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Memory-Lane Monday: Never let a software guy near hardware

This pilot fish gets an early-evening call from his business’s security company, telling him that the computer room is sending out a “high thermal event” alarm.

There’s no answer after several tries to contact the tech who’s on call, so fish makes the 45-minute drive to the office.

“I assumed the office must have lost power and the IT systems were still running on battery backup,” says fish.


“While the general office space was fine and showed no evidence of power loss, the computer room felt like Arizona — the thermometer read over 90 degrees — and the two redundant wall-mounted air-handling systems weren’t running.”

Some of the older hard drives are making horrible screeching sounds as fish gets to work. He props open the computer room doors and then begins to shut down all the servers, arrays and network hardware as fast and as safely as he can.

Once that’s done, he puts some fans in the doorways to draw cooler air in from the main office space. Then fish turns his attention to the pair of air handlers, wondering how two systems running on separate electrical circuits could have died at the same time.

He pushes the power button on one. It roars to life, pumping out cold air.
He flips the switch on the other air handler. It starts right up too.

A few minutes later, the on-call tech arrives with one of the company’s software developers — and an explanation.

“The two had been out golfing at a course about two miles from the office after work,” fish says. “The tech put the on-call cellphone, which was set to vibrate, in his golf bag. He never noticed until they were finished with the round that he had voice mails from me.”

Then fish describes what he found in the computer room — the Arizona-like heat, the screaming disk drives, and the air handlers that were switched off.

That’s when the developer groans. Turns out he had been in the computer room a few hours earlier, troubleshooting a problem over the phone.

But between the noise from the servers, disk arrays and air handlers, he was having a hard time hearing the person on the other end of the line.

“Figuring it would only be a few moments, he turned both air handlers off to quiet things down,” says fish. “But he forgot to turn them back on when he left.

“Fortunately, the damage was minimal — we lost one drive in a RAID array and missed our nightly backup cycle, but all of our systems were working, communications to the remote offices were back up and our data was safe.

“And I got movie passes and a gift card to a restaurant from the developer as an apology.”

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Amazon and Microsoft moves indicate that hardware OEMs may become obsolete

[Disclosure: Qualcomm and Microsoft are clients of the author.]

I’m at the Qualcomm 5G Summit this week and according to both them and Cisco, next year we should reach critical mass on 5G. I didn’t really think about how big a change this would be until I listened to what Qualcomm said about Microsoft’s new Surface X (upon which I’m writing this very column) and the announcement from Amazon on their new AWS Outpost initiative.

Separately these announcements are certainly interesting. Together they may mean a massive change back to something far more like the old IBM mainframe model than most of us realize. In that model, the vendor owned the entire technology stack and the user experience. In this new case, the vendors in question are cloud vendors not OEMs.

The old IBM model

The IBM model still prevailed when I took Computer Science in college. For the most part, IBM was the technology market back then. As the adage went, “no one lost their job buying from IBM.” Margins were good, employees got pensions, and for decades IBM and excellent customer service were so synonymous that it was nearly impossible to get an IBM shop to even try another vendor’s solution…outside of the mid-market where vendors like HP and DEC seemed to be able to acquire and hold small segments.

People trusted IBM and for good reason: IBM had their back…until the old guard retired out, new executives moved up, and the focus shifted from customer satisfaction to increasing profit. Then the wheels came off the IBM wagon and the firm went from dominant to nearly out of business. I was working at IBM when that happened. It wasn’t fun.

But, while it worked, it was amazing.

It does, however, suggest that the companies trying to bring this model back need to put in place a powerful process to assure similar mistakes don’t recur.

Microsoft Surface X

At the Qualcomm event they praised the Surface X, not just because it uses Qualcomm technology but because it’s a very different approach to a product: more like a terminal than a PC in terms of providing vendor control.

A typical PC generally comes from an OEM, but is defined by several vendors, including Intel or AMD and Microsoft. In fact, the user experience is mostly from Microsoft. If any of these vendors screw up – like Microsoft did with Windows ME, Vista, and 8 or Intel did with the security problems from two years ago – the OEM is screwed because they can’t mitigate the problem. In effect, none of these vendors owns the complete stack or the user experience and thus none of them can assure that experience.

Surface X, on the other hand, is all Microsoft: they co-designed the processor, they provide a custom version of Windows on the system, they even own the 4G wireless experience that connects the system. In effect, much like IBM owned the client experience on their mainframes, Microsoft owns the client experience on the Surface X.

And I can attest the result is a pretty amazing little system. It anticipates a future where the cloud provider provides a complete solution from client, through networking, to data resources. And when you own a thing completely, you can assure the user experience far better than if you don’t.

AWS Outposts

Amazon Outposts come at this differently. AWS has been overmatched when it comes to hybrid cloud deployments and instead of providing just a local instance like Microsoft and Google do, their Outpost effort includes hardware. Much like it is with the Surface X on the client Amazon in the cloud is assuring the stack above the client under a highbred model. In a way it’s taking what EMC did with their old VCE effort and moving it into the cloud world.

Having covered VCE as long as it existed, I know it enjoyed some of the highest customer satisfaction and loyalty of any product short of that old mainframe I’ve ever seen. So, they provide the entire IT backend experience and in a hybrid form with a solution that has been optimized for the AWS hybrid environment.

The power of the blend

Amazon and Microsoft both watch each other closely. If Microsoft copied Amazon Outposts and Amazon copied the Surface X but turned it into a line, you’d have an end-to-end blended solution both cost- and user experience-optimized from a single vendor.

And, if only to complete with each other, that outcome is almost certain now.

Google – who already has Pixel Chromebooks that emulate the Surface X and likes to build their own hardware – could easily follow.

The result would be three mega cloud vendors (Amazon, Google and Microsoft) specifying their own custom client, premise, and cloud offerings and showcasing the benefit of a true single throat to choke with solutions tuned top to bottom for the lowest cost and highest customer experience.

Then, seemingly suddenly, the existing hardware OEMs become redundant.

To avoid this the OEMs will need to drive innovation deeper into the technology stack, increase their investments in their own cloud efforts, and take another look at that old VCE model. Because in a new mainframe-like world based around the cloud, if you don’t have one, you’ll be like the guy without a chair when the music stops. Out of the game.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Microsoft Intune can now block unauthorized BYOD hardware

Microsoft has integrated third-party mobile threat defense (MTD) software with its Intune unified endpoint management (UEM) platform, enabling corporate systems to detect when an employee’s unenrolled, smartphone or tablet has an app potentially infected by malware.

The new Intune capability is particularly useful for companies with bring-your-own device (BYOD) policies in that it can block access to enterprise systems on devices flagged by the MTD software.

The mobile threat detection feature on Intune will initially allow it to work with software from Lookout for Work, Better Mobile and Zimperium. “In future, we expect other partners to add support for this integration,” Microsoft said via a Monday blog post released during its Ignite conference.

Microsoft Intune threat detection Microsoft

The Intune setup page for mobile threat detection

“By blocking compromised mobile devices from [the] ability to access corporate resources like Exchange and SharePoint, this information helps organizations protect the modern workplace against device-based attacks,” Microsoft said. “In the past, this capability required end users to enroll their devices with Intune for mobile device management (MDM).”

The new MTD capability is integrated into the MDM client itself so IT shops won’t have to enroll users separately – they can be provisioned provision together; that makes BYOD enrollment simpler, according to Nick McQuire, vice president and head of enterprise research at CCS Insight.

The Intune update, McQuire said, is about enabling mobile application management (MAM) features for BYOD corporate programs, which typically require companies to purchase more than one software license.

Microsoft mobile threat detection Intune Microsoft

MTD set up page

Microsoft’s strategy is to enter the mobile threat defense marketplace – first, through integration deals with third-party MTD providers – and later possibly by creating its own solution or by acquiring a competitor, McQuire said.

IT shops often struggle to find a good MTD product in a relatively nascent marketplace.

“Ultimately, customers don’t want to run two different agents on a device and pay separately for mobile threat defense. This is a good step for Microsoft. I think it’s a sign Microsoft will go harder into this arena,” McQuire said.

Microsoft already offers threat defense software for enterprise PCs and laptops via its Microsoft Defender firewall, so it’s a natural evolution to begin offering it for iOS and Android mobile devices.

“Currently, there’s no clear winner in the MTD space, so it makes sense for Microsoft to maintain its neutrality. Ultimately, Microsoft will need that capability across all end-points and not just in the PC environment.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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The most interesting thing Google didn’t announce at its hardware event

We’ve talked plenty about everything Google announced at its big hardware gala — particularly that Pixel 4 phone and the perplexing predicament Google finds itself facing as it tries to convince average phone-shoppers to give the gadget a go.

There’s one thing Google didn’t announce at that fall event, though, and it might be the most important product of all — both in terms of its potential impact for Google, from a business perspective, and in terms of its relevance for those of us who use Android phones.

I’m talking about the Pixel 4a, the likely second-gen sequel to the midrange Pixel 3a phone Google launched this past spring. While the Pixel 4 may be the device that earns most of the attention — being a flagship product, with all the eye-catching tech and the buzzworthy bells and whistles — the less flashy Pixel 4a is arguably gonna be the one that most people should be eyeing.

Why? Well, Woodrow, it’s simple: Here in these wild times o’ 2019, there’s little reason for most typical phone-owners to spend several hundred dollars on a snazzy new device. Now, that’s a pretty broad statement, and it comes with a couple of caveats:

  1. There are exceptions — those of us who adore mobile technology, appreciate the premium qualities and/or added niceties a high-end phone provides, and are willing and able to drop the extra dough to enjoy ’em. Make no mistake about it, though: We’re the minority.
  2. Spending less on a phone isn’t always advisable. Most midrange-to-budget-level phones have inexcusably bad cameras and receive software updates approximately never. The camera situation isn’t one most people would want in this day and age, and the update situation absolutely isn’t one anyone — especially professionals who care about privacy and security — should accept.

That second caveat is actually a huge part of why the Pixel 4a is likely to be so significant: Assuming it follows the strategy set out with this year’s Pixel 3a (and there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t), it’ll likely bring the same exceptional image-capturing capabilities present in its higher-end sibling into a phone that costs a fraction of the price.

And on the update front, it’ll almost certainly bring the standard Pixel software support experience — which provides an unmatched three full years of guaranteed timely operating system and security updates — into a $400-ish-range device.

Think about that: Most thousand-dollar Android flagship phones come with just two years of OS updates, and those updates tend to arrive a solid six to 12 months late, if at all. Even if you disregard the negative impact of those delays and the always-present risk that a manufacturer may decide to drop support for a phone entirely at any point, a little smart math shows you that a $400 midrange Pixel actually ends up costing about $133 a year over the three years it’ll be updated and thus that it remains fully advisable to use.

That’s a mere 11 bucks a month (taking the $400 total and dividing it by those 36 months of active software support). The regular Pixel 4, with its $800 starting price and the same three years of guaranteed support, ends up costing about $267 a year — or $22 a month over that same span. And a phone like the Galaxy S10, which runs $900 and comes with just two years of guaranteed OS updates, costs you about $450 a year — or $37.50 a month over its period of advisable ownership.

Once you start thinking about the advisable-lifespan value of Android devices, things take on a pretty different appearance. Sure, there are those of us for whom the extra $11 a month for a more premium experience with the higher-end Pixel (even with its various buts attached) is worthwhile — and those of us who are happy, even, to pay the extra $26.50 a month for the hardware-related advantages a high-end Samsung phone provides.

But let’s be honest: Most phone-totin’ humans aren’t gonna notice or care about having the best display as opposed to a pretty decent one. Most gadget-carrying mammals don’t give two hoots about their cellular telephony apparatus having a gorgeous glass back instead of a plainer plastic exterior. And most Android-owning primates are blissfully oblivious to the differences between a high-end processor and whatever silicon comes in a current midranger, especially since those differences aren’t usually at all apparent in typical day-to-day use.

So, yeah: The Pixel 4 may be the exciting model and the one that’s ripe for analysis here in this tech-obsessed geekdom of ours — but we have to remember that we beautiful dorks aren’t the average mobile-tech audience. For most people, the main reasons to avoid a less expensive Android device are usually the subpar camera quality and the lack of post-sales support.

The Pixel 3a took both of those factors out of the equation and consequently became one of the best all-around Android devices available in 2019. And now, a generation later, the Pixel 4a has the potential to build on that same foundation and really do something special — something that could combine the Pixel 4’s strengths with a more affordable package. Such a device probably wouldn’t have all of the Pixel 4’s assets, but it’s easy to imagine it having the ones that matter the most.

And you know what? The absent elements could even be an advantage, in a way. Given the lower-caliber screen such a device is bound to possess and its likely lack of any high-tech radar system for always-on gesture detection, there’s a decent chance a midrange Pixel 4 wouldn’t share its sibling’s stamina-related weakness — something that’s become a bit of an Achilles’ heel for an otherwise exceptional phone.

So don’t tune out yet. Google’s grand hardware reveal may be behind us, but the most important announcement is still ahead — even if it doesn’t end up feeling as monumental in the moment.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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How to Reactivate Windows 10 After a Hardware Change

Windows 10 logo

Did your PC suffer a catastrophic failure requiring new hardware? Have you upgraded to better components and Windows 10 just doesn’t recognize your PC? This guide shows you how to reactivate Windows 10 after a hardware change.

What Counts As a Hardware Change?

That’s an area even Microsoft won’t fully explain. Instead, the company provides this statement on its website:

“If you make significant hardware changes on your device, such as replacing your motherboard, Windows will no longer find a license that matches your device, and you’ll need to reactivate Windows to get it up and running.”

Documents retrieved by Paul Thurrott, however, state that hard drive replacement does not fall under Microsoft’s “substantial change” label.

Digital License for Pre-Built Systems

The big reactivation roadblock likely stems from laptops and desktops pre-built by Acer, Dell, HP, Samsung, and so on. For a long time, these OEMs printed product keys on labels stuck to the PC’s chassis.

Since the days of Windows 8, manufacturers have stored keys in the BIOS or ACPI table (via UEFI) located on the motherboard. If you need to reinstall the operating system for any reason, Windows 10 will retrieve that key during activation.

The move to onboard keys stems from piracy. Microsoft simply doesn’t want customers installing Windows on multiple computers using a single key. The company originally dubbed this one-key-per-device method “digital entitlement” but began using the term “digital license” with Windows 10 Anniversary Update. Keys now link to your Microsoft account.

That said, reactivation can be problematic if you manually replace the motherboard in a pre-built PC. The embedded key is lost, requiring a call to Microsoft to verify the hardware change.

A call to the OEM may be helpful, too, if you originally registered the product and explain the problem. However, Windows 10 for OEMs typically cannot be moved to other PCs.

Product Keys for System Builders

System builders purchase Windows 10 “product keys” directly from retailers, including Amazon, Microsoft, Newegg, and more. They’re either printed, emailed, or stored in an online account.

Customers type these keys into a requested prompt during the Windows 10 setup process. Like OEM-based installs, these keys are tied to Microsoft accounts.

The difference here is that reactivation is less problematic given a product key isn’t embedded in the motherboard. Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t fully explain its “significant hardware change” term.

However, replacing a single component—such as swapping out memory sticks or upgrading a discrete GPU—typically doesn’t lock customers out of Windows 10. But a major overhaul to multiple components could make the PC unrecognizable.

The good news is that system builders can run the Windows 10 Update Troubleshooter to un-assign the product key from the previous PC configuration and reassign it to the new build. Keep in mind that the number of activations is limited.

In short, you can move this license to another PC, but not indefinitely.

Upgrades from Windows 7/8/8.1

In this case, customers don’t have a Windows 10 key, nor is a key embedded in the BIOS or UEFI. Instead, they can apply the same product key used to upgrade to Windows 10. Reactivation will depend on the PC: Is it a pre-built system or hand-built from scratch?

Reactivate Windows 10 Using a Digital License

Use this guide if you’re reinstalling Windows 10 without a printed or emailed product key. If Windows 10 can retrieve your key from the motherboard, then there’s nothing else you need to do. If your PC endured a “significant hardware change” making it unrecognizable, then press on.

If You Reinstall Windows 10 from Scratch

When you first begin reinstalling Windows 10, the setup process prompts you to enter a product key. Since this copy doesn’t have a key, click on the “I Don’t Have a Product Key” link.

Windows 10 Setup Don't Have Product Key Link

Windows 10 will prompt you for the version you own (Home, Pro, etc). After that, select “Custom: Install Windows Only” in the next window. This isn’t an upgrade given you’re starting from scratch.

Custom Windows Install

Follow the setup instructions until you reach the desktop.

If Windows 10 remains intact on a surviving drive, you don’t need to reinstall. Instead, load up Windows 10 and reactivate through the Settings app as explained in the following steps.

Reactivate from Within Windows 10

First, click the Start button followed by the “gear” icon located along the Start Menu’s left edge. This opens the Settings app.

Open Settings App on Start Menu

Click the “Update & Security” tile. You can also hit the “Windows Isn’t Activated. Activate Windows Now” link at the bottom of the Settings app.

Windows 10 Select Update and Security

Select “Activation” listed in the menu to the left. You should see a message on the right stating “Windows Can’t be Activated on Your Device” or something similar. Click the “Troubleshoot” link shown under the warning.

Windows 10 Activation Troubleshoot

In the following popup, click the “I Changed Hardware on This Device Recently” link.

Windows 10 I changed hardware link

Enter your Microsoft account credentials and select the “Sign In” button. You’ll see a list of your devices. Select the device with the changed hardware and check the box next to “This Is the Device I’m Using Right Now.”

Select “Activate” to proceed.

This is the Device I'm Using

Reactivate Windows 10 Using a Product Key

Use this guide if you built a PC from scratch and purchased a copy of Windows 10. This method requires a special key—printed or emailed—to activate Windows 10.

This guide also covers devices with printed product keys stuck to the side, like an older Windows 8.1 laptop upgraded to Windows 10.

If You Reinstall Windows 10 from Scratch

When you first begin reinstalling Windows 10, the setup process prompts you to enter a product key. Enter the code and click the “Next” button.

Activate Windows with Product Key

After that, select “Custom: Install Windows Only” in the next window. This isn’t an upgrade given you’re starting from scratch.

Custom Windows Install

Follow the setup instructions until you reach the desktop.

If Windows 10 remains intact on a surviving drive, you don’t need to reinstall. Instead, load up Windows 10 and reactivate through the Settings app as explained in the following steps.

Reactivate from Within Windows 10

First, click the Start button followed by the “gear” icon located along the Start Menu’s left edge. This opens the Settings app.

Open Settings App on Start Menu

Click the “Update & Security” tile.

Windows 10 Select Update and Security

Select “Activation” listed in the menu to the left and then click the “Change Product Key” link on the right listed under the“Update Product Key” heading.

Windows 10 Activation Change Key

Enter the product key in the pop-up window and click the “Next” button.

Windows 10 Enter Product Key

Reactivate Windows 10 Using Microsoft Chat Support

This isn’t the ideal solution, but if you experience issues reactivating Windows 10 using the previous two methods, you might need to contact Microsoft and explain the situation. You can message a Windows Advisor, schedule a call, or request a callback.

Microsoft’s support line is often very helpful if you’re doing something reasonable. The support staff have leeway to activate a Windows license even if it can’t be activated automatically.

Microsoft’s troubleshooters have made contacting support less necessary these days, but it was traditionally used to solve many activation problems.

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