The Day Outlook Became My Secretary

In this post, I share a brief bit of magic that Outlook exhibited for me recently. I don’t know where it came from or if it is even is an indication of things to come … but I liked what I saw!

typewriterI feel that I’ve been tricked. Okay, maybe “tricked” is a harsh word, but let’s put it this way: I’ve seen a bit of the future, I like it, and I’m not sure if and when it’s coming back.

I recently returned from SPTechCon. While I was in San Francisco, I delivered a few sessions (including a new advanced PowerShell session) and managed to make it to Muir Woods to visit the Redwoods once again. The entire time I was in San Francisco, I was riding around in a rental car from Enterprise. I usually get my rental cars from Enterprise, but something weird happened when I was getting this rental car.

Outlook did me a favor.

When I booked the rental car with Enterprise, I received the following email:

Enterprise Pickup

Do you see the part stating “This event was automatically added to your calendar from email by Outlook?” That caught my attention. Outlook had never taken any action on my behalf prior to this trip, and I can’t say that I’ve seen it do anything since. But for some strange reason, this one car reservation got Outlook to do something new and cool.

I checked my calendar, and sure enough, there were events for both pickup and drop off.

Calendar View

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how these events got onto my calendar, and I don’t even know who wrote the code to make the magic happen. But in this one single instance, I feel like I’ve had a taste of what’s to come … and I really like it.

I did a little digging as I was writing this post to see if I could figure out where Outlook got its smarts from. I didn’t find a whole lot, but I did find this one post on Microsoft’s acquisition of Genee to accelerate intelligent experiences in Office 365. Maybe that had something to do with what I was seeing?

I like the idea of Outlook getting some intelligence and being able to look at my email to ascertain when things will happen. Maybe Delta will send me a trip confirmation and my flight times will end up on my calendar. Or maybe Mark will send me an email about a great Baconfest that’s happening in Harrison, Arkansas, and that event will get parsed and entered into my records so that I’ll know when I need to leave my house to make it there on-time.

I see a lot of potential for this sort of processing and assistance, but I think I’d like to understand it all a bit better before things move on. Heck, right now I’m not even sure if what happened to me is something that’s going to roll out more broadly … or if it was just a blip/test. As I indicated, I haven’t seen anything appear on my calendar since the car reservation, so I’m not even sure that it’s something that “someone” is rolling out.

But I like this. If it’s done right, it has the potential to simplify a lot of things we manually push ourselves to do today.

I’m okay with Outlook becoming my secretary. How about you?

ADDENDUM: 12/12/2016

My friend Tom Resing reached out via Facebook after I shared this blog post, and he opened the door to a world of settings I was simply unaware of. He pointed me to a link titled Automatically add travel and package delivery events to your calendar. It discusses how to control the behavior with Outlook online, and it’s definitely worth checking out. I’m always happy to discover new knobs and levers!

References and Resources

  1. Event: SPTechCon San Francisco
  2. Resources: Tapping the Power in PowerShell (slides)
  3. Resources: Tapping the Power in PowerShell (scripts)
  4. Location: Muir Woods
  5. Microsoft Blog: Microsoft acquisition of Genee to accelerate intelligent experiences in Office 365
  6. Blog: Mark Rackley
  7. Blog: Tom Resing
  8. Office Support: Automatically add travel and package delivery events to your calendar

Revisiting the Basement Datacenter in 2016

Here we are in 2016. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you might recall a post I threw together back in 2010 called Portrait of a Basement Datacenter. Back in 2010, I was living on the west side of Cincinnati with my wife (Tracy) and three year-old twins (Brendan and Sabrina). We were kind of shoehorned into that house; there just wasn’t a lot of room. Todd Klindt visited once and had dinner with us. He didn’t say it, but I’m sure he thought it: “gosh, there’s a lot of stuff in this little house.”

Servers in 2010All of my computer equipment (or rather, nearly all of my computer equipment) was in the basement. I had what I called a “basement datacenter,” and it was quite a collection of PCs and servers in varying form factors and with a variety of capabilities.

The image on the right is how things looked in 2010. Just looking at the picture brings back a bunch of memories for me, and it also reminds me a bit of what we (as server administrators) could and couldn’t easily do. For example, nowadays we virtualize nearly everything without a second thought. Six years ago, virtualization technology certainly existed … but it hadn’t hit the level of adoption that it’s cruising at today. I look at all the boxes on the right and think “holy smokes – that’s a lot of hardware. I’m glad I don’t have all of that anymore.” It seemed like I had drives and computers everywhere, and they were all sucking down juice. I had two APC 1600W UPS units that were acting as battery backups back then. With all the servers plugged-in, they were drawing quite a bit of power. And yeah – I had the electric bill to prove it.

So, What’s Changed?

For starters, we now live on the east side of Cincinnati and have a much bigger house than we had way back when. Whenever friends come over and get a tour of the house, they inevitably head downstairs and get to see what’s in the unfinished portion of the basement. That’s where the servers are nowadays, and this is what my basement datacenter looks like in 2016:

Servers in 2016Purpose of each server

In reality, quite a bit has changed. We have much more space in our new house, and although the “server area” is smaller overall, it’s basically a dedicated working area where all I really do is play with tech, fix machines, store parts, etc. If I need to sit at a computer, I go into the gaming area or upstairs to my office. But if I need to fix a computer? I do it here.

In terms of capabilities, the last six years have been good to me.

All Hail The Fiber

Back on the west side of town, I had a BPL (broadband-over-powerline) Internet hookup from Duke Energy and The CURRENT Group. Nowadays, I don’t even know what’s happening with that technology. It looks like Duke Energy may be trying to move away from it? In any case, I know it gave me a symmetric pipe to the Internet, and I think I had about 10Mbps up and down. I also had a secondary DSL connection (from Cincinnati Bell) that was about 2.5Mbps down and 1Mbps up.

Once I moved back to the east side of Cincinnati and Anderson Township, the doors were blown off of the barn in terms of bandwidth. Initially, I signed with Time Warner Cable for a 50Mbps download / 5Mbps upload primary connection to my house. I made the mistake of putting in a business circuit (well, I was running a business), so while it gave me some static IP address options, it ended up costing a small fortune.

InternetSpeed2016My costly agreement with Time Warner ended last year, and for that I’m thankful. Nowadays, I have Cincinnati Bell Fiber coming to my house (Fioptics), and it’s a full-throttle connection. I pay for gigabit download speeds and have roughly a 250Mbps upload pipe. Realistically, the bandwidth varies … but there’s a ton of it, even on a bad day. The image on the right shows the bandwidth to my desktop as I’m typing this post. No, it’s not gigabit (at this moment) … but really, should I complain about 330Mbps download speeds from the Internet? Realistically speaking, some of the slowdown is likely due to my equipment. Running full gigabit Ethernet takes good wiring, quality switches, fast firewalls, and more. You’re only as fast as your slowest piece of equipment.

I do keep a backup connection with Time Warner Cable in case the fiber goes down, and my TMG firewall does a great job of failing over to that backup connection if something goes wrong. And yes, I’ve had a problem with the fiber once or twice. But it’s been resolved quickly, and I was back up in no time. Frankly, I love Cincinnati Bell’s fiber.

What About Storage?

ProRaidIn the last handful of years, storage limits have popped over and over again. You can buy 8TB drives on Amazon.com right now, and they’re not prohibitively expensive? We’ve come a long way in just a half dozen years, and the limits just keep expanding.

I have a bunch of storage downstairs, and frankly I’m pretty happy with it. I’ve graduated from the random drives and NAS appliances that used to occupy my basement. These days, I use Mediasonic RAID enclosures. You pop some drives in, connect an eSATA cable (or USB cable, if you have to), and away you go. They’ve been great self-contained pass-through drive arrays for specific virtual machines running on my Hyper-V hosts.  I’ve been running the Mediasonic arrays for quite a few years now, and although this isn’t a study in “how to build a basement datacenter,” I’d recommend them to anyone looking for reliable storage enclosures. I keep one as a backup unit (because eventually one will die), and as a group they seem to be in good shape at this point in time. The enclosures supply the RAID-5 that I want (and yeah, I’ve had *plenty* of drives die), so I’ve got highly-available, hot-swappable storage where I need it.

Oh, and don’t mind the minions on my enclosures. Those of you with children will understand. Those who don’t have children (or who don’t have children in the appropriate age range) should either just wait it out or go watch Despicable Me.

Hey? What About The Cloud?

Servers and their shelfThe astute will ask “why are you putting all this hardware in your house instead of shifting to the cloud?” You know, that’s a good question. I work for Cardinal Solutions Group, and we’re a Microsoft managed partner with a lot of Office 365 and Azure experience. Heck, I’m Cardinal’s National Solution Manager for Office 365, so The Cloud is what I think about day-in and day-out.

First off, I love the cloud. For enterprise scale engagements, the cloud (and Microsoft’s Azure capabilities, in particular) are awesome. Microsoft has done a lot to make it easier (not “easy,” but “easier”) for us to build for the cloud, put our stuff (like pictures, videos, etc.) in the cloud, and get things off of our thumb drives and backup boxes and into a place where they are protected, replicated, and made highly available.

What I’m doing in my basement doesn’t mean I’m “avoiding” the cloud. Actually, I moved my family onto an Office 365 plan to give them email and capabilities they didn’t have before. My kids have their first email address now, and they’re learning how to use email through Office 365. I’m going to move the SharePoint site collection that I maintain for our family (yes, I’m that big of a geek) over to SharePoint Online because I don’t want to wrangle with it at home any longer. Keeping SharePoint running is a pain-in-the-butt, and I’m more than happy to hand that over the Office 365 folks.

I’ll still be tinkering with SharePoint VMs for sure with the work I do, but I’m happy to turn over operational responsibility to Microsoft for my family’s site collection.

The Private Cloud

ServerShelfLeftSo even though I believe in The Cloud (i.e, “the big cloud that’s out there with all of our data”), I also believe in the “private cloud,” “personal cloud,” or whatever you want to call it. When I work from the Cardinal office, my first order of business is to VPN back to my house (again, through my TMG Firewall – they’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands) so that I have access to all of my files and systems at home.

Accessing stuff at home is only part of it, though. The other part is just knowing that I’m going through my network, interacting with my systems, and still feeling like I have some control in our increasingly disconnected world. My Plex server is there, and my file shares are available, and I can RDP into my desktop to leverage its power for something I’m working on. There’s a comfort in knowing my stuff is on my network and servers.

Critical data makes it to the cloud via OneDrive, Dropbox, etc, but I still can’t afford to pay for all of my stuff to be in the cloud. Prices are dropping all of the time, though. Will I ever give up my basement datacenter? Probably not, because maintaining it helps me keep my technical skills sharpened … but it’s also a labor of love.

Additional Reading and References

  1. Blog Post: Portrait of a Basement Datacenter
  2. Blog: Todd Klindt’s SharePoint Admin Blog
  3. Department of Justice: Current Group Broadband Overview
  4. Site: Cincinnati Bell Fioptics
  5. TechNet: Threat Management Gateway
  6. Amazon.com: Seagate Archive 8 TB Internal Hard Drive
  7. Amazon.com: Mediasonic PRORAID Drive Enclosure
  8. Amazon.com: Despicable Me
  9. Company: Cardinal Solutions Group

How My View of Microsoft’s Vision for SharePoint in the Cloud Has Evolved

After working with the Office 365 Preview over the last several months, I shifted my thoughts on SharePoint in the Cloud. In this post, I share my thoughts and “revelations” about what’s coming with SharePoint 2013, Office 365, and usage of SharePoint in the Cloud.

Pointing Out Some Clouds It was about a year and a half ago when someone dialed-up the volume on “The SharePoint Cloud Message” in my world. It’s not that I hadn’t heard people talking about SharePoint in the Cloud prior to that; I guess it’s just that I started listening more closely because Microsoft was turning into one of the Cloud’s most vocal proponents.

Around the summer of 2010, it was becoming clear to me that Cloud-based SharePoint wasn’t just a passing trend. With Microsoft clearly stating its intention to make the Cloud a cornerstone of its business, I needed to start paying attention.

How I Saw Things Before

My relationship with Microsoft and Microsoft technologies goes back to the days of MS-DOS. As a result, I’ve always seen Microsoft as a company that was primarily interested in one thing: selling software. I worked for a Microsoft managed systems integration (SI) partner – Cardinal Solutions Group – for several years. During my years with Cardinal, my goal was to help others who had purchased Microsoft software make use of that software. In many cases, customer leads came from Microsoft either directly or indirectly. Microsoft sold the software, and we setup/customized/serviced/configured that software based on what a customer was trying to accomplish. It was a symbiotic relationship, and it was pretty easy for me to grasp.

Then the whole “Cloud thing” started. Cloud-based SharePoint and other Azure-branded services seemed a somewhat confusing move for Microsoft at first – at least to me. Even before Office 365, Microsoft offered hosted SharePoint through BPOS – or the Business Productivity Online Suite. At the time when BPOS was first released, I viewed it as something of a niche market for Microsoft. I had plenty of friends who worked at places like Rackspace and Fpweb.net, so the part I found unusual wasn’t really that “someone else” was hosting SharePoint and focusing on it as a service. The fact that Microsoft itself was getting serious about SharePoint and other services was the eyebrow raiser.

For Microsoft, it wasn’t just about selling software anymore.

The Biggest Hurdle

A Hurdle Of course, when Microsoft wants to succeed at something, they invest considerable planning and resources in it. Since Microsoft is essentially betting the farm (pun intended) on Office 365 and SharePoint in the Cloud, they’re pushing it very hard on multiple fronts. Redmond’s marketing machine has been talking Office 365 frequently and loudly for at least the last year. With each new release, developer tools like Visual Studio get more Cloud-friendly. Partners have incentives to get customers onto Office 365 and Azure services. Competitive price points make it difficult to ignore Microsoft’s Cloud offerings. For me (and I’m sure for many of you), it’s a lot to process.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that I think Office 365 has a very compelling value proposition, even without SharePoint. SharePoint itself is a complex platform, though, and many organizations struggle with administrative needs like data protection, performance optimization, high availability, and basic day-to-day management. The idea of turning these concerns over to someone else (or some other entity) who better-understands them makes sense to me.

After working with SharePoint 2013 for several months now, I can easily say that the platform isn’t getting any easier. SharePoint 2013 has quite a few more “moving parts” relative to SharePoint 2010, just as SharePoint 2010 demonstrated itself to be significantly more complex than SharePoint 2007.

Despite the compelling nature of Office 365, I always seemed to come back around to fixate on one thought. This thought constantly reverberated through my head anytime “SharePoint in the Cloud” became a topic of conversation:

Most companies using SharePoint have made a significant investments in hardware, software, personnel, and services to get SharePoint up-and-running. They aren’t going to simply “dump” those on-premises investments and go to the Cloud tomorrow. The Cloud will happen, but it’s going to take longer than Microsoft thinks.

In discussions with many friends and respected professionals in the SharePoint community, I knew that I wasn’t completely alone in my way of thinking. In the conversations I’d had, there was almost always agreement that a shift to the Cloud and Cloud-based services would happen over time. The greatest debate seemed to be over whether it would happen next year or if it would take the next half a decade.

Breakthrough

Old Thinking I’d say my “breakthrough moment” came after I started playing with the Office 365 Preview more extensively a few months back. I initially set up a preview tenant to familiarize myself with what was coming, how SharePoint 2013 would be exposed, how to configure Office 365 tenants, etc. The more I played with the tenant, the more I thought about how truly useful Office 365 could be, particularly for non-enterprise customers, home users, and others who didn’t fit into SharePoint’s “big deployment picture” previously.

That’s when the pieces started to click into place for me. All along I had been thinking about Office 365 and Cloud-based SharePoint deployments along the lines of the bar chart seen above and to the right. Numbers and proportions are all relative, but the key concept I’m trying to convey with the chart is this: for some reason, I had always thought that the proponents of Cloud-based SharePoint were suggesting that Cloud adoption would come at the cost of on-premises deployments; i.e., on-premises users would “convert” to the Cloud. If Cloud-based deployments grew, that meant that on-premises deployments had to shrink. In short: I was inadvertently assuming that the overall number of SharePoint deployments had hit saturation and was remaining static.

I don’t think that way at all anymore.

New Thinking After I’d done some playing with my first tenant, it wasn’t long before I was setting up another two Office 365 tenants for other side projects. In conversations with friends in the SharePoint community, I was discovering that “everyone” was setting up tenants for their families, for their spouse’s business, etc. In almost all cases where tenants were being setup, the use cases were ones that didn’t align with traditional enterprise-scale on-premises SharePoint deployment and usage. In fact, the use cases were typically the types of things that would eventually find a home on Google Apps or its equivalent because Microsoft (previously) had nothing strong to offer in that space.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that Office 365 growth – once the new 2013 Preview goes live – will be aggressive and look something more like what I’ve charted above and to the left. While Office 365 might replace some on-premises deployments, particularly for smaller organizations, I don’t see that as its primary market (initially) or its strong suit. The greatest degree of Office 365 traction is going to be obtained with users who need a Google Apps-like solution but for whom buying the required infrastructure and expertise for Exchange, SharePoint, etc., is cost-prohibitive.

So, I stopped thinking “replacement” and started thinking “complement.” That’s my assessment and working outlook for the Office 365 (Preview) right now.

Why Not Everyone?

I’m sure that plenty of folks who’ve believed in “Cloud Power” since Day One probably think that I’m still being too conservative in my outlook for SharePoint on Office 365, and that may be true. However, I still see plenty of concerns that are near-and-dear to most enterprise and larger business customers, and I believe that they will be Cloud adoption blockers until they’re addressed directly and decisively. Here are just a few that come to mind.

1. Who owns the data? Sure, it’s your tenant … but do you own the data? Common sense would seem to suggest “yes,” but this is still uncharted legal territory. Don’t believe me? Do some background reading on the Megaupload situation and see how users of that Cloud-based service are faring in their attempts to get “their data” back.

2. What about disasters? Many people point to the Cloud as a solution for business continuity and disaster recovery (DR) concerns. The Cloud can certainly help, but I’ll tell you (somewhat authoritatively) that the Cloud doesn’t make DR concerns “go away” – especially for SharePoint. For one thing, you’re locked into your provider’s terms of service; if you need more aggressive RPO and RTO windows, then you need to be looking elsewhere. Even Cloud data centers themselves go down; what’s your plan then?

3. Can I leave my provider? Everyone is quick to talk about moving to the Cloud, and many companies are happy to talk about migration strategies. What if you want to leave or change providers, though? Do those migration strategies work? What do you lose? How long would it even take? These may not seem like important questions now, but they will become increasingly more important as Cloud adoption grows and more companies get in on the action. It stands to reason that some portion of those companies will fail, close-up shop, be bought, etc. When that happens, what do you do … and what happens to your SharePoint?

Wrap Up

Of course, my perspective on Office 365 uptake in the next several years could be completely off-the-mark. After all, I don’t really have any numbers to back up my hypotheses. They’re just my opinions, but they are in-line with my gut feel.

And I’ve learned to trust my gut.

References and Resources

  1. Network World: Microsoft’s Ballmer: ‘For the cloud, we’re all in’
  2. Company: Rackspace
  3. Company: Fpweb.net
  4. Company: Cardinal Solutions Group
  5. Microsoft: Windows Azure
  6. ZDNet: The road to Microsoft Office 365: The Past 
  7. Microsoft: Office 365 Preview
  8. Google: Google Apps
  9. TorrentFreak: Megaupload Seized Data Case Will Get a Hearing, Court Rules
  10. Book: The SharePoint 2010 Disaster Recovery Guide
  11. SharePoint Interface: RPO and RTO: Prerequisites for Informed SharePoint Disaster Recovery Planning
  12. ZDNet: Amazon cloud down; Reddit, Github, other major sites affected