May 2008 - Posts

Summary: I get that question a lot. Well except from my mother, who long ago gave up on trying to understand what I do... But for you guys the answers used to be easy: I do what you do. Computer management. SMS administration of various sorts. ConfigMgr 'engineering'. That sort of thing. But things change.

Sure, working here I get to work very closely with the ConfigMgr product team. And I do that 'dogfooding' stuff. And we have 250,000 clients. And our networks are wonderful. So there are differences, but every organization has its differences. Basically we all did the same thing. Now my story is a little more complicated.

For a few years now the broad team I work on has been learning how we can help some customers by doing their computer management for them. That's been done by a bunch of people, but originally I stuck to the Microsoft IT side of the story. In the last year I've been drawn into the external-facing efforts. Especially for the client health part.

So what does it mean for Microsoft to do computer management for some organizations? Basically, it's a software-as-a-service scenario, which you've probably heard a lot about lately. Our marketing guys put SaaS in context like so:


And how is that good?:

In fairness, the leap between those two parts of the story is large. How does SaaS "accelerate" the journey to goodness? They've obviously got thoughts on that, but the real explanation will come in the delivery. We look forward to proving the point (as our peers in Exchange Online have already done).

In the meantime, the answer to the question of what I do is basically service building, especially in the client health space. After all, would anyone pay for a computer management service without a high degree of accountability for all the clients? As per my recent presentation at MMS, that builds on years of client health efforts throughout the industry and recent improvements, and will lead to great solutions and guidance for all of us. So it's an honor to have this job.

But at the same time I help out with related tasks such as dogfooding, proving our solution works, documentation (I have some background as a tech writer...), presentations, and misc. other bits. Fun stuff!

Posted by pthomsen | with no comments

Summary: now that we're home, it's time for general observations and other follow-up. Actually, I've been meaning to do that for at least a week now, but it's been busy times around here (and the weather has finally been decent).

The Conference Bag 

On the myITforum WIKI, I have maintained a history of SMS/ConfigMgr bags. I have to figure out my account/password for that one, but in the meantime, here's a picture:

There's actually a lot of pictures of the bag out there. Someone even does a complete 'unboxing':

I'd say this year's event bag was unique - it's clearly a backpack bag. Only one past bag had shoulder straps, and they were optional (the bag could also be used as a suitcase). But as a mountaineer I take backpacks seriously and the best I can say about this one is that it's a modern traveler's bag. It has no provision for a laptop, is too large for business meetings, and has no lap belt for serious loads, but does have provisions for devices. Most people did carry them around throughout the event, so I suppose they had some utility, but I'm not sure of the ongoing value. The intel logo is prominent, so I suppose the sponsor is happy.

Technical Updates

In my "Going Big" presentation I mentioned that when going to ConfigMgr one thing you should watch out is 'rogue' WSUS installations in your environment that will conflict with SUM (or which SUM will conflict with). Fortunately there's an easy way to avoid the grief - get your current SMS infrastructure to look for them. That's done quite easily with a hardware inventory extension for WSUS. We do that by collecting this registry key: HKLM\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Windows\WindowsUpdate\WUServer

On the client health front, there have been a few updates (which I will also incorporate into the relevant posts):

  • Greg Ramsey has shared their ConfigMgr Client Troubleshooter. I've used it a bit and it has some handy features. It has a bit of 'many clients' functionality but it's not meant to be an enterprise-scale solution. Manual inspection and repair is always going to be a part of any client health strategy, and this tool really helps in those situations. So it is a good addition to your client health toolkit.
  • And there's the similar SMS Client Center from Roger Zander.
  • Chris Stauffer has begun an ambitous effort to produce a client-side client health checking script. It's a script that could be run as a scheduled task, or as a regular advertisement (for partially healthy clients). There's a lot of functionality to be packed into a vbscript, but I know Chris can do it, especially with some help from the community.
  • In case you missed it, John Nelson added a great comment to one of my earlier postings about WMI reliability hotfixes. In particular, on how to verify they've been applied to your clients. I haven't tried his idea yet, but it looks like a good one to me.
  • One suggestion I heard was for a Wiki on client health. That way we can work together to fill out the client health story, and provide the "guidance" that I often talk about to each other. Fortunately, myITforum has a wiki: I'm trying to figure out how to make it work.
  • Dan Thomson and I had a great conversation about many client health topics, and one of his suggestions was that a computer startup script could also be set up to run as a scheduled task on each client. That would mitigate the main limitation of computer startup scripts, which is that they only run as often as users reboot (especially while on the corporate network). Somone else said they also send there's out as regular software distribution. That only helps with clients that are healthy enough to run a software distribution, but since the content and policy can be cached, that's actually more clients than you might expect. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't have either of these ideas years ago Embarrassed
  • One organization I've talked to recently has developed a 'control' that sits on each of their clients and reports (via hardware inventory) the response times of their DPs and MPs. I'm hoping to encourage them to share that with us.
  • A manager that I talked to at the conference said that there was an upside to his staff doing a lot of manual client health remediation: they come to understand the clients well and get really good at client-side troubleshooting. He even observed a significant improvement in morale - techies like tricky technical challenges!
  • Of course I see a lot of specific client health issues in the course of my work, or in the course of client health discussions in the community. WMI issues may be the most classic example. But in the course of conference convesations (or conference-inspired conversations), I've heard some new issues:
    • Disk corruption: if the disk is having problems then BITS may fail to download content, or there may be other kinds of client health issues. Running chkdsk a few times, even without the switch for fixing the problems, often helps. The customer that reported this one sees this daily.
    • Another customer reports the startup details for BITS were disappearing on many of his computers. We did a little poll of other customers and none had seen this, but maybe they weren’t looking.
    • Someone suggested that one measure of a healthy client is one that has a current patch mgmt catalog, since patching is a core computer management service and many parts have to work well for the catalog to be up-to-date. So it makes sense to watch for old catalogs.
    • One idea that should be easy to verify, but that I haven't had time to do just yet, is that if the PATH is messed up then ccmexec won’t start. For example, if there is a simicolon in an inappropriate place, or two backslashes when there should be one.
    • Another suggestion for verifying a client is healthy is that the SMS/ConfigMgr WMI namespace has classes for recent content and policy downloads, and if those are old, incomplete, or have errors then the client is unhealthy
    • Running out of disk space (anything less than 90 meg) is an obvious way to cause client health problems, but what can you do to automatically but safely fix that problem? Deleting the restore details for old patches, and clearing the SMS/ConfigMgr cache of old content are good suggestions
    • One customer observed that clients with a  missing RSOP namespace seem to cause problems, but this problem also easy to fix (recompile the MOF). I haven't verified the details on this one, but I do recall seeing a the RSOP namespace
    • An up-to-date SMS_Def.mof version would also be a good indicator of a health client
    • Another way for WINS or DNS to have issues is for DHCP to be set up incorrectly. Watching the details at the client side would help to identify these issues

General Observations

The unfortunate reality is that many of the most interesting things I get to do at the conference are not bloggable. Not things that would change the world, but discussions with people that expect some discretion, personal discussions, or discussions that could be easily misunderstood when taken out of context. I suppose the point is that there is a lot of 'backchannel' activity that happens at the conferences. And even if you're out of those loops, you're actually involved, in that your comments clarify positions and give credibility to the whole market/community. I know I'm out of the serious loops, but there's a lot of those backchannel conversations at the conference. So there's a lot I've been thinking about since the conference but I can't get into much of it here.

Overall I can say that this was one of my best MMS conferences. I attended fewer sessions than ever before - in fact only one (I'll listen to many more on my Zune later) . But the conversations were non-stop and highly varied. Every year I feel more "at home" at the conference. The food-for-thought was nonstop.

At a personal level, I can say that I feel energized in a way that I haven't felt in about a year. It's like youth has returned. I have to think that has to do with the quality of the conversations. But maybe the quality accomodations, good food, nice trip, etc. helped. In any case, I am inspired. Now to get back to work!...

Posted by pthomsen | with no comments

Summary: home again. And thanks again for the opportunity to talk with you (if you were at the conference)!

Fridays at MMS are usually relatively useless but this one was much better. I got to breakfast about 8AM and was pleasently surprised to find many people moving about, mostly going to sessions. Apparently there was feedback that people would like sessions starting around 8:30 Friday morning, and that was done this year. In the past the sessions started closer to 10:00, on the assumption that people would need more rest Friday (for some reason...). But that meant there was only time for two sessions on Friday mornings, and with many people catching flights, the attendance was very thin for the last session. They're all available on the DVD, so the sessions were worth presenting, but it didn't feel the same.

The day started with a good breakfast conversation, followed by my session on how we do ConfigMgr at Microsoft IT, and then I sat in on a session on Asset Intelligence 1.5. More good conversations. From there it was a leisurely trip home. It was nice to finally read some newspapers and think about the week.

My presentation today seemed to work well. I felt the audience was more engaged than during my client health presentation. The evaluation numbers back that up - they were the kind of numbers we all want - in the top 15 overall. My previous session this week had a little less than average numbers, so passable in a sense, but not as good as you deserve.

I must admit that one of the ironies of presenting has been that the topics I'm most passionate about are not necessarily the ones that get the best response. For example, a few years back I gave a presentation on local policies, which I think have the potential to revolutionize how we do computer management in several key scenarios. It even had cool demos. That presentation even lead to Jeff Tondt writing a TechNet magazine article on the subject. But much of the audience didn't buy into the concept, and the review scores weren't great for that presentation - not bad but not as good as they should be. Another presentation I gave that year got better scores. This year I presented on client health, which I'm even more passionate about, but it got the middling scores. I can see how I can improve that presentation (thanks for the feedback everyone), but I liked the content... The really good news is that the client health presentation led to many great conversations on the topic of client health, and I look forward to postings based on those observations. Even more importantly, I really believe those conversations will lead to better solutions in the future - so keep them coming. But maybe the lesson is that real-world results are more relevant than specific-case concepts. Something like that...

Anyways, it was sad to see the end of the week, as always. Not as sad as in some years, but only because I know we'll be back together before we know it (even if it is a year). There should be some kind of final goodbye speech, but since many people are gone, I suppose that wouldn't work. Maybe at the Thursday night party?

This weekend I'll post some general observations, and make some updates based on some notes. For now it's nice to get back to normal life...

p.s. The blogosphere had a bit of observations about my client health presentation: Aaron Czechowski and Sherry Kissinger. But nothing on any of my potentially more controversial statements (maybe that's a good thing...)


Summary: It was another good day of client health meetings. Some very interesting thoughts, some of which will be reflected in postings next week.

Otherwise a relatively quiet day for me, which was much needed. I even managed to get a decent meal in (but nothing special).

MMS 2009 is confirmed for April 27 to May 1, 2009, in Vegas! Start planning now (time flies...)

Posted by pthomsen | with no comments

Summary: client health, baby!  :-)

It was another very busy day, with a variety of meetings and one-on-one discussions about client health. Everyone acknowledged client health was a crucial issue that they were addressing or needed to address. About half put it at the top of the list of their issues and were very passionate about it. All of them helped me greatly to confirm and/or clarify my thinking.

The keynote was more relevant today, and I was particularly intrigued by the emphasis on a changing world in which devices, mobile users, and technically demanding users are supposedly going to revolutionize IT and thus computer management. I can see some truth in that, but details were thin on what exactly that means. I do believe we should all give this possibility some serious thought and discussion.

The day was so busy that there was little opportunity to eat properly, but I did manage to attend the 1E party. It was great as usual. The band was first-rate, though too loud for my liking. Fortunately there was an outside deck where we could talk. Even better was that everyone was keen to talk about technical issus - perfect for me!

Posted by pthomsen | with no comments