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3Sep/13Off

Microsoft buys Nokia division – was Nokia about to jump ship?

TechOps Guy: Nate

So obviously the big news of the day is Microsoft buying Nokia's handset division for a big chunk of change. Both seem to be spinning it as a good thing, a logical next step in their partnership. For Nokia it probably is a good thing as it gives them an exit strategy from that business which hasn't been doing so hot. For Microsoft the deal is less attractive with investors obviously agreeing sending their stock down ~5% on the day.

Some folks are saying a big reason for this was perhaps Nokia's patents, which Microsoft apparently gets a ten year license to, they don't acquire them outright (I can only wonder what that would of done for their war on Android), many folks speculate that the CEO of Nokia may be the successor to Ballmer who recently announced his retirement.

I'm going to go out on a limb here as I have nothing to lose and say this is because Nokia was seriously looking at throwing in the towel on the Windows Phone platform.

I think that because there really was no reason for Microsoft to buy Nokia (YET). Nokia was doing Microsoft's bidding, taking all the risk and reaping none of the rewards. They were sacrificing themselves slowly on the sword of Microsoft, and the investors were getting upset. I fully believe(d) that they would be acquired by Microsoft but not until the viability of Nokia was called into question or perhaps if Nokia was going to give up. I suppose the optimistic point of view would be Windows Phone is about to catapult and the acquisition cost is cheap relative to where it would be in the future. I'm not an optimist like that though! Microsoft obviously has a ton of money and has a strong track record of paying a large premium for companies. So I don't think value played a key role here.

More commentary from someone on CNBC this morning asked why didn't Ballmer leave an acquisition of this magnitude to his successor(this being at least the 2nd largest in the company's history) - someone who will be driving the future of the company. Though if Ballmer seriously things this Elop fella is the one to take the reigns, I think that would probably be a mistake - with Elop's recent track record of basically burning the company to the ground to make a bet on a new platform. Microsoft has a ton of businesses, and they need to not burn them to the ground in an effort to chase after the next shiny. Elop sounds like a great leader for devices. I don't know who would make a good MS CEO. That's not an area I try to claim any level of expertise to!

So I think Nokia was at least talking seriously about a major shift in strategy internally -- perhaps just calling Microsoft's bluff - in  order to get Microsoft to finally move and acquire them while their share price is where it's at now.

In the end it doesn't matter to me of course, I'm not an investor regardless, I'm not vested for or against the platform. I do admire Microsoft a bit for not giving up though. They have had some major adoption issues with their new platform forcing Nokia to make  major price cuts. They've also been able to capitalize on the chaos at Blackberry and wrestle the #3 spot from them. Though globally that #3 spot as it stands today, is still a rounding error in the grand scheme of things.

I just hope for the sake of their users they don't do to Windows Phone 8 what they did to 7, and 6.x, and perhaps prior versions in basically abandoning them and making the newer versions completely incompatible. Windows on desktops has been able to sustain such a large presence in a big part due to such massive amounts of compatibility. I'm honestly still shocked I can run a game that came out in 1995 on a modern 64-bit Windows 7 system without any modifications. To even propose such an idea for the Linux platform just makes me laugh, or cry, or maybe a little bit of both.

30Nov/12Off

Is the Surface destined to be the next Zune for MS?

TechOps Guy: Nate

First off  - sorry to my three readers I haven't posted in a bit, there just hasn't been a whole lot interesting going on. Obviously I am excited about HP's storage announcements that are coming in a few days, I expect some posts out of that :)

Anyway back to Microsoft's Surface. One of the rumours is Microsoft had halved orders for the Surface RT due to less than anticipated demand. Other RT-based tablets have performed similarly poorly.

I just was thinking about the time when Microsoft brought out the first Zune, they were not satisfied with how their partners were unable to compete against the iPod, and in a stroke of brilliance brought out their own product along with a new music store which broke compatibility with all other Windows media players on the market. The thing that I remember most about the Zune, well pretty much the only thing was it's squirt feature.

[..] Steve Ballmer in his infamously disturbing interview in BusinessWeek that evoked horrible images of brown Zunes squirting all over each other:

"Guys who can touch us in multiple places probably matter more than guys who can touch us in any one place.”
“I want to squirt you a picture of my kids. You want to squirt me back a video of your vacation. That's a software experience."
Zunes squirt, and don’t you forget it Robertson, or there might be a chair headed your way.

So here we are again, Microsoft is once again frustrated by it's partners not being able to compete effectively against the iPad, and they believe they can make a more effective user experience. So enter stage left the Surface and Surface Pro. Dell has recently launched an advertising blitz for their XPS 12 touch enabled Windows 8 Pro UltraBook Tablet. I swear when I was on the website yesterday it claimed a ship date of early next month, but now it claims a ship date of Jan 3 2013, and an entry level price tag of $1199 for 4GB RAM, 128G SSD, Intel i5 processor in a 3.35 pound package, that is a really heavy tablet (when it's in tablet mode of course).

Yesterday pricing was released for the Surface Pro, with keyboard the prices are roughly $1020 for 4GB RAM and 64GB SSD to $1120 for 128G SSD. Without the keyboard the Surface weighs in at just two pounds - or about 6oz more than one of my HP Touchpads.

Battery life on the Surface Pro is expected to be 4-6 hours, obviously less than ARM-based systems, but still a respectable number I think.

I am sort of surprised that something as powerful as a Core i5 is being used, rather than the Atom, which was supposed to be Intel's go-to product for things like tablets. The processor they are using looks to have a 17W TDP, which includes an Intel video chipset. Compared to the latest and greatest Atom which has a 10W TDP without a video chipset. I'm sure the i5 smokes the Atom pretty easily, so probably was a good trade off for a few extra watts of power.

When I saw the price I was pretty shocked - I really expected the Pro to cost about $200 more.  Sure it's not really price competitive with other Tablets out there but to me at least it's really not a tablet - it's a touch enabled Ultrabook, much like Dell's XPS 12 offering. It's running an x86 processor with PC applications being it's key selling point. I would expect most people to not consider the Surface Pro to be in the same market as an iPad or Android tablets so direct comparisons will probably be rare after the initial launch is complete.

With each successive consumer operating system launch Microsoft has had over the past decade the level of excitement has declined - the one exception perhaps is Windows 7, people were happy to get that after being screwed by Vista.

I've been convinced since the beginning that the Windows 8 stuff won't make a dent in iPad sales (unless you consider stemming the losses of PC sales a dent by shifting some of those losses to Surface).

What Microsoft has come up with hasn't done anything for me at least to change my opinion (remember this is someone who has a ton of WebOS stuff - though was never convinced WebOS at the time had the ability to inflict anything upon Apple - it makes me sad in some respects to see OpenWebOS crawl along, I know with each passing day they fall further and further behind due to lack of resources).

I suspect the RT-based devices will do quite poorly as well, obviously the market has gotten along just fine over recent years without having Microsoft Office on a tablet. There have been many reports of organizations large and small doing massive deployments of iPads to support their businesses.

Microsoft did a huge disservice to their customers by not properly porting their Office apps to Metro, thus forcing two different user interfaces on the devices. On top of that they did a further disservice by consuming such a large portion of the internal SSD for stupid things like a recovery partition. Don't we live in the world of cloud today? Even WebOS can recover easily just by connecting the device to a computer and running an application to do a full OS re-install, even if the device seems "bricked".

I fully expected something like that for Windows 8, and for the surface perhaps something built in - perhaps a ~200MB rescue partition that has enough software to boot the device, connect to the internet and recover from the cloud. (though I'd still rather have it local since it can take a while). Or be able to put the rescue stuff on a SD card.

Microsoft does provide a means to recover via USB, but it's far from straight forward (should be included in the new user startup wizard). Though from what I see they don't go so far as to make the recovery information downloadable from the internet.

To create a USB Recovery Drive on a Surface RT, follow these steps:

  1. From the Start screen, tap the Desktop tile to open the Windows Desktop.
  2. Slide your finger in from the right to fetch the Charms bar, then tap the Settings icon.
  3. When the Settings Pane appears, tap the words Control Panel from the pane’s top edge.
  4. When the Desktop Control Panel appears, tap the System and Security section, then tap File History.
  5. When the File History window appears, shown below, tap Recovery in the bottom, left corner. Then tap Create a Recovery Drive when the Recovery window appears.

The Surface Pro does look like a decent product for the space - though I believe the space will flop significantly based on the expectations.

I suspect that Windows 8 (at least the metro side of things) will flop just about as much as Vista did. At least as long as there are the dual interfaces that are totally incompatible with each other (e.g. apparently Internet explorer in Metro and Internet explorer on the desktop are oblivious of each other). If/when Microsoft can figure out how to properly unify them they may have something. I suspect most developers will continue to target the desktop mode because of course there is a large market out there of existing pre-Metro operating systems.

It's a decent first step for Microsoft getting their software ready for tablets, they still have a lot of work to do  - what is the old saying - by version 3 they usually get it right ?

This is version 1..

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22Aug/12Off

Are people really waiting for Windows 8?

TechOps Guy: Nate

UPDATED  - Dell came out with their quarterly results and their PC business wasn't doing well, down 22% from a year ago.

A common theme I see popping up are people claiming folks are holding off until Windows 8 before buying their systems. Do you think this is true? I can imagine some folks holding off to buy the MS Tablet or something, but I can't imagine many people (I'd bet it's a rounding error) waiting for the desktop/laptop version of Windows 8 before buying their new PC.  Especially given apparently 70% of Dells PC sales go to commercial/government with only 30% going to consumer.

UPDATE - HP released their results and their PC shipments were similarly poor with revenues down 10-12%.

They'd rather not admit that a weak economy combined with the rise of tablets not running Microsoft software is probably where most of the blame lies. A market that Linux advocates long hoped to try to capture by being "good enough" to do things like browse the web, read email etc, but for many reasons was never able to really establish any foot hold. I remember my grandfather had such a Linux system, forgot who made it, but it ran entirely off of a CD, with perhaps only a few megs of flash storage (this was about 10-12 years ago). It was slow but it mostly worked, he certainly got far fewer viruses on that then when he eventually went to windows a few years later(Dell had to re-install his system several times a year due to malware infestations - he refused to stop going to dodgy porn sites).

What's new and good in Windows 8 vs 7 that would have folks want to hold back on a new desktop or laptop? It's pitched as the biggest product launch since Windows 95 and I believe that, though I don't see anywhere near the leap in technology from Windows 7 to 8 that happened from Win3.x to 95. (sort of like my feelings on vSphere 3.5->4 vs 4->5).

I suspect it's just an excuse, time will tell if there is a massive surge in PC buying shortly after Windows 8 launches but I don't expect there to be. The new Metro (or whatever they are calling it) ecosystem is minuscule compared to the existing windows ecosystem. Hell, all other ecosystems pale in comparison to the current windows ecosystem.

Do you know if people are holding back waiting for Windows 8 on a desktop or laptop style device? If so I'd be curious to hear the reasons.

I fear for Microsoft that Windows 8 will hit the ground with a thud. It'll sell millions just because there is such a massive install base of Windows folks (Vista sold quite a bit too remember that!).  Unlike some other players (*cough* HP WebOS *cough*), even if it is a thud initially Microsoft won't give up. I recall similar hype around Windows phone 7 and that hit with a thud as well and has gone nowhere. In short - MS is setting the expectations too high.

Something I did learn recently which I was not aware of before, one of my friends at Microsoft mentioned that the Windows Phone 7 platform was mostly acquired from another company(forgot which), Microsoft then went and gutted it and the result is what we have today. He had long lost all faith in Microsoft, in their ability to execute, stifling projects that have good prospects while promoting others that have none. I suppose that sort of thing is typical for a really big company. I don't know how he (or others) can put up with it without going crazy. He didn't have much positive things to say about Windows phone, nor did his girlfriend who also works at Microsoft. It was sort of "meh".

They'll keep trying though, Microsoft that is, throw enough money at anything and you'll eventually get it right, it may cost them a few more billion, and a few more years, but it's a big important market, so it's certainly a worthwhile investment.

I do find it funny while Ballmer was out trying to destroy Google, Apple comes out of nowhere and takes the torch and runs with it, and it took Microsoft many years to regroup and try to respond.

I don't hate Microsoft, haven't for a while, I do sort of feel sorry for them though, their massive fall from the top of the world to where they are now. They still have tons of cash mind you.. but from pretty much every other angle they aren't doing so well.

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27Jul/12Off

Microsoft Licenses Linux to Amdocs

TechOps Guy: Nate

Microsoft has been fairly successful in strong arming licensing fees from various Android makers, though less successful in getting fees directly from operators of Linux servers.

It seems one large company, Amdocs, has caved in though.

The patent agreement provides mutual access to each company’s patent portfolio, including a license under Microsoft’s patent portfolio covering Amdocs’ use of Linux-based servers in its data centers.

I almost worked for Amdocs way back in the day. A company I was at was acquired by them, I want to say less than two months after I left the company. Fortunately I still had the ability to go back and buy my remaining stock options and got a little payout from it. One of my former co-workers said that I walked away from a lot of money.  I don't know how much he got but he assured me he spent it quickly and was broke once again! I don't know many folks at the company still since I left it many years ago, but everything I heard sounds like the company turned out to be as bad as I expected, and I don't think I would of been able to put up with the politics or red tape for the retention periods following the acquisition as it was already bad enough to drive me away from the company before they were officially acquired.

I am not really surprised Amdocs licensed Linux from Microsoft. I was told an interesting story a few years ago about the same company. They were a customer of Red Hat for Enterprise Linux, and Oracle enticed them to switch to Oracle Enterprise Linux for half the cost they were paying Red Hat. So they opted to switch.

The approval process had to go through something like a dozen layers in order to get processed, and at one point it ends up on the desk of the head legal guys at Amdocs corporate. He quickly sent an email to the new company they just acquired about a year earlier that the use of Linux or any open source software was forbidden and they had to immediately shut down any Linux systems they had. If I recall right this was on a day before a holiday weekend. My former company was sort of stunned and laughed a bit, they had to sent another letter up the chain of command which I think reached the CEO or the person immediately below the CEO of the big parent who went to the lawyer and said they couldn't shut down their Linux systems because all of the business flowed through Linux, and they weren't about to shut down the business on a holiday weekend, well that and the thought of migrating to a new platform so quickly was sort of out of the question given all the other issues going on at the time.

So they got a special exclusion to run Linux and some other open source software, which I assume is still run to this day. It was the first of three companies (in a row no less) that I worked at that started out as Microsoft shops, then converted to Linux (in all three cases I was hired on a minimum of 6-12 months after they made the switch).

Another thing the big parent did was when they came over to take over the corporate office they re-wired everything into a secure and insecure networks. The local linux systems were not allowed on the secure network only the insecure one(and they couldn't do things like check email from the insecure network). They tried re-wiring it over a weekend and if I recall right they were still having problems a week later.

Fun times I had at that company, I like to tell people I took 15 years of experience and compressed it into three, which given some of the resumes I have come across recently 15 years may not be long enough. It was a place of endless opportunity, and endless work hours. I'd do it again if I could go back I don't regret it, though it came at a very high personal cost which took literally a good five years to recover from fully after I left(I'm sure some of you know the feeling).

I wouldn't repeat the experience again though - I'm no longer willing to put up with outages that last for 10+ hours(had a couple that lasted more than 24 hours), work weeks that extend into the 100 hour range with no end in sight. If I could go back in time and tell myself whether or not to do it - I'd say do it, but I would not accept a position at a company today after having gone through that to repeat the experience again - just not worth it.  A few years ago some of the execs from that company started a new company in a similar market and tried to recruit a bunch of us former employees pitching the idea "it'll be like the good 'ol days", they didn't realize how much of a turn off that was to so many of us!

I'd be willing to bet the vast majority of Linux software at Amdocs is run by the company I was at, at last check I was told it was in the area of 2,000 systems (all of which ran in VMware) - and they had switched back to Red Hat Enterprise again.

25Sep/11Off

Real picture of Microsoft IT PAC

TechOps Guy: Nate

I've mentioned it here, and here, but finally there's a real picture of their dense server designs, it looks pretty nice -

I haven't tried to count, but there should be 96 servers per 57U rack (taller racks because they are in shipping containers), with integrated UPSs, and I am happy to see they are not placing all of their switches at the top of the rack as earlier diagrams seemed to indicate.

There you have it, the most innovative server/rack design in the industry, at least the most innovative that I have come across. Too bad they aren't reselling these things to other companies.

We also get another indication on just how many jobs these data centers generate when they come to town (i.e. not many, certainly not enough worthy of tax breaks like Washington state was doing)

Microsoft will invest an additional $150 million to expand its new data center in southern Virginia,
[..]
The expansion will add 10 jobs, bringing the total expected employment in Boydton to 60 positions.

I see occasional references to how much jobs cost when the government tries to create them, here is a good contrast for those people making those comparisons - $15 million invested per job created (at least jobs measured at the end point).

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21Sep/11Off

Microsoft’s cloud takes another hit

TechOps Guy: Nate

Just came across this from our friends at The Register. Nice to see Microsoft was up front about what caused the outage, full disclosure is a good policy.

"A tool that helps balance network traffic was being updated and the update did not work correctly. As a result, configuration settings were corrupted, which caused a service disruption," he wrote.

It took some hours for normal service levels to resume and time for the changes to replicate across the planet.

Just a reminder out there for the less technical or non technical, even the big clouds can have major downtime, even with all their fancy buzzword compliant services. This is of course not the first outage for Microsoft, more like the third or fourth in recent months.

Microsoft isn't alone either of course, whether it's Microsoft, Amazon, Rackspace (among many smaller names), all have had their day in the spotlight on more than one occasion.

It seems cloud outages occur more frequently than outages outside the cloud, at least in my experience, maybe I've just been lucky. It helps to be in a good data center.

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23Jun/11Off

Microsoft Sync not so hot?

TechOps Guy: Nate

Ford has been plastering the nation (and probably world) with advertising recently which included giving lots of props around Microsoft's Sync technology. I've never used it, and haven't talked to anyone who has mentioned using it so I don't know a whole lot about the product.

But a short time ago survey results from JD Power were released on initial car quality. A big source of complaints was the technology features in the cars. But what I thought was interesting and how it may tie into Microsoft's Sync technology is the fact that Ford practically fell off a cliff on this survey dropping a full 18 positions to #23 on the list.  If you asked me to name 23 auto brands I couldn't do it. Maybe I could come up with a dozen or fifteen.

Here is a couple articles on the list.

The problems with MyFord Touch — the latest generation of its heavily promoted and popular SYNC system of voice commands — are especially disappointing for Ford. Consumer Reports has criticized the new system repeatedly for being too complicated.

The technology in my new Juke has me somewhat concerned as well, it works fine, but I'm sure when it breaks, it won't be cheap or easy to fix, so I got the extended warranty on it, and may very well not want to own the car beyond the warranty(I didn't buy this car with the thought of driving it into the ground). I haven't had any issues with the technology in my new car, aside from one time my GPS crashed, but that seems to have been a freak event.

The one thing I would like on my GPS though is some of those custom voices that are available for TomTom, I have disabled the voice output of the GPS because it was disruptive to my nightclub on wheels stereo, but it would really be fun I think(at least for a short time) to be able to have random famous actors or characters talking to me through the GPS.

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27May/11Off

MS cashing in on Android

TechOps Guy: Nate

Oh how ironic, to me at least. Just came across this on Tech Flash.

Based on an estimate that HTC has shipped 30 million Android devices, Asymco calculates that Microsoft has seen $150 million in revenue from Android. With Microsoft selling 2 million Windows Phones licenses, its Windows Phone revenue comes in at $30 million.

Microsoft making more money off of Android than it is on it's own cutting edge mobile platform..

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4May/11Off

Microsoft Server Designs

TechOps Guy: Nate

I was out of town for most of last week so didn't happen to catch this bit of news that came out.

It seems shortly after Facebook released their server/data center designs Microsoft has done the same.

I have to admit when I first heard of the Facebook design I was interested, but once I saw the design I felt let down, I mean is that the best they could come up with? It seems there are market based solutions that are vastly superior to what Facebook designed themselves. Facebook did good by releasing in depth technical information but the reality is only a tiny number of organizations would ever think about attempting to replicate this kind of setup. So it's more for the press/geek factor than being something practical.

I attended a Datacenter Dynamics conference about a year ago, where the most interesting thing that I saw there was a talk by a Microsoft guy who spoke about their data center designs, and focused a lot on their new(ish) "IT PAC".  I was really blown away. Not much Microsoft does has blown me away but consider me blown away by this. It was (and still is) by far the most innovative data center design I have ever seen myself at least. Assuming it works of course, at the time the guy said there was still some kinks they were working out, and it wasn't on a wide scale deployment at all at that point. I've heard on the grape vine that Microsoft has been deploying them here and there in a couple facilities in the Seattle area. No idea how many though.

Anyways, back to the Microsoft server design, I commented last year on the concept of using rack level batteries and DC power distribution as another approach to server power requirements, rather than the approach that Google and some others have taken which involve server-based UPSs and server based power supplies (which seem much less efficient).

 

Google Server Design with server-based batteries and power supplies

Add to that rack-based cooling(or in Microsoft's case - container based cooling), ala SGI CloudRack C2/X2, and Microsoft's extremely innovative IT PAC containers, and you got yourself a really bad ass data center. Microsoft seems to borrow heavily from the CloudRack design, enhancing it even further. The biggest update would be the power system with the rack level UPS and 480V distribution.  I don't know of any commercial co-location data centers that offer 480V to the cabinets, but when your building your own facilities you can go to the ends of the earth to improve efficiency.

Microsoft's design permits up to 96 dual socket servers(2 per rack unit) each with 8 memory slots in a single 57U rack (the super tall rack is due to the height of the container). This compares to the CloudRack C2 which fits 76 dual socket servers in a 42U rack (38U of it used for servers).

SGI Cloudrack C2 tray with 2 servers, 8 disks (note no power supplies or fans, those are provided at the rack level )

My only question on Microsoft's design is their mention of "top of rack switches". I've never been a fan of top of rack switches myself. I always have preferred to have switches in the middle of the rack, better for cable management (half of the cables go up, the other half go down). Especially when we are talking about 96 servers in one rack. Maybe it's just a term they are using to describe what kind of switches, though there is a diagram which shows the switches positioned at the top of the rack.

SGI CloudRack C2 with top of rack switches positioned in the middle of the rack

I am also curious on their power usage, which they say they aim to have 40-60 watts/server, which seems impossibly low for a dual socket system, so they likely have done some work to figure out optimal performance based on system load and probably never have the systems run at anywhere near peak capacity.

Having 96 servers consume only 16kW of power is incredibly impressive though.

I have to give mad, mad, absolutely insanely mad props to Microsoft. Something I've never done before.

Facebook - 180 servers in 7 racks (6 server racks + 1 UPS rack)

Microsoft - 630 servers in 7 racks

Density is critical to any large scale deployment, there are limits to how dense you can practically go before the costs are too high to justify it. Microsoft has gone about as far as is achievable given current technology to accomplish this.

Here is another link where Microsoft provides a couple of interesting PDFs, the first one I believe is written by the same guy that gave the Microsoft briefing at the conference I was at last year.

(As a side note I have removed Scott from the blog since he doesn't have time to contribute any more)