The cat is most forcefully out of the bag and no amount of persuasion will force it back in. I must now engage with these networks, spending time which I’m not certain I have commenting and posting and updating or my online personas will wither and die and fall back into the ocean of neglected accounts, blogs and other internet detritus.

I remember when this was all fields

Sadly, I really am old enough to remember the internet before the web. I’m old enough to remember Compuserve being the big online realm. When I was an undergraduate at University, suddenly email was a fantastic way of communicating with my friends at other Universities – all connected to JANET (the UK Joint Academic Network, which itself connected to the Internet).

Back then we couldn’t share much. Sure, you could attach things to emails, but you didn’t have much space in your mailbox and, frankly, there wasn’t much to send. We bounced messages back and forth to arrange meetings and social gatherings, and it was an invaluable tool for coursework!

Whilst we had USENET (internet news groups, for those who haven’t encountered them) to allow online discussion, we didn’t have anything like the Blogs of today, which offer anybody a platform from which to voice their opinions.

The web, when it came, was exciting and fresh. Where I worked, at the University of Bradford, we had one of the first web sites in the UK, thanks to the enthusiasm of my colleagues in the Computer Centre. Over time, academics embraced the new tool as a way to push academic content out to their students.

Certainly, you could lose hours of your life to these things,  but there wasn’t the necessity to post stuff because, frankly, the internet wasn’t very big and most of the people on it were academics at other Universities.

The power of the web to promote yourself became apparent when I began to be involved in creating content for the web at the University. At that time, many of the sources of knowledge I was learning from were influential bloggers – using the new medium to put forward their ideas on how the web should be built. Many of them are still around today, but interestingly, many do not post with the frequency that they used to.

The trap of influence

It seems that the more you post, providing what you have to say is not complete rubbish, then the more people ask you to post more. I have seen many people for whom I have the utmost respect slowly fade away, citing pressures of time or growing workload. The problem is, our online voice is what builds our reputation and if we silence that voice our reputation fades along with it.

This is a conundrum for me. Frankly, I don’t post enough, either to this blog or any of my other online personas. I’d like to post more; I have lots to say (and some of it is more pertinent than this current stream of consciousness). In order to help build the reputation of Black Marble, I need to post more about the cool stuff we do and the great things we achieve as a company. The problem is, I also have a wife, and a life outside what I do for a living (which is already tightly combined with most of my hobbies and interests). How much of my time must I devote to activities connected to my work, even if some of those activities merge into my personal life (like Facebook) or are simply fun?

Passive Engagement

Interestingly, Twitter really has connected me more with some of my friends. Nick Smith, a man for whom I have only respect, persuaded me during the last @Media conference in London last year that Twitter was a great way of keeping in contact with people. The most interesting thing about his argument was that it was an almost entirely passive means of communication, by which he meant that I could listen to his stream of tweets and thereby know what he was up to and choose to comment if I wished.

If you think about it, that’s pretty revelatory. I can’t think of any other means of keeping in touch which doesn’t involve effort from both parties, or risk upset if only one side makes an effort (such as letter writing, at which I was always appalling). To me, Twitter is a great informer, keeping me abreast of what my friends are doing, however remote.

Facebook, by way of contrast, would seem to be something that is almost more demanding of my time and commitment than any of the pre-internet communication channels we had (telephone, letter, meeting down the pub), and provides such a rapid stream of communication with a hugely varying signal-to-noise ratio that I’m struggling to keep up already…

No answers, only questions…

I have no panacea for this. To be honest, this post is more an open question to anybody who reads my blog or notices my twittering or has found me on Facebook or LinkedIn: How do you do it? What advice can we offer one another in coping with the deluge of information of modern life and striking the balance between the demands of maintaining our online profile and enjoying the time with the friends it connects us to? Am I making a point which strikes a chord, or am I talking rubbish? You decide. Deluge my Facebook profile with comments; I can only try to keep up.

A call for speaker at next month Agile Yorkshire meeting

Next months Agile Yorkshire meeting (10th Feb) is an open floor meeting - any subject, any format, 10 minute maximum.

If you fancy doing something in one of the 10 minute slots - whether it is a presentation, a demonstration, a discussion around a problem area - then visit

http://www.agileyorkshire.org/event-announcements/10Feb2010 to register your idea.

Presentations can be marked as provisional if you like the idea but are unsure until later whether you will be ready, available, etc.

Empty page being show for Silverlight application running out of browser

Whilst preparing demo’s for our design event next week I hit a problem with the out of browser experience in Silverlight 3. I had decided to add the out of browser settings to our 2009 Christmas Card Silverlight application. To do this all you need to do is check a box on the project settings

image

I ran the application in the browser and all was OK, I right clicked to installed it to the desktop and it ran OK but I got an empty white screen

image

Turns out the problem was due to a trick we had pulled in the page load. The comic page is a bit long, we had found that of we set the SIlverlight control in the browser page to the comic height the loading spinner could often appear off the bottom of the browser window (especially if the window was not maximised). To address this we set the height of the Silverlight Control small in the containing web page, then at the end of the loading reset it the required height. The fact we were trying to access an HTML Control was the problem, when you are out of the browser there is no HTML page to access.

The solution was single, wrapper the call in conditional test

 if (Application.Current.IsRunningOutOfBrowser == false)
 {
      // resize to the correct size, we keep the height small during the load so the loading spinner is easy to see
      // remember this only works if in a browser
      HtmlPage.Document.GetElementById("silverlightControlHost").SetStyleAttribute("height", "930px");
 }

One this change was made the application worked fine both inside and outside the browser

image

Tech Update Wows the Crowd

Some of the Tech Update CrowdBlack Marble's Rik Hepworth and Microsoft's Matt McSpiritOur Annual Tech Update went well – a good turnout, asking intelligent questions over a great lunch and soaking up our view of the Microsoft Roadmap for 2009, 2010 and beyond. 

Feedback was positive as ever, with comments that it exceeded expectations which were already high!  Rik Hepworth has blogged on the key Microsoft technologies to look out for.    

Guest Starring in today’s event was Microsoft’s Virtualisation Specialist, Matt McSpirit, aka Virtual Boy pictured here on the right with Black Marble’s Rik Hepworth.

New and coming Microsoft technologies you need to look at

Yesterday was the annual Black Marble Tech Update event, where we try to cover every product in the Microsoft arsenal in half a day, telling local businesses what’s coming and what deserves attention.

Writing up the content of the presentations would be almost as exhausting as the research required for create them, but following a few conversations during breaks yesterday I decided that a short blog post on some of the technologies that deserve a closer look was merited.

Rather than hit you with lots, all at once, I’ll probably do a few posts, each with a small list of ‘homework’ for you.

So, the first few, in no particular order…

Direct Access

This is a game-changer when it comes to enabling anywhere-access for mobile workers, and ties nicely in with my recent remote access post. In brief, the qustion behind this is “why should I trust my corporate network any more than the internet?” Once you’ve realised that the answer to that question should be a loud “I shouldn’t!” then Direct Access is the logical answer. In short, it assumes all networks are untrusted and therefore demands a secure connection between all computers at the protocol level (using IPSec). The anywhere access comes from using IPv6, which means that when I fire up my laptop in a hotel I can securely work just like I do in the office, including access to stuff like file shares.

UAG

Unified Access Gateway (the latest version of IAG) builds on DirectAccess, making it easier to configure and manage. It also provides secure remote access for machines which you don’t trust. When you combine UAG with DirectAccess you end up with a comprehensive universal access solution for your infrastructure.

SharePoint 2010

There’s already a great deal of buzz around this. Architectural changes are great, but I firmly believe that the real game-changer is the way that social networking technologies have been absorbed into a business-solution in such a way that it can seriously benefit the way we store, use and find information. You just need to overcome your natural businessman fear of social networking and worker time-wasting and embrace the possibilities.

Office 2010

One of my biggest issues with Office 2007, and the one I hear most often as a barrier to adoption was not the ribbon, but that the interface was not consistent across all of the applications. Office 2010 fixes that, making your transition much less painful when it comes to training. Couple that with the new web versions and excellent business functionality when combined with SharePoint and it becomes quite compelling. Of course, that’s without mentioning the improvements in Outlook like the new conversation view. You’ll prise Outlook 2010 out my cold, dead hands, I can tell you.

Forefront ‘Stirling wave’

The big benefit in my opinion of the new codename Stirling wave of Forefront products is that they can be integrated with a control layer which allows behaviour seen by one to trigger remedial action by another (e.g. trigggering an AV scan of a desktop PC sending lots of emails). That hands-off rapid containment of potential issues is something which I think could be invaluable to large organisations.

So you want to demo VS2010 Lab Manager…….

I recently decided to build a demo system for VS2010 Lab Manager. This was for a number of reasons, not least I just wanted to have a proper play with it, but also that I was hoping to do a session on Microsoft Test and Lab Manager at DDD8 (as it turns out my session did not get voted for, maybe better luck for DDS, you can still vote for that conference’s sessions).

Anyway if any of you have looked at the Lab Manager side of MTLM you will know that getting it going is no quick task. Firstly I cannot recommend highly enough the Lab Management Teams’ blog posts ‘Getting started with Lab Management’ Parts 1, 2 ,3 and 4. This type of walkthrough post is a great way to move into a new complex product such as this. It provides the framework to get you going, it doesn’t fix all your problems but gives you a map to follow into the main documentation or other blog posts.

The architecture I was trying to build was as below. My hardware was a Shuttle PC as this was all I could find in the office that could take 8Gb of memory, the bare minimum for this setup. Not as convenient as a laptop for demos, but I was not going to bankrupt myself getting an 8Gb laptop!

image

As I wanted my system to be mobile, it needed to be it’s own domain (demo.com). This was my main problem during the install. MTLM assumes the host server and all the VMs are in the same domain, but that the domain controller (DC) is on some other device on the domain. I installed the DC on the host server; this meant I had to do the following to get it all to work (I should say I did all of these to get my system running, but they may not all be essential, but they are all sensible practice so probably worth doing)

  • Run the VMM Host as a user other than the default of Local System (this is an option set during the installation). The default Local System user has reduced rights on a domain controller, and so is not able to do all that it needs to. I create a new domain account (demo\VMMserver) and used this as the service account for the VMM.
  • The ‘Getting Started’ blog posts suggest a basic install of TFS, this just installs source control, work item tracking and build services using a SQL Express instance. This is fine, but this mode defaults to using the Network Service account to run the TFS web services. This has the same potential issues as the Local System account on the DC, so I swapped this to use a domain account (demo\TFSservice) using the TFS Administration console. 
  • AND THIS IS THE WIERD ONE AND I SUSPECT THE MOST IMPORTANT. As I was using the host system as a DNS and DHCP the VMs needed to be connected to the physical LAN of the host machine to make use of these services. However as I did not want them to pickup my office’s DHCP service I left the physical server’s Ethernet port unplugged. This meant that when I tried to create a new lab environment I got a TF259115 error. Plugging in a standalone Ethernet hub (connected to nothing else) fixed this problem. I am told this is because part of the LAN stack on the physical host is disabled due to the lack of a physical Ethernet link, even though the DNS and DHCP services were unaffected. The other option would have been to run the DNS, DHCP etc on Hyper-V VM(s).
  • When configuring the virtual lab in TFS Administration console the ‘Network Location’ was blank. If you ignore this missing Network location or manually enter it you get a TF259210 error when you verify the settings in TFS Administration. This is a known problem in SCVMM and was fixed by overriding the discovered network and entering demo.com.

So I now had a working configuration, but when I try to import my prepared test VM into Lab Center, I got an “Import failed, the specified owner is not a valid Active Directory Domain Services account, Specify a valid  Active Directory Domain Services account and try again” error. If I check the SCVMM jobs logs (in SCVMM Admin console) I saw this was an Error 813 in the ‘create hardware setup’ step. However, the account the job was running as was a domain user, as was the service account the host was running on (after I had made the changes detailed above) as I was confused.

This turns out to be a user too stupid error; I was logged in as the TFS servers local administrator (tfs2010\administrator) not the domain one (demo\administrator), or actually any domain account with VMM administrator rights. Once I logged in on the TFS server (where I was running MTLM) as a domain account all was OK. Actually I suspect moving to the VMMService and TFSService accounts was not vital, but did not harm.

I could now create my virtual test environment and actually start to create Team Builds that make use of my test lab environment. Also I think having worked though these problems I have a better understanding of how all the various parts underpinning MTLM hang together, a vital piece of knowledge if you intend to make real use of these tools.

Oh and thanks to everyone who helped me when I got stuck

The uptake of Agile and Alt.Net practices in places a bit away from the major development hotspots

Last week I got into an interesting discussion via email with Nieve a developer from Lille, France.The chat was on the uptake of Agile and Alt.Net practices in places a bit away from the major development hotspots. We both thought it could make an interesting post so, here goes, starting with Nieve’s first post…..

Hello there,I've stumbled upon your blog while googling for the terms alt.net yorkshire.I'm a .NET developer working in Paris and living in the north of France (Lille area). Now, the reason I'm writing is that we're having an alt.net lunch next month, and I would like to talk a bit about the differences between the (alt).net communities in france and england. Now since I did my studies in Leeds, the fact that yorkshire and la région du nord are (surprise surprise) in the north (plus a shared history of mines) brought me to google for alt.net and yorkshire.Over here in Lille/the north of France the situation is rather grim. job offers that entail agile practices and or tools in .NET environment are as rare as an eclipse, managers and developers alike are literally afraid of any framework/tool that isn't microsoft yet somehow miraculously written in a .net language. I suppose you get the picture. I was wondering if you would mind sharing with me (and/or others, on your blog) your thoughts on the situation in yorkshire.

My reply

I don't know if you have heard of Ian Cooper, he was one of the organisers of the ALT.NET events in the UK. Well he just posted on his blog on a subject very close to your question http://codebetter.com/blogs/ian_cooper/archive/2010/01/19/whither-alt-net.aspx

In my opinion there has not been a drop of in interest over the tools and practices of ALT.NET but it has lost it’s label a bit. Ian is right the main people pushing it have moved more towards Twitter etc. which has reduced visibility if you don't follow them.

Local groups are still on the go. I myself attend Agile Yorkshire http://www.agileyorkshire.org/ which is a group driven by development process (being JAVA and .NET) but did help organise the ALT.NET in the North event last year. We hope to run something this year, but we doubt it will be under the ALT.NET banner as it was felt this alienated JAVA members

As to who is using the tools, no as many as I would hope. But you find them in surprising places. I found out that a dev teams in the NHS (usually known to be very bureaucratic and fixed management process) are using Kanban, nHibernate etc. and finding them useful. Getting adoption is all down to someone showing there is an advantage, the problem is so few people in our industry care about improving their skills, it all comes back as Ian said to the software craftsmanship movement

Nieve again

First of all let me begin by saying I only wish I could tell you how much I am thankful. Reading Ian's post was a something of an epiphany moment :) At some points he brought it so close to home that I had to stop and think 'hold on, is he just talking about software development or is there a hidden message about the state of France..?' Over here it's not only the IT industry that breeds this sort of position holders that are fine where they are and just won't bother changing anything. I always think of it as 'with all that revolution going on, you don't get any evolution'; the idea is that everyone here are jumping to their feet and straight to the street to cry against whatever change that is offered, that nothing ever gets to change hence no evolution...

To get back to the issue in question, I think one of the things Ian, and for that matter many of the ALT.NET people, tend to forget or simply overlook is the fact that while at some parts of the world people may think the battle was won, or that it's about time to wake up from our comfortable twitter hibernation, in some other parts the battle hasn't even began, which brings me back to my original question. See, you guys up the in England and esp. in the north can be very proud of your community, and not only the alt.net/agile/software development/IT one, but also the local-geographical community. I had to go and look for a job in Paris, which entails a couple of hours on the train each and every day and which is bound to end by leaving Lille (and no wonder I'm considering moving back to yorkshire); Not only developers and managers are afraid of anything that is not microsoft, the actual idea of software craftsmanship is an abnormality in our region. There is a Nord-agile group that works here and have meetings every couple of months and consists of 5 to 7 people, none of them a .net person. And we're talking about a huge region and one of france's 5 biggest cities.

With that in mind, there's also the fact that roughly each and every year a new generation of developers is arriving to the market which makes it even more difficult to those (esp the beginners to senior-juniors) who wants to learn and work on their coding craftsmanship. (I remember I discovered the alt.net manifest only a couple of years ago or so, and soon after I remember reading a post of Ayende saying he's going to give Twitter a shot. Thank god, he's one of those who never stopped blogging.)

As for Paris, things seem to be closer to what Ian said; there are a lot more job offers that ask for a working experience in NH, MVC, NUnit etc', however this feels like the new orthodoxy.

… and me again

So to me this shows that the problem we both see are not just down to us at our company/technology/region/country. Craftsman Developers everywhere tend to sit in small isolated pockets, even in large conurbations, and there is nothing to go but to organise locally where you can, go on go for a beer you know you want to, and to join in the virtual communities to get a bigger world view.

Wow, that sounds like a call to revolution, better go into hiding in case the thought people come round, I know I will just have to think I am not in!

Remote working solutions (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the snow)

We lost remarkably few days of productivity to the bad weather at Black Marble. That wasn’t because we were all intrepid, hardy types and all made it into the office. Far from it – some of us live in areas where they don’t grit very often and can’t make it to the main roads.

As you guessed from the title, the reason we came through the bad weather so well was because of our ability to work remotely. I thought I’d write a post about what we do – not because we have any wonderfully clever solution, but because lost time is lost money, and many people discard remote access out of hand.

Keep it simple

I come at this from two sides: Firstly, complex solutions are hard to manage and are more likely to fail. Secondly, users don’t want to have to remember some peculiar incantation to access their stuff just because they are somewhere other than their desk.

I have a simple approach; Anything the users do to access stuff on our company network should be what they do to access it when they aren’t on the company network. If I don’t allow remote access to that system (and I can’t think of any of those off the top of my head) then they should get some kind of access denied message; otherwise, they should be asked to authenticate and carry on.

Pick a protocol. Don’t pick lots.

To be fair, I’m in a strong position with this because of the portfolio of services I run. I don’t profess to be a network security ninja so I have very few rules in our firewall. Only one protocol is allowed in for remote access: https.

How can I do that? Well, SharePoint, Project Server and CRM are all very obviously web-based. Exchange has OWA and Outlook can connect using https as well. Even our remote desktop access is published using https, using Terminal Services Gateway. Since I’m using https outside the LAN, I use it inside as well. Why? Well, why trust my own network any more than the internet, and why make users remember a different URL when outside.

A short list of the stuff we use

ISA Server 2006 sits at the edge of our network. I use it to publish out the various services. It’s very easy to manage and works beautifully. It’s about to be replaced, however, by Forefront Threat Management Gateway (TMG). My own plan is to move towards using DirectAccess and Unified Access Gateway (UAG) in the near future.

Our SharePoint, Project Server and CRM systems all run on IIS. We have a wildcard certificate, which I would recommend to any small organisation wanting to publish web systems securely as they offer a much lower cost approach than getting specific certs for all the different URLs.

Out Visual Studio Team Foundation Server (TFS), in both 2008 and 2010 flavours also works quite happily over https, and can be published out securely.

Terminal Services Gateway allows me to connect to appropriate systems securely using RDP over HTTPS.

What don’t we publish?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of our file shares are accessible from the outside world. However, since all our business data is in SharePoint or CRM (including documents), the stuff on the file shares is not needed and is mostly stuff like ISOs of software.

How easy is it?

If you keep things simple, remote access can be delivered securely and easily. ISA Server takes only a short time to install and configure if you stick to a very limited and straightforward ruleset.

I would, however, urge you not to simply rush out and allow access to your systems without thinking: Security is essential and that means putting some thought into what you want to publish outside your corporate LAN and how you manage access and auditing.

The bottom line, though, is the effect that incidents like the recent bad weather can have on the company’s bottom line. Being able to work remotely doesn’t mean that your staff can do so on a whim, but it means that should they need to, they can do all the things they would normally do in the office without penalty. If you haven’t considered remote access solutions yet, perhaps now is the time to do so – before next winter and your workforce is stuck at home…