Batch-convert Office files to 2007’s Open XML format

A customer asked me the other day if Microsoft was ever going to build batch-conversion facilities to take old format files that live on a network fileshare, and convert them to the newer XML-based formats – his reasoning was the sometimes considerable reduction in size when saving as .DOCX or .XLSX compared to the binary .DOC and .XLS formats.

<wistful memories>

I remember writing a tool to do exactly this with Word docs, going from Word 2.0 to Word 6.0, using Visual Basic to automatically pump the necessary keystrokes into a Word 6.0 application, using the SendKeys() function… crude and somewhat clumsy, but for a one-off process, it worked fairly well 🙂

</wistful memories>

Coming back to the present, I was pleasantly susprised to discover the release last month of the Office Migration Planning Manager – a collection of tools which allows for scanning of networked files to report on any potential conversion issues, and batch conversion of those documents (either by creating an Open XML format document alongside the old binary one, or by replacing the original with the OOXML format file).

Remember of course that you can consume these formats in older versions of Office, using the Compatibility Pack. There’s a growing movement to adopt OpenXML as an industry standard – ECMA has already given the format its blessing, and the ISO is reportedly amenable to ratifying the format as a standard also. The momnentum is growing for 3rd parties who are building support for OpenXML – even OpenOffice now has a way of consuming and creating OpenXML documents.

UPDATE: Conincidentally, perhaps, Geek in Disguise, Steve Clayton posted last night about an online petition to the ISO to support the Open XML proposals- if you really value open-ness, even if Microsoft is the instigator of the efforts, go ahead and sign the petition

Hosting of applications – the inevitable future?

I’ve been musing over some medium term IT trends lately and one idea that keeps coming back into frame is the seemingly inevitable trend towards hosting of applications. Take Exchange, as just one example…

Hosted Exchange* has been available for years, from lots of different providers all around the world. The basic concept is that instead of buying the software, you just buy the service from a hosting company much like you buy line rental on your phone, or internet access from your ISP. Why not just have your company’s email sitting somewhere else, and save yourself the hassle of managing it?

*Hosted Exchange is not to be confused with the somewhat confusingly named Exchange Hosted Services, which is all about hosting the route to get mail into and out of your own email environment. EHS was formed by the procurement of Frontbridge, who had established a good name in hosted filtering… ie the MX record of your domain actually delivers mail to their datacentre, they scan it for spam and viruses, and the remaining “hygienic” mail is delivered down to you.

So what’s stopped everyone from adopting Hosted Exchange before? I suppose the cost is one thing – if you had 500 users and it cost, say, £10 a month to provide each of them with a mailbox, you’d be seeing £5k going out the door every month, and might think “surely I can provide the same service, in house, for less than £60k a year?”, and you might well be right. But start to dig into the detail, and it could be a lot closer… Think about buying:

  • the hardware (maybe £10k worth of servers, and any amount of money could be spent on storage, but let’s assume £15k),
  • the software (at full price, this could work out at something in the order of £30k for that kind of user population)
  • additional software, like anti-virus, anti-spam (if you didn’t want to just use what’s in the box in the shape of the IMF etc), backup software, archiving systems etc etc

… and then add in the time and expertise required to set it up and keep it healthy long-term, then maybe it is less expensive to do it all in house. But by hosting the application, you could free the time to do other stuff, or just have one less thing to worry about… especially in times when security threats can sap administrator time, and compliance requirements could mean lots more red tape and requirements for recoverability, let alone high availability.

I’ve seen various analyst reports which reckon that 70% of an average IT budget is spent just maintaining the status quo and keeping existing systems running.

As connectivity gets better and better, it seems almost inevitable that a “normal” Exchange deployment in a few years will actually be hosted by someone else. Of course, there are several models which could be adopted:

  • Hosting company just operates your own servers/software for you. I’ve seen this lots of times already, in the shape of IT outsourcing where the “hoster” is just a drop in replacement for an in house IT operation, and maybe even takes servers that were previously operated in house and moves them to their own datacentre for ongoing management
  • Hosting company provides your servers for you. This is a little less common, but growing – namely, the hoster has their own kit but they dedicate a given server/bank of servers just to you.
  • Hosting company just provides “service”. In other words, you get a mailbox of a given size, but don’t need to care how it’s provisioned. This is going to be more appealing to smaller businesses, maybe.

So what else? Sharepoint? Yep, you can do that too, as part of the snappily-titled Microsoft Solution for Hosted Messaging & Collaboration v4.0.

And what about after that? I could see the day when some companies want IT as a turnkey service just like they look at other utilities – you buy the bit of cable and down that comes whatever services you’re subscribed to, and you can add and remove services at will, just like you can with satellite or cable TV.

Want your phone system to be hosted and connected to by the same bunch of ethernet cables? No problem. Intranet applications and portals? Sure… I wonder where it’ll all end? Hosted desktops?

ZDNet sings praises of Office Communications Server beta

Like probably millions of other people, I get the daily ZDNet Tech Update Today (since long before RSS brought news feeds to the masses…) and was floored a little by David Berlind’s column today. I think David’s a good commentator – normally sails between the points of sycophancy and fundamentalism that some of the other ZDNet columnists sometimes exhibit.

The column today is about the release of beta 3 of Office Communications Server and Office Communicator 2007, which has now gone live. David’s comment on the whole thing:

If there will be an amazingly compelling reason to go all-Microsoft for your office suite … your document sharing infrastructure … your e-mail and scheduling system … your data/voice conferencing … and your instant messaging, then Office Communicator is it.

So deeply and contextually can Office Communicator’s DNA be integrated into the rest of Microsoft’s solutions that there is probably no other glue in all of Microsoft’s portfolio that so elegantly demonstrates the company’s strategic vision for making knowledge workers more productive at what they do.

Wow. I think he likes it!

Windows Live Mail Desktop – replaces Outlook Express for Hotmail use

I’ve been running the “dogfood” version of Windows Live Mail Desktop (WLMD) for a while now, and found it to be really stable and usable. It’s basically a superset of the built-in Windows Mail application from Windows Vista, which supercedes Outlook Express.

WLMD is now available for beta testing (on Windows XP as well as Vista) from and it works against MSN/Hotmail (including the mail from Office Live, so if you sign up for your own free domain name you can pick up the mail without being in a browser), POP/IMAP accounts and other providers’ mail services, such as Yahoo!, AOL and GMail. It seems it’s been available for some time, in fact 🙂

I was prompted about this when Steve Clayton was being interviewed today on TalkSport Radio, and a caller had asked why Vista no longer gave him access to Hotmail… I guess he was meaning that since Outlook Express isn’t the box any more, he was trying to use the supplied Windows Mail program, which doesn’t offer the ability to connect to Hotmail… so the solution is to either stay with browser-based mail or to use WLMD.

Is your email compliant with the (UK) Companies Act?

A semi little-known fact… as of the 1st January 2007, the rules for UK companies regarding business stationery changed. Just like every registered company is bound to include certain information (the registered office, the geography of registration (eg England & Wales) and its company registration number) on all its official letters & order forms, electronic communications now fall under this rule.

As Companies House says:

Whenever an email is used where its paper equivalent would be caught by the stationery requirements then that email is also subject to the requirements.

I can honestly only think of one case where a company includes all this stuff in their email, along with a long-winded disclaimer. I suppose the rules are now in place and people are waiting to see how they’re interpreted… might be worth thinking about including your details on your own e-mail .sig…

There’s quite a good discussion of the whole area on legal eagles Pinsent Masons site, here.

Oh, and did you know that Exchange 2007 now has the ability to include standard disclaimers on all mail that passes through it? For a step-by-step illustration, have a look over on

Calibri: a font like no other…

Someone asked me a semi-bizarre question today: the new fonts which are in Office 2007 and Windows Vista, especially Calibri (which, I must say, I think looks great)…

Can they be installed on older versions of Windows or Office?

I had never really appreciated all the work that goes into generating a decent font, including getting cross-industry support for stuff like building it into printer ROMs etc. It turns out there’s a whole Typography research group within Microsoft – if you’re interested in finding out anything more about fonts, I’m sure you’ll get it there…

Anyway, the answer to the question is two-fold…

Free domain name, web site + email address with Office Live Basics beta

I got given a card yesterday proclaiming an offer of free domain name, web site and email service, all hosted by Office Live Basics, which is in beta at

Sounded too good to be true, but literally minutes later I was logging in to my own Windows Live Hotmail-based email account and was able to start designing my own little web site. 24 Hours later, once DNS had all settled down, it’s public facing…

How cool is that?

Shortcut to quickly set your voicemail greeting in Exchange 2007 UM

I love the Exchange UM system my voicemail is supplied by, though it can take a while to navigate using voice commands if all you want to do is set your voicemail greeting. I (like a lot of people in Microsoft UK) set the greeting every day to set expectations of what I’m doing, and when I’m likely to pick up voicemail.

Using this dial string, create a new contact on your phone and set it with a speed dial (obviously, I use a Windows Mobile device, but the same concept should be possible on any mobile):

accessnumber pextensionpPIN#006212

eg. +44 1234 567890 p2468p0123456#006212

This takes you straight to the “record your greeting after the tone” prompt, and after your greeting is recorded, press the # key and it plays back to you. If you don’t want to listen to the greeting but just accept it, press “1” or “2” if you messed it up and want to re-record.

Water, Water everywhere, nor any drop to drink

So it’s been a quiet week on The Electric Wand, largely because of the fact that I woke up the other day and looked out of the front of my house to see…

leaving the entire downstairs floor soaked in water, and the footwells of one of the cars with a nice puddle too 🙁

Bizarrely, 24 hours later, the view over the fence was…

and practically ALL the water had drained away. Now it’s time to stop thinking about technology, and start shopping for new carpets…

Exchange 2003/2007 clustering & high availability

The Exchange development team have done a nice job of expanding the high availability options with the 2007 release. With Exchange 2003, the only real HA design was to use what is now known as a Single Copy Cluster (SCC) – ie. there’s one copy of the databases and log files, held on a Storage Area Network, and multiple physical cluster nodes connect to that SAN. Exchange 2007 introduced Local Continuous Replication and Cluster Continuous Replication, and is due to add Standby Continuous Replication later this year.

In the 2003 model, the “Exchange Virtual Server” (EVS) was a collection of resources that run on one of the physical cluster nodes at any given time, with each EVS having its own name and IP address which the clients connected to.

This model works well in providing a high level of service for clients – Microsoft’s own IT department ran an SLA of 99.99%, a maximum of 53 minutes of downtime a year. Routine maintenance tasks (like patching the OS, upgrading the firmware etc) could be performed one node at a time, by having the workload fail over to the passive node during the maintenance period. The downside with this single-copy approach is that there’s a single point of failure: the disks. Even though the SAN technology is highly fault tolerant, it’s still possible to knock out the entire SAN, or to have some catastrophe make the SAN corrupt the data on the disks.

Exchange 2007 added a couple of additions to the high availability arena – Local Continuous Replication (LCR), which doesn’t use clustering at all, and Cluster Continuous Replication (CCR) which does. The name “Exchange Virtual Server” used in clustering has also changed to “Clustered Mailbox Server” to prevent confusion with the Virtual Server software virtualisation technology.

Local Continuous Replication

In an LCR environment, the server keeps a 2nd copy of its databases and log files on a separate physical set of disks, which could be in the same place (maybe even a USB disk hanging off the back of the server, if it was a branch office or small business one). Basic Architecture of Local Continuous Replication

LCR could also replicate data to another datacenter using iSCSI storage, accessed over the WAN (assuming the bandwidth and network latency are OK). Downsides to LCR are that the server in question is doing more work (by keeping two separate sets of disks updated) and that there’s no automatic failover – an administrator would need to manually bring the LCR copy of data back online, in the event of a hardware failure of the server.

Cluster Continuous Replication

CCR provides a more complex but more robust (in terms of recovery) solution. There are two nodes in a cluster (and there can only be two, unlike the SCC approach which could have up to 8 nodes), with each node containing a copy of the databases and the log files being used by the active node. When a log file is closed on the active node, the passive one will copy it over the LAN/WAN and will apply the changes to its own copy of the database. The plus side of CCR is that there’s little overhead on the active node (since it’s not taking care of the 2nd copy) and because we’re using clustering, the nodes can fail over between each other automatically – they maintain a networked heartbeat between the nodes, so the passive node can tell if it needs to come fully online. 

In the case where either planned or unplanned failover occurs, the passive node will take over the role of servicing users, meaning the clients continue connecting to the same name and IP address they were using to previously, and the formerly active node will now take up the passive role, and will start pulling any changes back from the newly activated one.

In order to prevent the situation of both nodes coming online at the same time (something that’s referred to as a “split brain” cluster), there’s also a new “witness” role which is used to prevent the scenario where the passive node thinks the sky has fallen in and everything’s gone dead, when in fact, it’s the passive node that’s fallen off the network. The witness is just a file share, which uses locking semantics to illustrate if the active node is still alive (since both nodes connect to the file share witness) – so if the passive node can read the witness and deduce that the active node is still running, it won’t bring itself online, even if it can’t currently see the heartbeat from the active node.

CCR provides a solution to the single point of failure in the SCC model, but there are some limitations – namely, there can only be two cluster nodes, and they need to be on the same IP subnet. This means it can be tricky to have a node in a Disaster Recovery datacenter, what with needing to span a subnet and an AD site across the WAN. What many people feel would be the ideal scenario would be to have the both CCR nodes & copies sited in one datacenter, but then have a 3rd node in the DR datacenter, on a different subnet.

Standby Continuous Replication

Service Pack 1 for Exchange 2007 (due in the second half of 2007) plans to introduce a new replication paradigm called Standby Continuous Replication (SCR). This could be used in conjunction with a CCR model, where the active/passive nodes are in one place and will automatically fail over between each other, but a third (standby) node is in a different place. Activation of the 3rd node will only take place when both of the primary nodes are offline, such as if the primary datacenter failed completely. In that environment, a manual process will be followed to mount the databases on the standby node, similar to how an administrator would bring a backup copy from an LCR server online. The third node is not a member of the cluster, and will not need to be on the same IP subnet.

SCR will also offer the option of having a standalone Exchange server sending a copy of its data to another standalone server, meaning that cross-datacenter fault tolerance could be achieved without clustering at all, albeit at the expense of a manual failover regime.

More information on High Availability in Exchange 2003 can be found online here, and for Exchange 2007, here. Further details of what’s going to be in SP1 will be posted in the coming weeks to the Exchange team blog.