OK, so I’m climbing a learning curve with x64 Vista and Microsoft Virtual PC that is at times frustrating, at other times just plain weird, but always interesting and even sometimes moderately entertaining. I’m starting to get the hang of this whole Virtual Machine thing at long, long last and have learned some interesting lessons that may help those who have themselves yet to venture down this path.
The old aphorism: “When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” resonates with the first of my recent Lessons Learned with Virtual PC 2007. I’ve recently set up a baker’s rack in my office, and now have all of my test and experimental machines racked up next to my desk. Ordinarily, I use Remote Desktop Connection to access and work with those other machines from the comfort and convenience of my dual-screen-outfitted desktop. One of the first lessons I learned with Virtual PC 2007 is that the number of levels of indirection for mouse and keyboard when installing an OS into a new virtual machine is limited. That is, I actually have to use the mouse and screen on the Virtual PC 2007 host machine to install a guest OS onto that machine. I can open and load an existing VM via a remote session, but no joy in performing installation tasks. Good to know.
At this point, the biggest benefit to using VMs is that I can create a reference machine for some target environment, install all the patches and updates, add whatever other scaffolding I want (antivirus, antispyware, necessary apps, and so forth), then save that machine for re-use. I just need to remember to load that VM from time to time to update it, then save it again so it becomes my point of reference for continued/continuing reuse. I’ve also learned to be very specific in naming the virtual drives I create for such machines, so I can tell them apart, and to copy the “reference versions” (for later reuse) to another hard disk, so I can always get back to a pristine state by copying over the backup version from that drive to its primary location as needed.
This approach makes it much easier and safer for me to install and test software to write about it, and then to rid myself entirely of it after the work is done. I’m still running only one VM at a time and figuring out how to make things work, while discovering a whole new set of virtues for shared or networked drives (they’re easily accessible to both host and guest systems, and thus provide a perfect means of file/information transfer between the two otherwise distinct and independent systems). As I learn more about how to make this environment stand up and bark, particularly while working with Windows 7 (I’ll be installing Build 7001 shortly) I’ll keep reporting back with new observations and lessons learned.
For a long time now — perhaps even too long, if recent experience is any indication — I’ve avoided x64 Vista on my production and test machines. Myths and rumors about lack of drivers, stability issues, software compatibility problems, and more, had dissuaded me from using the product on my production or test machines.
But no sooner did I find myself in a situation where 64-bit Vista was an absolute necessity for setting up a virtual machine host platform that could host both 32- and 64-bit test environments for a book on Windows 7 I’m working on, than I also learned that “news” to the contrary notwithstanding, 64-bit Vista is both workable and pretty robust. To jump to the end of the story before returning to the middle for more details, I’ve now installed 64-bit Vista on a couple of notebook PCs (each with 4 GB of RAM) and a desktop PC (with 8 GB) without too much difficulty and with very good results. To me the biggest thrill of all comes from seeing this kind of display in Task Manager on a machine with 8192 MB of RAM:
I don’t know where the “missing 2 MB” of RAM went, that being the difference between the amount installed 8192, and the amount showing here (8190), and I’m not sure I really care. What I do appreciate is access to nearly all the RAM (99.975% in fact) that I installed in the machine.
Why did I do this? Because I had to be able to install both 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 on a platform that would let me shoot screenshots of the installation process at work. Today, this means one of three approaches to obtaining the needed screencaps:
- Photographing the actual screen itself (doable, but tricky because of lighting and reflections, especially when using a flash)
- Using special hardware to pipe graphics output from the target PC (where the install is underway) to a second PC (where an OS is already running, and can operate screen capture software; complex to set up and extra costs for graphics cards one must use to do this)
- Installing inside a virtual machine, so that the virtual machine window can be captured on the desktop of an operating and fully-functional OS (to make this scenario even more compelling, MS is still giving away its Virtual PC 2007 software, which worked like a charm for me)
Needless to say, I opted for the latter, and have now set up and run virtual machines (.vhd files) for both 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows 7 Premium edition versions of the new beta OS. Throughout, the 64-bit Vista Business software I’m using has been stable, accommodating, and workable. I haven’t yet figured out how to create a VM greater than 4GB in size, so I’m thinking I may need to build a configuration with 12 or more GB of RAM to make that possible. Other than that, I’m a pretty happy guy right now.
In installing the 64-bit version on an MSI and HP notebooks with 4 GB of RAM I encountered exactly zero driver issues: everything came up with a working driver immediately upon the install, and I was able to use DriverAgent to get the default drivers updated to the most current versions without too much difficulty. I did hit a snag on my Asus P5K motherboard, primarily because the built-in GbE interface identifies itself as Attsanic but the most recent drivers are now from the renamed builder’s Website at www.atheros.com. Once I figured out that the L1 GbE Ethernet interface I wanted was now an Atheros product, I was able to find, download, and install the right drivers pretty quickly thereafter (though I was lucky to have access to other machines so I could download those drivers and read them from an easily-inserted UFD).
I’m working with the RC version of Windows Vista Business with SP2 slipstreamed, and I must also observe that I’m impressed with the stability and capability of the upcoming Service Pack, scheduled for release some time in May. Looks like this will be a worthwhile upgrade!
In case you’ve been hiding out lately, you may not be aware that Oracle has made an offer to buy Sun, and that Sun’s board of directors has accepted that offer. All that’s left now to do to consummate the merger is to get past any government objections (none are expected), consolidate operations (and presumably layoff redundant staff), and bring the two parties under one umbrella. I leave this to upper management and the M&A teams at both outfits. What I really want to know about is what happens to the cert programs from both companies in the aftermath?
As company cert programs go, both Oracle and Sun have pretty substantial sets of offerings. I’ve worked with and around the Sun programs more than I have the Oracle ones, but my impression is that both organizations offer an interesting mix of credentials, supported by serious and capable training and certification teams. I do see some big differences in philosophy and approach between the two, especially where Open Source and standard vs. proprietary tools, languages, and platforms are concerned, however. But given that so many analysts and observers are drawing attention to the importance of Java in the overall mix of what Sun brings to this party, I have to guess that here will be some intense “cussin’ and discussin'” going on behind the scenes as these two outbits begin to coalecse and decide what to do with their respective certification and training programs.
Does that mean I’m brave enough to guess who’s going to come out on top? Probably not: I’ll simply observe that the combined mass of Sun certified professionals outnumbers the corresponing population of Oracle developers by two or more to one. Given that both organizations are strongly motivated to hang onto and grow their user bases, I’ll hazard the idea that numbers and perception will play a key role in keeping Sun credentials and programs alive, and in perhaps driving Oracle to change its certs and related infrastructure to be more like Sun’s rather than vice-versa.
Watching how all this plays out should be interesting, particularly for those of us (like me) who are distant enough from any associated carnage to not be harmed by it. I’m guessing it will take 1-2 years for all this to unfold, and should provide plenty of fodder for blogs and musings to come.
OK. I did it. Today I visited the Career Assist page at Microsoft Learning, signed up for the Second shot offer therein, and got my promotion code to buy a collection online class for $35 (it added up to $37.89 actually, after I paid local sales taxes). I now have 90 days to complete Collection 5347: Installing and configuring Windows Vista which should entitle me to go after a Vista Technical Specialist credential by taking Exam 70-620 Configuring Microsoft Windows Vista Client.
At this point, I’ve completed several online courses from Microsoft Learning —specifically:
- Course 3392: Working with Windows Vista
- Course 5352: Fundamentals of the Windows Vista Startup Process
- Course 5354: Fundamentals of Windows Vista File Systems
I think that entitles me to make some observations about these offerings:
- I wish they offered a printable manual of some kind to summarize and re-present course materials. Right now, the only way to refresh concepts is to repeat the courses or to take copious notes and/or shoot lots of screenshots while inside the e-learning GUI. I’m not completely happy about either of these alternatives, but may have to learn to use both of them often and well.
- The material is generally interesting, well broken up into small digestible modules, and fairly useful. I do wish they inlcuded a built-in connection with TechNet, user manuals, and so forth, along with links to more details, so that these tools could provide more guided learning, in more technical depth as one completes individual course modules. Of course, this is pretty easy to do on your own on a multi-display set-up like mine, simply by opening another browser window to dig into stuff on one screen while working through the prepared e-learning materials on the other screen.
- Access to flash cards, or easy repeat access to review questions from these materials, would really help with exam prep and refresh stuff. Right now, there’s no easy drill and practice capability included, and I believe that both drills and practice are essential to passing cert exams and putting that knowledge to work on the job. The labs, when available, are pretty good, though.
I’ll find out if these observations stick as I dig into the aforementioned collection and will also report on same. I’m going to be looking for tips and tricks to put stuff together to prep for 70-620, using this material as my primary preparation source (I can always take up the SecondShot offer if I don’t pass the exam on the first try, and dig into other prep materials at that time).
In a survey conducted in February, 2009 by ChangeWave Research, over four times as many respondents professed themselves to be “very satisfied” or better with the Windows 7 beta as compared to respondents to a similar survey from ChangeWave conducted in February 2007, weeks after that product’s official public release. Here’s a snapshot of those results (reproduced by permission of ChangeWave):
According to the same survey, the reasons for the difference in opinion include improvements in performance and resource consumption, ease of installation, plus improved functionality and usability. Thus, it should come as no suprise that Windows 7 is also emerging as something of a Vista killer, in the sense that more corporate Windows users are abandoning their plans to migrate to Vista in favor of waiting for Windows 7 to become available. More than half of survey respondents (53%) indicated they would skip Vista, while only 15% indicated they would proceed with planned Vista rollouts in any case. Likewise 14% of respondents also indicated their organizations would defer Windows PC and server purchases to wait for Windows 7 to become publicly available.
It will be interesting to see if these numbers hold up when ordinary users get their hands on Windows 7 after the beta period ends, and the commercial version becomes available. Based on my own experience with that beta, though, I suspect that even garden-variety Windows users will find a lot to like about this latest version, particularly those looking for something a bit more attractive and user-friendly for netbook/notebook use. To me this also adds more urgency to the big question about Windows 7 — namely, whether it will retain its current Q1 2010 release date, or if market forces and momentum can push that date forward into Q4 2009. I have to guess that Microsoft and the PC makers will find some merit in going public sooner rather than later simply because of its potential impact on and benefit to holiday PC sales.
Of the many and varied sources of Windows information I read regularly, the coverage at OSNews.com is always interesting, often insightful, and even funny or mordant on occasion. That’s why I read Thom Holwerda’s recent story “Your Windows 7 Predictions: True or False?” with keen interest and close attention. It’s definitely worth at least a quick read, if not something more focused and leisurely. I found it great, not just because of what is presents, and which elements turn out to be true or right versus those that turn out to be false or wrong, but also because of what it says about the whole Vista experience, and the outsized importance that Microsoft operating systems enjoy in so many of our personal and professional computing lives.
The really intestesting parts of this story appear as much in the comments as in the main body. There are some fascinating reminiscences and ruminations on how Windows 95/98 yesterday (1995-1998) compares to the Vista-Win7 sequence (2007-2010) today. There are also some interesting observations on where the real boosts and benefits between Vista and Windows 7 lie: homegroups and libraries, faster boot-up and wake from sleep/hibernate, streamlined install, jump list/dock metaphor, and more.
To me, the really interesting aspect for all of this is that while familiarity and expoure do breed discontent to some extent, the hope and promise excited from any not yet fully known or explored newer version always appear to favor the new at the expense of the old. On the other hand, what’s going on with XP-Vista-Win7 is you’ve got an entrenched cadre of IT professionals and managers (especially in enterprises and large organizations) who don’t care as much about the (Vista and Win7) as they do about not fixing what’s not broken (XP), who must be tricked, coerced, or enticed to break with the old and start embracing the new.
Windows 7 has a lot of expectations to meet and a lot of broken promises for Vista to fulfill. I’m very interested to see how it will all play out, especially in the more serious or business-like sectors of the IT marketplace.
Patch Tuesday items hit yesterday between 1:00 and 1:30 PM Central Daylight Time on servers that I could see. The MS09-April Bulletin Summary from Microsoft covers all the details, but here’s what I hope is a good overview and synopsis of what you’ll find therein. Interestingly, none of this stuff is reflected in updates pushed (or rather, not pushed) for the Windows 7 beta now underway. I’m guessing that MS doesn’t patch betas the same way it does production code, and is probably seeking to avoid additional release cycles.
Here’s a table for the 8 security bulletins published for the patches/fixes/updates pushed yesterday, in bulletin order. The ID/Link column provides the standard MS security bulletin IDs, which range from MS09-009 through MS09-016 for this month; Critical updates are bolded, Important ones in italics, Moderate in plain text. The Title column repeats the Microsoft bulletin title verbatim with the related KB article number in parentheses trailing, while Vulnerabilities data take the form n/m where n is the number of public vulnerabilities addressed, and m the number of private ones addressed, by a bulletin. SW Affected lists the OSes and applications affected; where Windows is bolded, Vista is included.
|MS09-009||Vulnerabilities in Microsoft Office Excel Could Cause Remote Code Execution (968557)||1/1||Office 2000-2007|
|MS09-010||Vulnerabilities in WordPad and Office Text Converters Could Allow Remote Code Execution (960477)||2/2||Windows, Office 2000-2007|
|MS09-011||Vulnerability in Microsoft DirectShow Could Allow Remote Code Execution (961373)||0/1||Windows|
|MS09-012||Vulnerabilities in Windows Could Allow Elevation of Privilege (959454)||4/0||Windows|
|MS09-013||Vulnerabilities in Windows HTTP Services Could Allow Remote Code Execution (960803)||1/2||Windows|
|MS09-014||Cumulative Security Update for Internet Explorer (963027)||4/2||IE6 and IE7, including Vista|
|MS09-015||Blended Threat Vulnerability in SearchPath Could Allow Elevation of Privilege (959426)||1/0||Windows|
|MS09-016||Vulnerabilities in Microsoft ISA Server and Forefront Threat Management Gateway (Medium Business Edition) Could Cause Denial of Service (961759)||1/1||ISA & ForeFront Security|
Only the items with Vista explicitly mentioned or with Windows in bold will be of interest to those who manage only Vista desktops. As usual, I include everything because few people on the job are actually in that position and must usually also manage updates for other MS platforms and applications as well. Time to get patchin!
An interesting report from ComputerWorld surfaced this morning — namely, a request from Microsoft for Windows 7 beta testers to restore Vista on their test machines before upgrading to the upcoming release candidate (RC) version of that software. This is a reworked version of a story that originally appeared in the print edition of the magazine on April 7, but I can only link to the Web version here. The original material comes from the Engineering Windows 7 blog, in a posting entitled “Delivering a quality upgrade experience” (I had real trouble getting this post to open, and was only able to access it via IE after numerous tries, never on Firefox).
Basically, the post asks beta users to roll their machines back to Vista before installing the next RC so that MS can benefit from a larger user base in evaluating the upgrade install from Vista to Win7, believing that this will represent the bulk of the user base’s own experience when the time comes for all of us to work with the final, commercial release of Windows 7. MS cites “telemetry” that they received during the install process to back up this claim, noting also that “most of you did clean installations onto new partitions” (that’s exactly what I did on every single one of my test machines, in fact).
Here’s what they say about the next release, quoted in full:
We’ve also learned that many of you (millions) are running Windows 7 Beta full time. You’re anxious for a refresh. You’ve installed all your applications. You’ve configured and customized the system. You would love to get the RC and quickly upgrade to it from Beta. The RC, however, is about getting breadth coverage to validate the product in real-world scenarios. As a result, we want to encourage you to revert to a Vista image and upgrade or to do a clean install, rather than upgrade the existing Beta. We know that means reinstalling, recustomizing, reconfiguring, and so on. That is a real pain. The reality is that upgrading from one pre-release build to another is not a scenario we want to focus on because it is not something real-world customers will experience. During development we introduce changes in the product (under the hood) that aren’t always compatible with what we call “build-to-build” upgrade. The supported upgrade scenario is from Windows Vista to Windows 7. Before you go jump to the comment section, we want to say we are going to provide a mechanism for you to use if you absolutely require this upgrade. As an extended member of the development team and a participant in the Beta program that has helped us so much, we want to ask that you experience real-world setup and provide us real-world telemetry.
In other words, they want even those users who’ve set up and tweaked their machines to full production status to start over again with the next release. Then, as a sop to those people who simply don’t want to wipe their Win7 partitions clean and start over, they provide a step-by step method to bypass the pre-RC build check that disables an upgrade install on such machines. Here’s a summary of the steps involved (consult the original blog for more details).
- Download the ISO and burn it to a DVD
- Copy the entire image to some storage location from which you’ll run the upgrade install (such as a UFD)
- Browse to source directory
- Open the file named
cversion.iniin a text editor (such as Notepad)
- Modify the Minclient build number to a value less than the down-level (current) build
- Save tfe file with its changes
- Run setup from this modified copy and version check is bypassed
Of course, MS wants the data on the “default scenario” (clean partition, or an upgrade to Vista) so that’s why they put hurdles in the way. Kudos to them for providing a workaround, and knocks for making it necessary. Interestingly, with nearly 60% of the Windows installed base running XP anyway, I find it fascinating that the focus here is on Vista. I’ll be very interested to see what kinds of tools emerge to address the real default scenario when that time comes!
Next Tuesday, April 14, is Patch Tuesday for this month. As usual, Microsoft e-mailed its Advance Notification yesterday to let us all know what’s coming (there’s also a Web version as well). Here’s what to expect, Windows Vista-wise from the 8 bulletins (5 of which are critical) to be released that day:
- Windows (which often involves Vista): 3 Critical, 1 important, 1 moderate. All 3 Critical bulletins pose potential remote code execution vulnerabilities, while the Important one involves an elevation of privilege for attackers. The Moderate item involves a potential elevant of privilege as well.
- Internet Explorer and Excel: Two more critical bulletins, both of the remote code execution variety.
- Internet Security & Acceleration Server (ISA): One important bulletin that could involve Denial of Service for Microsoft Forefront Edge Security software.
- 6 of the 8 items require a system restart, while the other two may require a restart, depending on local conditions on patched PCs.
- Of the 5 Windows bulletins, 3 of them involve Vista (Windows 2, 4, and 5); the IE patch also affects IE7 on Vista as well.
Looks like we’ve got some patching in our future. Stay tuned for details next Wednesday, April 15.
One question that I get frequently about Vista, especially from power users, tackles the size of its paging file. Remember, the paging file (which resides in a file named pagefile.sys on Vista machines, often on the system drive, sometimes on one or more other physical drives present on a Vista PC) provides extra “scratch space” for the operating system to use, especially when moving applications in and out of physical memory. The combination of the page file and physical memory creates an aggregate work space so that Vista can manage multiple applications, services, and so forth simultaneously, without having to keep all of them in memory all of the time.
When Vista creates a paging file, it normally creates one that’s twice the size of physical memory, sometimes more than that (actual values depend on free space available on the target drive(s) at the time the page file is situated). Microsoft recommends no less than the amount of physical memory plus 300 MB for the minimum value, and sets the maximum at three times the amount of RAM installed in a PC. Conventional wisdom is that the defaults are fine, particularly on drives that have sufficient free space to allocate three times RAM to the paging file as an ultimate high-water mark.
Most of the power user questions add some interesting wrinkles to this discussion. Thus, for example, consider that 32-bit Windows can address only 4 GB of RAM period. A common form for this query is something like: “Why is a paging file necessary when the amount of RAM matches what Windows can handle anyway?” The answer is interesting and a bit counterintuitive:
- on 32-bit systems video memory, BIOS memory space, DMA, IRQ, and other system memory maps and hardware addressing usually consume memory from the top down. That’s why on 32-bit systems with 4 GB installed, Task Manager usually reports only 3xxx MB of RAM (3317 on my Dell D620 notebook and 3581 on my Intel desktop, for example) rather than 4096.
- some Windows applications require access to a paging file so they can operate properly, and will crash if you try to run them with the paging file disabled.
- Windows itself prefers to have access to a paging file, if only to help it manage the process of loading and unloading applications scheduled for execution (on the way in) or for termination or swap-out (on the way out).
- You can’t capture memory dumps from stop or blue screen errors without a paging file (even minidumps require a 64 KB paging file, and the Vista minimum size is 16 MB in any case).
This discussion kicks up a notch when power users run 64-bit Vista with more than 4 GB of RAM, but the issues remain more or less the same. In general, it’s not worth messing with the defaults unless there’s some compelling reason to do so (limited space on a notebook SSD, for one example, or demonstrable performance slow-downs attributable to paging, for another).
When downsizing a paging file, here are some points to ponder:
- experimentation shows that at least 512 MB of paging file is the absolute minimum that delivers reasonably stable operation, with values of 1 – 2 GB sometimes offering even better stability.
- if you want to capture a complete memory dump, the paging file must be at least as large as the amount of physical memory installed on the machine (this file usually appears in a filed named MEMORY.DMP in the %SystemRoot% directory, which is C:\Windows on most Vista machines).
- be sure to check all the applications you’ll want to run on that machine, and keep an eye out for insufficient virtual memory messages. These will appear until you re-size the paging file to a point where all applications find sufficient virtual memory available for their use.
This kind of testing, requires a lot of patience, time, and effort which is why only power users (and mildly obsessive ones at that) are usually willing to go through this exercise. For most users, especially those uninterested in tweaking and tuning their Vista notebook or desktop PCs, the system-defined defaults should work just fine.