Windows 8 – Why should we care?

This week – as the press has been reporting – Microsoft has released an early version of Windows 8.

Samsung Windows 8 Tablet

Much of the focus has been on the new ’tile-based’ interface that appears when you log in, and there is a temptation to see this as irrelevant for ‘proper work’.  But the overall trend (both social and technical) is in Microsoft’s favour – To use the old business/ice-hocky metaphor, they’re ‘skating to where the puck WILL be, not where it is’.

What are those trends?

Technical

1. Processor power is continuing to develop as quickly as ever
2. Battery technology continues to improve
3. Solid state storage (as opposed to hard disks) is getting cheaper, which has its own impact on battery life

Case in point : It’s been calculated that an iPhone 4 is more powerful than the room-filling CRAY-2 supercomputers of the 1980’s.  An iPad 2 would have been the world’s fastest computer right up until the mid 90’s.

Social

1. User expectations have been dramatically raised by the iPhone and iPad – people can see what is possible, and won’t tolerate poorly designed, over complex technology.  Apple has demonstrated that tablets can work.

2. Users are increasingly pressurising employers to allow them to use their own kit (And I see a LOT of partners with iPads now – all asking IT to make it link with the office email system).

With Windows 8, Microsoft are clearly trying to serve two masters – On the one hand: the Consumer, who wants an iPad-style device to read mail, access photos and other media, and as an all-purpose internet-linked organiser/notepad.  On the other hand: Enterprise customers, who need to work with more complex applications and require centralised management, security, and consistency (so they don’t have to spend vast sums on re-training).

There’s a gap there – Tablets are not suitable for running heavy duty content-creation applications, and the traditional PC/Laptop isn’t as convenient and accessible as a tablet.

Apple see that same gap  – Apple’s iOS is a mobile operating system – designed to deliver excellent performance on the mobile hardware of today, but excluding ‘desktop’ features that would compromise the overall product (Case in point – Flash is not supported on iOS because it’s so processor and battery hungry).   iOS exists because it’s not possible to build a full-power Mac into a portable solid-state tablet with fantastic battery life yet.

I suspect that Microsoft are looking towards a time when technology will advance to a point where it CAN deliver desktop performance in tablet-sized packages, and in that situation, why not have a “full-fat” desktop Operating System running an optional ‘mobile’ user-interface with the ability to switch between the two at will?

So…Five years from now (probably sooner)- Imagine a tablet running a touch-friendly iPad-type operating system. You use it to read a book or newspaper on the train, and you use it in meetings for note-taking and looking stuff up.  Back at your desk, you drop the tablet into a dock with a keyboard and mouse, swap to a more ‘traditional’ desktop, and launch Excel (or whatever). All on ONE device.  This machine doesn’t take 10 minutes to boot up, it takes seconds. It lasts two or three days before needing a recharge, it can store vast amounts of data (and integrated internet gives you access to the rest).   The current situation of tablet PLUS laptop is only a stopgap until tablets get faster.

I think THIS is what Microsoft sees – sometimes you’ll be holding Windows 8 in the crook of your arm, using a touch-screen – and sometimes you’ll be sitting at a desk using a mouse and keyboard.  And it’ll be a single device for both.

Windows Home Server

ANY business, regardless of its size, should invest in some basic minimums on the IT side of things.  One important investment is a server – good quality data-storage that lives in your office – keeping your core records safe and isolated from the day to day issues that can beset a laptop or desktop PC.

Many small/sole businesses (with maybe one or two employees), see this as something that’s all a bit too complicated or expensive – particuarly if the technical aspects of getting it all set up looks a bit daunting, Microsoft does have a product called ‘Small Business Server’ which bundles a set of products in a single box for up to 25 users, but even SBS can require a fair amount of time and effort to get running properly.

There is, however, a Microsoft product called ‘Windows Home Server’ which, despite its name, can be ideal for small/sole-trader businesses. I’ve been experimenting with a copy.

Windows Home Server is designed to be as simple to manage as possible – while providing a genuinely useful set of features that some more expensive systems would have trouble matching.

It stores stuff – and that’s it.
WHS is about safe, centralised storage of data, and that’s it.   It won’t run big databases or Microsoft Exchange, but that’s not really what one-man bands are after from their first server.

It automatically creates a series of ‘shares’ that are given friendly names such as ‘Music’, ‘Pictures’, etc.   For use as a business device, you can easily remove these and create your own (maybe called ‘Clients’, ‘Accounts’, ‘Personal’ and so on).

Simple, effective, security
While a ‘proper’ server requires you to delve into Windows Active Directory, domains, and so on, WHS users can be added via a very simple administration screen, which asks little more than a user name, a password, and a choice of three levels of access rights to the different shared areas of the server’s storage.

To connect your laptop or desktop PCs to the WHS server, you install a small ‘WHS Client’ on each machine, which ensures that WHS knows about your other computers.

Self-managing data-storage
Windows Home Server automatically organises all of its disk-drives into a single, unified storage area.  If your server, for example, has 50 Gigabytes of space, and you find yourself running low, you might install a second (100Gb, say) disk drive and Windows Home Server automatically merges the the two drives together into a single, 150Gb storage area).  This means you never need to worry about whether your data is on drive C: or drive D: – because all of that is hidden from view – WHS takes care of putting data wherever there is space, across whatever motley collection of disk drives you happen to have installed.

If, at a later date, you decided you wanted to replace that 100Gb drive with a 500Gb drive – Windows Home Server will even help you to shuffle all the data about so that the old drive is emptied of data for safe removal (It’ll tell you in advance if you have enough free space on the other drives to do that).

Duplicate data-storage
The only moving parts on most servers are the spinning disk drives.  Inevitably, these are the parts that are most subject to failure.

One of the most effective answers to this is to automatically store TWO copies of everything on two different disk drives inside the server (This is called ‘Mirroring’ or RAID1).  If one drive fails, you still have your data safe on the other one, and you can then replace the faulty device at your leisure while the server runs happily on one drive for a few days.  (The chances of BOTH drives failing at the same time are miniscule).

Normally, setting up this kind of system demands that you purchase two identical drives, and carefully configure your server.  Windows Home server, however, offers a very simple but effective version of this that takes all of the hassle out of the process. All you do is decide which areas of your data storage are vital, and tick a box for ‘File Duplication’.  WHS then ensures that a copy of your files is placed on one of the other disk drives (it doesn’t matter which one – the system takes care of it for you).  If one drive fails, then you can simply access the copy on the other disk without missing a beat.

This feature uses up double the amount of your disk space, of course, but remember you can just add another disk at any time.  (External disk drives are fully supported, so you can buy an external drive, plug it in and see your extra space appear- all without even turning the machine off)

Automatic backups
WHS includes a feature that will automatically take full backup copies of the data on any laptop or desktop PC on your mini-network – putting all of the files onto its own drives.  This process can be entirely automated.  If you leave your PC on overnight, then WHS will connect to the laptop and trigger a backup automatically at an agreed time.   If your PC has ‘gone to sleep’, then WHS can even wake it up, carry out the backup, and let it go back to sleep afterwards.

Remote Access
WHS includes a facility for remote access over the Internet.  If you are away from the office or home, and suddenly find yourself in need of a piece of data or document, WHS lets you access your files from your laptop PC over the Internet.  Needless to say, the system includes a range of security settings to protect your data, and the feature is not activated until you decide you want to start using it.

What DOESN’T it do?
WHS is designed to act as a simple but effective data-repository for domestic use (music, photos, etc), but it has found a niche in very small businesses as well. As long as you don’t need it to run big databases, or handle your email traffic, or any of the other things that ‘proper’ servers can do, then it can be very effective.

Getting One
The WHS software can be purchased for use with existing hardware for about £65. This will support up to ten users.  It took me about half an hour to set up, most of which was spent watching the installation process, and occasionally pressing ‘Next’.

A number of manufacturers are now offering ready-built Windows Home Server systems that can just be unpacked and switched on.  Hewlett Packard offer a ‘MediaSmart’ server, wiith 1 Terabyte of storage (and space for more) for £500.  The picture at the top of this article is an HP MediaSmart, and it really is small enough to go on a bookshelf (no screen or keyboard needed).

If you are a sole trader or a freelancer, keeping all your data on a laptop PC, then WHS is seriously worth consideration as a flexible, low-cost data archive living quietly on a shelf at home.

More information

http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/winfamily/windowshomeserver/soho/default.mspx

Microsoft Anti-Virus arrives

Yesterday, Microsoft released their own Anti-Virus product – ‘Microsoft Security Essentials’.

MSE is a no-frills anti-virus program, that works on Windows XP, Vista and Win7 – and it’s free (the only requirement is that you are running a ‘genuine’ copy of Windows). You can download it from….

www.microsoft.com/security_essentials

Although it’s still quite new – tests seem to indicate it is at least as good at detecting and clearing viruses as the other commercial products on the market, and particular praise has been made of the unobtrusive way it goes about its business. It doesn’t slow your PC down, and it doesn’t bombard you with pop-ups telling you how clever it is. There are no adverts, no upgrade offers, just a small icon in the system tray.

The software updates itself daily via ‘Microsoft Update’, and again does so entirely automatically and invisibly. It’s got a very simple look & feel (see picture above) with a minimal number of configuration settings.

Microsoft do stress that you shouldn’t have more than ONE of any type of security software on a PC, as they interfere with each other (that’s not just true of Microsoft’s product – it’s good practice to avoid this anyway, as I mentioned in an earlier post).

MSE incorporates an enhanced version of the Windows Defender anti-spyware product – so if you have that installed, the MSE installer will automatically disable that program and take over all spyware protection duties.

Although it may seem that Microsoft are newbies in this field, they have in fact been developing and supplying enterprise security products for some time – Forefront Server being their main network firewall/security product. MSE uses the same underlying technology and virus database as Forefront Server. Microsoft have also been selling a paid-for security system called ‘OneCare’ (an unfortunate name if spoken with certain accents) which they have now closed down in favor of MSE.

    What Won’t it do?

It is a basic anti-virus and anti-spyware product for a single PC – it doesn’t have the central administration tools that are beloved of IT managers in larger organisations. It also isn’t a firewall – you still need one of those.

It doesn’t have web browser security functions – some products add special toolbars into your Web Browser to warn you about dodgy sites.

    Why are Microsoft doing this?

There are an awful lot of PC’s out there with incomplete anti-virus coverage – and that hits everyone – just like incomplete vaccination coverage can cause problems in a population. I’m also sure that Microsoft are not unaware of the commercial benefits if Windows reputation for being virus-prone diminishes as a result.

– Anti-virus Software is often provided on new PCs, but it is usually a trial version that expires after a few months and requires activation (and a credit card number) to keep going after the initial trial. Lots of people never quite get around to sorting that out.

– Many people are dissuaded from installing anti-virus software because of bad experiences with software hitting PC performance – and there were some shocking examples around.

– Most software now requires annual renewal (at a cost) and it’s an easy cost to postpone in difficult times – particularly if a few months go by without updates and no problems crop up.

    Are there other free alternatives?

Yes.

The most well-known is AVG (http://free.avg.com), which has a solid reputation. The free version, however, is not licenced for use in business environments, and it does do quite a lot of advertising within the software – trying to pursuade you to upgrade to the ‘Professional’ version. I have this software on my home PC’s.

I have also used Avira (www.free-av.com) which again works well. This one, however, became rather too annoying with its pop-up advertising.

    Should you use it?

It is very important that your PCs are protected – if you are currently not keeping your office machines updated because of cost or performance reasons, then this could be the answer. A properly updated no-frills option is better than an out of date version of one of the fancier products.

If you currently have one of the commercial products (Norton, McAfee, etc), then you should decide if the more advanced features of these products (such as centralised administration/reporting and updates) in fact mean that they remain the best option for you.

Its also worth reiterating – keep your PCs updated with the latest patches – many virusses rely on exploiting flaws in Windows that have long since been fixed by Microsoft, but which many people haven’t installed. Prevention is better than cure.

    What are YOU doing, Charles?

I had been using Norton Anti-Virus 2009 on my work machines (Norton went through a bad patch where their products were bloated and slow, but the 2009 version was much better). It didn’t support Windows 7, however, and I was considering which product to go with on my re-built Windows7 64-bit laptop – I was going with Norton 2010, but free is free, so I have now installed MSE, and it’s working very well.

Windows 7 AND 64-bit!

As a Microsoft Partner, I got advance copies of Windows 7 (the full final version) for my own use.

Needless to say, and based on my own overwhelmingly positive experiences with the pre-release copies, I re-formatted my main work laptop and installed it. I also decided that now was the time to move into the brave new world of 64-bit.

The 64-bit version of Windows does offer some tantilising benefits. It can run faster (when software is written to take advantage of it) and it can also support MUCH more memory (RAM), which produces benefits when running lots of applications at once, or using Virtual Machines – something I do more and more.

The other big advantage of 64-bit Windows is that there is a somewhat higher technical threshold for hardware developers, so it raises the prospect of a future where dodgy hardware drivers cannot cause crashes and Windows will achieve the same sort of bulletproof serenity as an Apple.

A full-scale reformat and re-install can also be a good opportunity to ‘spring clean’ – (You cannot upgrade from 32-bit to 64-bit, you HAVE to do a clean install). So I made sure that I only installed the applications I really wanted, and that they were all the latest versions. I reorganised my data folders, and even set my screen options to produce an entirely clean desktop without even the Recycle Bin to mar the view. (Have a look at the screenshot at the top of the page – Lovely! – the wallpaper is one supplied with Windows 7)

All of my software has installed itself and worked without a murmer – Properly written 32-bit applications run perfectly happily in a 64-bit world (and even Microsoft hasn’t produced a 64-bit version of Office yet – that will be coming with Office 2010).

then I hit a snag….

I have a Kodak i40 scanner – A very nice bit of kit, that does all my office scanning, and which I also use now and then in presentations and training on various Document Management products.

It transpires that Kodak have not written a 64-bit driver for it, and they probably won’t, and that’s that. The scanner will NOT play with my shiny new laptop. The very thing I’d sought (a computer clear of old and outdated software and drivers) had come back to bite me in the backside. It looks as if I’ll be moving up to the new Kodak i210 scanner and the old one will be heading to eBay. I could reformat and revert to 32-bit Windows 7, of course, but that somehow feels like defeat….

What to take from this?

– 64-bit IS coming – and it will produce a faster, more reliable PC on your desk. Windows 7 could be the real turning point when 64-bit becomes ‘mainstream’. Windows 8 (which should be out around the time of the London Olympics) will almost certainly be 64-bit only.

– Most 32-bit software should just work (although make sure your supplier supports it).

– Check that your hardware is supported – Manufacturers HAVE to completely re-write for 64-bit, and they won’t always bother for older kit.

UPDATE

It also transpires that Flash Player isn’t supported yet on 64-bit Web Browsers…. so all the pretty graphs on the homepage of my bookkeeping software stopped working….

 

Make best use of what you have

Times are tough – and IT budgets are under pressure. Before spending money on new kit – it’s worth making sure you are getting the best out of your current systems, and there are lots of (free) ways that your current systems can be optimised.

Here are a few…

If you have the time (2-3 hours) and the confidence – one of the best ways to revive a struggling PC is to wipe it and re-install Windows. An old machine will have had endless installs and re-installs over its life – all of which leaves all sorts of old files, registry entries, etc on the hard disk. No amount of manual ‘spring cleaning’ ever gets rid of it all. A clean rebuild can do wonders for performance and reliability.

BUT

  • Make sure you’ve backed up any and all data files, shortcuts, favourites, etc (in an office environment, of course, all important data should be on the servers NOT on desktop PCs – so there shouldn’t be much data to back-up, right?) 😉
  • Make sure you have all the right software CD’s and licence keys for the re-install.

Try to standardise the PC ‘builds’ across the office – lots of different PCs with different software versions makes support more difficult (and therefore more expensive). If you can’t justify Office 2007 for everyone – then stick to Office 2003 for everyone – not a mixture. But, make sure you have rolled out the latest Office service pack (Service Pack 3 in the case of Office 2003) and installed the 2007 Compatibility module that lets you read Office 2007 files.

Office 2003 SP3
http://www.microsoft.com/Downloads/details.aspx?familyid=E25B7049-3E13-4…

Office 2003 compatibility pack for 2007 files
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=941b3470-3ae9-4…

**
Uninstall Browser add-ons like Yahoo toolbar – you don’t need them and they can slow up your PC.

**
If you have Windows XP – Upgrade to Service Pack 3. It installs EVERY security and reliability patch Microsoft have released to date – in one handy package. It has also delivered performance benefits in some cases.

XP Service Pack 3
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=5B33B5A8-5E76-4…

**
Upgrade to Internet Explorer 7 (at least) – IE7 is significantly faster and more secure than IE6, and it’s been around long enough for any major issues to be addressed. Microsoft are about to terminate support for IE6 as well – another reason to move on. If you’re up for it – go to IE8, which is Microsoft’s best browser yet – no question.

http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?displaylang=en&FamilyID=…

**
Upgrade to Acrobat Reader 9 – It’s the best version of reader so far – after many years where successive versions of Reader got ever slower and more bloated – Adobe have raised their game. Reader 9 loads faster, is more secure, and is easier to use.

http://www.adobe.com/products/reader/

**
Rationalise your security approach – Each PC should have..

  1. Anti-Virus
  2. Anti Spyware
  3. Firewall

But not more than one of each! Some security products do all three, but if you have one of these, then clear out any other ones that may have accumulated over the years (Microsoft Defender, AdAware, etc.). Note that updating from IE6 will also help protect your PCs from the dodgier corners of the Internet.

**
Update your hardware drivers – Poorly written drivers are the single biggest reason for PC crashes (which leads to loss of work and time). Manufacturers DO review and fix problems in their drivers, and it’s worth checking the ‘support’ or ‘downloads’ sections of their web-sites for these. Also, Use the ‘Windows Update’ system to check for driver updates from Microsoft.

**
Once you’ve got past this – you do have to think about spending a bit of money….

The single best hardware upgrade you can do to improve system performance is more memory (RAM) – 1Gb should be a minumum with XP (2Gb with Vista and Win7) – and that shouldn’t be expensive. BUT if you intend to replace PC’s within the next 6 months – don’t bother, you won’t get the payback. All servers should have as much as possible (4Gb on 32-bit Windows). For new PC’s I’d want 4Gb RAM straight away.