Last week, I spent a fascinating hour on the phone with some engineers from Prowess, a Seattle-based software and services firm that offers a free software product called SmartMigrate (at least, it’s “free for individual, at-home use” according to the language on the product page at the Prowess Web site). Basically, what SmartMigrate does is to virtualize a system that’s already installed on a PC — and my title for this blog assumes that such a system is very likely to be running Windows XP, even though the Prowess engineers tell me it will work for just about any modern Windows OS, including Vista and even Windows 7, as the source for creating a VM to run inside Windows 7 (or some other operating system).
What makes SmartMigrate cool and interesting is that it’s free for at-home use and thus also for one-off experimental “let’s see how this works” test implementations. Right now, the target virtual hard disk that SmartMigrate creates works with Microsoft’s Virtual PC and Virtual Server products (and probably also with the new Windows Server 2008 R2 HyperVisor as well), and Prowess is working hard to extend its reach to include VMWare Workstation, Parallels Workstation, Oracle VM Virtualbox, and other virtual runtime environments as well.
I’m still waiting for the chance to try this out and see how it works, and just found a working link to the SmartMigrate download (use the Download button at the bottom of the page). In the meantime, I’m wondering how a free product for home use will affect the bottom lines of companies like LapLink (PC Mover) or Zinstall (Zinstall and ZPod) who make a paying business out of selling to customers what Prowess is currently trying to give away. Could be interesting, eh?
How about this for a quote from Windows guru and maven Paul Thurrot?
Unlike its immediate predecessors, IE 9 is not about more for more’s sake. Instead, IE 9 takes the same path Microsoft plowed with Windows 7 and then Windows Phone 7. It’s clean, simple and fast. It gets out of the way, letting web site content take center stage. It’s everything that IE has never been, then, and in addition to being the best browser that Microsoft’s ever made, it may very well be the best web browser on the market, even in this early public beta version. Maybe.
Internet Explorer 9 Beta (Paul Thurrot, SuperSite for Windows, 9/15/2010)
Wow! Talk about an incentive to tackle a Microsoft beta — something I’m rarely willing to do, outside of major OS and Service Pack releases. And because I’m working on a new thirteenth edition of my immortal classic HTML, XHTML, and CSS For Dummies and therefore also working with HTML 5 and CSS3, I am more than merely curious about how IE9 fares in the areas of support for such emerging Web standards. (FWIW, IE8 does OK with HTML 5, but is definitely way behind Google Chrome and Apple Safari in supporting CSS3).
I’m planning to dig into this environment over the next couple of weeks and will report on how IE9 does with HTML 5 and CSS 3 markup, particularly in areas where IE 8 proved deficient as we were working on our latest book. In the meantime, if you want to try it out for your own self — on a test machine or in a disposable VM, please — grab it and go from the IE 9 Beta Home Page.
It’s not often that fate conspires to show me how new software changes system behavior, without me having to jump through lots of extra hoops to gather the necessary data. But because of the confluence of two sets of unrelated events this week, that’s exactly what happened as I started learning my way into the latest release of the PC Tools product lineup for 2011 (yes, it’s that time of year again, when security vendors start popping out and plumping up the next year’s version of their Internet protection stuff, PC Tools included).
This time around, I looked at PC Tools Spyware Doctor with AntiVirus because it’s what I have a paid subscription for on a couple of my test machines (I still have one unused license, but I just ordered parts for a new machine from Newegg yesterday, so I have a pretty good idea where that unused license will be going in the relatively near future). PC Tools has devoted some obvious effort to a couple of different areas of improvement within the product and my recent interactions with Soluto (a Windows boot optimization tool that’s still in beta, and the subject of recent blogs here on September 13 and September 16). Here’s a box shot of the new Internet Security Suite for 2011:
Because Soluto monitors how much time various start-up elements consume during the Windows boot process, I was able to observe that the startup time for Spyware Doctor with AntiVirus (which I’ll abbreviate, as PC Tools itself does, as SDAV henceforth) declined from 20 seconds in the previous version to 11 seconds in the current version (a 45% improvement). I don’t have any formal measurements to back up my other observation — namely, that the new version completes scans and generally runs faster than the old one — but I plan to gather some in the near future to provide a better formal basis for comparison.
In talking to some of the principals at PC Tools, I also learned that the company devoted a lot of effort to improving their malware protection on the “behavior monitor” side. This is a part of the software that observes what programs are doing as they run on a PC, and that pay special attention to various classes of suspect behavior (creating, altering or deleting certain registry keys, accessing files in various important Windows directories, manipulating certain key .exe or .dll files, and so forth, all potentially indicative of malware at work) and can intervene to block potentially dangerous behaviors from occurring, or even shut down processes with what you might call “extreme rogue potential.”
The overall behavior of this side of antimalware software generally falls into the heuristics and behavioral side of protection and prevention, rather than using specific signatures to conclusively identify malware at work. Of course, as suspects are rounded up and profiled, the software creates and develops “behavioral profiles” based on detection of various malware-like specifics or characteristics, so PC Tools can learn from its customer’s experiences, and keep developing matching signatures as new malware items are identified and associated with various files, registry keys, and so forth. This kind of capability is much like TripWire, which observes system file and state changes associated with software behavior, and then provides ways to identify what has been changed, and how, over time.
For the 2011 version, PC Tools has also added a download manager to its software environment, so that a 500K program bootstraps the download and install processes, and can selectively download components suitable to specific licenses and operating systems as needed. There’s also a threat expert memory scanner that looks for active malware of a type known as “AV-killers” (designed to disable or otherwise shut down or defeat antivirus and antispyware packages) that kills the processes associated with such malware and goes on to deactivate them so they can be removed and cleaned up on infested systems. For more info, check out threatexpert.com.
PC Tools has also updated its toolbox software to create something called PC Tools Performance Toolkit 2011, about which I’ll write more soon — once I get the chance to play with it myself, that is. Stay tuned!
In my last blog, I bashed the Soluto Windows boot optimization tool: “Just Another Blue Screen Monday Morning.” I’m writing about it again because I do think the program has real value — it’s just not yet ready for prime-time or production use. To the vendor’s credit, the company does clearly mark it as a beta, and it is astoundingly reponsive to user input and complaints (each of my reports got a personal, not “personalized,” email response in under 12 hours). And FWIW, the company also seems interested in and ready to react to user bug and problem reports.
Here are the results from my recent encounter with the tool on all 7 working machines currently in my home office (or at my disposal):
|Eee PC||Win7 Pro x86||Success||00:01||Asus Eee PC 1000HE Netbook: minimal setup means minimal savings (original time: 01:51)|
|Ed-Win7-PC||Win7 Ultimate x86||BSOD||None||Don’t know if it was my complex set-up, my SSD, or what, but my machine turned up a BSOD on first post-install reboot|
|A900Test||Win7 Pro x64||Boot analysis never completes||None||DIY computer with P53 Pro mobo, Intel Q9450 CPU, 8 GB RAM|
|Dragon||Win7 Pro x64||Success||00:11||HP HDX9200 notebook with T9500 CPU, 8 GB RAM (original time 02:28)|
|D620Laptop||Win7 Pro x86||Success||00:26||Dell Latitude D620 with T7200 CPU, 4 GB RAM (original time: 1:35)|
|Dina-PC||Win7 Pro x86||Boot analysis never completes||None||DIY mini-ITX with MSI mobo, T2300 CPU, 4 GB RAM|
|HPi7Laptop||Win7 Pro x64||BSOD||None||HP dv6 notebook PC with i7 720M CPU, 6 GB RAM|
Hopefully, this more extended report helps to put some teeth into my earlier contention that Soluto, while interesting, is not yet ready for production use. Success on 3 out of 7 machines is a rate of under 50% (42.85% to be more exact): by itself, that tells me the software has a way to go before it will appeal to the great unwashed on the one hand (that is, normal home PC users) or to IT professionals on the other hand.
The boot-time savings were lowest on my least powerful machine (my Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook, with its Atom N280 and 2 GB RAM), and somewhat less than thrilling on my high-end HP HDX9200 notebook (11 seconds off an original boot time of 2:28 is a 7.4% improvement: nice but not earth-shaking). My rock-solid, fabulous Dell D620 notebook accrued the largest gain with 25 seconds off 1:35 (26.3% is a pretty substantial improvement, in my book).
Soluto is definitely worth keeping an eye on, and even, keeping one’s fingers crossed that the program emerges from beta into truly commercial status. If and when that happens it’s going into my standard Windows toolkit for sure. Right now, the program is like the famous ditty about the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead: “When she was good, she was very, very good; But when she was bad, she was horrid.”
I’m a subscriber to PC World and always make time to flip through the magazine when it hits my mailbox. It was with some interest I looked over Preston Gralla’s recent piece on Soluto, a (beta) program that performs a thorough Windows boot analysis and recommends various ways to shorten up that sometimes long and over-extended process. In theory, this software installs itself to load just after the OS kernel kicks off, and then watches and tracks everything that happens thereafter to report on what it’s seen when the system completes the boot process.
And now, serveral important notes and observations:
1. Soluto is still in beta.
2. If you visit the community pages at Soluto.com, you’ll find plenty of problem reports (some mild, some downright horror stories) with people having boot issues and other problems after installing the software. Some BSODs, some “black screen of death” issues, lots of boot issues, and general problems with Windows 7 x64 versions.
3. I joined the BSOD club when I tried it on one of my 32-bit Windows 7 test machines, but fortunately, the system did boot in Safe Mode and I was able to successfully uninstall the software and return to normal operation after that. I did, however, have issues with a successful uninstall on x64 versions.
It’s a very interesting piece of software and promises to ultimately provide useful information for inveterate system tweakers and/or IT professionals charged with building standard boot images for Windows. If it were working properly and generally right now, I’d stick it in my toolbox without a second thought. As it currently stands, it’s a work in the early stages of commercialization and it may not even be fit for fooling around with on test machines. It’s certainly nowhere near ready for any kind of serious production use.
But gosh, I do hope the developers work out the kinks and turn it into production quality software. If so, it could indeed be a useful Windows system analysis and performance optimization tool. The interesting thing about Soluto is that it touts itself as “anti-frustration software” — but alas, as far as I’m concerned, this slogan only seemed to draw attention to the very problems it caused for me! And while I’m qvetching, the program seemed to take forever to install and uninstall, especially on the x64 Win7 systems (on which it’s currently not working, and for which I couldn’t get uninstall to complete successfully, either — though either a restore point or an image restore does put everything back the way it was before Soluto came along). Sigh.
There’s a new posting from Microsoft Technical Fellow Brian Harry, who’s also working as the Product Unit Manager for Team Foundation Server out as of yesterday (9/9/2010). It’s entitled “Sept 2010 TFS Power Tools Release Available.” By themselves, using these power tools require a TFS 2010 client, so if you’re using an earlier client (2005 or 2008) you will also need to have the Power Tools for those versions installed as well.
What’s inside the latest tools collection?
- An Admin Console Backup/Restore Wizard which permits admins to set up and run configured backup plans for their TFS servers, along with lots of interesting information about when, why, and how you’d want to do this.
- Various Team Explorer Enhancements including items such as View With (enables developers to open workflows from the SourceControl explorer in an XML designer rather than the TFS designer), Clone Build Definition (set up a new branch to use as a point of departure to create a slightly-to-moderately-different sibling branch, instead of creating everything from scratch), Copy Work Item Shortcut (send a link to one or multiple work items to colleagues or collaborators through a right click menu item of the same name, to obtain and package up work item URLs).
- TFPT branches command, which operates in the tfpt command line environment, to enable users to view and manipulate code branches at the command line (and, by extension, in scripts or programmatically)
Plus, Harry also reports that lots of bugs in the previous Power Tools release have been fixed, with particular emphasis on the Best Practices Analyzer. Be sure to check it out!
I subscribe to numerous different Microsoft newsletters, to the tune of perhaps 15-20 per month (or more frequent mail-outs as the case sometimes is). Last Friday, a fascinating e-mail from Microsoft Connect showed up in my inbox. Entitled “P2V Migration for Software Assurance Beta Now Available!” it explains how this beta tool version combines the Microsoft Deployment Toolkit and SysInternals Disk2VHD utility to
convert a user’s existing Windows XP or newer client environment to a virtual hard disk then automates the delivery of an updated and personalized Windows 7 operating system containing a virtual machine with the user’s previous Windows environment, applications and Web browser. The user’s previous virtual desktop retains its existing management components, domain membership and policies. The process also publishes applications and the browser for the user to access them seamlessly within Windows 7′s Start menu.”
Being already familiar with Windows 7 premium versions’ Windows XP Mode, and having recently reviewed the Zinstall and zPOD products from Zinstall, I already knew that it is possible to capture an XP system image and turn it into a virtual hard disk (VHD). Now, customers who pay for Microsoft Software Assurance (an annual upgrade/maintenance/added-value tech support offering from MS) can take advantage of this technology to convert existing XP installations into VMs that they can deploy to their former users in the wake of a Windows 7 upgrade or migration.
Don’t have (or want to pay for) Microsoft Assurance? The two Zinstall products mentioned in the previous paragraph go for $89 at single-copy retail pricing. If you’ve got 10 or more desktops to put through an XP-to-Windows 7 migration, you might want to compare the pricing of MS Software Assurance against volume licenses for these other products. And as recent, in-depth experience showed me in detail, the Zinstall tech support folks are second to none!
When Windows 7 shipped last year, Microsoft offering a so-called “Family Pack” deal on Windows 7 Home Premium for about 30 days after the GA (General Availability) date on October 22, 2009. For $150 less one penny, buyers could purchase a license that covered up to three PCs for that Windows 7 version. With single-license copies of Windows 7 Home Premium going for a rock-bottom $82 (TheNerds.Net) right now, a license for three copies at $150 cuts that price by $32 per license (assuming you’ll use all three of them, which you’d have to, to spend that kind of money).
Windows pundit and gadfly Harry McCracken makes an excellent point in his Technologizer coverage of the “Return of the Family Pack Deal” on 10/3/2010 — namely, that Microsoft is being chintzy and non-customer-friendly in offering this deal on an unpredictable and occasional basis. Lots of families have multiple PCs, and lots of them would take advantage of this kind of deal all the time if only it were constantly available.
Love it or hate it, please take note that the Family Pack is coming back on October 3, 2010, and will remain available “while supplies last.” Microsoft gets to decide how long that is, so if you are interested, you’ll want to take up the offer quickly once the start date arrives. You’ve been warned!
Oracle has gotten around to merging its Sun certifications in with the other Oracle programs and credentials, and has renamed those credentials to reflect their new parentage (or ownership, if you prefer). Here’s a smattering of Java Certification stuff, courtesy of Anne Martinez over at GoCertify.com, to give you a sense of how this should work and look going forward:
This applies to all of Sun’s credentials, including others for Java not shown, as well as those for Solaris, MySQL, and OpenOffice as well. For a gander at a complete list of “before” and “after” names check out the article entitled “New Names for Sun Certifications Under Oracle” at GoCertify.com. Thanks, Anne!
Take a look at my recent Reliability Monitor output on my primary production machine. Last year, this thing kept giving me fits until I finally got all the hardware squared away. But what you see here is entirely typical of my experience with this X38-DQ6/QX9650/4GB DDR3-1600 machine for the past six months and more.
The only gotchas I’m currently experiencing occur once a week or so (or twice in quick succession over two-plus weeks, as the previous graph shows). The offending application is Internet Explorer 8, but it only blows up when I meet the following criteria:
- I have multiple tabs open in a single window and/or multiple windows open as well
- I am running Flash in one or more of those windows
- I leave the browser open for some indeterminate amount of time (more than half a hour, less than a day)
- I try to close one or more browser tabs and/or windows
When I do this, the results are annoying rather than catastrophic: IE goes away for a while with a (Not Responding) status in the title bar, but eventually comes back. Somewhere along the way one or more of the tabs or Windows where Flash is running crash, and the runtime shuts them down without affecting my desktop or stability in any other way.
Nevertheless, I have to take a hickey in Reliability Monitor each and every time this happens. Each time it occurs, it costs my reliability index between 1.3 and 1.5 points (when this happened on my machine on 8/20/2010, for example, my index dropped from 9.99 to 8.40; then when it happened again on 8/21/2010, it dropped from 8.56 to 7.22). If I turn Flash off, this problem doesn’t occur. But when I turn Flash off, there’s invariably stuff I can’t see or interact with online to which I need access to do my job. So I have to turn Flash on, and take the occasional hickey when it shows up. I just wish there was a way I could charge Adobe for the loss of reliability on my system that their software is apparently causing.
Anybody got any good suggestions for dealing with this stuff? Yeah, sure, I can work (or maybe I should say “limp”) around it, but that ends up not doing me that much good, either. Is this what they call a “necessary evil?”