Credit Where It’s Due – Azure AD Connect

When we first moved to Office 365 one of the most dreaded things to do was connect our Active Directory to ‘the cloud’. We want to eventually move to hybrid Exchange on-prem and cloud, but that’s a little ways down the road. What we wanted seemed simple, get our users info up in the cloud so they could log in to the Office 365 portal, install their software (on up to 5 PC’s!), get to OneDrive, SharePoint, etc. To do this required DirSync, a weird little tool that seemed to be leftover from ForeFront identity manager. Long story short, it took a (very) talented Microsoft engineer hours to figure out how and why this wasn’t working and fix it, set up the tool for every three hours to sync, and voila! Our email addresses and passwords were now syncing to the cloud. It was a little shaky, but it worked. Until it didn’t.

About two weeks ago it stopped. Nothing showed as to why it wasn’t syncing, from all appearances it was. But no information was changing in the cloud. As more and more people’s passwords expired on the cycle, they had a live password to the network, and their old (last) password to Office 365. I dreaded having to go through this again with some poor MS Engineer, it wasn’t fun the first time. Then I saw it:

Azure Active Directory Connect (Preview)

The replacement for DirSync and other federated functions was in preview, and so loathe to try to untangle the failing DirSync, I thought I would give this a try. On a nice clean machine I ran the setup. A wizard walked through a few simple steps and in a few moments it was syncing up to the cloud. I know it’s still preview, but YIKES this was night and day for setting up the connection. This was slick, effective, easy and is working non-stop now for 5 days. Totally painless.

So far, I think Microsoft may be the farthest along in real cloud/on-prem integration technologies. They know what real people in the real world have to use and deal with, and produce tools like this to save tons of time for us. Definitely a must review for anyone doing Office 365 or other projects requiring AD in the cloud.

Hats off to you guys! This is the way to do it.

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Oh, The Things I Use.

After pretty much complaining non-stop about the new tablet experience of Windows 10 (it is truly awful on touch) I decided before going any further I would list a ‘What I Use’ in emulations of the greats of our industry. Plus it could be helpful for reference. I will change this and revise periodically as things change. I tend to use a lot of gadgets and PC’s to calm the inner geek voices in my head. This will be primarily my personal tech stash, I may do a ‘What We Use’ for work technologies since I run a medium size business IT infrastructure department.

PC’s/Tablets

I have a number of PC’s I use around the house. I lump PCs and tablets together, since basically I use them all for similar things–production or consumption of information and entertainment.

Main PC – This is a home built Sandy Bridge mini tower. 16GB Memory, Core-i5, 4 TB storage, 256GB SSD. The ‘workhorse’ PC I use the most. It also has a TV tuner I use with Windows Media Center in it (oh WMC, how I love you so). The current challenge is to upgrade this to the Ceton 6 tuner PCI cable card setup and get all the premium channels I get out in the living room. That’s it’s own whole story. I use this PC for work at home, personal computing, games, TV, you name it. I keep feeling like it may be time for a new build, but it runs everything I throw at it since I put in a new video card. Maybe next year…

Guest/Office PC – I have a PC in the little nook where the phone comes in next to the living room, it’s basically my last tower config with just a dual core, an SSD (can’t live without those) and 4GB RAM. It runs Windows 10 beautifully and fast and is great for visitors and family, Skype Calls, pizza ordering, Xbox music.

Surface/RT – I use an original Surface/RT for couch surfing, reading, Xbox SmartGlass, Twitter, etc. Basically it’s the walking around device.

Dell Venue Pro 8 – Until recently my main work/home tablet. The stylus quit working and I got a newer device, so I now use this as my test Windows 10 Tablet. It is a sad and sorry experience so far.

Toshiba Encore Write 2 – I just got this tablet last month, and it has turned out to be the best experience I’ve had with any tablet. It has a fantastic stylus perfect for OneNote, it’s fast and a joy to use. I use this mostly for work, I can do diagrams, notes, read, review documents, markup documents, read newfeeds, etc. It is my go-to must have device. And it’s nice and light, 8″ and 64GB storage. This is a must buy. It’s basically what I always wanted the Surface Mini to be.

Surface Pro 2 – I have an i5 Surface Pro 2 I use as my laptop when needed. I’ve found I don’t need a laptop all that much as I don’t travel often and have desktops or tablets when I need ‘on the go’ computing. But when I do, I really love the SP2, it’s fast and has a purple keyboard. Purple, enough said.

Phones

Lumia 1520 – I love the Windows Phone platform. There I said it. I truly believe that it’s more functional (for me) than any of the others, and I have tried them all. I started with the Samsung Focus, then Nokia 900, 920, 925, and 1520. Plus a 520 that was just too cheap to pass up I use for a remote control and music player. The 1520 is big, really big. But I love the screen and it’s a powerhouse phone. I guess I must not be much of an app person since I don’t really see the app gap here. But I don’t care about social media or putting crappy filters on the beautiful pictures my Lumia takes, so maybe I don’t see it. It seems like everything I need is there or has an app I need.

Applications – Windows 8.x

Office 365 Home and Office 365 Business Premium – I can’t say enough about how critical these are for me on a daily basis, mostly for work. When they brought out unlimited OneDrive storage and 5 installs per license (plus sharing of the Home license) this is a no brainer for $99/year. Google Docs, iWork, others simply do not hold a candle to the Office Suite. There is no comparison. Anyone telling you they get along just fine in these doesn’t do anything complex. And that’s great for them. But if you need serious tools these are those. It’s the difference between MS Paint and Photoshop. And our business relies on Lync, Exchange, Excel, Word and others for core functions.

OneNote – The Metro version of OneNote with a tablet PC is a killer note taking computer. I leave it running on my tablet, can walk into a meeting and be taking handwritten notes in seconds. I like it better than the desktop app. And this is something I find about a lot of Metro apps, the reduced ‘noise’ of the interface is much better when on a tablet. It’s clean. On the desktop I like the noise because that’s where all the power controls are. But on a tablet I want to focus on my data, or notes, or content without all the chrome.

IE/LastPass – I use both the desktop and Metro versions (yes, I will still call it Metro because you immediately know what I mean when I use that!). And with it is the indispensable LastPass password manager–a must have. Get the paid version, it’s cheap and these guys do it right.

Windows Mail – I love the Mail/Calendar/People client in Windows. It’s gotten so much better over time, and on tablets it’s a fully capable client for all my email accounts. For business email I use Outlook–it’s kind of complex these days, but for power managing email, tasks, calendar, contacts in an Exchange environment it’s pretty much the standard.

Nextgen Reader – Probably the most critical app I use, I pull in all my feedly news feeds in to this client for reading everything going on in the world. It let’s me keep up with hundreds of sites all integrated into a clean, touch friendly UI. Plus it syncs read stories across devices (Windows and Phone). I use it on the desktop and on tablets.

Tweetium – This is the best Twitter client out there, period. And it’s constantly being updated and improved.

Pushbullet – I use the desktop version for Windows and the PushPin client on the phone (these guys are great, and they ‘endorse’ multiple 3rd party phone apps since they don’t have a native client–that’s the way to do it).

I use a lot of the Microsoft services, OneDrive, SharePoint, OneNote, Outlook.com, Office 365, Azure (for active directory stuff for work), Music, Xbox Live, Video (rental only). Plus Amazon for shopping, Prime, Pantry and Kindle. I have various Outlook, Google email accounts I use. I also have a couple of Roku devices for the TV’s. I hate Facebook and rarely ever open it, I just don’t post like that or care to. Twitter I like because it’s news-ier, but social media is just not my thing for the most part. All the photo sharing apps leave me completely cold.

I use a lot of remote desktop and server management tools as well, they are a subject for another article.

Others: Insteon (home automation), Reading List (long form saved articles), Reader (PDF reader with pen markup!), Idea Sketch, Grapholite, Qool Autodesk Sketchbook (all good diagramming, sketching apps), News, Weather, Finance (MSN apps), Xbox music (with music pass, manages all my music and subscriptions), Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, Songza Kindle (entertainment apps). Various others, I like several cooking, shopping apps, and a varying little selection of games. For ‘big games’ those I get through Steam and vary, but since I suck at most of them I won’t detail them here. Sadly, I heavily use the Bank Of America app on both desktop and phone that is being discontinued, I find it short sighted of them.

Xbox One – The living room hosts the Xbox One, which I primarily use for it’s media capabilities (although I do try and fail at games often enough). There is nothing quite so cool as walking into the room, saying “Xbox turn on”, “Watch ABC” “Goto Netflix” or other commands. THAT is living in the future! Someday I will get better at the games…

That’s currently the high level view of stuff I use on a daily basis, it’s a mix of form factors–but because Windows syncs my apps and settings across devices, I find myself starting in one place and picking up where I left off in another. As more developers adopt this kind of behavior the devices will tend to fall into the background. I love the term ‘ambient computing’, meaning all the tech is wherever you want it, in the background, waiting for you rather than tied to devices and logins. It’s the Star Trek computer everyone wants and I like that all the big companies are trying to build it.

Windows 10. One Step Forward, Six Steps Back.

This certainly wasn’t what I was going to do for my first post, but over the weekend, I spent a good chunk of time trying to get Windows 10 working on my Dell Venue Pro 8 for testing. I have a ton of hardware in all shapes and sizes, but I wanted to try Windows 10 on a ‘real’ tablet, and try to use it like I would any tablet. My current favorite, the Toshiba Encore Write 2 is still safely on Windows 8.1.x, but since my Dell was no longer being used heavily, I figured it was the perfect test. I’ve installed Windows 10 (all builds, but currently at 9926) on several machines, a generic Dell laptop, a home PC tower that serves as the guest/office PC, several VM’s, all work pretty well–as desktops. It’s been fast and pretty simple, with the normal glitches one expects from a build this early in Windows. In fact, Windows 10 on the desktop is clean, fast and pleasant to use.

For some background (that someday will show up in a What Do I Use article) I am technically ‘all in’ on Windows and Microsoft services. I’ve been so for pretty much all of my computing life both at home and work. I have dabbled with Apple and Android, and even own a few devices on those ecosystems, but I ‘live’ in Windows. I absolutely embraced the Metro environment and have a number of tablets I use–as actual tablets–routinely. I use Mail, Tweetium, NexGen Reader, Reading List, Xbox Music, Smartglass, etc. A number of news apps, a few games, and some others like Grapholite for network diagrams, Qool for brainstorming and Insteon home automation software.

For me, the ‘app gap’ is something I haven’t experienced. I use a ton of Metro applications every single day, on tablets and desktop. I like them. They function well. There are a lot to choose from. They’re cool. Except of course Office, which recently has shipped in testing, so that’s not too far away. Starting apps, flipping through open ones, tucking things away on my reading list, reading and reviewing tons of internet articles, pushpinning links to my Lumia 1520, tweeting a bit, listening to music, all can be handled with ease and quicker than I could on any competing platform. Life was good.

As someone as all in on Windows I, like many, always look forward to what’s to come. I couldn’t wait to have Cortana on the desktop, streamline functionality, use Universal apps. And Windows 10 has been pretty damn good so far. On the desktop.

It’s a mess on tablets. A horrible, steaming pile of confusion on tablets. Really. It’s awful.

This has to be fixed before release or Microsoft needs to give up on the whole tablet concept. Just quit if this is by design. I mean it, I really like Microsoft products, but if this is their idea of a touch friendly OS, Android and iOS have already won.

The Installation

Over the past few days, I had committed to moving my now underutilized Dell Venue Pro 8 (32GB) to Windows 10. Bugs and all I wanted a good tablet test machine. After trying for hours to clean enough off the tablet to get the 5GB space required (this tablet was before the ‘Windows with Bing” compressed OS option) I was there. Ran the web setup, then Windows update, then failed. And failed again, and again. What I kept running into was a space problem–no matter how much I tried, no luck. So I decided to run setup from a USB drive set up from the ISO. After quite a bit of fiddling, I found that it required even more free space! 8GB to run. Ugh.

I reset the VP8. If you’ve ever done a Windows 8.x reset, you know it’s a wonderful tool that completely wipes and resets you back to the factory fresh image of Windows. I figured clean out of the box Windows would be my best chance for enough free space. After the reset, 12GB free! Then came the daunting realization that you can’t do an upgrade with out all the updates. All of them. Tons. A mountain of updates. This took the better part of a day, carefully babysitting the restart and touchy stalls/time outs that sometimes happen with GB’s of updates. But I was determined.

After finishing the Procession of the Updates I ran the disk cleanup/updates cleanup to purge the disk once more, winding up with about 9.5GB free. Re-running the Windows 10 setup from the web fails again. No reason, just fails with a little pop up saying it failed. So my last ditch hope, I plug in my ISO into the USB adapter and run. SUCCESS! For the first time in days I feel like something worked. It even was going to keep my settings, apps, favorites, etc.

None of those headaches were due to Windows 10–in fact just about any upgrade or install of the OS would have had similar issues due to the size constraints of these tiny storage devices (but these are more and more common, the update routines need to be aware of that). Once there was enough space and the correct media, it sailed through like a champ.

Giddy with anticipation and clicking on my login, I am unceremoniously dumped onto the desktop. Something I had not seen or used on this tiny tablet except in the most dire of circumstances (okay, to copy files to the SD card, but whatever, I never used the thing). I automatically swipe in from right to get to start, oops, no, no start there. But then I touch ‘TABLET MODE” in the action center…because maybe they just activate the desktop by default in these builds.

My sad, sad, unchanging start screen

My sad, sad, unchanging start screen

I touch the start menu in the lower left, a slightly awkward touch point actually. I am presented with a blank green ‘start’ screen, empty save for the Cortana Search box and an ugly list of apps with tiny icons on the left. Tiny. Hard to touch. On the Start Screen. No live tiles, no default apps.

So I begin to pin the tiles for things I’d like from the All Apps micro-list. Tiny touch targets. Tiny icons. Tiny. Little. Impossible. Icons. This is a huge step backward from Windows 8. The start screen, or basically the inflated, ugly start menu, shows no signs of life, no updates, live tiles are decidedly dead. Maybe this comes later, after it settles a bit and they light up again with data.

And the taskbar is ever present. Reminding you this is really a desktop machine. Everywhere screams desktop. From the extra clutter on Start, to the task bars, to the too-tiny-to-touch-icons littering the interface. Everything is desktop centric. Gone is the easy to flip through open programs of the left swipe, replaced with the desktop focused Task Switch that cannot be used one handed. Gone are charms, which apparently everyone hated except me, to easily share to my reading list or email or twitter. Settings might as well now be called Control Panel II rather than the elegantly reachable right hand settings panes. And how in the world to snap applications when in tablet mode? Still haven’t figured that one out.

So far as I see, every single, solitary useful touch function has been expunged from Windows 10 and replaced with a desktop focused one. It’s as if Microsoft is saying “We’re so sorry! We don’t know what we were thinking! Please forgive us and we’ll never do anything like touch again”. They threw the baby out with the bathwater. And then just to be sure, went and got another baby, filled up another tub and threw those away too.

In a race to capitulate to the desktop, they killed or maimed every touch feature that made Windows 8 something useful–if you actually learned how to use it, and didn’t just whine about it. It worked as a touch based UX quite well. I never quite understood the common complaint of it being ‘jarring’. You know what isn’t jarring? Click the desktop and staying there. Pinning your apps to the taskbar.

On touch with the right apps (yes, you have to hunt them down, and of course, there needed to be more in every category) Windows 8.x could be elegant it it’s own way. Universal Apps could help ease this. Actually what we need is a hybrid of the improvements to desktop when in ‘desktop’ mode and smooth easy to use touch features in tablet mode. Just like before, Microsoft is over compensating with too much mouse and keyboard and dropping too much from touch. People were finally starting to at least tolerate Windows 8.1x, and Windows 10 could have crafted features to enhance the experience rather than changing it all yet again. It’s heavy handed and simplistic in undoing anything good about the touch functions in the OS.

Maybe I’m being too critical–it still has a way to go before launch, and maybe there are some good revisions out there coming for touch. I’ll be patient. It could happen. I will test each build like it’s Christmas morning hoping they have something up their sleeve. Right now, there are so many interface compromises that it’s actually difficult to use the tablet mode at all. It’s not muscle memory or complaining just because of change, it’s actually bad design. I can’t reach things, I can’t get to Start, I can’t hit the severely tiny touch points, and everything leads you back to the desktop. Maybe this is how people felt about Windows 8…I never did, because I thought for once Microsoft made something look cool.

So there the Dell will sit until next build, I can’t use it like I thought I would be able to, it just doesn’t work anymore. It runs the Windows 10 code beautifully. And that’s the problem.

Hello world!

Welcome to Yet Another Windows Blog! I will begin posting soon, hopefully with a voice that’s not often heard in these heady days–an actually unapologetic look from the point of view of people who actually like and use Windows (and to a greater extent) Microsoft products. While not exclusively Windows, I hope to have a site where we explore the latest trends and technologies that impact the Windows community. I know you’re out there somewhere! Anyone?

So why this blog? Well, for one thing I do enjoy writing and getting my thoughts down. And I’ve found more and more, while reading other blogs and ‘news’ sites (or what currently passes for the tech press), I find myself yelling at the screen in frustration. So many sites have such an obvious lack of experience in the products they cover or how they’re used in business, or have journalists (let’s be honest, many are just techno-hipsters in love with their iPhone) that simply like the next bright shiny object.

So I thought, why not do it yourself? You’ve written disaster recovery plans, budgets, proposals, a million emails on password security–once with pictures of kittens to bring home the point. Sure, what the hell! No one might read it, but at least I spoke my peace!

I started with computers in high school, then in college with Windows and beta testing, then server, networks, phones, smart devices, tablets, pretty much anything with a plug. I used a wide variety of technologies, but mostly inside the Microsoft ecosystem (even before we called it that). I currently am the Director of IT for a small financial services company, and we are the typical medium-sized business with a several offices of about 100 people. I’ll cover both business related technologies and consumer, since I use both. Some fun stuff like XBox, which I love even though I am a terrible gamer, and some, well let’s just say dry material, like the trials and tribulations of Azure AD Connect.

What I hope is that if anyone decides it’s worth reading, it’s at least marginally helpful. And for the Windows people out there who lately have to feel like the technology they actually love is some kind of guilty pleasure. No more I say!

With that, let’s begin…