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Letter from a MS Access hater!

I hate MS AccessI am a very frustrated man right now. I happen to be working on a project to “fix” a MS Access database some genius business user created with a ton of crappy forms, redundant data, thousands of data anomalies, zero relationships, unimaginable naming conventions, and the craziest data structures I have ever seen in my life. Somehow these people have been using this Access database to run their business for YEARS now, and the only reason they needed someone to look at it, is because the geniuses that created it made a giant table with columns that represented a combination of Month and Year where they would add some data as time went by. Every month they will come to this table and add a couple of columns to continue adding crap for the next month and so on. Well, they ran out of columns in the Access table (up to 255) and now they are stuck with it.

I just wanted to shoot myself in the head when I saw the db for the first time. My first suggestion was “Let’s do it right. Let’s port this to SQL Server Express (FREE), normalize it, create a couple of views, and you can still use your forms with the correct data model” but off course, they do not want me to do that, even after I explained that trying to fix this database will take more time and money because of how flawed it is, they still wanted their old stuff, full of errors and inconsistencies. They want me to fix this piece of shit. Unbelievable!

The situation made me think again about how businesses that are not in the IT space, see their IT and software development efforts as a liability instead of an asset. Why is it so hard for some companies to embrace technology? Unless your business is that of fighting against IT (and I can’t think of a business model based on that premise), they should embrace technology as a tool to improve business processes and enable collaboration between your clients, partners and your workforce. Every time I come across a corporation closing the doors of innovation, creativity and the enablement of IT to support and improve business processes, I see a dying mammoth. Such companies are doomed for failure, no matter the size or industry they are in.

Anyways… let me get back to my grinding Access DB. Ufff… I just needed to let out some steam.

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Bill Gates nice-funny-angry email

Here is a nice-funny-angry email Bill Gates sent back in 03' to the VP of the Windows Division at the time Jim Allchin about Bill's own frustrating experiences with Microsoft.com and the Windows XP experience.

Who let the dogs out!?

--------- BILL GATES EMAIL ---------

From: Bill Gates  Sent: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 10:05 AM  To: Jim Allchin  Cc: Chris Jones (WINDOWS); Bharat Shah (NT); Joe Peterson; Will Poole; Brian Valentine; Anoop Gupta (RESEARCH)  Subject: Windows Usability Systematic degradation flame

I am quite disappointed at how Windows Usability has been going backwards and the program management groups don’t drive usability issues.

Let me give you my experience from yesterday.

I decided to download (Moviemaker) and buy the Digital Plus pack … so I went to Microsoft.com. They have a download place so I went there.

The first 5 times I used the site it timed out while trying to bring up the download page. Then after an 8 second delay I got it to come up.

This site is so slow it is unusable.

It wasn’t in the top 5 so I expanded the other 45.

These 45 names are totally confusing. These names make stuff like: C:Documents and SettingsbillgMy DocumentsMy Pictures seem clear.

They are not filtered by the system … and so many of the things are strange.

I tried scoping to Media stuff. Still no moviemaker. I typed in movie. Nothing. I typed in movie maker. Nothing.

So I gave up and sent mail to Amir saying – where is this Moviemaker download? Does it exist?

So they told me that using the download page to download something was not something they anticipated.

They told me to go to the main page search button and type movie maker (not moviemaker!).

I tried that. The site was pathetically slow but after 6 seconds of waiting up it came.

I thought for sure now I would see a button to just go do the download.

In fact it is more like a puzzle that you get to solve. It told me to go to Windows Update and do a bunch of incantations.

This struck me as completely odd. Why should I have to go somewhere else and do a scan to download moviemaker?

So I went to Windows update. Windows Update decides I need to download a bunch of controls. (Not) just once but multiple times where I get to see weird dialog boxes.

Doesn’t Windows update know some key to talk to Windows?

Then I did the scan. This took quite some time and I was told it was critical for me to download 17megs of stuff.

This is after I was told we were doing delta patches to things but instead just to get 6 things that are labeled in the SCARIEST possible way I had to download 17meg.

So I did the download. That part was fast. Then it wanted to do an install. This took 6 minutes and the machine was so slow I couldn’t use it for anything else during this time.

What the heck is going on during those 6 minutes? That is crazy. This is after the download was finished.

Then it told me to reboot my machine. Why should I do that? I reboot every night — why should I reboot at that time?

So I did the reboot because it INSISTED on it. Of course that meant completely getting rid of all my Outlook state.

So I got back up and running and went to Windows Update again. I forgot why I was in Windows Update at all since all I wanted was to get Moviemaker.

So I went back to Microsoft.com and looked at the instructions. I have to click on a folder called WindowsXP. Why should I do that? Windows Update knows I am on Windows XP.

What does it mean to have to click on that folder? So I get a bunch of confusing stuff but sure enough one of them is Moviemaker.

So I do the download. The download is fast but the Install takes many minutes. Amazing how slow this thing is.

At some point I get told I need to go get Windows Media Series 9 to download.

So I decide I will go do that. This time I get dialogs saying things like "Open" or "Save". No guidance in the instructions which to do. I have no clue which to do.

The download is fast and the install takes 7 minutes for this thing.

So now I think I am going to have Moviemaker. I go to my add/remove programs place to make sure it is there.

It is not there.

What is there? The following garbage is there. Microsoft Autoupdate Exclusive test package, Microsoft Autoupdate Reboot test package, Microsoft Autoupdate testpackage1. Microsoft AUtoupdate testpackage2, Microsoft Autoupdate Test package3.

Someone decided to trash the one part of Windows that was usable? The file system is no longer usable. The registry is not usable. This program listing was one sane place but now it is all crapped up.

But that is just the start of the crap. Later I have listed things like Windows XP Hotfix see Q329048 for more information. What is Q329048? Why are these series of patches listed here? Some of the patches just things like Q810655 instead of saying see Q329048 for more information.

What an absolute mess.

Moviemaker is just not there at all.

So I give up on Moviemaker and decide to download the Digital Plus Package.

I get told I need to go enter a bunch of information about myself.

I enter it all in and because it decides I have mistyped something I have to try again. Of course it has cleared out most of what I typed.

I try (typing) the right stuff in 5 times and it just keeps clearing things out for me to type them in again.

So after more than an hour of craziness and making my programs list garbage and being scared and seeing that Microsoft.com is a terrible website I haven’t run Moviemaker and I haven’t got the plus package.

The lack of attention to usability represented by these experiences blows my mind. I thought we had reached a low with Windows Network places or the messages I get when I try to use 802.11. (don’t you just love that root certificate message?)

When I really get to use the stuff I am sure I will have more feedback

--------- END OF EMAIL ---------

Ouch! Thunder is coming down from Mount Olympus!

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SharePoint Site Architecture

In this post:

  • WSS vs MOSS
  • SharePoint site architecture

SharePoint is an ecosystem of software and server products as it was described in this previous post. To understand it better let's look at the architecture and object model that it is offered with SharePoint. The basic component of SharePoint is Windows SharePoint Services (WSS from now on). WSS is a free server component that must be installed in a Windows Server OS and contains the basic framework and infrastructure that supports any other SharePoint offerings like the different Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS from now on) versions.

You can think of it the same way selling cars work. You get the basic model with a chassis, 4 tires and a steering wheel (that will be WSS) and then you can add stuff to it like a great sound system, a dynamic design, GPS and Cruise Control, etc (those nifty things being the analogous to MOSS).

So now that we have an idea of how WSS relates to MOSS, let's see exactly how their offerings stand apart.

As we can see all MOSS trims are nothing more than a very useful set of extensions and additions to the WSS platform, offering users a more powerful and pleasant experience out of the box. These extensions are supported thanks to a very complex architecture and framework that has evolved quite a bit over time.

In a nutshell the industry refers to a SharePoint installation (be it WSS only or MOSS) as a SharePoint FARM. A Farm is a collection of physical SharePoint servers  that serve the content to users. A Farm can be formed using different topologies that we'll explore later, before we get to that, let's actually see what is going to be served, how does SharePoint structures its web sites and content.

Farm:  A collection of SharePoint Web Applications.

SP Web Application:  A collection of Site Collections.

SP Site Collection: Formed by a single root site (aka Top-Level site) and a collection of sub-sites.

SP Sub-Site: A collection of pages, lists, libraries and content that are displayed through the browser.

Each of these components in the SharePoint site architecture have different rules and security settings and restrictions. As you can see, this is a tree structure and very successful way to isolate users and content to ensure confidentiality, availability and integrity in the data security. This model is very user friendly since everyone can understand a tree structure and most people are already used to it.

I always like to compare a SharePoint Farm with a physical hard drive. If the Farm is the hard drive, then we can think of the Web Applications as partitions of the Farm. Likewise Site Collections will be Folders directly on the root of the partition. Sub-Sites are also represented by folders that only go inside of the Site Collections and so on, you get the idea.

Because is easy to understand the site architecture SharePoint offers, users can quickly provision (a fancy word for 'create') web sites with the click of a button. Because of this, planning for a successful deployment and IT infrastructure to support all the greatness SharePoint offers does not come at ease. Planning the right topology that will hold all of this together is very important for a successful SharePoint deployment. More on SharePoint topology and planning in upcoming posts.

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SharePoint? What is that?

The first questions people ask themselves when they hear the SharePoint Buzz for the first time is What the heck is SharePoint? I will explain in a friendly and simplistic way what SharePoint is, and how it has fold out to be one of the most powerful and fast growing software solutions in the history. Coming up:

  • What is SharePoint?
  • How exactly is SharePoint different from any regular web site?
  • How can SharePoint help you in your bottom line?
  • Conclusions

What is SharePoint?

From the technical-friendly point of view SharePoint is a software ecosystem formed by many different Microsoft software products. Microsoft indifferently refers to it as Microsoft SharePoint Products and Technologies. SharePoint (aka SP) targets the space of web collaboration functions, content and document management, search and social networking in one centralized solution that offers a plethora of very powerful business applications that are deeply tight to the already popular Microsoft Office applications.

From the end users perspective SharePoint is a web site (web application) that allows users to collaborate and share information, documents, photos and other media rich content directly from the web browser without needed to have any technical skill. Simply by using tools they already know like Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point, InfoPath and such, users can create very rich documents and have them broadcast to a large audience with the click of a button.

Another important notation to make is that SharePoint is a cross platform product. That means SharePoint, being a browser based tool, can be experienced from many different operating systems like Windows, Mac OS-X and Linux systems. Although SP is a cross platform tool, as of today's official product (MOSS 2007) there are a few rendering abnormalities with some specific content in browsers different from Internet Explorer. Users accessing SharePoint sites with the popular Firefox browser, Safari, Opera and Chrome to name a few may experience that some controls and parts of certain pages will be rendered incorrectly in the page. This issue is not very common and will not affect the functionality and power SharePoint brings to its users. SharePoint 2010 is in beta stage as of the writing if this article and the SP Team announced most of the browser compatibility problems from previous versions will disappear in the upcoming release.

Browsers in SharePoint

If you are interested in diving a bit more into the browser war, SharePoint official compatibility and the Microsoft recommendations for browser support you can explore this TechNet article that is dedicated to such topic.

Ok, so how exactly is SharePoint different from any regular web site again?

As we mentioned before, SharePoint is a collection of software applications. These applications are Server products, meaning they were made to be run in a Windows Server OS. The combination of these products (Search, Forms Server, Excel Services, SSO, etc) provide SharePoint with many built in functionality that does not need to be implemented and can still be customized to a very granular level with very little IT support.

To better understand the difference between the SharePoint offerings and building and maintaining your own web site, we must first see what goes into creating and maintaining a web site. The following table shows some (I said SOME) of pros and cons of the most popular methods to build a web site and their pros and cons (Click to enlarge).

The "Web Site" in the title of the table is quoted, because the reality is that SharePoint offers a lot more than just a Web Site, it offers collaboration, networking and business tools to make any SP install a catch-all experience. Also is worth noting that technically SharePoint does not offers a Web Site, instead (from IIS perspective) it builds a set of IIS Web Applications that are linked and can exchange information via the SharePoint ecosystem. Hold on to your hats, more on that and the SharePoint terminology later.

As you can see there is plenty to eat in the SharePoint family. But how does it directly affect you?

How can SharePoint help me as an organization or as an individual?

Honestly, even if I try I don't think I can come up with a better sentence than this one from the official Microsoft SharePoint site:

"… Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 provides a single, integrated location where employees can efficiently collaborate with team members, find organizational resources, search for experts and corporate information, manage content and workflow, and leverage business insight to make better-informed decisions."

--- Pasted from <http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/product/details/Pages/default.aspx>---

SharePoint is an extension to the cloud (Internet) of all of the Office Family of products. In fact SharePoint is part of the Microsoft Office Group. If you or your organization are using any of the Microsoft Office products (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc) then you are half the way into becoming a great SharePoint user and take full advantage of its offerings. Although SharePoint clearly targets more businesses than individuals, the fact that most of us work for some corporation means that we're very likely to at one point or another face the SharePoint solution of your workplace. And trust me, I'll make your live so much pleasant… SharePoint will be there when:

  • You want to cut dramatically the use of paper and ink in your organization.
  • You want to improve the performance of your employees and make them work better and more organized between them.
  • You need to collaborate with a team member in writing on the same document simultaneously.
  • You want to request a day off without having to confront the boss.
  • You want people to request a day off without coming to your office or spending a fortune in paper and ink. Also want to be able to notify the requestor of your decision about his request.
  • You are a manager and you want your team to work under your schedule and not the other way around.
  • You want to expose your professional profile in the company's SharePoint to find opportunities in other departments and move up within the organization. Get discovered.
  • You want to make a small correction to a published document and will be able to make the change and make it available immediately online with one click. No downloading and re-uploading, no emailing required.
  • You want to see how a particular spread sheet or document looked like last month without disturbing the IT department to pull it off the archive.
  • You want to broadcast the meetings calendar to all the Outlook account in your department with a click of a button.
  • You want to automatically get notified when somebody completes a sale, or gets a new bid, or renews a contract and want to see at a glance the ongoing financial health of your company with real-time data.
  • You want to have a fun home page with your favorite color and alternating pictures of your family.
  • You want to access all corporate data securely from the internet.
  • You want to monitor each department of your organization and ensure they are meeting the new goals with key performance indicators.
  • You want to collect and automate the employee contact info by having forms your employees can fill in and submit from any web browser.
  • And much, much more… :)

Conclusion

I hope you after reading this article you have a better understanding about what SharePoint is, how it differs and stands out over traditional web site design as well as the immediate benefits that SharePoint brings to organizations and individuals and a general feel for some of the coolest features SharePoint offers. I think in general SharePoint is a great solution, ever evolving (SharePoint 2010 is Beta already). I'll try to cover more on SharePoint in future posts.

Thanks for reading!

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