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  • FE blog

    Do cloud-based datacentres run as fast as your onsite ones

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    The Bits blog from the New York Times ran an interesting article a couple of weeks ago called ‘How Fast Can a Cloud Run?’ (you’re right, I’m still catching up with my reading!). It talks about a service called CloudSleuth, which measures the speed of response of various cloud services.

    Our Microsoft Azure cloud came out on top (I’d like to think I’d still be writing this, even if it didn’t).

    Living near clouds is a good thing

    But the thing that interested me was the impact of geography on response times. I used to remember the good-old-days-of-the-Internet, when the service would start to slow down to US-based websites from around 2 o’clock in the afternoon – which coincided with people waking up and getting online on that side of the Atlantic. But that was a decade ago or more – I’d forgotten all about it.

    image

    The chart above, snipped just now from CloudSleuth, shows the picture that caught my eye. Basically, the closer you are to the datacentre, the better your cloud experience is going to be. And because most datacentres are in the US, that’s where the best response times are.

    It sparked off a few of thoughts:

    • How transparent cloud computing is going to be, compared to today (because the whole world can look up your response times)
    • I wonder if that’s why we’ve been having high take-up of our Live@edu cloud email services for education in the UK – because the datacentre is in Dublin, not Dallas.
    • We obviously need more cloud datacentres in Europe.

    So, do cloud-based datacentres run as fast as onsite ones?

    Well, it’s pretty clear that the answer depends on a variety of factors:

    • How fast is the cloud datacentre?
    • How fast is your own datacentre?
    • Where is the cloud datacentre?
    • Where is your users? (because if your user isn’t on-site, they probably get a completely different experience)
  • FE blog

    Freebie time - Desktop Virtualisation for dummies booklet

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    Let’s start by getting the jokes out of the way. Yes, the ‘…for Dummies’ books are my kind of books. And, No, that’s not me on the front cover.

    Now, that’s over with…

    image

    I’ve got my hands on 30 copies of the ‘Desktop Virtualisation for Dummies’ booklet to give away. And, let’s face it, desktop virtualisation is the kind of thing that needs a booklet like this. Despite believing that it would be important for education (after all, who else runs 300+ end-user applications on their network) I still find it confusing. After all, who wouldn’t be confused when you’re presented with so many choices:

    • User state virtualisation
    • Application virtualisation
    • Session virtualisation
    • Virtual desk infrastructure
    • Blade-based virtual desktops
    • Single-desktop virtual machines

    So this booklet is a good starter guide to help you think about where (and whether) to start with desktop virtualisation. It’s just 32 pages long, so just about the right length, and it sets out the strategies for virtualisation clearly. And it deals with the reasons for doing it in a clear way. For example:

    It’s not as straightforward as saying ‘desktop virtualization will save you money’, but it certainly gives you more options when you come to deciding how that money might be spent – either by reducing operational budgets in terms of minimised downtime, or lowering management and support overheads, or potentially enabling capital expenditure to be reduced or deferred.

    If you’d like your own free copy of Desktop Virtualisation for Dummies, then simply drop Mir an email, and he’ll get one in the post to you (As they say in America, this offer is “good while stocks last, for people in the Great Britain area”)

    ps Have you already implemented some of the strategies for desktop virtualisation? If so, either drop me an email or add a comment to this blog, because it would be good to know how it’s going.

  • FE blog

    Saving money - how to get started with server virtualisation

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    I’ve been writing quite a bit about examples of education establisments virtualising their servers, especially as it is one way to significantly reduce your college IT and energy spend. We published a case study on Leicester College on their virtualisation project earlier this year. As Paul Chapman, Head of Libraries and E-Strategy at the college said at the time:

    By virtualising servers, we’ve cut their cost by 50 per cent, and that’s not including the staff time we’ve saved with easier-to-manage machines.

    And they report reducing power consumption to reduce their carbon footprint, as well as getting a more robust ICT infrastructure. So there’s plenty of reason to consider virtualisation.

    But knowing it’s a good thing to do is one thing. Knowing how to do it is completely different. So here’s a little help

    Of course, one starting point should be the Microsoft website’s Hyper-V section.

    Education Technology Now

    imageAnd for education specific information, there’s an added gem available. Alan Richards, who’s the IT Manager at West Hatch School, has written about various aspects of virtualisation on his Education Technology Now blog. At every step of his virtualisation journey he wrote about what he was doing, and the decision he was taking, and it provides a detailed case study on how to virtualise school servers.

    The series of blog posts he’s written take a step-by-step journey:

    The Design Phase - The second part of the Design Phase - The Physical Phase - iSCSI Setup – Video - Windows Server Failover Clustering Setup – Video - Windows Server Failover Clustering Setup – Corrections - Clustered Shared Volumes – Video - Installing Hyper- V – Video - Live Server Migration

    And Alan’s now writing more specific posts, such as Upgrading, Migrating & Virtualising SharePoint 2010.

    11 Golden Rules for Virtualisation

    I’d also highly recommend Steve Cassidy’s excellent article on PC Pro - 11 golden rules for virtualisation - which provides a straightforward set of rules to consider and decisions to make. For example, he starts by advising that you measure the potential savings (and demonstrate them to the head & school business manager):

    Virtualisation projects pay back by reducing power bills and server purchase budgets. The latter is easy to demonstrate; the former requires some distinctly non-computing work.

    To really see the benefit, you have to be able to compare hosting rack-space invoices, or monthly electricity bills, or stand in the blast of the cooling fans – it’s very difficult to translate the massive efficiency improvements into something tangible. The most basic fat-plug current meter can form the basis of a good solid demo for that disbelieving finance director, standing in the server room watching you start up the old boat-anchors and chalking up their power draw on the wall.

     

    Find a Microsoft virtualisation partner

    And finally, you might also want to find a Microsoft partner for some advice. The easiest way to do that is to use Microsoft Pinpoint, which allows you to find partners with specific competencies – this link gives you all UK partners who are listed as working in Education, and offering virtualisation solutions. You can easily refine it further by adding your location, and finding the local ones.

    (Looking at the list that Pinpoint shows, it appears that many of our partners haven’t updated their specialisms in the database. So if you’re a Microsoft partner, and you’re reading this, you might want to go to the Microsoft Partner Network, or talk to your account manager, to do this)

  • FE blog

    Building Clouds - how to make a data centre more energy efficient

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    imageWe have a team, called Microsoft Global Foundation Services, who have the job of building clouds. Or at least, building ‘the Cloud’ – they design, build, run and support our global data centres which are at the hub of all of our cloud services. In Europe, we have one in Ireland and one in Holland. I don’t know about the Amsterdam one, but the Dublin one is roughly three times the size of the main halls at Olympia (imagine – instead of lots of snazzy stands, that space packed full of humming server racks, a bit like our Chicago datacentre on the right). The Dublin one is where we host all of our UK Live@edu email services and data.

    Obviously, at the rate we’re building these data centres, and the huge cost involved, there’s a constant journey to work out how to make the data centres increasingly efficient – especially because of their energy usage, which is a huge part of the cost of running a data centre.

    Now, some of the lessons we’ve learnt aren’t things you can apply in your college server rooms easily (like cleaning the roof and painting it white, which reduces cooling cost), and playing around with the wall positioning to improve air flow.

    However, some of the things that have been learnt could be of use to you, and help you to reduce your carbon emissions and running costs – like making a trade-off in processor performance to achieve the most efficient Performance per Watt per dollar (which is one reflection of the true cost of providing a server service). We’ve also made adjustments to the temperature servers are cooled to – and switching to using more free air cooling to replace air conditioning. And we’ve even experimented by operating servers outside under a tent.

    imageThe good news is that as we do this work, we publish it in a consumable format. If you’re interested in how to help reduce your server running costs, or in what we’re doing when we’re building massive data centres, then I can recommend “A Holistic Approach to Energy Efficiency in Datacentres” from the Microsoft Global Foundation Services team.

    There is also a lot of detail about different projects going on to look at energy efficient computing, within data centres and elsewhere, on our www.microsoft.com/environment website. Some of the research up there is around Cloud Computing futures, data centre monitoring and optimisation, reducing disk energy consumption, universal parallel computing and power aware developer tools.

    And finally, if you’re interest knows no boundaries, then you might be interested in the MS Datacenters blog, which has tells the story of how we’ve grown our data centres around the world over the last few years, and shares some more of the lessons we’ve learnt.

  • FE blog

    WebMatrix - making it easier to deploy Moodle, Joomla! and WordPress

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    imageI noticed last week that Scott Guthrie announced the release of the beta of WebMatrix. Basically, it’s an easy and free way to get started building Web sites on Windows. WebMatrix is a tool for building, customising and deploying your Web sites in one common, straightforward way. The idea is that WebMatrix can be used by a wide range of developers, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to use it. It brings together a bunch of our resources into a simple install - a Web server (IIS Developer Express), a database (SQL Server Compact), and a programming framework (ASP.NET). It’s a simple free download – just download and install it onto a spare server.

    But the extra useful bit is that you can then use the Microsoft Web Application Gallery to install and customise popular ASP.NET and PHP open source community applications, whilst also seamlessly integrating with our professional development tools and servers including Visual Studio, SQL Server and Windows Server.

    The Web App Gallery contains a long list of free downloads to install on top of WebMatrix, including Moodle, Joomla!, WordPress and a long list of other free apps to install (the main categories are: Blogs, CMS, eCommerce, Forums, Galleries, Tools and Wikis)

    It also includes a new, easier-to-learn syntax for ASP.NET to provide you with a faster way to build standards-based Web sites. The built-in helpers simplify the use of ASP.NET to perform increasingly complex and common tasks like connecting to a database, displaying a Twitter feed, or embedding a video.

    This means that you can have the flexibility and freedom to use the tools you choose, and have an easier way to deploy web servers that fit into your existing IT infrastructure.

    You can get WebMatrix by downloading the Web Platform Installer, and then install additional apps from the Web App Gallery

  • FE blog

    Live Meeting–What’s new in Office 2010 for students and teachers

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    image

    Following on from the Deploying Windows 7 Live Meeting last month, Richard Lane (who’s our resident techie in the Education team) is hosting a pair of Office 2010 Live Meetings in July. As it is a Live Meeting (webinar), you don’t need to leave your desk, and no travel is needed – you can simply logon to the Live Meeting website, and you can join in, and ask questions as we go along.

    Microsoft Office 2010 introduces rich and powerful new ways to express and share ideas, which matches the way that students are working today, and the needs of academic staff. Join this webcast for a demonstration of key features that will resonate with both students and teaching staff alike.

    • Discover how Office 2010 will enable you to bring ideas to life with advanced video and picture editing, broadcast capability in Microsoft PowerPoint 2010, easy document preparation through the new Microsoft Office Backstage view, and visualise data in new ways with Microsoft Excel 2010.

        • See the new Office Web Apps 2010 – online companions to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote – which enable you to review and edit documents from a variety of web browsers.

            • Understand how students can collaborate better by taking shared notes or co-authoring documents in real-time with a fellow student.

            This session will be mainly demonstration based – there will also be the opportunity to have any questions you have answered.


            Dates and Times

            You can join the meeting on either Tuesday July 27th 10:30 – 11:30 or Wednesday July 28th – 11:00-12:00.

            You’ll need to register in advance here and you’ll then get a confirmation email and joining details.

            What equipment do you need?
            You will need a PC with a web browser and either headphones or a telephone to hear the audio - To save time before the meeting, you can easily check your system to make sure it is ready to use Microsoft Office Live Meeting, using this link

          • FE blog

            Saving money by effective power management

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            One of the hidden costs of ICT in education is the power usage of the equipment you’ve got around your college. I call it hidden because it is often not visible to the IT team, and the full energy costs of all of your servers and computers are simply part of the college’s overall electric bill.

            As we release new products, we are doing more and more to help you manage and reduce power consumption. For example, both Windows Vista and Windows 7 reduced the power usage of a typical PC configuration, by reducing the power it uses when in use, as well as better management and use of low-power states such as Sleep and Hibernate.

            On the network management side, we’re making a lot of changes to System Center Configuration Manager, with Release 3 (R3) due this year – this now has power management built within it to help monitor and manage all of your networked PCs.

            For a typical college, the potential savings annually run into many tens of thousands of pounds, so it is definitely worth looking at how you can more effectively manage your power usage. Conserving power at the desktop level translates not only into potential cost savings through power consumption reduction it also has the added benefit of helping to reduce your college’s overall carbon footprint.

            Power Management in System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R3

            While energy-saving desktops and laptops have been available for some time, many organisations are not getting the most cost and energy saving benefits from these devices because power-saving settings are often disabled out of fears of data corruption, to support overnight IT operations, or simply from force of habit.

            imageClient power management with System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R3 helps you get manage the energy consumption of your hardware by providing a set of power management tools to enable centralised client power management. If you’re using Windows 7 , it allows you to easily optimise power settings on a granular level, and if you’re using earlier versions of Windows, it takes full advantage of the power management capabilities available in them.

            Configuration Manager 2007 R3 tools allow you to:

            • Monitor current power state and consumptions

            • Plan and create a power management policy and check for exceptions

            • Apply power management policy to enforce different power settings for peak and non-peak periods

            • Check compliance and remediate non-compliance

            • Reduce energy costs associated with power and reduces CO2 emissions

            • Report savings in power consumption and costs

             

            Client power management with Configuration Manager 2007 R3 can yield you potential cost savings with minimal effort and expense.

            Where to find out more about System Center Configuration Manager

            There are three levels of further detailed information:

            1. For an overview of System Center, take a look at the System Center website

                • For the Configuration Manager specifically, take a look at the System Center Configuration Manager section

                    • There’s more detailed specifics still in the Power Management Datasheet

                        • And more detailed still, there’s a quick demo the power management capabilities, on the System Center blog

                            • Read all the above, and want to play with it yourself? Well, you could always download the free System Center Configuration Manager beta and try it on a test server.

                          • FE blog

                            Free Microsoft software for charities

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                            I know that many colleges get involved in activities with charities, and staff are often involved in charities in their private lives. Did you know that we run a scheme that allows UK charities to obtain Microsoft software free? (Well, almost free, as there is an administration charge from CTX who handle the order and supply the software)

                            imageThe Computer Charity Trust is a charity with a mission to demonstrate how the effective use of technology can improve the efficiency of charities and not-for-profit organisations. As part of that it manages a software donations program called CTX, which enables charities, of any size, to access free licensed software (from Microsoft and a range of other partners). Because the scheme hasn't had wide coverage I think it’s worth a mention here, because it is actually very easy for a charity to get the software through the scheme. There are some limits (from memory, I think there is a maximum of 50 pieces of software of any particular type – eg 50 copies of Office, 50 Windows upgrades) but the scheme is designed to be very flexible, and especially useful for smaller charities.

                            There’s an easy to understand guide to getting started, and for each software supplier a specific set of eligibility criteria. The Microsoft eligibility criteria for charity donations is quite wide but it does exclude schools already included in the criteria for Academic licensing (yes, I know that private schools are often charities – that’s probably why we had to set the criteria to exclude them!).

                            There are quite a few case studies on the CTX website, which helps to illustrate what charities can do, and many of them are charities which work with children and students:

                            imageGo to the CTX website for charity software

                             

                            From outside the UK? Check out TechSoup to see if there’s a similar scheme in your country, as they work in 31 others too.

                          • FE blog

                            Translating your websites into 30 languages–with 5 minutes work

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                            With such a diverse community across FE today, there are plenty of good reasons to make college websites and portals as accessible as possible to students and parents from outside of the UK, or for whom English is a second language.

                            When I saw the new version of the Microsoft Translator tool, I realised this will therefore be really useful. It’s free, and it translates web pages into 30 languages

                            Basically, it’s a little web widget that sits on your website or portal, and allows visitors to translate your website with a mouse click into one of 30 languages. You don’t have to do anything except add a small piece of code to your website (or MLE or SharePoint etc).

                            You can try it using the blue widget at the bottom of the page (you will need to view this post on its own page – if you can’t see the widget below, then click here to see it) which will translate this web page for you. Imagine if you can add it to every page on your website – how pleased would visitors be?

                            How to use the Microsoft Translator on a website

                            1. Go to this page: http://www.microsofttranslator.com/Widget/Default.aspx?ref=MSTWidget

                            2. Select the colour you want to match your website
                              image

                            3. Click “Generate Code”

                            4. And then simply copy and paste the code, and pop the resulting short script onto your website page design

                            It’s really simple, and really easy to use. But most appealing of all, you can make yourself look really good to the rest of your colleagues – because it’s something they’d like to do, but might never have thought to ask for.

                          • FE blog

                            Deploying Windows 7 - Best practice deployment methods

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                            Last week we ran a pair of Windows 7 Live Meetings "Deploying Windows 7 – Best Practice Deployment Methods to Save You Time and Money". Over 200 people attended, but I’m guessing that there will be others who would have liked to attend and couldn’t make the time. So the Live Meeting is now available as an offline download.

                            The session was jointly presented by Richard Lane, from the Microsoft Education team and Design & Management Systems (DMS) who have helped many education customers deploy Windows 7 effectively – including South East Essex College.

                            The session was a good mix of slides and demonstrations, and covered best practice tools and methodologies to help in all stages of the project from planning right through to deployment.

                            If you weren’t able to make it, you can now view or download the 54 minute recording from the Live Meeting website.

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