I wouldn’t be where I am today… How encouraging kids in computing is important

I’ve been mulling this blog post for a while. Those of you who know Black Marble will have seen that we all believe very strongly in encouraging young people to take up computing and put time into sharing our knowledge and expertise. I thought it was worth sharing how I got to where I am today, which would not have been possible without the help and encouragement of three key people who worked with technology. There’s a message in the story though, about how we need to help the next generation of computing professionals in the same way.

To an extent this post is as a result of an event that Steve, Richard and I took part in shortly after I returned from the Build conference. One of our local schools ran a STEM event and invited Black Marble to join in. If, like me, STEM means nothing to you, it stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths and you can find more at the National STEM Centre website. At that event, Steve took our Gadgeteer kits and led a series of hands-on sessions that combined hardware and software to build quick but cool projects. Richard and I decided to run the Agile Hour activity with a number of groups of children across a range of ages. The end result, hopefully, was that those kids went away with a mixture of enthusiasm for the craft courtesy of Steve, and an understanding that it isn’t all sitting in front of a keyboard all day – teamwork and communication are key skills – thanks to Richard and myself and an exercise about mining cheese on the moon…

Anyway, I’ll come back to encouraging others in a little while. Back to how I got started…

Key influence one: My upper school form tutor

I am of that age where computing grew around me. When Sinclair launched the ZX81 I was nine. A friend of mine had one and I remember writing programs with him. As I got older I was lucky enough that my middle school had a BBC model B that I could use, and I got an Amstrad CPC 6128 which I loved and tinkered with. None of those, however, bore much resemblance to the modern PC.

When I started at upper school, my form tutor was a maths teacher. He was also the computer studies teacher, and the one who rand all the school’s computer systems – staff (what there was of it) and student. In our classroom, down one side, was a line of Commodore PETs which we used in our classes. They didn’t last long though, because soon after I arrived they PETs were replaced by Research Machines Nimbus RM186s, running a hacked-around version of Windows (the 80186 CPU wasn’t fully compatible with the 8086).

My tutor knew how enthusiastic I was and encouraged me. Myself and Andrew started to help him with those computers. He allowed us to install software with him and explained how they worked. As those RM186 PCs were replaced with 286 and 386 and then (wow!) 486 machines he let us configure them, rebuild them and learn how they worked. We weren’t allowed to touch the Netware server that appeared in the corner, but we were allowed to store our file son it. We were even allowed, on occasion, to use the modem and connect to some of the dial-up bulletin boards that were around at the time.

All of this meant that by the time I left school to go to University I could build a PC from scratch, install DOS and Windows (I go all the way back to Windows 1!) and other apps and configure the system to get the most RAM and install and configure the drivers needed for networking. I could program in BASIC and write DOS batch files and I had a healthy respect both for the technology and the people that ran it. PCs weren’t things you played games on, they were tools that I used to word process, publish school magazines, draw artwork and crunch numbers.

The important point here is that most of my computing experience was gained outside of lessons – before school started, during breaks and lunchtimes and after school. All of that was because my form tutor was prepared to encourage me in what was effectively his own time and I am grateful for that.

He also had a fantastic stereo system in our classroom and got me into prog rock played loud, but that’s another story.

Key influence number two: The University server guy

In truth, the number of people in the Computer Centre at the University of Bradford who I owe much to is too long to list – from the coms guy that introduced me to everyone, to the Director that gave me first a summer job and then my first full time job on graduation. However, the one that deserves the medal was the chap who was responsible for the Netware servers and student computer clusters.

It was an opportunity that would be hard to give anyone now, as networks store more sensitive information and the risk of abuse is so high that it’s hard to gain trust. In my first few weeks of University, however, there were very few desktop PCs in service and staff computing was in its infancy.

I was incredibly fortunate that my enthusiasm allowed me to drop into the offices of the staff and talk to them about computers. We talked about what they were doing, and what I was doing. I listened to their problems and would try to solve them – on my equipment and in my time. I was invited to accompany the network guys as they strung Thin Ethernet cables and learned how all that worked, with T-pieces and terminators, network segments and bridges. I learned about the new twisted pair cables and data sockets and hubs and routers. I even learned how to install servers – Netware 3.11 at the time – and got involved in building the new infrastructure.

My mentor was a patient man who had little time to experiment. He would get into work early to avoid traffic and hoped to use the quiet time to catch up on work and plan and prepare. He was certainly not prepared for the enthusiastic young man who would bound into his office at 8 in the morning jabbering about how he’d managed to get Microsoft NetBeui drivers installed over the top of Novell’s driver stack and get Windows 3.11 talking both workgroup protocols and server protocols and wasn’t it just so fantastic and could show him if he could just move this kit over here and rewire this bit of the office over here…

But again, I was encouraged. I was most certainly tolerated and over time my enthusiasm was channelled into creating and managing services. I worked in the Computer Centre during my holidays – sometimes paid; sometimes not. It gave me incredible opportunities to learn and experience desktop computing on a large scale. It gave me an understanding of what providing a service meant, and how systems had to be resilient and supportable and documented. It also gave me a huge amount of incredibly valuable experience for when I would finally hit the job market.

It was such a wonderful place to be that, on graduation, I managed to get a job at the University. I left to Join Black Marble, where the experience I had learned running services of hundreds of desktop PCs and dozens of servers of varying flavours (Netware, Solaris, Linux, Windows desktop and server) has been invaluable.

Key influence number three: Robert

Which brings me to the third big player in getting me where I am today: Robert Hogg. I’ve not named my other two mentors simply because I can’t ask their permission and I respect them too much too simply throw their names around. As MD of Black Marble, Robert’s my manager. It’s hard not to name him, and I’m sure he won’t mind.

Most people who know Robert, and certainly those who have know him a long time, know him as Boss. I first met him when I was a student. Boss had built the first few Netware servers at the uni, and had then moved into management of the new Sun Solaris servers and workstations when they were installed, during the summer of the year I joined the university as an undergrad. The poor man I tormented every morning took over the role Boss had previously occupied, so in a way it’s all his fault.

It was Boss, along with the server guy, who persuaded me not to ditch my management degree at the end of the first year and switch to computing. They could teach me the computing bit, they said, but the management stuff would be really useful to my career.

Boss is like me – he likes to play and experiment with computers. Unlike me, he’s a developer. I’d argue that he’s probably the reason I don’t try to code. He patiently explained stacks and pointers to me many years ago, and through him I learned that whilst I’m a solid infrastructure guy, and I understand development, I am not a ninja coder and will never be. Boss has always encouraged my experimentation with technology and it’s that which brings the variety that keeps me so engaged with what I do.

You have much to learn, grasshopper

I believe that it’s important to stress the differences in my three mentors as much as their similarities. I think that each of their qualities is important in how I was encouraged and how we now need to encourage others:

  • My maths teacher was supportive of my interest in something new. He allowed me to play, but set boundaries that gave me respect for what might happen if I broke stuff. He showed me computers as wonderful tools, not playthings and inspired me to discover what they could do.
  • My university mentor gave me focus. He forced me to understand the implications and repercussions of my actions. He praised my innovations that helped and stopped those that would cause problems before they moved near to production systems. He taught me how different systems could and should be integrated to deliver IT as a supporting service to others.
  • Boss constantly reminds me how computing should be fun. That we should always be experimenting and learning because that’s what makes life interesting and because that’s how we continue to develop computing for other people.

Sadly, it’s hard to offer today’s young people the same kind of opportunity that I had. IT systems are now all-pervasive and store sensitive data and are critical for the functioning of our schools, universities and companies. Whilst you can still buy components and build your own computer, it’s not like the old days where we fiddled with switches and jumpers and needed to know about interrupts and memory address ranges when plugging things together.

I think that has taken some of the magic away, and that makes it more difficult to show how interesting computing can be. That said, wonderful new technology like gesture-based computing shows how things are still cool; it’s just that things are less accessible than they used to be.

Sensei <your name here>

That’s where we come in. As IT professionals and developers it is our responsibility to help those interested in our field. By taking part in STEM events at schools, attending and speaking at user groups, getting involved with the Imagine Cup or just helping our own children, nieces, nephews and friends children we can give the next generation the same encouragement that we got.

Hopefully reading about how much I was helped by my mentors will inspire you to help someone else. Go on – you know you want to!

Tech Update for Public Sector

Right now I am putting the finishing touches to my deck for an event Black Marble are running at Cardinal Place next week. As many of you will know, for the past ten years we have run the annual Tech Update covering moves and changes across the entire Microsoft spectrum of products. Until now that has only taken place in Leeds but for the first time we are taking that show on the road.

On Monday 20th May Robert and I will present our Tech Update for Public Sector. Everything you need to know about the Microsoft family for executive planning, as current as we can be. I always enjoy presenting at Cardinal Place and I’m looking forward to it.

As luck would have it, the following day is the Microsoft Management Summit recap, also at Cardinal Place. I’m attending rather than presenting for a change, so if you’re on the cloud track say hi!

Notes from the North East: Imagine Cup Hackathon 2012

We had a great time at the Imagine Cup North East Hackathon this weekend. Black Marble turned out in force with myself, Steve, Richard, Robert, Linda, Josh and Riccardo all helping out. Andy Westgarth and the guys at Sunderland Software City had done a solid job on the organisation and we were well looked after.

There were nine teams there in total, from a wide range of Universities and Colleges in the Newcastle/Sunderland area. I was impressed by their ideas and their tenacity in defending those ideas against a barrage of questions from myself and others. I was also taken by the range of ages we had. Some of the teams were A-level and college students, whilst others were in various years of their university degree courses. Even if they don’t make it through to the national finals this year, the younger teams will gain great experience and can enter again next year and beyond.

Linda has uploaded photos that myself and Josh took during the hackathon to the Black Marble Facebook page and you can find tweets with the #ICNE hashtag.

I’d like to give a big thanks to Finlay Mann for his help over the weekend. Unfortunately, the speaker lined up to run the User Experience workshop was unwell, so I stepped into the breach with Finlay. With no preparation and no slides we managed to cover the subject well, with lots of examples from our own experience.

Thanks are also due to Dan, Liam and  Colin from last years winning North East teams who, along with Riccardo and Josh did sterling work answering questions and helping teams with technical issues all through the night when us oldies had gone to get some sleep!

Gary Short delivered a great session on presentation skills, which is an area where I still feel universities badly let down their students. We were also grateful for mentors from Sage and Ubisoft who gave their time, ran workshops and spoke to teams over the weekend.

Hopefully we will make it back up north for the NEBytes session in March where the teams are invited to attend and practice their presentations for the regional final. All the teams that took part in that last year said how useful it was to receive comments, constructive criticism and questions from the user group attendees.

Overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable day and I’d like to give a hearty congratulations to the attending teams, whose ideas I watched develop and grown over the course of the event and who presented those ideas well to the group at the end of a very tiring hackathon. Well done all!

Looking forward to the Imagine Cup Hackathon

It’s a busy week this week and I’m really looking forward to being involved with the Imagine Cup Hackathon for the North East Region this Friday and Saturday (1st and 2nd February).

Black Marble have a long history of supporting the UK Imagine Cup teams and it’s great to be able to continue that support. We’ll be in The Life Science Centre, Newcastle upon Tyne in force this week. Steve Spencer, Richard Fennell, Robert Hogg and myself will be accompanied by Riccardo Viglianisi and Josh Whittle from Black Marble.

We’ll be proving help and support to teams from the North East alongside Andy Westgarth, MVP and founder of NEBytes, who has worked hard alongside Sunderland Software City and Steve Spencer to promote the Imagine Cup across north eastern schools, universities and colleges. We’ll also be joined by Black Marble event regular Gary Short and members of last year’s North Eastern Region winning teams.

That makes a total of five Microsoft MVP’s, hopefully five members of last years winning teams and other enthusiastic supporters (that would be me!). If you are already involved in the Imagine Cup in the North East we’ll see you there. If not, head over to the Imagine Cup site, or see if your university, college or school is already involved for more information on how to take part. You can register to attend the hackathon on its eventbrite page.

More UK TechDays on System Center 2012 and Windows 8

Our good friends in the UK TechDays team have announced another raft of events in their fantastic IT Camps series. I’m hoping to be there for at least on of them and if you’re at all interested in Windows 8 or System Center 2012 I cant recommend them highly enough.

No slides, no marketing – just technical content, demo driven with as much audience participation as they can manage. Everyone I’ve spoken to at previous camps has enjoyed them and learned a great deal.

I’ll be helping with the server camp in York on the 5th of March and you might see me at other camps too.

Enough of the gushing plug, here are the dates and venues, with links so you can register:

Date Event Location
12th February 2013 Windows 8 Glasgow
13th February 2013 Windows Server 2012 – Virtualising Servers Glasgow
14th February 2013 Windows 8 Camp Glasgow
19th February 2013 System Center 2012 Manchester
21st February 2013 System Center 2012 Birmingham
5th March 2013 Windows Server 2012 – Virtualising Servers York
6th March 2013 System Center 2012 York
17th April 2013 Windows 8 Southampton

 

If you want to know more about forthcoming Techdays keep an eye on the main events page.

Avviso: A Content Publishing Framework for SharePoint 2010

words and pictures logo

Last week was really exciting for me and my colleagues here at Black Marble as the work we’ve been doing with a partner came to fruition. Words and Pictures are a communications agency based not far from us, and we’ve been working together on a great product that builds upon SharePoint 2010 to greatly improve content publishing.

I’ll come to the product in a little while, but I’d like to talk about how we created it first, as it’s a great example of how working together within the Microsoft space can help companies build upon their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.

A tale of two specialisms

I first encountered Words and Pictures at one of a series of events Black Marble ran to explain the Microsoft offerings that exist in the creative space, targeted at design and creative agencies. In the event we talked about a range of technologies, including Silverlight, web technologies and SharePoint, and how creative agencies could use those technologies to deliver the kind of vibrant material their clients were looking for. It was a good example of the evangelism we spend a fair amount of our time engaged in, and it was an interesting way for us to explore how we might use our technical skills to fill the gaps experienced by creative agencies.

Black Marble are, as I’m sure you know as readers of the blogs on this site, technical specialist. We are extremely good at delivering solutions to business problems by tailoring or even creating IT systems to meet our customers’ needs.

Words and Pictures have turned out to be a kind of creative analogue of Black Marble. They are a well respected organisation that specialise in delivering great services for businesses centred around communications. Be it for an internal or external audience, Words and Pictures write, design and deliver a range of communication channels for their customers. Historically, this had been predominantly printed content of one form or another, but in today’s fast changing world their customers are starting to shift to digital delivery.

A meeting of minds; clarity of vision

Words and Pictures got in touch with us directly because they thought that SharePoint 2010 might be a good content delivery platform for them to focus on as their customers shifted towards digital delivery. They had already had feedback from the organisations they supported that SharePoint was becoming an almost ubiquitous system across the panoply of Words and Pictures’ customers. This awareness, couple with the demonstrations we had given at our design event around what SharePoint could do for content publishing, had led them to believe that SharePoint was the right choice. Now they had lots of questions about whether it would do what they wanted.

In situations like this, where a client believes SharePoint is the right choice but is unsure how to proceed with implementation, I like to run a Vision Workshop with them. The idea is that we forget they ever mentioned SharePoint and instead talk about what they do as a business – their operations, problems, aims and aspirations. I can then reflect that back at them, matching SharePoint’s capabilities to their needs in the short, medium and long term.

The workshop at Words and Pictures was an eye-opener for me!

I arrived at their very nice offices in a very nice part of Yorkshire and found myself in a room with the biggest whiteboard I’d ever seen. Over the course of the day, that whiteboard was filled, erased and re-filled with ideas, drawings and diagrams to illustrate the ideas, concepts and desire that Words and Pictures had. During that day a small number of very passionate specialists in journalism and content creation emptied their collective experience onto the wall and as I took more and more notes and thought more and more about how SharePoint might help, I became more and more convinced that something great could come out of this.

A panoply of features

The vision workshop threw up a huge amount of information about how Words and Pictures needed to create, manage and publish digital content in the same manner as they currently managed their printed content. We quickly realised that if we extended SharePoint to match these needs, the solution we created would be useful to more than simply Words and Pictures. As we talked it through the idea of a content publishing framework that would sit on top of and extend the capabilities of SharePoint was born. Such a framework would bring SharePoint’s publishing model more in line with the processes used by both an agency like Words and Pictures and the Internal Communications teams within their client organisations. It could also greatly improve the services Black Marble were increasingly finding ourselves working on for customers in both intranet and external web publishing scenarios.

A product is born

avviso logo

Working closely together, building on all of our expertise, Words and Pictures and Black Marble have created Avviso. It was launched last week at events at Black Marble’s offices and Microsoft’s London offices. I was really enthused by the reception we received from the audience at both events. Avviso was met with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm which really made the development journey worthwhile.

Words and Pictures came up with the name. For those who are curious:
An Avviso was a hand-written newsletter used to convey political, military, and economic news quickly and efficiently throughout Europe, and more specifically Italy, during the early modern era (1500-1700). In the beginning avvisi were very similar to letters written from one dignitary to another, but diverged from such letters in the sixteenth century with more standardized practices.

I think it’s a great name. It’s both catchy and memorable, whilst at the same time meaningful and relevant to what the product does.

So what does it do?

Avviso contains a wealth of extensions to the SharePoint platform that enables better creation of rich, impactful published content: Crisp template-based pages as well as the ability to produce unique, vibrant designs; the ability to create features and article series; better categorisation and aggregation of content; richer content management for published pages. Importantly, we’ve only begun to tackle the list of ideas that came out of that original vision workshop, so there is a solid roadmap for new features that will be delivered through regular version updates.

I’m not going to detail features here. There is a product website at avvisosharepoint.co.uk and if you want to know more, get in touch with us. We have more events planned for the new year, both in the north and south of the UK so we can offer you a chance to see it in the flesh.

Here are some examples of the kind of pages Avviso can help you build, using some sample content from Words and Pictures.

riverhomepageAn intranet home page with aggregated content and rich multimedia.

flintfocus
An article with bespoke design applied

futurefeature
A feature splash page, with links to articles in the feature

challengearticle
An article built using a standard template

The London launch

The London launch event was at the Microsoft offices in Cardinal Place. Andy Holt, Creative Director of Words and Pictures, and myself were the presenters, ably assisted by Jon Eland, also from Words and Pictures. It was a great room and it was good to see so many enthusiastic attendees. We were lucky that it didn’t snow until the evening! Words and Pictures had designed some great bags and pamphlets for the guests and Black Marble made sure that chocolates were close at hand!

I really enjoy presenting with Andy. We have a similar dynamic to how Andy Dawson and I present at Black Marble events, but at the same time our differing backgrounds of creativity and technology allow us to bounce off each other and really explain how Avviso works and what we’re trying to deliver.

jonprepandypresentavvisobags

Lessons learned

I’ve learned a great deal from my experiences during the conception and creation of Avviso. I think one of the most important things has been to reinforce my thoughts about approaching SharePoint solutions. By ignoring SharePoint and focusing on what Words and Pictures needed as an organisation in terms of their process we were able to generate a rich wish-list of functionality that could then be matched against existing SharePoint features and inform what we would need to develop from scratch. The things that Words and Pictures described added so much to my understanding of the needs of content publishing that I can help other customers deliver better intranets, extranets and internet sites (hopefully using Avviso!).

  • Ignore the technology. Talk about process, business needs, problems and goals.
  • Teach and learn. Understand each other’s specialism and explain domain terminology.
  • Concentrate on your area of expertise. Don’t try to second-guess each other’s approach to a problem.
  • Draw lots of pictures and diagrams. Write lots of notes.
  • Relationships are important. Build the team with individuals who can work well together. Time invested in getting to know each other is time well spent.

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.

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.

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…

Berlin: Legoland Experience

I’d love to say that I enjoyed the Legoland Experience in Berlin, located beneath the Sony Centre in Potzdamer Platz. I’d love to, but I can’t – I’ve been to a conference you know; none of this sightseeing malarky for me.

Having said that, whilst visiting the Mauerfall celebrations I stumbled upon the entrance, and I don’t often get the chance to post gratuitous pictures of Lego…

IMAGE_036 IMAGE_037 IMAGE_038

As a complete aside, that night we also stumbled upon the European premier of 2012, with Amanda Peet and John Cusack on the red carpet at the Sony Centre, surrounded by photographers. Perhaps unfortunate, then, that all the crowds were elsewhere, walking along the lines of dominoes, drinking gluhwein.