Report: Microsoft TechDays 2013: Day 1

Disclaimer: This is a cross-post from iDA MediaFoundry, the company I work for.

TechDays is Microsoft’s conference geared toward developers and IT professionals. During the three day lasting event participants are brought up to speed with the latest developments pertaining to Microsoft’s development and cloud platforms. Back-to-back presentations from local and international speakers alike are interspersed with hands-on labs and strolls between the various partners’ booths. The Cronos booth in particular featured its very own barista and was serving hot steaming coffee all day long.

Even though the Microsoft TechDays 2013 conference actually only officially kicked off on March 6, I attended the pre-conference, which was comprised of a whole day of Visual Studio 2012 and Team Foundation Server (TFS) oriented sessions. The former, Visual Studio, is well known to anyone who develops for Microsoft platforms. TFS, however, was a bit of an unknown to me. It turns out to be much more than just a source code repository. Microsoft is positioning TFS as an Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) solution, which includes various testing and project management features. Most of the pre-conference sessions were devoted to ALM, which turned out to be more engaging than it sounds. Here’s a brief breakdown of the sessions I attended on March 5, 2013.

Deep Dive Modern ALM with Visual Studio 2012: It’s a Team Sport

This was the pre-conference’s very first session, presented by Brian Keller, Principal Technical Evangelist for Microsoft (http://blogs.msdn.com/b/briankel/). Keller introduced us to Application Lifecycle Management, a management concept which encompasses all phases a software product’s development: design, development, testing and operations. Microsoft’s solution is called Team Foundation Server and is often misconstrued as merely a source control system. While this is certainly part of what TFS has to offer, it also provides a number of other features like sprint, build and test management. In summary, TFS is a centralized project management tool which integrates source control, bug reporting, test management, sprint planning and pretty much everything else that’s involved with keeping tabs on the progress of a software development project. It goes without saying that this system depends on a mostly Microsoft/Windows-based architecture, although Visual Studio and TFS now also deeply integrate with Git for version control and Selenium for cross-browser UI testing. Keller briefly demoed features like sprint boards, the Kanban board and burn-down charts. Another thing TFS supports QA-teams with is collecting feedback from stakeholders. Visual Studio can be used in tandem with Microsoft Test Manager to manage customer feedback collected by a desktop application which records diagnostic information, screenshots and video screen captures.

Brian subsequently went on to discuss a couple of the most important new features in Visual Studio 2012:

  • Revamped unit testing support, now extensible by design with adapters for many 3rd party unit test frameworks, e.g. XUnit, NUnit, etc.
  • Team Explorer > My Work with the ability to shelve ongoing file changes and Visual Studio application state
  • Integrated code-review process support in Visual Studio 2012
  • Updated code diff-tool
  • Code clone analysis: quickly surface copy-pasted code throughout Visual Studio 2012 solutions, including fine-grained as well as coarse-grained filtering
  • IntelliTrace can now be installed on production servers for enhanced in-the-field debugging (supports breakpoints)

A couple of upcoming new features for VS 2012 Update 2 are:

  • Tools for Git, which will allow Visual Studio and TFS to integrate with any Git repository, including those hosted on GitHub and BitBucket
  • Updated Test Hub

Brian Keller also tipped us off on the Team Foundation Service being free for the first 5 users. In addition, he also mentioned that all other users above the first 5 are also free until the platform preview ends.

TFS in the Cloud or TFS on-premises?

The second session I attended was hosted by Marcel de Vries, a Microsoft MVP for ALM based out of The Netherlands (https://twitter.com/marcelv). In line with Microsoft’s shift to cloud computing, TFS is offered in two flavors: on-premises and cloud-based. De Vries’ talk was based around a demo of the cloud-based version of TFS, dubbed Team Foundation Service, and a concluding comparison of both flavors. Interestingly, Marcel demonstrated how TFS integrates tightly with services deployed on Azure. Additionally, when TFS and Azure are combined, developers can make use of hosted build servers (at Microsoft’s datacenters). These build “farms” currently support Visual Studio’s major built-in build templates, including Windows Phone 8 and TypeScript. Windows Store builds are curiously missing. For more exotic build types one can set up a local build machine and link it up to the TFS instance in the cloud.

Testing with MTM 2012 and Lab Management

Once more presented by Brian Keller, this session took a closer look at Microsoft Test Manager and Microsoft Lab Manager. Test Manager is a tool which has extensive support for manual testing. It provides a convenient interface for managing test cases and test steps. It supports the QA engineer with step recording and playback, whilst logging diagnostic information for later reference by developers. In addition to formal testing based on test cases, MTM also provides functionality for managing ad-hoc, exploratory testing.

Lab Manager provides tooling for running automated tests on virtual machines which run on Hyper-V or other virtualization platforms (e.g. VMWare, VirtualBox, etc.).

Cross-browser CodedUI Test Automation

Presented by Marcel de Vries. CodedUI tests enable developers and testers to create automated UI tests for applications developed for the web or .NET platforms like Silverlight, WPF and WinForms. Windows Phone support is missing. In order to access and manipulate UI elements, CodedUI tests use Windows’ accessibility framework which was originally intended for use by persons with disabilities to provide features like screen reading. Microsoft recently added compatibility with Selenium, which enables wider browser compatibility, i.e. Firefox and Chrome (in addition to Internet Explorer, of course). Tests can also be parameterized using @-annotations.

Behavior Driven Development was described as one of the best practices compatible with the CodedUI Framework. A small hands-on session demonstrated the use of a code-first approach to implementing BDD’s “Given-When-Then” structure.

Lab Management

Pieter Gheysens hosted the last session of the day specifically about Lab Management. He is a member of VISUG, the Visual Studio User Group, which organizes 10-15 user group meetings per year. Lab Management should be seen as an addition to TFS, which extends the build management functionality provided by Microsoft Test Manager. It is used to provision test environments. It allows quick spawning of virtual machines based on pre-set VM templates. In order to make use of these features, however, you or your organization will need a license for Visual Studio Premium or higher. Next, Gheysens took the time to elaborate on the added-value of Lab Management with Microsoft Test Manager.

Software continues to become more complex and with it, so do bugs. The time and effort required to reproduce potential bugs keeps rising and is thus making software development increasingly more expensive. By focusing on controlling quality in the early stages of development, the cost of resolving bugs decreases. Because Lab Management deals with the provisioning of production-like environments, it has the potential to bridge the gap between development/test teams and devops teams. Ultimately this will shorten cycle times and increase collaboration between the aforementioned teams. Subsequently it enables “deployment readiness”, i.e. the ability to push releases to customers faster and more reliably. Before diving into his extensive demo, Pieter Gheysens enumerated the top three reasons why bugs are so difficult to solve:

  1. Poor documentation: testers often don’t properly document the steps to reproduce
  2. Lack of visibility: developers often don’t have a clear understanding of all of the conditions the QA-team is testing in
  3. Environment/configuration differences between dev, test and devops

This article first appeared here.

Hover.com Review

Hover.com is a nifty little domain registrar I heard about on one of Leo Laporte’s podcasts. This company is actually run by Tucows Inc. – a rather well known Internet establishment, famous for its software download portal, and its recent foray into the mobile world with Ting.com. Hover strives to simplify domain name and email address management without dumbing it down to the point that the user loses control. In addition, Hover goes to great lengths in providing its customers with first class telephone and online support.

If you’re prospecting, I can assure you these aren’t tall tales. I have moved all of my domains and e-mail over to Hover.com in recent weeks. They’re dependable and affordable at $15 per domain.

Domain names are the web’s plumbing of sorts – casual internet users pay little attention to them, after all, what’s in a name? However, more advanced users realize the added-value of good domain names. Because their lifetime can span multiple years – or in some cases – decades, I recently decided to consolidate my domains and e-mail addresses and move them to a single, trustworthy registrar. This turned out to be Hover.com.

Dumping (on?) Go daddy

Of late, most of my hosting and DNS were managed by Go Daddy, a dirt-cheap and [slightly] lackluster provider based out of Arizona, USA. Go Daddy also appears to be one of the main competitors Hover is trying to target: they provide meticulous guides for Go Daddy customers on topics like unlocking domains, getting authorization codes and the like. Hover is quite clearly touting ease-of-use as its main vector for winning over Go Daddy users. And rightfully so: Go Daddy’s website must be the world’s most convoluted and hairy management interface ever. It turned out to be the single most irritating thing about the whole experience – it’s just so damn hard to figure out!

To be fair, Go Daddy did serve its purpose. Their “buy a domain and throw in hosting and email for free”-approach enabled me to own a bunch of domains and email aliases for next to nothing. But, I got what I bargained for in the end – a lousy management interface and non-existent support. Times have changed, however, and Hover fills in the gaps nicely, albeit at a marginally higher cost.

The Good

Fast and easy signup. True to Hover’s credo, the signup process was a frictionless experience. They make a point out of not upselling their other products and services. You only get what you ask for, and in this case that’s a good thing. There’s a fine line between apropos upselling and a downright bombardment of useless offers.

Sadly, Go Daddy falls right into the latter category. Even though these schemes allow for the occasional lightning deal, the customer is burdened with diligently reading the fine print before clicking “Next”. More often than not, customers are left behind somewhat distraught, and uncertain of their purchase.

Easy management interface. As stated above, administration of domain names and e-mail addresses is multitudes more convenient than some of the competition (I won’t harp on Go Daddy any further).

Customer service. While I haven’t required Hover’s telephone support services so far, I can vouch for their online support portal. The turnaround for e-mail based inquiries is one business day or less. They also follow up your request with care if required.

Transfer pricing at just $10. Customers who move over their domain get a great deal: one year over the existing renewal date for just 10 USD. You can optionally let Hover take care of all the transfer hassle free of charge.

[update] Free WHOIS/domain privacy. As Michael Yurechko mentions in the comments, Hover also offers WHOIS privacy at no additional cost, a service other registrars often charge for. With WHOIS privacy, your contact information is hidden from the public WHOIS registry. Hover’s administrative contact information is displayed instead. This keeps spam and other unsolicited email at bay. Thanks for the note, Michael!

The Bad

Regular pricing is slightly more expensive at $15 per year, per domain. Not quite the bargain when competing registrars come in at a lower price point, e.g. Go Daddy charges $13 for the first year (and $15 for subsequent renewals).

Mailbox pricing at $20 per e-mail address, per year. One sore point with Hover is the rather steep e-mail pricing. Even if all you’re doing is forward to another address, the same pricing structure is upheld. Go Daddy throws in e-mail for mere pennies. Put into perspective, on the other hand, one might argue that $1.67/month/mailbox is hardly a heist. It just depends on how many of them you intend to own, I guess.

No hosting. This is by no means a criticism; I was just dismayed to realize their great service does not extend to web hosting. Hover directs its customers to a select group of specialized hosting companies like SquareSpace and MediaTemple instead.

Diaspora* invites coming soon

It seems Diaspora* is still alive and kicking (what’s with the * anyway?) and about to hand out alpha invites. I received this e-mail recently:

Dear Friend of Diaspora* –

Thanks for your interest in being part of the Diaspora* community. You may not have heard from us in a while, but we’ve been working hard, head-down. We’ve built the first stage of a new social web, one better than what’s out there today: a place where each of us owns our own information, where each person controls his or her own privacy, where no-one is a product, and where we all control our own destinies.

We’re sending out alpha invitations now, as quickly as we can. If you haven’t gotten yours yet, you will receive it by the end of October.

There’s been big news in the social networking world recently, and we can’t help but be pleased with the impact our work has had on two of the biggest developments. We’re proud that Google+ imitated one of our core features, aspects, with their circles. And now Facebook is at last moving in the right direction with user control over privacy, a move spurred not just by Google+, but more fundamentally by you and thousands of other donors, as well as hundreds of thousands of people who’ve lined up to try Diaspora* — that is, by all of us who’ve stood up to say “there has to be a better way.” We’re making a difference already.

And aspects is just one of the many ways we’re pioneering the future of the social web.

Here’s a quick preview of some of the other ways:

  • We’ll make the social web more fun than it is today.
  • Our distributed design gives you the security of owning your own identity and data.
  • This also gives you the freedom to do what you want online.
  • Our ecosystem provides the commons, the connective tissue for an evolving social web.
  • We’re not gatekeepers, so our ecosystem will always support the latest apps.

We’ll tell you a little more about each of these points in the weeks ahead.

And we’ll keep working to get your alpha invitation to you just as quickly as we can.

Until then, thanks again for your interest in Diaspora*.

Sincerely,
– Maxwell, Daniel, Ilya, Sarah, Yosem and Peter

The Diaspora* team
Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Do we have room for another social network besides Facebook, Twitter and Google+? Interesting enough, regardless of whether this initiative has potential or not.

Solved: “You do not have sufficient permissions to access this page”

I have been locked out of my blog for weeks due to an obscure bug with WordPress and MySQL. Each time I attempted to access the admin side of WordPress I kept getting the following error message:

“You do not have sufficient permissions to access this page.”

I tried a million and one proposed solutions on the net, to no avail. It turns out this happened after an automatic upgrade of WordPress (from 3.0 to 3.0.1, I think) during which the installer attempted to upgrade the database tables. This is where I suspect things went awry. Here is the solution.

Table wp_usermeta is marked as crashed and last automatic repair failed

During one of my searches, I found out wp_usermeta was somehow corrupted. You can determine whether this is the case for you when clicking on the table on the left-hand side in PHPMyAdmin. You will see this message with no other explanation.

To solve this all you need to do is go back to the root page of your database by clicking it’s name on the sidebar. You will see a listing of all your tables. wp_usermeta will be listed and most likely will be showing a red bar with a message to the effect of “in use”.

Click the checkmark next to wp_usermeta and select “Repair” from the “With Selected:” drop-down.

Don’t ask me what repair does or how WordPress managed to screw up this way, I just hope this helps anyone out there finding themselves locked out over night.

Let me know!

HTML5: “No actual W3C Recommendation status until at least 2022” ???

This InfoWorld article talks briefly about the promise of HTML5 and the potential problems with it due its slow-moving standards body WHATWG. The acknowledgement that HTML5 won’t really be finalized until 2022 made me blink twice. Or thrice. Seriously, 2022? What good is a web standard if it’s always going to be behind by decades? Also note that development on HTML5 was started as far back as 2004, and we’re only now seeing little bits and pieces being implemented by browser makers.

This prospect has completely killed off any enthusiasm I had for HTML5. It seems that in the ever changing world of the web, HTML5 will never be able to live up to its promises. Its development is just too slow. This eye-opener neatly ties into the remainder of the article, which comprises of a thorough side-by-side comparison of the leading RIA framework providers Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight.

When faced with the naked facts of HTML5’s preemptive failure, the grumblings in the industry about RIA platforms dying, are becoming more and more unfounded. It seems only proprietary frameworks like Flash and Silverlight can provide excellent development and design tools, desperately needed by the RIA developer community. These frameworks at least provide a consistent environment in which rich internet apps can run, guaranteeing they’ll look and feel the same across browsers and operating systems. This is something I don’t see happening with HTML5 any time soon.

Any web developer will acknowledge the fact that developing with HTML, CSS and JavaScript is an utter pain in the butt. There are huge inconsistencies to work around with markup, CSS, fonts and JavaScript code. My brain hurts when I think about it. I had hopes for HTML5. Not anymore though.

The very nature of the web, the fact that it’s so ad-hoc, makes it difficult yet interesting to develop for. No, I won’t stop developing web apps. But I won’t dismiss RIA either. Each technology has its uses and perks. The trick is to choose the right tech for the right right. Don’t ditch proprietary (and often superior) platforms just because HTML5 is the “open” way to go. It will impair your ability to deliver truly innovative web apps/RIAs.

For now, Flash and Silverlight are still superior to anything HTML5 has to offer. And it’s going to stay that way for a while, I think. A long while.

Find my original posting at Amplify.
My tweet.

iTV: Another Apple Merry-Go-Round

Ah yes. It’s that time of the year again: Apple rumor-time! And this time around it’s all about the new Apple TV – or iTV as it’s now being called. The revamp is supposedly going to make its debut in September, and will undoubtedly conjure up a myriad of superlatives related to its magnificence. May I amuse you with a succinct listing of some the qualities currently attributed to this (for now) non-existent device? As I’m sure you won’t mind to know, this “innovative”, “magical”, “incredible”, “unbelievable” new device will purportedly run Apple’s iOS and will aim to be a streaming device with extremely limited storage space (4GB). Rumored price? 99 USD.

Important? I sure don’t think so.
Geeks like you and me naturally adore the idea of hooking up an Internet-connected device to a TV. This rumored Utopian device (grin) could enable the TV-watching crowd to stream a whole lot of other stuff into the living room besides static television programming. Yes. We could have easy access to YouTube, podcasts, photo sharing sites like Flickr and Picasa, Farmville and on-demand video. We could browse the wide-open Internet comfortably from our cozy armchair.. And we could have apps. Hundreds of thousands of apps and games, which are already available from the App Store.

STOP! Reality check. If we’re honest, we know this won’t gain any traction. Ever (well, not in the foreseeable future). Why? The answer is two-fold.

One: adding another set top box is just too complicated for “normal” users. Most folks can hardly work out which buttons to press in sequence in order to get the cable box turned on. Let alone switch over to a different box for the Internet-connected stuff. Also, a television is expected to behave like an appliance – it should be an instant-on experience. It surely shouldn’t crash, freeze or require a reboot every so often.

Two: cost versus value-add. Will the features that an iTV-like device adds be enough for the average consumer to put down another 100 – 150 USD, on top of their current cable box and DVD/Blu-Ray player? Additionaly, a box like this would probably incur subscription fees for premium content, e.g. from HBO.

Aside from the conceptual issues, there’s still Apple to deal with. Sure, they have the power to strike deals with content creators to deliver great content. But Apple being Apple, they’ll undoubtedly want to keep their draconian clutches snugly around the product, most likely making it as limited as the iPhone and iPad. So don’t expect this thing to take off in a meaningful way any time soon.

Note: I furthermore resent the idea that people think that apps are (or should be) taking over regular websites/web apps on these devices. As many others have already opined, this negatively impacts the open internet because Apple’s app ecosystem is designed to censor and limit the user’s view of the net. In my humble opinion, the future of the Internet still lies in freedom and choice. Devices like the iPhone, iPad, and perhaps iTV should integrate with the Internet, not become a sub-Internet.

Note: I own Apple products. So yes, I can slam Apple if I choose to.

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