Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Why Do I Need a 64 Bit OS?

Except in very specific circumstances anyone installing Vista should be installing a 64 bit version. The day of 32 bit Windows is over. Once you’ve used a computer that can use lots of RAM you won’t want to use one that doesn’t have lots of RAM. The OS is really irrelevant here. Running a 64 bit OS with 8GB or more is just a better experience. This is true for every current OS I’ve tried. All current computers are 64 bit capable. Most can use at least 4GB. Many can use 8GB or more. Even if you initially don’t have a lot of RAM you still want to install 64 bit from the start. There isn’t a noticeable performance penalty. When you do install more RAM, at least with Windows, there is no way to upgrade from 32 bit to 64 bit. A clean install is required. This can be very painful if you have a lot of programs installed. The procedure is to backup everything. Back up everything again. Install 64 bit Windows, erasing your old install in the process. Install your programs. Restore your data. Restore all your program settings. I just did this on my laptop. It took around six hours. I’ve got way better things to do than spend six hours staring at my computer just to get it back to where I started. The payoff is I can now use all 4GB that I have installed. If I’m just checking my email or doing some word processing I don’t see much of a difference. If I start up a virtual machine to test something in XP, click on a link to a video that was in an email, start a video call on Messenger, and then decide to edit a picture I see a huge difference. If you go to 8GB, this laptop only goes to 4, the difference is startling. As you load up tasks you don’t see much of a slowdown. Everything is usable. RAM is one of the least expensive upgrades. Install a 64 bit OS and upgrade your RAM. You won’t be sorry.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Small Business Server 2008 Released

Microsoft has a new version of Small Business Server which will be launched on November 12. It’s called Small Business Server 2008. I was in the beta testing program for this and I’m quite excited about it. Similar to 2003 there are two editions, Standard and Premium. Standard includes: Server 2008 64 bit, Exchange 2007 Standard Edition, SharePoint Services 3.0, WSUS 3.0, and all the standard SBS features like RWW, as well as the standard limitations like 75 users max. Premium adds a second full Server 2008 license (32 or 64 bit) and SQL Server 2008 Standard. The Client Access Licenses (CALs) are a little different. There are different CALS for the Standard and Premium Editions with the Premium CALs being a little more expensive. CALs are available in multiples of one rather than the minimum of five in 2003. It is based on Server 2008 so by default it’s more secure than the previous version based on Server 2003. It is 64 bit only which means it can address more RAM, 32 GB vs. 4 GB for 2003. When 2003 was released RAM was expensive and 32 bit server OS’s were the norm. This is no longer the case. 4 GB can be a major choke point with a heavily loaded SBS server. The second server license in Premium is a very nice addition. This allows you to run SQL or whatever on a second server rather than trying to run it all on the SBS server. Many Line of Business applications don’t support running on a domain controller which means they are not supported running on an SBS server. The second server is also capable of running Hyper-V, Server 2008’s virtualization role. The second server is licensed to be installed as the parent and also as a child. This means you can install a decent server with lots of RAM, use the second server as the parent with the Hyper-V role enabled, and both SBS and another Server 2008 instance in child partitions (virtual machines). When I was beta testing SBS 2008 I did this and actually had three child partitions. One of them was running Untangle, an open source firewall/gateway. On a small network of 25 users a server with a couple of decent Xeon CPUs and 16 GB of RAM could easily run all of this on one box.
All in all SBS 2008 is a good product, well suited to a small business of ten to sixty users. If you grow beyond that you can migrate to the new Essential Business Server 2008 or the full Enterprise versions of Server 2008, Exchange, SQL, etc. Kudos to the SBS development team for a great product.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Computer security is like walking in the rain

This morning I was out walking in the rain trying to come up with a good idea for a blog post. I've been thinking a lot about computer security lately. As I was walking I realised that walking in the rain was a good analogy to use when thinking about computer security. I have to deal with a very wet climate. I enjoy spending time outdoors. Sometimes I have things I have to get done that require me to be outdoors. This means I have to come up with a way to deal with rain. I actually have several strategies for dealing with rain depending on what I'm doing, how hard it's raining, and how long I'll be exposed to the rain.

The simplest strategy is to just try to stay out of the rain. This is OK for very short durations in the rain. If I'm quick I stay relatively dry while going from my door to the car, or from the car to a store. In computer terms this would be like running Windows with minimal security enhancements, nothing but what's built in. It's very easy and convenient. Most of the time I won't get too wet. Occasionally I'll get caught in a downpour and get soaked to the skin requiring a full change of clothes. Most of the time I don't use this strategy nor would I recommend it for others as they will inevitably get wet at some point.

The next strategy is to wear a coat. This gives some added protection but when I do get caught in that downpour I may have to change my pants or at the very least my shoes and socks afterwards. If it rains hard enough or I'm outside long enough the coat will eventually soak through. Over time the coat wears out and becomes less effective at keeping the rain out. I have to buy a new coat. There are many different types of coats, some of which give much better protection from the rain than others. There are windbreakers, rain coats, and overcoats. Choosing which coat to use takes experience with the weather and knowing how hard it's likely to rain. This would be like Windows with an antivirus/malware program installed.

This morning while walking it was raining pretty hard. I took an umbrella and wore a rain coat. I was out in the rain for quite a while. I still got a little bit damp but that was mostly because I was too hot while walking up the hills. The problems were mostly internal caused by the protection I was using. Some of the dampness was caused because the umbrella didn't protect against splashes from the rain drops on the sidewalk and for a small period of time it was raining hard enough that some of the drops made it through the umbrella (a Microsoft golf umbrella by the way) in the form of a fine mist. This is like Windows with a hardware firewall (umbrella), antivirus software(coat), and anti-malware software (the coat is a specialised rain coat). All that protection may get in the way and cause it's own problems but in the end it does a pretty good job of protecting me from the rain. If someone was going out in the rain this is what I would recommend, with a warning that it may not be the ultimate in protection. They may get a little damp at times. Some of the dampness may be caused by the protection itself (perspiration).

Last winter I volunteered to work at one of the 2010 Olympic venues (Whistler Olympic Park) for a ski jumping event. One of the perks was a very high tech Halti all weather jacket. This jacket is made of some super high tech material that allows you to work very hard and not get soaked from your own perspiration. At the same time it is completely waterproof even if you are out in the rain for hours on end. I was shovelling snow at the top of the big ski jump in major sleet (mixed rain and snow) for hours. I had a Tilley hat, the Halti coat, similar high tech rain pants, microfibre clothing underneath, rubber boots, and some high tech thinsulate gloves. This would be like running Windows in a virtual machine on a very fast computer that was behind a locked down server class OS that enforced network policies and an enterprise class firewall. I was able to work for several hours in extremely adverse conditions without getting wet at all. I was able to get the work done with no problems caused by either my environment or the gear I was using to protect me from the environment.

What does all this say about computer security? Security is about mitigating risk. You have to assess the risk and come up with a plan to mitigate the risk that is appropriate to your budget and environment. No matter what you do, you will never get the risk down to zero. With enough resources you can get close. The closer you get to zero risk the higher the cost. For most of us the cost/benefit falls somewhere in the middle which means we may have to deal with occasionally getting a little bit damp.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Small Business Server 2008 RTM today!

Here's the official announcement:


I was part of the beta program from quite early on. It's a great product. I'll blog some more about it later. For now -

Congratulations to the SBS Team at Microsoft.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Best Blog Contest

I've been asked to help judge a contest to find the best Vista blog or website. You can find the details of the contest here. I was very flattered to be asked to help judge the contest. Get your entries in. There's some great prizes. I look forward to seeing everyone's entries.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Don't blame the OS for hardware problems

Many times hardware problems may be the actual cause of a problem that is blamed on the OS. It's very easy to blame an OS. It's fashionable to blame Microsoft and particularly Vista when something goes wrong. Many times it's not the OS but an application or driver. That's a subject for another post. Today I'm going to talk about another problem that is often mistakenly blamed on a flaky OS – hardware errors. Computers are very complex systems. A motherboard needs to be manufactured to very close tolerances. A minuscule bit of solder or a bad trace can change the capacitance of a circuit enough that you may get extremely random errors. PSUs (power supply units) are another cause of random hardware errors. In Windows these errors translate to random BSODs and lock ups. Testing the hardware with software running on that same hardware rarely finds problems like this. You would need very expensive equipment and the knowledge of how to interpret the results of testing with this equipment. Testing RAM runs into the same problem. I like memtest86+. The problem is even if memtest86+ passes all the tests, even after several hours of testing, this doesn't mean the RAM is OK. Even failing memtest86+ is only an indication the RAM is bad. The actual problem may be the motherboard, CPU, or power supply. Does this mean that running software that tests the hardware is useless? No it doesn't. I use several different software tests when diagnosing computer problems. They can be very useful at narrowing down the problem. If a software test fails you know you have a hardware problem and can be pretty sure of the actual component causing the problem. If a software test passes you have a reasonable chance that there are no hardware problems related to the test but you can't be sure. I was recently working on a computer that illustrates this. This was a new computer with XP Home SP3. It was only a couple of weeks old. It was experiencing intermittent problems with Internet connections. Programs would quit with the infamous “This program has experienced a serious error”. The event logs had several seemingly unrelated errors. I tried changing the AV program, updating the BIOS, making sure all the latest drivers were installed, yada, yada, yada. Everything would be fine for a few days or even a week then something different would happen. None of the errors were repeatable. I ran memtest86+ for six hours with no errors. I ran several hard drive testing programs with no errors. I changed out the PSU. At this point many people would have said it's just the way Windows works, live with it. If Vista had been on the computer I'm sure that's where the blame would have been placed by many. I replaced the RAM, which had been tested many times for many hours. The computer has been running trouble free ever since. The RAM is now in a different computer also running trouble free. Who knows what the cause of the problem was. I'm sure it's because mass producing things like motherboards and RAM to a price point means that corners are cut. The moral of this story? Diagnosing computer problems is as much an art as a science.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How can someone hate an OS?

Vista seems to have polarised many IT professionals. Many IT Pros are avid haters of Vista. They constantly blog about how bad it is. They very seldom give concrete examples of why it is bad. When they do give examples they are often links to other blogs written by people who hate Vista. These blogs are also often short of real examples. I say to all of these people - get a life! It's an OS. If you don't like it there are plenty of others to choose from. Pick one and go with it. I use many OS's on a daily basis. I happen to like Vista and prefer it as a client OS but if I didn't I wouldn't spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about it.

If you hate Vista leave a comment that has specific examples and let's get a good debate going. Rants without examples will be ignored.


Welcome to my blog. This is a continuation of the blog I started a couple of years ago which can be found here. I finally decided it was too much work updating the old blog which was just text uploaded into a web page.

The blog is mostly about Windows Vista and related issues but occasionally I'll comment on other things that take my fancy.

Welcome, and please feel free to comment whether good or bad.

Thanks for reading.