Tip o’ the Week #199 – Checking your home network speed

As winter bites, as roadworks cause pandemonium, there may be a trend for staff to work at home more. Microsofties all know Lync powers the ability to effectively work and be contactable when you’re sitting in your shreddies in your home office.

If you have a less than perfect broadband connection, though, Lync may be a cause of frustration as it reverts to warning of a “pretty bad” connection, and remote clip_image001participants might complain about not being able to hear you, even if you can more-or-less hear them.

This is a symptom of a poor internet connection at home – very likely nothing to do with whether you’re on WIFI or wired, as the connection to the internet is likely the bottleneck in both cases. If in any doubt, there are a few tests you can run to see if your network is under pressure, and maybe even figure out why.

Test, test and test again

It’s always difficult to get an accurate idea of your own broadband speed – it’s quite variable so from one minute to the next, you can get wildly different results. If there is a bottleneck, it could be anywhere between you and the resource you’re trying to connect to – and any *** in the chain could be causing the issue.

clip_image003Speedtest.net is a popular site for testing your connection  speed over a minute or two (making sure you don’t click on any of the adverts to speed up your PC, clean the Registry, install Google Chrome etc).

It will first test your “PING” (the time in milliseconds it takes to send a request and get a response, ideally in single or low double figures), then tries a download followed by a short upload test. Typical ADSL speeds could be 2-6mbps (megabits/sec, so 6mbps would equate to 0.75 Mb per second) download, and a few hundred kbps upload (kilobits/sec, so a 250kbps rating equates to only 31.25 Kb per second). Fancy-pants cable or fibre broadband types need not worry – generally – clip_image005though sometimes may see varying spikes and troughs in the connection fidelity. The very rural who insist on living miles from the nearest telephone exchange may be stuck with 1mbps down though your upload speed may still be in the few hundred kbps.

If you imagine being on a Lync call, the upload speed is the bottleneck to decent quality – where you might be made sound like a fast/slow/quick-quick/slow Dalek to other participants if  you have too low bandwidth, or too high latency, or PING results (a symptom of the latency in the network being too high to effectively support real-time communications such as a voice call or an Xbox Live game).

To find out what your theoretical maximum speeds should be, you might be able to check in the configuration of your router, or else (assuming you’re on BT provided broadband), try using the BT Wholesale Speed Tester. Run the first test, then click on Further Diagnostics, provide your landline phone number and you’ll get more info.

clip_image007Pingtest.net needs Java (oooh, how quaint) installed on your PC to get the most out of it, but still kinda-works without it. It will test the quality of your connection (as opposed to the speed of it) and can be a useful barometer of troubles elsewhere. One issue that can cause very high reported latency could be that your connection is being maxed out by something else – kids in the house streaming movies, downloading large files etc.

Uploads can kill the capacity of your connection, however – if you’re uploading files to a SharePoint site over DirectAccess, for example, you’ll see a drop in perceived download speed too and your reported latency will likely shoot up.

clip_image009There’s a nice utility called WinMTR which can be used to track the latency between you and the internet (or in fact, of your broadband supplier’s network – who knows, maybe the problem is upstream and in the telephone exchange?). Drop in a URL or IP address and you’ll get the equivalent of a TRACERT performed repeatedly, showing average, best & worst response times for each hop between you and the eventual resource – if you’re seeing averages that are reasonable but the odd very high spike, then you’ve got a problem.

What’s causing the bottleneck?

If you’ve managed to rule out errant family members as possible causes of your poor connection, it’s worth checking your own PC before chewing out the broadband supplier – you never know, it could be a background process on your own machine that’s doing the damage.

With Windows 8.1 and the deep SkyDrive integration, as well as SkyDrive Pro and the ability to take files offline with SharePoint 2013, it’s quite possible that your own PC is busy uploading Gbs worth of content back to the office, all the time hammering your home network uplink, and causing massive latency for Lync and other applications. To perform a quick check on what is using the network on your machine, then Resource Monitor is your friend.


To start the tool, go to Task Manager (right click on the Taskbar and choose Task Manager, or else press CTRL-SHIFT-ESC, a simple three-finger gesture all along the left on your keyboard). Once in Task Manager, you can get some basic info on what’s hogging your machine’s resources, both now and (for Modern Apps) historically, and you can also see some pretty detailed stats on how the machine is performing all-up.

In the Performance tab, there’s an Open Resource Monitor button. If you know you want to go straight there, clip_image013you could just type resmon at the Start menu to jump straight to the app.

clip_image015Once you have the Resource Monitor up and running, a simple check is to look in the Network tab – click to sort by Send B/sec and you can see if something is bogging down the machine’s performance trhough upload…

If you tick one of the check boxes next to a particular process, you’ll see (under Network Activity, TCP Connections and Listening Ports) what activity that particular application is doing. Watch out for GROOVE.EXE and SKYDRIVE.EXE as potential file synchronisation clip_image017villains…

You could try right-clicking on the SkyDrive Pro applet in the system tray, and choose to Pause syncing. That’s GROOVE taken care of (you thought you’d seen the last of that application? Think again…). If you’ve other processes causing problems, try right-clicking on the process name and Search Online to find out what it might be, and get you one step closer to figuring out how to return normality.

Tip o’ the Week #192 – What does your customer run?

If you are in the tech industry and dealing with a customer or partner on pretty much any aspect of their relationship with you, it can often be valuable to have a bit of forewarning about what technology they’re using. In larger managed environments, that knowledge might come from other resources (account manager, technical pre-sales, support contact etc), it may be tucked away in your email from an old thread.

Who knows, it might even be in CRM.

Even if you’re working with a well-engaged entity, it can still be helpful to do a little background research, and that’s near-mandatory if the org in question is new to us all. Here are some thoughts on how to get ahead of the game without needing to spend hours at the task.


This is now an essential business tool for a lot of people, as it both projects their CV into the world so a potential next employer can see it, and it helps them connect with people in other organisations they’re trying to reach. Before you meet your customer, it’s worth looking up the company and seeing who else works there, what skills the individuals have (eg do they position themselves as an Open Source or Linux expert? Are they certified to the hilt in your stuff already, and therefore maybe a friendly face?). Who did they work for previously?clip_image002

One tip for the practiced LinkedIn stalker is that it’s possible to switch off the breadcrumbs that let people see who’s looked at their profile, so if you check someone out and decide to have nothing more to do with them, you won’t end up getting a connection request in return as they’ll never know it was you.

Go to the Privacy & Settings option by clicking your mugshot in the clip_image004top right then Select what others see when you’ve viewed their profile, whereupon you can choose full disclosure, partial anonymity (so they’ll see it was someone at Microsoft, for example – might freak them out if they are LAMP fiends) or the full kahuna of diplomatic immunity.

You might also want to think about who gets to see your connections – if you get lots of requests from people you don’t know, they may just be trying to harvest your own connections (as they’d see more details of those users, since they’d now be 2nd degree connections to the recruitment consultant connection spammer). We’ll come back to using LinkedIn in a future ToW.

Mxtoolbox – www.mxtoolbox.com

This one is useful for checking what your customer is using for their email, or at least which service they’re using to clean and filter their in- and out-bound email. Simply enter the customer’s email domain name (the bit after the @) and you’ll find out how they send and receive mail. Sometimes, it’ll be their own address (meaning, they operate their own relay) but often, it’ll be one of a variety of 3rd party “hygiene” services from the likes of Microsoft (Frontbridge, Outlook), Google (Postini), Symantec (MessageLabs) and more.

Netcraft – www.netcraft.com
Their “What’s that site running?” tool and web site survey made Netcraft well known years ago – ostensibly telling you what operating system the web site in question is running on. A useful side effect in these cloudy days is that it can tell you not just what the site is, but where it is running. Handy to know if your customer’s site (or maybe a subset of it which is presenting a web application to their customers?) is running on Azure, AWS, Rackspace etc. Just head over to netcraft.com and paste the URL into their “what’s that site running” box in the lower right – no need to strip it of http:// or any other superfluous guff; the site takes care of all that for you.

Is it really on Azure? – http://www.kloth.net/services/nslookup.php
Here’s a neat service which lets you check for CNAMEs of a particular URL – in other words, when you enter a URL into your browser, that name may just be an alias for another name, which you’ll never see. Knowing that such a thing exists can be handy, though – it might let you figure out that one part of the website is hosted in one place, but another part is somewhere else.

In this case, you do need to trim any leading or trainling gubbins off the URL, so you’re left with simply the main part. Sometimes the real meat of what a website is offering – the bit of the site you need to log into, for example – might be on a different URL (like login.company.com). If you plug that URL into this handy name lookup tool, and set the option to be looking for ANY or CNAME, then you may see that login.company.com is just an alias for something.cloudapp.net – the clouapp.net bit meaning that it’s a service running on Windows Azure. Not a very efficient way of looking for Azure users en masse, but if you think your customer is already on Azure, it is a handy way of confirming that fact.

Tip o’ the Week #121 – Networking with Lync

clip_image001This week, we have a semi-rehash of earlier tips (#51 and #67), based on some investigation work that’s been done inside Microsoft’s own IT group.

If you’re going to join a Lync call (especially if you’re using video or app sharing, using a Roundtable/Polycom CX5000 device etc), then best practice is to use a wired network connection. If you’ve a laptop which is on WiFi, then you need think about your connection if you want the call quality to be at its best.

Networking preference

Windows 7 and Windows 8 prefer wireless networks, on the basis that if you’re connected to a WiFi network, then there’s a reasonable chance you’re on a laptop and therefore you’re likely to move around.

Lync really wants a nice, fast, low-latency network connection. In a typical Microsoft office environment, most users have laptops and most will be connected to wireless, meaning the WiFi is going to be pretty clip_image002congested, compared to a wired network at least. And congested, slow(er) networks don’t make for great call quality (as is sometimes evidenced by the network connectivity icon).

The Lync client is network-aware, though, and will default to using the highest-performing network it can. So, if you’ve a laptop that’s on WiFi and plugged into Ethernet, then Lync will use the wired network in preference. There’s one important consideration though – Lync can’t switch an in-progress call between WiFi and wired!

So if you establish a call on Wireless, then see the dreaded red bars that tell you all is not well with your network, simply plugging in a network cable won’t do you any good. You’d have to drop the call and re-establish it to make clip_image003a difference.

To be sure which network you’re using for the call, fire up Task Manager – right-click on the Taskbar and choose Task Manager, or just press CTRL-SHIFT-ESC.

In Windows 7, select the Networking tab, and if you’re using Windows 8 Consumer Preview, look under Performance and you’ll see little graphs of how your networks are doing. This will help you see which network is being used to carry all that data.

A simple way of checking the behaviour is to use the Lync client’s test call facility and see which one spikes…

If the WiFi is taking the brunt, then make sure the wired network is connected OK, then disconnect the call and re-establish it, and you should see the wired network usage jump up.

No real need to disable WiFi, but if you have a switch on your laptop to do that, and you’re a suspicious sort (or untrusting type), then doing so may hurry the process along.


Exchange 2010 beta & high availability strategies

Today, the Exchange team released details of Exchange 14, now to be known as Exchange Server 2010. [download here]. There’s plenty of new stuff in the box, but I’m just going to look at one: high availability & data replication.

[My previous missives on Exchange 2007 HA are here, here and here]

There are some interesting differences between 2007 and 2010, particularly in the way databases are handled and what that means for clustering.


Single Copy Clusters, or the traditional way of deploying Exchange onto a Windows Cluster with several nodes sharing a copy of the data held in a central SAN, have quite a few downsides … like there being that Single Copy, or the fact that the storage hardware is typically complex and expensive.

There are other pretty major changes, like storage groups going away (it’s just a database now, a move that Exchange 2007 previewed by the advice that you should only have a single DB per SG), or the fact that databases are now the unit of failover (rather than the whole server…), or the ability now to install multiple roles on servers providing high availability – so you could deploy highly available, clustered/replicated environment to a small number of users, without having lots of boxes or VMs.

Oh, Local Continuous Replication goes away too…

Well, reading the documentation explains a bit more about how Exchange 2010 will change the way that high availability can be achieved – no more the need for a MSCS cluster to be set up first should make it simpler, for one. From that site:

Changes to High Availability from Previous Versions of Exchange

Exchange 2010 includes many changes to its core architecture. Two prominent features from Exchange 2007, namely CCR and SCR, have been combined and evolved into a single framework called a database availability group (DAG). The DAG handles both on-site data replication and off-site data replication, and forms a platform that makes operating a highly available Exchange environment easier than ever before. Other new high availability concepts are introduced in Exchange 2010, such as database mobility, and incremental deployment. The concepts of a backup-less and RAID-less organization are also being introduced in Exchange 2010.

In a nutshell, the key aspects to data and service availability for the Mailbox server role and mailbox databases are:

  • Exchange 2010 uses an enhanced version of the same continuous replication technology introduced in Exchange 2007. See the section below entitled “Changes to Continuous Replication from Exchange Server 2007” for more information.

  • Storage groups no longer exist in Exchange 2010. Instead, there are simply mailbox databases and mailbox database copies, and public folder databases. The primary management interfaces for Exchange databases has moved within the Exchange Management Console from the Mailbox node under Server Configuration to the Mailbox node under Organization Configuration.

  • Some Windows Failover Clustering technology is used by Exchange 2010, but it is now completely managed under-the-hood by Exchange. Administrators do not need to install, build or configure any aspects of failover clustering when deploying highly available Mailbox servers.

  • Each Mailbox server can host as many as 100 databases. In this Beta release of Exchange 2010, each Mailbox server can host a maximum of 50 databases. The total number of databases equals the combined number of active and passive databases on a server.

  • Each mailbox database can have as many as 16 copies.

  • In addition to the transport dumpster feature, a new Hub Transport server feature named shadow redundancy has been added. Shadow redundancy provides redundancy for messages for the entire time they are in transit. The solution involves a technique similar to the transport dumpster. With shadow redundancy, the deletion of a message from the transport database is delayed until the transport server verifies that all of the next hops for that message have completed delivery. If any of the next hops fail before reporting back successful delivery, the message is resubmitted for delivery to that next hop. For more information about shadow redundancy, see Understanding Shadow Redundancy.

SMSE – a System Center light hidden under a bushel

SMSE – pronounced (in the UK at least) as ‘Smuzzy’, short for Server Management Suite Enterprise – is a licensing package from Microsoft, which can be an amazingly effective way to buy systems management software for your Windows server estate.


If you’re planning to virtualise your Windows server world, then SMSE is something of a no-brainer, since buying a single SMSE license for the host machine allows you to use System Center to manage not just the host but any number of guest (or child) VMs running on it.

Combine that with the license for Windows Server 2008 Datacenter Edition, which allows unlimited licensing for Windows Server running as guests, and you’ve got a platform for running & managing as many Windows-based applications servers as you can squeeze onto the box, running on any virtualisation platform.

System Center is the umbrella name given to systems management technologies, broadly encompassing:

  • Configuration Manager (as-was SMS, though totally re-engineered), which can be used for software distribution and “desired configuration state” management … so in a server example, you might want to know if someone has “tweaked” the configuration of a server, and either be alerted to the fact or maybe even reverse the change.
  • Operations Manager (or MOM, as it was known before this version), performs systems monitoring and reporting, so can monitor the health and performance of a whole array of systems, combined with “management packs” (or "knowledge modules” as some would think of them) which tell Ops Mgr how a given application should behave. Ops Mgr can tell an administrator of an impending problem with their server application, before it becomes a problem.
  • Data Protection Manager – a new application, now in 2nd release, which can be used either on its own or in conjunction with some other enterprise backup solution, to perform point in time snap shots of running applications and keep the data available. DPM lets the administrator deliver a nearer RTO and more up to date RPO, at very low cost.
  • Virtual Machine Manager – a new server, also in 2nd release, which manages the nuts & bolts of a virtual infrastructure, either based on Microsoft’s Hyper-V or VMWare’s ESX with Virtual Center. If you have a mixture of Hyper-V and VMWare, using VMM lets you manage the whole thing from a single console.

It’s easy to overlook managing of guests in a virtualised environment – the effort in doing such a project typically goes into moving the physical machines into the virtual world, but it’s equally important to make sure that you’re managing the operations of what happens inside the guest VMs, as much as you’re managing the mechanics of the virtual environment.

I’ve used a line which I think sums up the proposition nicely, and I’ve seen others quote the same logic:

If you have a mess of physical servers and you virtualise them, all you’re left with is a virtual mess.

Applying the idea of SMSE to a virtual environment, for one cost (at US estimated retail price, $1500), you get management licenses for Ops Manager, Config Manager, VMM and DPM, for the host machine and all of its guests.

Think of a virtualised Exchange environment, for example – that $1500 would cover Ops Manager telling you that Exchange was working well, Config Manager keeping the servers up to date and patched properly (even offline VMs), VMM managing the operation of the virtual infrastructure, and DPM keeping backups of the data within the Exchange servers (and maybe even the running VMs).

Isn’t that a bargain?

See the FAQ for SMSE for more information.