Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer
So there's another New Year on the horizon and it's time to make some resolutions that will hopefully last for at least a few weeks into January. But at the moment I can think only one: find a new Internet provider.
As previously documented in these pages, I really do try hard to deal with my business cable broadband provider. But they seem to try even harder to make it difficult. I guess the only saving grace is that, on average so far, I've only had to actually contact them once every four years.
The trials and tribulations of it taking four months to get my account set up initially are long forgotten (except as an anecdote for long winter evening when geeks gather around a hot router discussing technology). And even the seven weeks waiting for an upgrade that simply involved changing the modem to a different model (where I did most of the configuration myself) are gradually fading into distant memory.
Of course, I joked at the time that it would probably take another four months to get the invoicing right, though after intervention from the local office manager it seemed for a while that I was being unduly pessimistic. After only a month, I had a correct invoice for the upgraded package. Amazing.
What I didn't realize was that I was still being billed for the old package as well. It was only when I checked the welter of paperwork dropping through the letterbox in more detail that I discovered two invoices with the same number. That's when I found that an "upgrade" is really a "brand new customer".
Yep, despite the difficulties in actually getting a line installed at all, or a modem replaced, I am now the proud owner of two different accounts - and I get the privilege of paying for both. I'm confidently expecting to be told there is a charge to have the old account closed, and a waiting list of five weeks to do so. Perhaps they'll send an engineer round again to check if I have two cables coming into the house.
It makes me laugh when I hear people say they will never deal with our ex-monopoly British Telecom ISP because they are "a pain in the neck" and "useless". BT are my secondary supplier and I cannot fault their service, be it technical or paperwork-related. The only problem is that their promised roll-out of high-speed fibre seems to have stalled before it got as far as me. I'd switch over to them tomorrow if I could get more than 1.5 Mbs.
Though, based on experience, I'll probably have half a dozen Virgin Cable connections by the time BT find a bit of fibre long enough to reach the cabinet on our street. It seems it's rather like Hotel California. You can cancel, but you can never leave…
UPDATE: According to the BT website today, the availability of its "Infinity" high speed upgrade that was due last September, morphed into October, drifted quietly into November, and was finally promised to be definitely here in December, is now advertised as "between January and March". Yet they still keep phoning me to ask why I haven't yet signed up for their broadband TV package.
After spending part of the seasonal holiday break reorganizing my network and removing ISA Server, this week's task was reviewing the result to see if it fixed the problems, or if it just introduced more. And assessing what impact it has on the security and resilience of the network as a whole.
I always liked the fact that ISA Server sat between my internal domain network and the different subnet that hosted the router and modems. It felt like a warm blanket that would protect the internal servers and clients from anything nasty that crept in through the modems, and prevent anything untoward from escaping out onto the ‘Net.
The new configuration should, however, do much the same. OK, so the load-balancing router is now on the internal subnet, but its firewall contains all the outbound rules that were in ISA Server so nothing untoward should be leaking out through some nefarious open port. And all incoming requests are blocked. Beyond the router are two different subnets connecting it to the ADSL and cable modems, and both of those have their firewalls set to block all incoming packets. So I effectively have a perimeter network (we're not allowed to call it a DMZ any more) as well.
But there's no doubt that ISA Server does a lot more clever stuff than my router firewall. For example, it would occasionally tell me that a specific client had more than the safe number of concurrent connections open when I went on a mad spree of opening lots of new tabs in IE.
ISA Server also contained a custom deny rule for a set of domains that were identified as being doubtful or dangerous, using lists I downloaded from a malware domains service that I subscribe to. I can't easily replicate this in the router's firewall, so another solution was required. Which meant investigating some blocking solution that could be applied to the entire network.
Here in Britain, out deeply untechnical Government has responded to media-generated panic around the evils of the Internet by mandating that all ISPs introduce filtering for all subscribers. What would be really useful would be a system that blocked both illegal and malicious sites and content. Something like this could go a long way towards reducing the impact of viruses and Trojan propagation, and make the Web safer for everyone. But, of course, that doesn't get votes.
Instead, we have a half-baked scheme that is supposed to block "inappropriate content" to "protect children and vulnerable adults". That's a great idea, though some experts consider it to be totally unworkable. But it's better than nothing, I guess, even if nobody seems to know exactly what will be blocked. I asked my ISPs for more details of (a) how it worked – is it a safe DNS mechanism or URL filtering, or both; and (b) if it will block known phishing sites and sites containing malware.
The answer to both questions was, as you'd probably expect, "no comment". They either don't know, can't tell me (or they'd have to kill me), or won't reveal details in order to maintain the integrity of the mechanism. I suspect that they know it won't really be effective, especially against malware, and they're just doing it because not doing do would look bad.
So the next stage was to investigate the "safe DNS services" that are available on the ‘Net. Some companies that focus on identifying malicious sites offer DNS lookup services that automatically redirect requests for dangerous sites to a default "blocked" URL by returning a replacement IP address. The idea is that you simply point your own DNS to their DNS servers and you get a layer of protection against client computers accessing dangerous sites.
Previously I've used the DNS servers exposed by my ISPs, or public ones such as those exposed by Google and OpenNIC, which don't seem to do any of this clever stuff. But of the several safe DNS services I explored, some were less than ideal. At one of them the secondary DNS server was offline or failed. At another, every DNS lookup took five seconds. In the end the two candidates I identified were Norton ConnectSafe and OpenDNS. Both require sign-up, but as far as I can tell are free. In fact, you can see the DNS server addresses even without signing up.
Playing with nslookup against these DNS servers revealed that they seem fast and efficient. OpenDNS says it blocks malware and phishing sites, whereas Norton ConnectSafe has separate DNS server pairs for different levels of filtering. However, ConnectSafe seems to be in some transitional state between v1 and v2 at the moment, with conflicting messages when you try to test your setup. And neither it nor the OpenDNS test page showed that filtering was enabled, though the OpenDNS site contains some example URLs you can use to test that their DNS filtering is working.
The other issue I found with ConnectSafe is that the DNS Forwarders tab in Windows Server DNS Manager can't resolve their name servers (though they seem to work OK afterwards), whereas the OpenDNS servers can be resolved. Not that this should make any difference to the way DNS lookups work, but it was annoying enough to make me choose OpenDNS. Though I guess I could include both sets as Forwarders. It's likely that both of them keep their malware lists more up to date than I ever did.
So now I've removed all but the OpenDNS ones from my DNS Forwarders list for the time being while I see how well it works. Of course, what's actually going on is something equivalent to DNS poisoning, where the browser shows the URL you expect but you end up on a different site. But (hopefully) their redirection is done in a good way. I did read reports on the Web of these services hijacking Google searches and displaying annoying popups, but I'm not convinced that a reputable service would do that. Though I will be doubly vigilant for strange behaviour now.
Though I guess, at some point, you just have to trust somebody...
So it looks like my upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8.1 actually downgraded me to Windows 6.3. I know I don't keep up with all the latest whizz-bang O/S releases, but I can't say I've ever heard anyone eulogising Windows 6.3 as the ideal choice for today's modern computing environment.
My regular reader will know that I'm generally averse to changing anything that's not completely broken, and I was quite happy with my old big-iron Dell Precision 7500. It's got bags of disk space, lots of CPUs, two big screens, and is easy to use. But, as usual, I got overtaken by technology.
The problem in this case was Visual Studio. I was still on 2010 but the latest Windows Azure stuff needs at least 2012 to work. So if I have to upgrade on a box that's been gradually filling up with the usual effluent from years of operation and upgrades, why not go the whole hog and upgrade everything? Windows 8.1, Visual Studio 2013, and Office 2013. Who says I'm afraid to take risks?
I even ran the upgrade checker to make sure the box was capable of handling all this exciting new software, and it generally looked optimistic. So I hop over to our software distribution site and grab Windows 8.1 Enterprise, thinking I might as well have all the available goodies. Except that, after an hour or so, I discover that you can't install Media Center on this. Well you can, if you read some blog posts on nefarious sites, but it seems to involve lots of hacks that I probably want to avoid.
So do I accept that I have to give up watching the golf or snooker on TV in a window on the second screen while I work, and no longer enjoy some old Kate Bush videos to smooth the path through my daily Windows Azure documentation woes? No chance. Just grab Windows 8.1 Pro from our software site and install that over the top. Amazingly, it worked, and I quite happily paid my £6.99 to buy the Media Center add-on.
And so, onwards I go installing the rest of my daily working environment requirements. It all seems to just work, and even Corel Photo and a couple of other apps that are supposed to have issues with Windows 8.1 installed and ran. But here's the intriguing thing. When I send emails through Outlook 2013 on this box it seems to have gained a new memory feature. The send/receive bar starts off OK with "Sending message 1 of 1". But when I send another message, even long after the first has gone and the Outbox is empty, it says "Sending message 2 of 2". Then "Sending message 3 of 3", and so on.
I guess it's neat because I can tell how many emails I sent since the last time I opened Outlook. Though, according to our IT help desk, this isn't supposed to happen. Or Outlook getting fed up every now and then and locking up with the message "Send/Receive" in the status bar and nothing coming in or out. The technical term for this is, I'm reliably informed, "broken".
And the fun doesn't end there. According to the computer list in my Windows Software Update Service, I'm now running Windows 6.3. Have I actually downgraded from Windows 7? Though WSUS does seem to deliver the Windows 8.1 patches and updates to the computer without complaining. And at least, when I look at the System Info page, it's comforting to see that Windows 8.1 thinks it is 8.1.
And it's also kind of nice to reminisce about the last time we had a "point" upgrade in Windows. Though I doubt many people will remember Windows 3.1 now. It's interesting that, in those days, the biggest problems you had were trying to get devices such as printers, disks, and network cards to work at all. Usually it involved fighting with lots of different drivers, cables, connectors, and configuration files.
Now everything hardware-wise just works, and the biggest problem is figuring out how to make the increasingly complicated software do what you want. Or even be able to tell what it is doing. My corporate laptop insisted I upgrade from Windows 8 to Window 8.1 this week (I'm not even the boss in my own office, never mind in my own house). It sat there with just a green box in one corner of the screen for a whole day with no sniff of a status bar or any indication it was actually doing anything. I had to go down to the garage and look at the lights on the router to see if there was any sign of life. Please can I have my animated network icon back in Windows 8.2?
Though I'm still a little nervous that, when I upgrade next time, it will just take me back to Windows 7 again. Or maybe I have to work my way through 6.4, 6.5, 6.6, etc. first...?
Windows and its applications are getting even easier to use, and work far better than ever before for most non-technical users. It's a fact, I'm sure; but it seems to be having some unfortunate (and annoying) side effects for the more savvy members of the geekdom.
I've been ruminating on various aspects of this since I came over all Win8ish some months back, but an event last week prompted this in-depth exploration of my opinions. A colleague reported an occurrence of the Blue Screen of Death, though now it isn't. It's a smiley face and a "Something went wrong" message. Yes, you can still get at the info previously available if you are really interested (though how many of us actually were when it happened to us?).
I suggested that Windows can now detect your mood from the way that you type and poke at the screen, and it displays the smiley face to cheer you up when it figures you're in a bad mood. Or maybe not. Though the smiley faces really annoy me in things like Outlook Web Access (OWA) when it's so pleased to tell me I don't have any junk emails.
But are the new "apps" easier to use than the old ones we were so used to? The issue, as far as I can see, is the limitations imposed by modern devices. In many cases the annoyance is caused by the fact that it's now customary to have everything on one "window" or "screen" and avoid opening new windows. This obviously makes a poke and swipe interface easier to use. And it's probably why many of the features I use regularly in OWA have disappeared from the latest version.
But it aggravates that, for example, in the Mail app when I want to see details of a contact it opens in the whole screen instead of as a pop-up window that you just close to go back to where you were. And if you want to copy information from one contact to another, you can't just pop up two windows and switch between them. Though I suppose, on a tablet or phone, you wouldn't want to attempt finger-powered tasks as complicated as this anyway.
What's clear is that Microsoft made the right decision to leave the desktop and existing apps in place underneath the new app-based UI. Inevitably I find I live in the old desktop almost all of the time, using proper "applications" instead of truncated "apps". Then, when I just want to read the news or send a couple of simple emails, I can fire up the trusty Surface RT and do wiggly finger stuff from the comfort of the sofa.
Though I still end up gritting my teeth at some inane messages in Office 2013 and other desktop apps. "We didn't find anything to show here" when my Sent Items is empty, for example. Who is "we"? Are there little men inside the computer working the controls and running around with bundles of 1s and 0s in each hand? And Lync's "Have a good meeting!" message is even more annoying than "Have a good day!" when I buy a latte from my local coffee shop.
But I suppose Microsoft doesn't design software just to be compatible with grumpy old men like me...
How would you like to be guaranteed a price for your products for the next thirty-five years, and at double the price you sell them for now? Sounds like a great idea. However, there are a couple of downsides...
For example, you'll be allowed to sell only the lowest priced item, even if the customer wants a more expensive one. And you'll get severely castigated every time you make a profit, or when there is a shortage because you were refused permission to make any more. In addition, you'll find there might be periods of a couple of years when you aren't allowed to increase the price, but you'll get plenty of warning so that you can bump it up beforehand instead. Though every now and then you'll have to pay a dollop of cash into the official protection racket.
Yes, it seems crazy - but this is exactly what is happening if you are an energy supplier here in the UK. Any day now the lights could go off because we forgot to build any new power stations to replace the ones that are slowly falling down or getting old. But now we've got no money to build new ones anyway, so we need to bribe other countries to pop over here and bring some with them. We pioneered commercial nuclear power generation as far back as the mid 50's, but we seem to have forgotten the recipe and so, even if we did have a few pounds hidden down the back of the sofa, it wouldn't help.
Mind you, we have managed to rustle up the cash to build a new railway line - which it seems could cost as much as half a dozen new nuclear power stations. And we've got loads of shale underneath our seaside resorts that could be used to fuel cheap gas-driven power stations, but we're not sure if we have the nerve to dig it out.
OK, so I've nailed solar panels all over our roof that, on a decent day, generate enough electricity to power most things in the house. Except I discovered that, when the mains electricity goes off, so do they. Something to do with not electrocuting the maintenance men from the electric company that come and dig up the street, they say. Nobody I asked can tell me why it can't be configured to disconnect from the incoming wires when the mains power dies, or why they can't wear rubber gloves and wellington boots instead.
So I probably need to buy some new batteries for my server UPSs, keep my laptops fully charged, and check if the petrol generator hidden under a pile of rubbish at the back of the garage still works. I bought it a few years ago I when the local power company couldn't decide where the wires to our house came from, which made finding the intermittent fault (it broke when it rained, a fairly regular occurrence here in England) a somewhat long-winded (two years, in fact) process.
Of course, what will be a real humdinger is if, when they finally get the new super-duper, high speed, all-electric railway built, they discover we don't have enough electricity to run any trains...
As a firm believer in freedom of expression, I guess I can't complain about the names that the Windows Azure team give to their services and features. After all, my responsibility is just to write about them. In theory that can call them whatever they like. The problem is that they keep calling things what they literally are.
Mind you, it's not just the Windows Azure people. The same problem seems to raise its head with many other technologies. I suppose it's just that I encounter the Windows Azure ones most often in my daily working life. And using literal names for things seems eminently sensible at first glance. For example, when Mr. Heinz started putting things in cans he used the obvious names. "Baked Beans", "Spaghetti Hoops", and "Mushroom Soup". His business may well have been less successful if he'd decided to label the tins "Whizz-bang Nice Stuff", "Delicacy Number 3", and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious".
But if Bill had decided to follow the Heinz approach way back in 1985 when Windows 1.0 appeared, he would have called it "Operating System". So everything written about it since then would have referred to "The Microsoft Operating System operating system". Obviously this would have been stupid. So why am I continually having to write "...stored in a Windows Azure SQL Database database" and "...hosted in a Windows Azure Virtual Machines virtual machine"?
I suppose giving things names that are generic descriptions makes it easier to recognize what they do. Amazon chose to give their cloud services distinctive names such as Glacier, Beanstalk, CloudWatch, Redshift, and DynamoDB. I guess I might want to store my data in a DynamoDB, or have my application monitored by a CloudWatch (unless it's actually something you wear on your wrist). But as I'm not a polar explorer, a fairy tale treasure hunter, or an astronomer I'm struggling to understand why I'd want a Glacier, Beanstalk, or RedShift.
Perhaps the other problem is that, like domain names, the world is running out of pronounceable combinations of letters that aren't already registered, or that don't mean something rude in some countries or regions. Like the unfortunate choice by the Japanese refrigerator company Fukushima Industries that my very respectable daily newspaper recently revealed...
Mind you, it gets even more confusing as you delve deeper into Windows Azure and try to write prescriptive guidance that is accurate to the nth degree. I recently discovered that a Windows Azure Virtual Machines virtual machine runs within a Windows Azure Cloud Services cloud service in much the same way as a Cloud Services cloud service does. And I assume that a Windows Azure Web Sites website does so as well. So now I'm having to refer to Windows Azure Cloud Services web and worker roles to differentiate the hosting platform I'm discussing from the Cloud Services cloud service that a Virtual Machines virtual machine runs in.
Of course, at the heart of all this is the strict writing style and capitalization rules we've traditionally applied here at p&p. Thankfully Microsoft is adopting a more modern style for technical documentation, which might mean that I can get away with just talking about "a Virtual Machine" or "a Cloud Service". With luck I can just use capitalization to differentiate between a virtual machine in general terms (a non-physical server) and a Virtual Machine that is an element of Windows Azure hosting services. Though, confusingly, I'm mandated to use lower-case for "web role" and "worker role", so I might be a little too optimistic here.
Perhaps I'll just write everything in lower-case. Microsoft Word word processor will automatically capitalize the first letter of sentences, and I'm sure my editor will look forward to sorting out the rest...
One of the old chestnuts you sometimes hear from disaffected and grumpy comedians is "How come there's only on Monopoly Commission?" They're not talking about the board game, but about the people who are supposed to guard us against being exploited by large corporations. And I'm going to hazard a guess that all these disaffected comedians are, like me, customers of our monopoly cable company here in Merry Olde England.
I've been a cable-Internet-enabled customer of our national cable company for some four years. It would have been longer, but until the business division was surfaced as a separate entity within the all-encompassing media empire, they were seemingly unable to provide anything that resembled a business-level service of digital connectivity. And even then, as carefully documented in Cable Internet in 10 Easy Steps, the on-boarding experience was somewhat less than encouraging.
Having said that, it's worked like a dream ever since and I've never had a complaint, except that I have to pay them extra every month just to send me a bill. But it was starting to look rather expensive, especially as we're assured that our local telephone people will have FTTC (Fibre to the Cabinet, with the chance of proper "high-speed" ADSL) working here any day now. Well, sometime, anyway. It was advertised as being August, but slipped to September, then we were assured it was definitely October. And even though it's been postponed until the end of November, I'm still optimistic we'll see it sometime this year. Or next year.
So, anyway, I'm on the phone to a really pleasant and helpful lady at the business desk explaining that they're looking a bit pricey these days, and she tells me that I'm actually on a legacy service that's way out of date. But she can move me to a new service for free, and I'll get double the bandwidth, and it will cost about a third less! You can imagine that I asked why they didn't manage to tell me about this at the point when I became a legacy service user, but I suppose - as with all big companies - you can't expect miracles. So I agreed to be upgraded. Even when she said that, although the upgrade was free, I'd have to pay fifty pounds for a new cable modem. Oh well, I'll save that in a few months with the cheaper service.
At this point I started to ask the technical questions. The modem lives inside my server cabinet, so I need to turn off the wireless feature. I don't really want something generating tons of radio fallout inside a big metal box full of computers. But it seems not, they say, unless I have a fixed IP address which "automatically disables the wireless" (no, I don't know why). And that's an extra on the bill, so I'd end up paying more than I do now. Probably I'll just wrap the modem in aluminium foil instead.
And when can they do the upgrade? The lead time is 25 working days after the site survey. When will the site survey be? They can't say. Do I need one seeing as they already know what I have, and they're just going to swap the modem? No. Can they send me the modem and I'll plug it in myself? No, it has to be configured by an engineer.
Five weeks after I placed the order I still haven't even heard when the site surveyor might arrive, so I phone again. "We're a bit busy," I'm told, "but we'll get someone there next week." Of course, the proviso is that they need to do a line test and, if it fails for the new speed, they'll need to replace the coax that connects me to their green box. And they can't do that for "a couple of weeks."
But surely my cable will be OK? I can't say, because the engineer never turned up for the installation appointment. Obviously I immediately emailed the guy I've been talking to, the one who managed to "squeeze in" the non-arriving engineer visit. But I just got back an automatic response saying he's on holiday now for two weeks.
Ah, but only last week I had an "out of the blue" phone call from my new "business customer personal advisor" who assures me she will be "looking after my account" and "making sure I get great service from the company." It will be interesting to see if I get any more phone calls from her after she reads the email I sent to their office on Friday evening after waiting all day for the engineer.
Mind you, I did manage to sort out the problem with the phone line that was installed by default with my legacy package four years ago. It's an "included at no-charge" service where I pay only for any calls I make. As I can't even remember where they put the phone socket, you can tell how much use I made of that. But the interesting aspect is, because it's not free on the new package I've just signed up for, I now need to pay fifteen pounds a month for something that I never ordered, didn't want, and haven't ever used.
Yes, I told them just to take it out (if they can remember where they put it) or disconnect it. Did I realize that there's a 90 day notice period for cancellation? Strangely, even though the phone conversation included the words "you must be joking", nobody can supposedly do anything about it. It's my fault for not initiating a disconnection notice three months before I decided on impulse to upgrade. It only took two more phone calls, seven emails, and a long online chat to convince them that they had more chance of winning the lottery than me paying them any more money. I await next month's bill with interest.
Coincidently, there was a great article in the newspaper last week about the biggest problems facing large companies here in the UK. Surprisingly it isn't an overbearing Government, interference by the faceless bureaucrats of the People's Republic of Europe, the price of electricity, or mad taxation rules. It's poor customer service. I bet the guy who wrote it is also a customer of the cable company.
So, in the end, I'm not the least bit concerned that there is only one Monopolies Commission. I just wish they'd do their job so there was more than one cable company to choose from...
FOOTNOTE: In fact the engineers did turn up the following week after a very apologetic phone call from the local manager, and did an excellent job. It was the same guys who installed it four years ago, and they took extra trouble to disable the wireless and check the speed: 49.7 Meg down and 5.8 Meg up. Wonderful! Their office even phoned afterwards to make sure all was well and, as a nice bonus, offered to refund the cost of the new router. I'm a happy bunny all over again.
In the olden days, people with a vision changed the world. Scientists such as James Clerk Maxwell kicked off the entire revolution in harnessing electricity and magnetism to build our modern world. Bardeen, Brattain, and Shockley started the silicon revolution that gave us the microchip, and Tim Berners-Lee gave us the World Wide Web. But, sometimes, you have to wonder if being a visionary is going out of fashion.
OK, so there are plenty of people still inventing technological things, but mostly its evolution now. Some people even say that we've discovered all there is to know about physics and our planet. And lack of vision seems all-pervading when it comes to things such as politics. Where are the visionary leaders (for safety and impartiality, no names mentioned) of the past? It's pretty much an accepted fact that politics these days is a case of "going with the flow." Focus groups to tell you what policies are likely to get the most votes, and sound bites to keep the population satisfied.
So what about in the world of computing, user documentation, and guidance that I and so many others inhabit? Is vision still alive and well? And is it really important? When did you last hear of a new computing device/service/product/accessory that was really new and ground-breaking?
Wearable computers? I had a digital watch with a calculator in it twenty years ago. User input devices? Touch screens and motion detection have been around for ages. Mobile phones? Do you remember the eighties and brick-sized boxes? Internet TV? Windows 7 Media Center had that as a Silverlight-based add-on, and it was hardly a new concept then. Facebook and Twitter? Just evolution of CompuServe and bulletin boards. Online shopping? See How Much Computing Power Do You Need? Quantum computing? OK, so this one is relatively recent - but it's really just about moving particles around instead of electrons because we need to do things smaller, faster, and in parallel. Something we've been doing with CPUs for many years.
Maybe we have reached the point where there is nothing really new and visionary left to be invented in the world of computing. Though there's probably more chance of actually having a vision in our industry, and implementing it, than there is in the world of politics...