Sudden problems signing into Windows Live Messenger

Starting a couple of days ago I was suddenly unable to sign into Windows Live Messenger.  The signin graphic would just spin endlessly, or I’d get a “service not available” message.

In case you have also run into this (many have), Microsoft did a bad thing (supposedly now fixed), and the effect is that bad data may have been cached on your PC, which prevents you from being able to log in.

Here’s some info on the problem.

The solution if you are using Windows Live Messenger 8.0.x is to delete the registry key HKCU\Software\Microsoft\MSNMessenger\Policies.  As always, don’t attempt this if you are not comfortable editing the Windows registry.

Another related issue they describe is specific to ZoneAlarm firewall users, and that one is pending a fix as of this writing.  They suggest dropping back to an older version of Messenger until that fix is available, so hopefully the registry key will fix it for you.

Internal Microsoft Tools Available to the Public

One of the coolest resources that Microsoft employees have is an internal website filled with hundreds and hundreds of small but useful apps and utilities, many of which were written by Microsoft employees.  Sadly, few of the tools are made available outside of Microsoft, but here are a bunch that have made it out and places to look for more.

Fiddler: In the author’s own words: “Fiddler is a HTTP Debugging Proxy which logs all HTTP traffic between your computer and the Internet. Fiddler allows you to inspect all HTTP Traffic, set breakpoints, and “fiddle” with incoming or outgoing data. Fiddler is designed to be much simpler than using NetMon or Achilles, and includes a simple but powerful JScript.NET event-based scripting subsystem.”

Sandcastle: This is the actual tool that Microsoft uses to generate the .NET Framework’s MSDN-style documentation.  NDoc works fairly well, but Sandcastle is the new tool of choice for building help files.

FxCop: The same tool behind “Code Analysis” functionality in select Visual Studio 2005 Editions, this is one of the most important tools for .NET software developers. This outstanding tool analyzes managed code assemblies for over 200 types of defects, and will point out all kinds of “gotchas” that you never would have noticed on your own.

LogParser: A truly amazing tool, LogParser allows you to write SQL queries against data stored in random files in all kinds of different formats, including XML, CSV and various IIS log formats, and it can write the results to lots of different formats — all without loading the data into a database! If it doesn’t support the format you need, you can write an extension for it.

WiX: One of the first, if not the first, internal Microsoft tool to go open-source.  A set of command-line utilities that build MSI/MSM files from XML command files.  Great for building installers in an automated build process.

RoboCopy and much more: RoboCopy is a very powerful and reliable file copy/move tool that also includes directory synchronization.  It is packaged with dozens of other great tools in the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit Tools package.  (Many of the tools do not require Windows Server 2003.)

One of the newest and fastest-growing places to find Microsoft-created tools is CodePlex, Microsoft’s newest “community development” website. There is no good way to determine exactly which projects originate from Microsoft, but some are clearly stated. One of the tools you will find here is the Team Foundation Server Administration Tool.

Some tools turn up on the official Microsoft website as unsupported downloads.  For example, Lookout, released in early 2005, is an Outlook add-in that lets you quickly search all types of Outlook and file system data.  Not very useful, perhaps, in this age of Windows Desktop Search and Google Desktop, but it’s an example of what you can find if you dig around in Microsoft Downloads.

Browse the GotDotNet User Samples area — look for the Microsoft logo next to the sample title.  XML tools and Web Service tools are also available on GotDotNet.

Know of more useful tools that originated inside Microsoft?  Please share them!

About the SQL Server 2005 Post-SP1 Cumulative Rollup

If you’re ready to install SQL Server 2005 SP1, you should also be aware of the recently-released cumulative hotfix package (build 2153).  Unfortunately, Microsoft has created an unusual situation that is bound to lead to confusion.

SQL Server 2005 SP1 was released less than a month ago, yet we already have a post-SP1 hotfix package that includes a significant number of additional fixes (33+).  There are two things that stand out with this release.

First, the update files are available for public download, whereas in normal practice the article describes the fixes and says “contact PSS to obtain this update.”  Second, the article does not contain the usual disclaimer of “install this update only if you are experiencing the problem described.”  However, it also notably lacks a statement recommending its installation.  As a result, there is neither a negative nor a positive statement about whether it should be widely installed.

So what do you do?  My recommendation is to always install SP1 and this cumulative update package together (and in that order).

As I had suspected, this odd timing was just a result of Microsoft’s release schedule, and the updates in this rollup didn’t quite make the SP1 cutoff.  You don’t need to take my word for it — Euan Garden of the SQL Server product team anticipated the confusion.

How to install?  This should go without saying, but it’s worth the time to back up your databases first, including the master and msdb databases, and to install these updates on a test server before updating your production server.  Install SP1 first, reboot if required, then install the cumulative update and read the directions first.  This update comes in six separate files that must be installed in a specific order, namely, the top-to-bottom order in which they are listed in the KB article.

Microsoft’s Marketing Missteps. Will They Never End?

Microsoft continues to be the software industry’s leading producer of inept marketing strategies.  Where do their marketing “experts” come from, and how do they keep their jobs?  Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer are brilliant, yet they appear just as clueless about marketing by allowing these ridiculous plans to see the light of day.

With Windows XP we have Home Edition, Professional, Media Center and Tablet PC Edition.  Media Center never should have existed, because it is simply XP Professional with another application (called Media Center) installed, and a few extra device drivers for the infrared receiver and TV tuner cards.  Media Center is only available with a new PC.  Is there any logic behind this whatsoever?

In Windows Vista, Media Center functionality is integrated into most of the product line, and can be purchased after the fact.  I guess someone at Microsoft couldn’t figure this one out sooner.  (And by the way, if you’re buying a new PC and have a choice between Professional and Media Center, always choose Media Center because it literally is Professional — without the higher price tag.)

Now, to just make things even more convoluted, Windows Vista is arriving with SIX versions!  Yes, SIX!  They are: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, Enterprise, and of course Ultimate, because the goal is to confuse your customers as much as humanly possible!  Oh, and there are two more versions just for European customers that don’t include Media Player, but you can thank the EU antitrust courts for those.  For at least some of these versions, when Joe Consumer gets it home and installs it, then realizes that he doesn’t have the feature that he wanted in the first place, he can hop online and buy it as a download direct from Microsoft.  Gee, thanks!

Visual Studio 2005 and Team Foundation Server (altogether known as Team System, not to be confused with Team Suite. Sigh…) packaging and licensing is a complete and utter disaster.  Did you know that there is a 50+ page whitepaper for partners that attempts to describe how the licensing works?  It is THAT complicated and THAT convoluted.  The products are overpriced and on a path to failure unless Microsoft gets its act together.  Your average development shop is not going to be able to afford TFS, leaving Fortune 1000 sized corporations as the main customers.  Microsoft’s own (highly valued?) partners, even at the Gold level, do not get licenses for TFS.  Instead, we get a 180 day trial version and a full version of Visual SourceSafe 2005.  Terrific.

There are four different “Editions” of Visual Studio 2005 – “for Software Architects,” “for Software Developers,” “for Software Testers” and “Team Suite” which puts the three former editions together in one box – and is the only one worth buying.  I’m an architect and a developer, and the only way I can use the new architect tools while taking advantage of developer tools like unit testing is with Team Suite, which naturally costs a lot more.  Since my client doesn’t have Team Suite, I had to go with the “for Software Developers” edition and forgo all of the new architecture tools.  I could have used them to design the system we just finished building.  Thanks Microsoft.

You must be thinking that it couldn’t get any worse.  Rest assured that it does: BizTalk 2006 and Windows Workflow Foundation (WWF).  Microsoft just got done putting a huge marketing push behind BizTalk, even including it in the massive VS 2005/SQL 2005 product launch.  At about the same time, they started making a big deal about WWF.  Brilliant timing.

Everyone knows that WWF is going to handle some of the same things that BizTalk does, primarily “orchestrations,” and be easily extensible.  The perception is that WWF is new and cool and the future direction for workflow apps, so why use BizTalk?  BizTalk already had a bad reputation for ease of use in the development tools.  To compound the problem, all of the BizTalk bloggers/authors/speakers dropped BizTalk in a flash, and most are now writing and speaking about WWF.  There are already multiple WWF books coming out.  In contrast, only one BizTalk 2004 book has ever been published, and the main author was Microsoft’s (at the time) product manager for BizTalk.

I believe that BizTalk Server 2006 is going to go nowhere except to those companies already using BTS 2004 or older.  Microsoft’s skilled marketers killed any potential growth for BizTalk 2006 with WWF.  The only hope is that in BizTalk v.Next, when WWF replaces the orchestration engine, it will still be alive as a viable product.

You can look beyond all of these examples to Office, .NET (remember when every new product was announced as XYZ.NET Server?), ActiveX and any number of other cases in Microsoft’s history to see the continued incompetence of their marketing departments.  It’s frustrating to watch, and it never ceases to amaze me that even Gates and Ballmer don’t get it.

Share and Synchronize Files for Free, Courtesy of Microsoft

With Microsoft buying up companies and not always merging them into the Microsoft brand, it’s easy to miss some great Microsoft services.  In November 2005, Microsoft purchased FolderShare, a service for synchronizing and sharing files across multiple devices.  FolderShare was a subscription service, but no more — Microsoft made it free.

FolderShare seems like a terrific service.  No more ZIPping and emailing large files!  No more burning CDs and then tossing them!  Forgot your USB key?  No problem.  FolderShare lets you share files up to 2 GB in size, and at least for now, there are no limits on quantity or size of files transferred.  Hard to believe it’s really free.  Maybe Microsoft will eventually make it a Windows Live subscription service.  Until then, enjoy!

SharePoint Portal Server 2003 SP2, or How Not to Design a Service Pack

Microsoft released SharePoint Portal Server 2003 Service Pack 2 (SP2) in October 2005, following the weeks-earlier release of Windows SharePoint Services Service Pack 2 (SP2).  I was hoping to get .NET Framework 2.0 installed on our SPS Web server for other purposes, so I was hoping that Microsoft addressed the .NET Framework 2.0 incompatibilities with SP2.  It looked promising because WSS SP2 specifically mentioned ASP.NET 2.0 support.

After reviewing the release notes and backing up the portals and sites with the SharePoint Portal Server Data Backup and Restore tool, I installed WSS SP2.  It installed cleanly with no issues, so I was off to a good start.

Next was the SPS SP2 install.  Microsoft’s Office team has produced a lot of complicated service packs in the past.  They should know how to do it right.  Clearly this is a different team, because the folks that signed off on QA and user experience for this one deserve to be fired.  Running this service pack produces the familiar Windows Installer progress dialog, which runs for a while and then disappears.  There is no confirmation when it finishes — no matter whether it succeeds, fails, or falls somewhere in between.

It turns out there are two phases to the SPS 2003 SP2 installer.  The first phase upgrades SharePoint Portal Server’s program installation with SP2 files.  The second phase goes through each of your portal sites and attempts a database upgrade on each one.  This is where my four hour struggle began.

The only way you can tell if your SP2 install succeeded, or to what degree, is to read the event log.  You MUST do this.  Search the Application event log for an event that contains text similar to this:

Attempted to apply update to SharePoint Portal Server 2003 portal sites.
Number of portal sites: value
Number of portal sites attempted: value
Number of portal sites successfully updated: value
Not run: value

In my case, this is what I found:

Attempted to apply update to SharePoint Portal Server 2003 portal sites.
Number of portal sites: 1
Number of portal sites attempted: 1
Number of portal sites successfully updated: 0
Not run: 0
Consult the ReadMe file included with this patch, or *_spsadmin.log for more details.

Once again, looking for this “successfully updated” mismatch with “attempted” in the Event Log is the only way you will know the result of your SP2 install.

Next stop was \Program Files\SharePoint Portal Server\Logs, where I found logs that contained the same text and some unhelpful .NET exceptions.  In order to make SPS retry the database upgrade, you have to edit the registry.  [WHAT?!?  Yes, it’s true.]  Here’s a KB article that describes the registry modification.  I probably made this change 30 times over the next 3-4 hours.

I eventually found an obscure WSS/SPS KB article or two (unrelated to SP2) while grasping at straws, ended up restoring my sites and portal from the backup, and eventually managed to get it to upgrade the database successfully.  It was not a pleasant experience.  After all that work, it looks like SP2 may have added or modified one app.exe.config file for Framework 2.0 compatibility.  It’s possible that there were other changes, but SPS portals remain incompatible with ASP.NET 2.0.  Do not run your portal sites under ASP.NET 2.0 (I tried for a while).

Please do not skip your backups before these upgrades, and be ready for possible troubles.

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