2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 50,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 19 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Not quite a “post a week” but a vast improvement over last year’s (21 posts and 4500 views). Part of this is directly linked to migrating from the now defunct Windows Live Spaces platform and onto WordPress.

Thanks to all my visitors, I really appreciate your comments and hope you have found something useful, intersting or funny on my blog.

Hopefully 2012 will bring even more interesting posts thanks to my new job (starting next week!). One of my tech resolutions will definitely be to increase the amount of posts I do and taking the drafts that float around in limbo to completed usefull articles.

Here to seeing what 2012 brings 🙂

Group Policy Management Overview

gpmc iconWe use Group Policy to tweak the default settings on Microsoft Servers and PCs. You edit the policies using the Group Policy Editor console (gpedit.msc) but to manage the policies you use the Group Policy Management Console (gpmc.msc). The more policies you start to create, the more confusing managing them can become and with each new version of Microsoft software (Office included) new Group Policy templates are added. This article is to give you an insight into exactly what the Group Policy Management Console (GPMC) is about and how everything links together.

It’s always best to edit policies from the latest OS. This is one of the reasons to always have a VM somewhere with the latest OS purely for Group Policy. Alternatively, if you are using the latest OS then you can install the GPMC from the Remote Server Administration Tools (RSAT) and then edit the policies from there. If you don’t, it’s not a big issue but some policies won’t be available. All of the templates can be stored in a central location in Active Directory so they can be accessed by all domain machines. There is some debate whether it is best to have the policies held locally rather than in the central store but I think it works well. By default this is \\DCName\sysvol\domain.name\Policies\PolicyDefinitions. If you ever download a new template you will need to put it in there. For more details on activating the central store se the following Microsoft Support article

Inheritance & Precedence

Group Policies Objects (GPOs) are created in the Group Policy Objects folder in GPMC. Policies are then linked to Active Directory Organizational Units (OUs). You can link as many Policies as you like to an OU and you can also link the same policy to as many OUs as you like. You can also block inheritance by right-clicking an OU and disabling it. The precedence of any GPOs, i.e. what GPO policy wins out of any competing policies, can be changed in the Linked GPO tab of an OU. Normally the deepest policy wins.

Continue reading Group Policy Management Overview

What is GiffGaff? The best, cheapest mobile network I’ve used!

Get a free Giffgaff SimSmartphones are great. I got a beautiful Samsung Omnia 7 Windows Phone this time last year and don’t think I’ll ever go back to a dumb/feature phone again. Part of the reason smartphones are so smart is that they have an always on internet connection. Unfortunately, the big mobile phone networks/carriers in the UK (Orange, Vodafone, Three & O2) see this as a great opportunity to squeeze even more money out of you. My phone was originally on Three’s network and although they had great speeds if you went over their measly data allowance you got charged a hefty sum. One month I got charged £15 for data alone! When I called their customer services I was told I’d have to pay if I wanted this itemised and it was my fault for going over the allowance. After about 30 minutes of arguing and being put on hold I gave up, chucked out the Three SIM card and looked into better value options.

Continue reading What is GiffGaff? The best, cheapest mobile network I’ve used!

How To – Allow non-admins to start and stop system services

Jump down to Step 1 to skip the blurb

Any Microsoft Windows operating system has services. These are little programs that run in the background of the OS to keep things ticking over. They’re really fundamental to servers as it means that programs can run in the background without any user being logged. In fact Windows servers are fine-tuned to give better performance to background services rather than any app running on the screen.

It’s always the best principle to log on with the least amount of privileges on any PC, i.e. you shouldn’t log on to a desktop or server with full admin rights. You should log on as a normal user and only elevate the  programmes authority to admin level if absolutely necessary.

Some System Administrators may want an easy life and just let everything “run as admin” as it cuts back on a lot of problems, especially when using old software. Obviously this greatly widens the security attack vector, as any user who can gain access to the machine can do anything they want on it.

However, one of the issues of running as a standard user is that you are not allowed to stop or start Windows services. That is by design, you wouldn’t really want a non-admin to stop a critical service. The problem is when you have a Service Account running (as good practice dictates) as a lowly user. To get around this you can give the Service Account permission to do whatever you want to a particular service you want. Unfortunately, this is a bit more convoluted than setting file permissions. This article will explain how to achieve this. It applies to all versions of Windows from Windows 2000 or newer. My screenshots are from the Windows 8 Developer Preview.

Continue reading How To – Allow non-admins to start and stop system services

Windows 8 Tip – Restoring the old style Start Menu

Windows 8 has shown a dramatic change to the Windows Start Menu, in fact, it has been renamed to the Start Screen and it is the first thing you see when you log on to Windows.

The basic idea of this is to a) improve the touch experience on Windows Tablets/Slates and b) merge the usefulness of Windows Vista-era gadgets with the low resource usage of Windows Phone Live Tiles. You can read loads more about the changes on Microsoft’s official Building Windows 8 blog.

Unfortunately, this is slightly jarring for everybody used to the old way of working. Many people have blogged ways to hack the OS to bring back the old Start menu or install new software to provide an equivalent menu. I personally love the changes and certainly don’t want to hack or install unnecessary apps on a my operating system. The problem is, due to the lack of “metro” style immersive apps, or problems with the Start Screen loading on unsupported hardware (e.g. graphics cards), it can be handy to have something similar to the Start Menu present.

A very simple way to do this is by using a feature available since the taskbar debuted in Windows 95!

  • Right-click the taskbar
  • Select Toolbars > New Toolbar…
  • Point it to “C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”

There you have it, a zero maintenance, familiar Start Menu sitting happily side by side with the Start Screen.

You may want to check out my related article Windows 8 will be Great on a Slate but is it too Late?

Update

You may notice that the solution above only shows the main (All Users) Start Menu. However, thanks to the comment from Michael below, there is a couple of ways to include your personal Start Menu as well.

Option 1 (via Michael)  is to create a custom library that includes both Start Menu locations and then point your custom toolbar to the location of that library.

Open up This PC (i.e. Windows Explorer) and create a new library called Start. The Library needs to include the following two folders

  • Personal Start Menu > “%UserProfile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”
  • All Users Start Menu > “C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”

As above create a custom toolbar on the taskbar. The custom toolbar should point to the following location %UserProfile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Libraries\Start.library-ms

This gives you a “Start” toolbar that shows 2 “Programs” subfolders that will expand out to the relevant folders. One small issue is that there is no way to differentiate which folder is which so this can be a bit confusing

Dual Folder Start Menu

Option 2 is a slightly neater way. Open of the following locations in Windows Explorer

  • Personal Start Menu > “%UserProfile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”
  • All Users Start Menu > “C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”

On the window with the All Users start menu, drag the “folder” icon in the address bar over to the window with the Personal start menu and drop it below the other shortcuts. This effectively creates a new shortcut in the personal start menu. Rename the shortcut to something more descriptive, like “.All Users”. Renaming the shortcut with a ‘.’ [period] at the front allows it to jump to the top of the menu.

Now,  when you add the custom toolbar, point it to “%UserProfile%\AppData\Roaming\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs”. As you can see from the screenshot, you get one menu with the All Users shortcut opening up like any other folder.

Single Programs folder Start Menu

Ultimatley the preference is yours, whether you want one menu, two or maybe none at all!

How to Troubleshoot Windows Update Errors

windows update iconWindows Update (a.k.a. Microsoft Update) is normally pretty reliable in terms of keeping your computer up to date and secure. Unfortunately, there are times when an update crashes your PC (usually due to a conflicting OEM driver) or the update process just stops working. Since Windows Vista, Microsoft moved away from using the update.microsoft.com website and now has a dedicated app in the Control Panel. However, the underlying technologies are still the same. Even if you have the Windows Software Update Services (WSUS) server, controlling 100s or 1000s of computers in a corporate network, you are still going to come across the same kind of problems. You would hope that WSUS had some easy troubleshooting/rollback tools built in but unfortunately that is not the case.

I thought it would be a good idea to gather all the various methods and tools I use when troubleshooting Windows/Microsoft Update to help both Home and Enterprise users alike

Continue reading How to Troubleshoot Windows Update Errors

Deep Dive: Combining Windows Deployment Services & PXELinux for the ultimate network boot

In a previous article, Installing Linux via PXE using Windows Deployment Services (WDS), I talked about using PXELinux to enable deployment of WDS images, Linux distros and a multitude of tools. It got a bit heavy when trying to make this all work but the system is now up & running and we have already benefitted from it on many occasions. So here is my guide for Microsoft admins wanting to enhance their existing Windows Deployment Services server.

Step One – Install WDS

This should be obvious and if you are reading this I imagine you’ve done it already. Ours is running on a Windows Server 2003 box but it should work fine with the latest, more secure, stuff.

  • We will be adding bits to the folders within the \\WDS\REMINST share

What is the Post-PC era and are we there yet?

IBM PCI picked up on a debate between Michael Greenland and Simon May questioning whether we are living in a Post-PC era, or to put it another way, do we still need PCs?

They both summarise their thoughts well and at first I agreed with both of them to some extent. However, in my opinion, neither of them go far enough.

Michael thinks we are already Post-PC as he explains on his blog. he backs this up by saying on his blog

… many people are carrying around with them a smartphone that is as fast, in terms of processor speed, as a laptop in 2003. In other words – the device in our pocket can do a similar job to a laptop from seven years ago.

So – why are we ‘Post-PC’? The rub here – is that entire businesses, can now be run away from a fixed location – or away from a laptop…

The mass population though, as group of users are now stepping away from the ‘box’, and bringing ‘The Grid’ with them…

Simon counters this by saying that the Wikipedia definition for a PC needs updating, his blog reads

… A lot of people are wedded to the idea that the PC is a grey box ‘o bits on your desk with a keyboard and a mouse.  It’s not.  It’s a human enablement device something that lets you do something in a general purpose way, an affordable price and in the right size (read that as form factor).  That form factor is going to change because technology changes as will the price, as will what people want to do with it.  So the premise for my believing that we are not in the post PC era is that what we are in the post grey box era and people saw an object and believed it to be a definition…

Continue reading What is the Post-PC era and are we there yet?

Installing Linux via PXE using Windows Deployment Services (WDS)

Tux hearts Windows

A couple of our servers, and even more laptops, are coming with no optical drives installed. This can be a problem when it comes to installing an operating system. I use the excellent Windows Deployment Services role on Windows Server (2000-20012 R2) to accomplish this. It works very well in deploying Windows Server and Windows 7 over the network via a pre-execution environment (PXE) and can even deploy Windows XP images if the need arises (see my “how to” article here). The one limitation it has is that you cannot install Linux distros. This is a problem because you are only allowed one PXE server on the local area network (LAN), so you would have to choose either a Linux PXE server or a Windows one.

Fortunately, I found a solution that lets both work together to give you every kind of boot solution you could dream of 🙂

Continue reading Installing Linux via PXE using Windows Deployment Services (WDS)

Windows 8 will be Great on a Slate but is it too Late?

Microsoft has revealed some juicy info about the next version of Windows, codenamed Windows 8, at the AllThingsD conference. What we know so far is that the user interface is going all touchy-feely with big “live Tiles” instead of icons in the revamped Start Menu. Windows-8-start-menu

Continue reading Windows 8 will be Great on a Slate but is it too Late?