The lost art of the OOF

Some time ago, I posted about how the ".sig" has faded from grandeur. I’d like to add the somewhat terminal dryness of the OOF message to that list, and propose a solution.

OOF is a Microsoft term for Out of Office. It should really be OOO, but is stuck in the days of the predecessor to MS Mail and Exchange. See for myriad stuff on OOFs, and here (on why it’s OOF and not OOO) for one of the first – and for a while, most-read – blog posts on the Exchange team blog.

I’ve seen a lot of OOFs in my time, and many are of a hugely unimaginative nature. Some are kind-of smart in that they convey the most information in the shortest amount of characters (eg "oof til 7/1 – mail jbloggs if urgent") whereas some have clearly been lovingly hand crafted.

When I worked in the Exchange product group, I sent a mail to one particular guy (who is ex-pat Brit but had been over in Redmond for some time) on the 16th December. Turns out, he’d gone "home" for "the holidays" and I got:

I am so on vacation. By the time I get back, I expect things will look different. See you on 1/17/05. I probably won’t ever read your email. Sorry.

There’s something refreshingly honest about that – it’s admitting that he’s not going to be on email for at least a month, by which time, anything he got sent in email will be out of date. Brilliant. Helps build a case for Instant Messaging if you ask me.

Probably the best OOF I’ve seen came from a somewhat eccentric Canadian (who once replied when I mentioned I’d seen him the previous evening in New Orleans, clearly having a Nice Time), "oh yeah… any night when I don’t end up in jail has to be a good night"). Enjoy…

It happened. I knew it would happen some day, but never dreamed it would happen so soon. I tried to hide it from everyone, but word got out and boy did I catch hell for it. Yes, as embarrassing as it is, I must confess before God and country that I was caught, red-handed, Getting Productive Work Done In The Office!

People, please: do try to control your Shock and Horror. I know we used to do real work Long Ago, but we’ve moved past that, haven’t we? It was an honest mistake; an accident in the truest sense of the word. I did my best to hide it from everyone and thought I was successful around the children and my more-dense co-workers. But there is only so long one can live a charade, and in the end, like a house of cards in a hurricane it came down, down, down…

To pay for my egregious act of productivity and practical effort, I’ve been sentenced to two days of offsite meetings by a jury of my direct management.

Yes, kiddies, that is Two Whole Days of unbridled Tag-Teaming, Outlining, Problem-Solving, Situation-Analysing, Team-Building, Proactively-Leveraging, Federating, Brainstorming Facilitation and Group Contemplation. Unpack the markers and the big pads of paper, Martha: we is gonna have an offsite!!

Can you already feel the sweat drip slowly down ewers of water; the ice cubes grumbling with frustration at their inevitable doom in a pastel room filled with inoffensive Corporate Art? Can you see the elegant buffet of Northwest Grilled Salmon Medallions lounging in a Light Cream Sauce over chirping steam trays, accented by a tossed salad of Garden Fresh Greens? Can you hear that first person raise their hand to state, two hours into to the discussion, that "Before we go any further, we need to define the problem" only to be followed seconds later by another person wondering "what are the criteria for success?"

Do you get the idea that at some point on the first day, I’ll be screaming out "BINGO!" to a very confused audience?

Ah; they’re used to it…

A co-worker once told me you could solve any team problem with a case of malt liquor, an afternoon of skeet shooting and a strip club. He’s no longer employed at the company (something to do with an offsite of his own gone terribly awry near the Montana state border) but I think he was on the right track.

Where I am going, there are no visiting hours, and even worse: no conjugal visits. I might be reachable at <number>. Heck, if it’s really important, email or text me. Rumour has it the gardener can smuggle those in hidden in his watering can…

See you on The Other Side,


Now I ask only one thing. We must all put some degree of (professionally relevant) imagination into our OOFs. It’s only respectful to the poor sods still at work who’re sending us email whilst we enjoy a few days out, isn’t it?

Have a Happy New Year, everyone. And please, for the sake of the rest of us, make your OOFs mean something special. Or funny. Or whatever.

The downside of online shopping

I bought myself an early Christmas present a few weeks ago. One Saturday morning, sitting at the home PC whilst noodling about on the web, I decided it was time to replace the old warhorse and get something a bit more modern.

So I surfed off to my favourite PC web emporium and specced up a nice new Shuttle box with a quad-core low voltage CPU, 2 GB RAM, 1Tb of disk and a half decent video card. A very good deal at less than £750 delivered, I thought. All from a trusted, well-used website that I’ve spent a small fortune with before.

Problem #1 came when the expected ship-date sailed into the past, and as time got nearer Christmas, I feared for getting hold of this new and shiny toy in time to give me an excuse to excuse myself from the washing-up on the big day.

Repeated attempts to contact the web-vendor failed – “you need to call the web-orders guy on this different number”, said the company’s ‘customer services’ people – and the web guy was either letting his phone ring out (and no voicemail) or was engaged. For two whole days.

Eventually (a week later than scheduled), the goods were showing as “shipped” on ‘reputed’ web company’s site.

This after the goods were showing as in stock on the day I ordered, that is, the day they charged my credit card. Oh, and to add insult to injury, they’d dropped the prices of some of the items the day before they shipped my order… which of course, I’d paid at the higher price.

Problem #2 came when the courier was showing the following day as being “with driver” – and yet nothing happened.

And the following day, it was still the same state.

And the next.

And when I left to take the 1.5 hour round-trip drive to their depot to find out what was going on… guess what… it was really out with the driver this time, and would be delivered before 5:30. REALLY? Yes, said the man. DEFINITELY? Of course.

At 5:20 and with no parcel in possession, I set off to the depot again. Arriving at (cough) 5:55, the nice man took the number of the consignment, checked where it was, and a mere 15 minutes later arrived with the parcel in his hand.

“Why was it not delivered today, as you promised?”, I asked.

“Oh, there’s a real backlog on that route and they didn’t get to deliver it today”, says he.

“And what would you do with that parcel now, had it not been delivered?”

Try again tomorrow. A Saturday. When there’s nobody in the office. And won’t be until the New Year, now. That is, at least a week later than it should have been delivered, according to plan.

And the delivery company says we have two days to pick the parcel up from them if they try to deliver it and nobody’s there, after which they return to sender (see Problem #1).

It’s all made MUCH worse by the fact that this particular courier firm (who I did not choose; the vendor did, because it suited them and was presumably cheaper) is a franchise operation so there’s no single “throat to choke” – they just put you through to the handling depot if there’s any problem. If the depot is incompetent and/or swamped there’s nothing you can do.

In the hour or so that I spent (in total) standing in the depot, the phone was ringing continuously and nobody was answering. There were people sitting at their desks doing “work”, and yellow-jacketed delivery guys hanging about, but nobody manning the phones.

So: I spent 2.5hrs on hold to these people; maybe 1 hour hanging  about waiting to be dealt with at the actual depot; 2.5 hours or so in total driving down and back to chase them up because they don’t answer the phone, don’t respond to faxes* and don’t have an email address…

I sometimes wonder: is e-commerce really worth the hassle, compared to going down to the local PC shop who can give you advice, sell you what they have in stock and let you take it away with you..?

Would I willingly use this same company again?


Damn. I’ve just ordered a couple of new bits for the new PC I have, from the same people – it’s easy, they’re cheap, and they promise to deliver by Christmas Eve.

Bets, anyone?

* This was a story from another guy in the queue. He worked for a different delivery company, yet he was picking something up from this one.

He said, his company get fined (internally) if they don’t answer the phone after a few rings. He spent 1.5 hours on hold to this company from 4:30pm to 6:00pm the night before. At 6:00pm the message changed from (and I kid you not) “There are MANY people ahead of your in the queue” to “The offices are now closed… try again tomorrow”).

He sent them a fax, but got no reply.

Merry Christmas, by the way.

Bah. Humbug.


Unified Communications licensing made easy

Well, hopefully.

I get asked a lot about what licenses customer need when they want to deploy Exchange & Office Communications Server, in order to keep themselves legal & compliant. It’s sometimes a bit confusing that there are several versions of the core products, and often add-on licenses such as external connectors and the likes.

Taking Exchange & OCS separately, the basics are pretty straightforward, really, and (as ever) the devil is in the detail. That detail is on the “How To Buy” pages for Exchange and OCS, respectively.

Server/CAL basics

Like most Microsoft server products, both Exchange and OCS operate on a “Server/CAL” model, where you buy the actual server software, then acquire the access license to give you the rights to use that software from a client machine. CALs can be assigned to people (“users”), meaning the holder of a CAL can access the software from any machine, or they’re assigned to a machine (“device”), which could allow any number of people to use that machine.

In businesses, the “per user” model is the most common model, since you could license users to be able to connect to the server from their home PC or from an internet cafe, or several devices at a time (including PCs, browsers, phones, Blackberry devices etc). In some circumstances (eg shift workers, or students sharing lab PCs), it makes more sense to license “per device”, and you can mix the two together – so you might have 200 users licensed “per user” but then buy 25 “per device” licenses for the call-centre workers who might actually number 75, but working in shifts and only 25 at a time. Clear?

Along with Sharepoint, Microsoft introduced a new CAL type to Exchange & OCS in the 2007 wave of servers – the Enterprise CAL. The deal here is that some of the most advanced, new, functionality in the server software needs an Enterprise CAL to be in possession by the user or device, and it is an add-on to the Standard CAL which everyone will have anyway. You don’t need to buy Enterprise CALs for everyone – only the users or devices which will make use of that additional functionality.

There’s no actual installation of a CAL, and there’s little real tracking of CAL usage: it’s a legal requirement for the organisation operating the software to ensure that you have enough licenses, and that in itself can sometimes be a challenge. Using software like System Centre Configuration Manager, you can keep check on what users are doing, and with partner services such as Software Asset Management, you can get help with keeping track of what you’ve bought and who’s using what.

Standard vs Enterprise Edition servers & CALs

Where some confusion sometimes lies is that, for years, we’ve had Standard & Enterprise Edition servers, where the more advanced functionality (like clustering) was often part of Enterprise Edition, and cost more. Now that there are Standard & Enterprise CALs, things start to look murky. Some literature even refers to the CALs as “Client Access License Standard/Enteprise Edition” which only heightens that confusion.

There is no dependence on CAL versions vs Server versions: ie you could use clustering in the Enterprise Edition server, but still use just Standard CALs to access it. Or you could deploy a single, Standard Edition server, and have all the users taking advantage of the most advanced functionality that comes as part of the Enterprise CAL. And, of course, you can have a mixture of all of the above, as you see fit.

Exchange 2007

The Standard edition of Exchange 2007 is a good bit more capable than Standard Edition previously – there is now effectively no data storage limit to the server (compared to a 16Gb and later, 75Gb, limit in Exchange 2003), though you can only have 5 databases per server (compared to a single one in earlier versions at Standard Edition, and a 50-database limit in Exchange 2007 Enterprise Edition). Apart from some exceptions in how Messaging Records Management works, the only other real difference is that Standard Edition server doesn’t support clustering.

If you want to run clustered Exchange, you need Exchange Enterprise Edition on top of Windows Enterprise Edition (which actually provides the clustering technology that Exchange uses) for the clustered mailbox servers themselves, but all other Exchange boxes can be Exchange Standard Edition running on top of Windows 2003 Standard Edition.

When it comes to CALs, the Standard CAL gives you everything (and more) that Exchange had in the past; but some of the new functionality, like Unified Messaging or Managed Folders, requires the Enterprise CAL. See the CAL Comparison for more information

Office Communication Server 2007

OCS follows a very similar model to Exchange; Standard Edition server does everything that Enterprise Edition does, except it isn’t clusterable and isn’t designed to scale out to the same degree.

OCS Standard CAL gives you the basics of Instant Messaging & Presence/identity, whereas Enterprise CAL adds voice capabilities (which were previously a separate license for LCS2005), along with new stuff like on-premise Live Meeting data conferencing.

There are other options with OCS… if you want to extend the presence/identity piece out to the public networks (AOL, MSN and Yahoo), there’s a subscription license called Public IM Connectivity.  PIC subscriptions are collected by Microsoft then paid to the public networks in lieu of the adverts that you’d be seeing if you’d been using their own client, rather than Office Communicator).

There are also external connectors for both OCS and Exchange which could allow you to provide services to external users who aren’t part of your organisation (eg giving your clients a mailbox/presence entity).

When Microsoft people say “Enterprise CAL” they don’t always mean it

I often hear MS folk talk about “Enterprise CAL” or “E-CAL”, but they don’t mean the Exchange Enterprise CAL which allows you to use Unified Messaging, or the OCS Enterprise CAL which gives you voice & data conferencing. They’re talking about something that should really be referred to as the Enterprise CAL Suite. It’s a collection of both the Standard and Enterprise CALs for a number of different products, available to buy as a package, depending on what licensing agreement you have with Microsoft.

The idea with Enterprise CAL Suite is that if you decided you wanted the full gamut of Unified Communications, rather than having to buy Exchange Standard CAL + Enterprise CAL (since the Enterprise CAL is an “additive” to the Standard), and also buy OCS Standard + Enterprise CALs, you could acquire all of them along with various others (like Sharepoint Enterprise CAL, Forefront Client Security and many more), for a packaged cost.

In true economic terms, the more you want to buy, the lower the unit costs of each becomes. In buying OCS Standard + Enteprise CAL and Exchange Standard + Enteprise CAL, you’ll have almost spent as much as the Enterprise CAL Suite costs, so going to the Suite will add a whole slew of additional licenses and services that you could take advantage of.

Now, I hope that’s all clear. I think I’m going to go off and lie down now.

Explore the Microsoft Enterprise CAL Suite by


Business Need

Tips for using Virtual PC and Virtual Server

Like many people who demo software technologies or who need to perform testing on multi-machine environments, I’ve been using Virtual PC and Virtual Server for years (and VMWare before that). If you’re unfamiliar with these two Microsoft products, both are free and can be used to conduct lab tests, play with new technologies or even run legacy applications in an old OS environment which may not be compatible with the latest OS and hardware. See Virtual PC and Virtual Server homepages for more information.

Once you’ve been using some Virtual Machines (VMs) for a while, the size of the hard disks can get a tad unweildy – one commonly used demo environment in MS has a Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) file in excess of 30Gb!

I routinely compress (at an NTFS level) the hard disk which hosts the VHDs, and try to hold them on a different physical disk from the host OS – it makes a huge difference to performance. I once ran an Exchange 2007 VHD on the 2nd disk in my laptop, and compared startup times when running off the 2nd disk (which was fastest), to holding on the primary disk along with the OS (slowest). It was quicker to even put the VHD on an 8Gb USB drive and run it from there, than holding it on the host HDD!

There are many places online where tips and tricks are displayed, but I came across Cameron Fuller’s blog recently, and he’s talked about lots of this stuff over the last year or two – if you’re thinking of doing anything serious with VPC or VS, check it out.

Here’s one of the more interesting points:

On Virtual PC disk writes were faster (57%) on a compressed drive, and disk reads were also faster (83%).

So there you have it. If running Virtual PC, definitely compress the VHD. In Cameron’s case, it was clear that his CPU was outstripping his disk I/O, so it was quicker for the PC to read a compressed file and then decompress it in RAM, than it was to read the whole thing uncompressed.

In Virtual Server, the case is slightly less clear cut – disk writes were slower (22%) but reads were faster (52%), so it may be less clear-cut, but still well worth considering, especially if you’re using VS in a training, lab or testing environment, when the dramatically smaller file sizes (both in terms of storage and also copying over the network) may even outweigh any slight performance degradation.