High Availability in SQL Server Standard Edition (or Semi-Lack Thereof)

SQ Server 2012 brought about some major changes to the various High Availability schemes supported by the product. The most major of these is the introduction of AlwaysOn Availability Groups. As described early in that MSDN article, these can be over-simplified summed up as “enterprise-level database mirroring.” This is not quite the same thing as the existing Failover Clustering (which is still available), although AGs do require and run on a cluster.

From a Business Intelligence perspective, it’s a somewhat different situation: Analysis Services is cluster-aware, so it can be used in a Failover Clustering situation. SSRS has scale-out capabilities, which, if architected with it in mind, can provide some form of redundancy. SSIS has nothing built-in for high availability, which one could expect for an ETL solution (I could go on for a while about why HA ETL is dicey, but that’s not what we’re here for). AlwaysOn AGs don’t exist for any of these products, possibly because what the feature is/does doesn’t make sense for anything except, I would argue, SSAS. I’m mostly not here today to talk about BI HA, but I will come back to it briefly.

2012 ChangeS, Plural

With the introduction of AGs as “beefy mirroring”, it didn’t make sense to continue to support multiple, awfully similar, features. The result is Database Mirroring, introduced in SQL Server 2005, is deprecated as of SQL Server 2012. It’s not in the “Next Version” list, since this is the first time it has appeared, so there are at least two major version releases before it will go away entirely. (With SQL 2014 announced last week at TechEd North America, stay tuned for its documentation release to see if Mirroring has moved closer to death.)

The point is, it will be going away. What to do? Logic would suggest the intended migration path for DB Mirroring users would be to move to AlwaysOn AGs. Sounds like a good enough idea. I mean, since as mentioned, Microsoft themselves describes it as enterprise-grade mirroring, Standard does do two-node clustering, so let’s do that!

When They Said “Enterprise”, They Really Meant It

There is a potential problem with that logic. Specifically if one has been using (or would like to start using) the synchronous-only flavor of DB Mirroring available in the Standard edition of SQL Server, the available options have gotten realllly thin. See, AlwaysOn AGs aren’t available in the Standard Edition of SQL Server; at least not in 2012. This means if a company is running a few mission-critical DBs in a mirroring setup with Standard edition all-around, that setup’s upgrade path is very limited: in order to keep it, they wouldn’t be able to upgrade past whatever future version is the last one that includes Mirroring. For any other company who would like to deploy such a setup in the future, there will be a point in time when they won’t be able to—the feature won’t exist in their desired Edition of SQL Server.

Unless, of course, they want to upgrade to Enterprise. That’s…well…expensive. It always has been, but for most modern hardware, it’s a bigger jump from Standard to Enterprise than it used to be. There are plenty of other reasons worth spending the extra money to upgrade to Enterprise, but just because a system or DB is nosebleed-mission-critical doesn’t mean it’s huge, requiring table partitioning or something to run well. Especially at a small-to-midsize company, HA might be the only Enterprise Edition features needed. Is it worth the money? Wouldn’t it be nice if things stayed closer to how they are now?

What Should it Look Like?

This is the whole point of why I’m here: What do I want the HA situation to look like in Standard Edition?

I do not believe that High Availability options not named “Log Shipping” should be Enterprise-only. At least not entirely. I’m not saying Microsoft should make all four secondaries (eight in 2014) available in Standard. Nor am I 100% convinced that they should be readable in Standard like they are in Enterprise. I think that a single secondary, living on a second instance on the other node of that 2-node cluster allowed in Standard, usable for failover purposes only, would do the trick.

This starts to look similar to the mirroring setup currently available in Standard, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I don’t think we should get everything without having to pay for it—ie, all of the nice fancy stuff in Standard. There are features that 100% should be only available in Enterprise. Full-on readable secondaries, with SSRS reports or SSIS load jobs pointed at them, is one of those things that should require a fatter check to MSFT.

Semi-Related BI Commentary

Since I’m filling out the SQL Server section of my Christmas List, I was going to say it would be nice to have AlwaysOn AGs for SSAS, too. After thinking about that for 15 more seconds, I realized that was dumb, since, due to the nature of SSAS, it would be pretty pointless—we would get the same thing out of some kind of scale-out architecture.

Such an architecture already exists, but I think it is terribly kludgey and almost has to be fragile in practice. So, why not make a “real” scale-out system based on the AG architecture? SSAS is cluster-aware already; just need some kind of thing to automate copying of the freshly-processed data from the Primary (“Data Processing Server” in that article) to the Secondaries (“Data Access Servers”). Add some awareness of this process to the existing AG listener process/service, and boom! I’ve never had to deal with quite that big of an SSAS environment, so this might be a terrible idea, but it sounds good in my head!

Except…I would expect this to be Enterprise Edition-only functionally. Sooo…nevermind.

Microsoft Surface RT: How is it?

Almost split my writing about the Surface into two posts, because, apparently, I have a lot of thoughts about it. Possibly still should have, as this puppy is almost 2500 words. I didn’t, so y’all are stuck with it!

We got our Surface on release day, Friday, as promised, even though I got pretty nervous by Thursday since we hadn’t heard anything about it. I had preordered it on the second day it was available, even though my original plan was to wait until whatever media embargo was in place to read reviews (primarily Ars’) before jumping onboard. As it turned out, sometime on the first evening, the standalone Surface went on 3-week backorder. At that point, I was worried that the others would do the same (my plan was to get the 32 gig with the Touch cover bundle), so I went ahead and pulled the trigger.

After the weekend working with it a little bit, I’ve decided that it is generally a good device, although it does have some issues (some fairly glaring). There are some things that it does fairly well. Altogether, I can classify points as good, bad, and ugly.

The Good

Of course, there’s the hardware. Overall, it’s fairly awesome. It’s pretty thin, the screen looks really great—considering what resolution it actually runs at—and although it’s a little cramped and unstable, you can use it on your lap like a laptop, as long as you sit still and don’t do anything weird with your legs. The fit and finish seem really great at first, although it does show some fingerprints on its metal bits.

On the hardware front, but a somewhat separate topic, is the keyboard. All I can talk about is the Touch Cover, but it gets the job done. I’m not sure if I’d want to type on it all day, because I sometime find myself hitting the “keys” a lot harder than I need to, which, if it’s sitting on a hard surface, makes the muscles in my hands/fingers hurt. I’ve been trying to train myself to not beat on it so hard, because you don’t actually need to—it registers intended key presses fairly well. There are some issues with it, though, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Moving on to the Software, in general, I just like having a Windows tablet again. It’s even better that it’s an OS that is actually designed to live on such a form factor, as opposed to XP (and later Vista) that no matter what anyone said (including me), just wasn’t really all that great.

For as much as the split-brain nature of Windows 8 is a bit annoying on the desktop (or a regular laptop), it really comes into its own on a touch-centric tablet. Almost all of the things that seem goofy on the desktop, including the Start Screen “Modern” interface itself, either aren’t as glaring or outright make sense.

Split-screen view of two apps on Windows 8 RT

Rowi, a Twitter client, running in the left-hand narrow band, while Metro IE sits in the main

One of the things that always seemed borderline-useless on the multi-monitor machine I have been running 8 on, is the split-screen multitasking view that the Modern UI has. It has turned into what is probably my favorite feature of the OS after using Surface. It also makes up for some of the disadvantages of the 16×9 aspect ratio of the monitor. What I find myself doing is running a Twitter app in the narrow piece on the left while I do work/other thing on the right. This is a feature that really differentiates Windows 8 from other Tablet OSes. It’s pretty smart in that when you swipe in from the left to switch apps, the “main” app is the one that gets switched, leaving whatever is in the sidebar alone.

Both applications are fully interactable (whoops, I’m making up words again) when in this state. The only problem is if the app isn’t rigged to behave in split-screen mode. Rowi there does pretty good in both wide and narrow split screen sides. The Desktop doesn’t, so much—in fact, in narrow mode, it just shows Aero-peek-esque window thumbnails, which is of dubious usefulness; better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, though. Overall performance of the machine is very smooth and fluid. I was skeptical of how smoothly app switching was demo’d–I never thought the rapid-fire swiping in from the left, cycling through all of the currently-running apps would go as well as it did in the demos, but it really does! We have seen some slow behavior when doing setup tasks—things like setting up email. Doing one of Tammy’s Gmail accounts caused it to just sit there and apparently process after putting in her email address and password. We cancelled it after a couple of minutes, tried again, and this time it instantly had the account configured and was starting to pull down mail. No idea what happened there, but this sort of thing did happen a couple different times. Nothing really major, but something does seem to not time-out or otherwise handle error conditions as smoothly as it could/should.

I tried to duplicate the horrid performance problem in Word that Brent showed, but was unable to—Word had no problem keeping up, and I even had Task Manager sitting on the desktop next to Word where I could see it (I did my test before upgrading to the Gold Office RT bits—this was still “preview”). What concerns me about this is the apparent inconsistency. For the exact same piece of hardware and the exact same software, I don’t think this sort of thing should be going on. Apparently this quickly became a known issue, has been fixed, and the patch is “forthcoming.” I’d like to know what some of the factors that can contribute to this are…

Other, minor things I think are good about the Surface:

  • The Modern/Metro OneNote app. It’s free in the Marketplace. Yes, it’s basically the same thing that’s included with the Home/Student version of Office that comes with the device, but it’s a lot more touch-friendly and beats having to drop to the Desktop to use.
  • One thing I do like having a real Windows Desktop for, is all of the usual admin tools—MMC and all of its snap-ins, full-blown Task Manager, and just about everything else one normally finds there.
  • If you’re using the keyboard, ALT-TAB works just like it always has, which is kind of cool.
  • The touch-based IE 10 (not the desktop instance) will navigate Back by swiping the page you’re looking at left-to-right. For some reason, this does trigger a reload on the new page, so it breaks the navigation chain (ie, you can’t go Forward again), but it is kind of a neat touch feature.
  • The split on-screen keyboard designed to be driven by your thumbs is pretty awesome.

As much as I’d like to say it is, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns…

The Bad

There are some bad things, and most of them are related to software (mostly the OS). I don’t know that any of these are deal-breakers for a technically-inclined person, but how they would play with a more general audience remains to be seen.

Starting with a hardware gripe: Although the Touch Cover is good—borderline magic—in general, the lack of good key feel does have some problems. Mainly, the ability to feel where keys that have to be reached for are—Control, Backspace, etc. This should get better as one gets more used to it, but it leads to lots of mis-hits in the meantime. I’m slowly getting better at this, but it’s kind of hard. I don’t think this outweighs the goodness of the Touch Cover, by any stretch. It’s still better than an on-screen keyboard, which I’ve basically never been able to train myself to use in any way that can’t be described as glorified hunting-and-pecking.

The biggest bad point I have about the OS is that there are a non-trivial amount of things that just aren’t that intuitive. Like…at all. There are a couple different reasons for this.

The first is that I try to do things like they work on Windows Phone. Things like multi-selecting message in the Mail app are completely different—on Windows 8, you side-swipe messages, as opposed to tapping beside them where checkboxes will appear. I guess it’s not like the invisible-until-you-hit-one checkboxes isn’t exactly good for someone completely uninitiated, but when moving within the same platform, I would have expected a little more consistency there. It also took me a bit of time to come to grips with the motion of flicking Live Tiles upwards to select them. Again, coming from WinPhone, I was expecting something like the tap-and-hold to bring up a context menu to select the tiles here. Lord help someone getting their first tablet or coming from a different platform.

Those are semi-minor nits that I can pick at in regards to the lack of UI intuitiveness. It kills me, because there are parts of it that work great, especially after reading about how to do some things (see the problem?). Switching between running apps? Pretty nice. Once you figure out how to do it. The split-screen multitasking thing? I’ve already said it’s about the bets thing ever. How does one know that’s even possible? Beats me! There are tons of things like this. It’s frustrating. What are they supposed to do, though? Send a manual with the thing? That’s not going to work. I don’t know that I have many good ideas here.

The split-up thumb-drive on-screen keyboard, although possibly the awesomest awesome that’s ever awesomed, is a little too wide for my hands. This is definitely not like the thumb iPhone5 commercial. It works for me, but it’s a stretch, and makes my hands hurt after a bit. Actually, the first draft of the last couple-three paragraphs I typed with it, lying upside-down in bed, and I’m about to have to stop.

The Bad bullet list:

  • Foursquare is pretty much going to be useless on this device without a GPS, which is unfortunate.
  • No USB charging. I know it would take hours to charge this thing with it, but I wish the option was at least there, to at least keep the battery level while continuing to use the device.
  • Can’t configure he touchpad. I know this is a total nitpick, and I’m not going to lose a lot of sleep about it, but I really wish I could, say, configure tap + tap/hold to drag like you can on a “real” touchpad.

Ug-ly

The ugly list is populated by short, but borderline terrible, things:

  • The kickstand. It’s cool. Somewhat. Its fixed angle isn’t always the best angle. What’s worse, is since it’s metal all the way to the ground, I’m afraid it’s going to scratch the hell out of tables. Within about 5 minutes of having ours out of the box and sitting on the table, I was already looking to make sure I wasn’t going to have to be refinishing the top of our kitchen table. It feels scratchy, but I haven’t seen it actually do any damage. If you get one of these, be mindful of that.
  • The camera.
    Low-Light Surface Camera Pic

    Rough low-light indoor shot with the Surface’s front-facing camera. You can barely tell there’s a dog there with Tammy!

    It’s bad. I think it’s bad, at least. All I’ve tired to do is low-light indoor pictures with it, but its little punny LED “flash” isn’t anywhere near bright enough to do any good. I know the example picture here was a terrible environment to be trying to take a picture with a non-real camera, but I’m fairly certain my Samsung Focus could have done better. Also, according to the settings within the app, it is suggested the max res it can do is ONE megapixel, which I’m pretty sure isn’t right. Not sure what is going on with that.

  • I’ve had some problems getting apps to close (as far as I know: pull them out of the multitask list, then drag them to the bottom of the screen in one motion). About half the time I wind up opening the app again, not closing it. Don’t know if this is User Error or an actual problem.
  • I’m still waiting on a good multi-column Twitter app. Definitely open to suggestions here. I love Rowi on Windows Phone, but I don’t like their 8 app almost at all. Heavily disappointed so far in this department.

Conclusion

Bottom line: I think this is a good device. I think the OS (Windows 8) is good, just needs a possibly unfortunate amount of user training. One could argue whether or not that disqualifies it as “good”, but I don’t think it does—tools require training. I am confident that it will receive the polish it needs as time goes on, and the currently-sparse application situation will improve as well.

That said, I don’t think everyone who’s in the market for a tablet should run out and pick one of these things up. My personal guidelines for whether or not to get a Windows 8 tablet pretty much mirror my phone recommendations:

If you are used to/interested in making your device a fat client, with dedicated, non-OS-embedded client applications to do everything from take pictures to get wine pairings for your food, then the Windows platform probably shouldn’t be your first choice. This may be somewhat trollish, but I’ll also add that if you’re possibly more interested in simplicity over functionality, then this platform also probably isn’t for you.

However, if you are more about using your tablet for tasks that involve OS-embedded features like web browsing, email work, and at this point, content creation using the Microsoft Office suite, then I think it’s a no-brainer to at least look at a Windows RT tablet (even if not a Surface). If you are interested in running Photoshop on as small a device as absolutely possible, a full-blown Windows 8 tablet/convertible laptop is a really good consideration. Yes, Windows 8 in a touch environment will require some reading, tinkering, and effort to remember how everything works, but so do big, complicated desktop OSes. This won’t work out well for all people in the tablet use-case, but for those of us who are interested in that, Win 8 & RT tablets are a boon.

I definitely think you should get to a Microsoft store if you’re so lucky to have one close by to test-drive one of these devices. If you can’t, feel free to find me at PASS Summit next week, as I will most likely have our Surface on me. Tammy might have it, too, so grab whichever one of us you see first just in case. I’m pretty sure I’ll happily talk to anyone about this for probably longer than they’re willing to listen 😉

Windows 8, For Real This Time

Before I get started, I feel the need for a little disclaimer. Thusly: This is just what I think, as someone who is not really a pro in user experience or being right about what other people will think about an OS anything. I’m just a network guy sysadmin DBA wanna-be BI guy, that genuinely uses Windows by choice, and that’s about the extent of my expertise on the matter.

Back in April, I wrote about my first few days with Windows 8. It was the Consumer Preview release, which in previous development cycles, would have been known as a/the Beta release. As I said in that post, for the most part, it went OK, but I hadn’t spent an insane amount of time with the machine.

Configured Windows 8 Start Screen

How I have the Start Screen configured on my desktop. Part Start Menu and part information portal. You don’t want to know what it looks like off-screen to the right.

Since then, both Tammy and I have put the Gold bits on our main machines (although I still technically use my laptop more). I took the time to think about what I wanted out of the Start Screen on a desktop, and spent some time configuring it to make it useful. I actually like it for getting some quick information hits off of it—news headlines the weather, mail notifications… basically, all of the same things I like about Live Tiles on my phone. They’re not the main reason I use that screen, though, and it’s not even remotely where I spend most of my time. I’ll get to that in a second, though.

Honestly, for the most part, this experience has reinforced most of what I felt while using CP. I’ve also had some time to reflect on what it’s like on a Desktop vs what it might be like on a tablet someday (Friday!), and read a chunk of what others have to say about it. I’ve come to a few distinct conclusions, a couple of which focus on the types of people who will theoretically use the OS and how they will get along with it.

Information Workers/“Power Users”/Such People

For this crowd, there is at least one main point about Windows 8 I see being overlooked by a lot of people writing and talking about it: the role of the Start Screen on a non-table device.

I see a lot of comments about how it’s a split-personality OS and people will be confused by the “modern” UI (or whatever we’re calling it now), and how applications behave differently there than they do on the desktop, etc, etc. I think that’s disingenuous, depending on what kind of user you are. If you’re someone like an information worker, who uses a PC to for both content creation and consumption, I would expect you to spend the vast majority of your time on the actual Desktop part of the OS. The Start Screen should be nothing more to you than exactly what it is—the Start Menu just in full-screen form. All of the applications you use today are intended to run there. If you install them on a Windows 8 box, that’s where they will run; not on the Start Screen.

I don’t think I can stress this point enough—I flat-out think that someone seriously using a PC to do what most of us would consider “work”, shouldn’t be using the Start Screen for anything that they wouldn’t use the Start Menu for in Windows 7 (Or Vista. Or XP. Or Windows 95). I truly think if approaching it with this attitude, there is much less room for confusion, because the user experience is much closer to 7 than it is anything else. For someone worrying about productivity losses from switching, I would tell them that they are few, and it depends on whether or not they rely on some specific features that are no longer there (such as the app-specific Recent list on the Start Menu that I mentioned in my other post).

Don’t get me wrong, though—There’s still a bit of a learning curve to get over. Is the Start Button gone? Yes. Can you still crash your cursor to the lower-left corner and click to get the Start Screen to come up, just like you can to open the Start Menu on 7? Yes. Is your mouse speed set so low that you have to move your mouse an extra two inches on the desk to move to the corner from where the middle of the Start Button used to be? Well that’s another problem if so. But that’s just one thing. There are some things that are a little harder to get to. The way the whole Charms Bar is set up seems a little weird. For example, I would rather just open the Control Panel and get straight to what I want instead of digging around in the Settings part of the Charms bar.

Keyboard shortcuts can help with that a lot, though. Flag-I opens the Charms Bar right at a place where you can then hit ENTER to open Control Panel. OK, that’s pretty easy. Flag-X opens a little menu that gives you quick access to a lot of things, including the Control Panel. It’s also the fastest way to get to the System Properties dialog this side of Flag-Pause. Flag-R still works, and I still think if you’re actually clicking on the Start Menu, and then the “Run…” option, you’re doing it wrong. Keyboard shortcuts aren’t the answer to everything, though, nor should they be.

And that brings us to how it’s not all rainbows and unicorns…

Everyone Else/Proverbial Joe-Sixpack/My Mom

This is going to be a disaster. All that stuff I talked about above, about crashing cursors, keyboard shortcuts, and knowing the difference between the Modern UI and Desktop parts of the OS? None of that matters. This crowd will be dumbfounded when they sit down in front of a Windows 8 machine. Before, I said that it wasn’t going to be that bad, because the desktop was still there and still accessible. I think I was wrong by saying that. I think that dumping the OS straight into the Start Screen when you boot up will make people who don’t know any better (of which there will be many, and it is not and will not be their fault) think that’s what the new OS is. It will be all fun and games until they pick an option that kicks them down to the desktop and then they don’t know how to get back, because there is no real visual representation on how to do so. At least not until you put your cursor in the right place (magic corners). And don’t even get me started about app-switching with a mouse between Desktop and Modern apps.

Before, I compared 8 to Windows 95 and OS X in terms of “disruption.” I have realized that it’s not going to be the same—it’s going to be worse. What’s different this time is that more people already have computers and already know how to use them, or at the very least, expect to be able to figure it out quickly without a lot of effort. 8 will take more effort than that if you are completely uninitiated. 95 at least had the big button at the bottom that said START. They had a catchy Rolling Stones song to go along with the ad campaign; one that fit right with that new button on the screen and basically told you what to do to get going. Now? We’ve got a little animation the very first time you start up the OS that tells you to put your cursor on one side of the screen or the other.

Of course, all of this was done in the name of…well, I don’t know why. I still think it’s going to be a better tablet than Desktop/Laptop OS over the long term. I might be simplifying too much, but I don’t think that feeling would be as strong if the Start Screen isn’t the first thing you saw. Surely it’d be possible to detect what kind of hardware you’re on and make it behave accordingly? Or let the user pick? …and if it’s not a tablet, go to the Desktop first. Hell, go ahead and put the Start button back, since that seems to be such a big deal. Minor things, but a potentially big impact to user experience/frustration.

Surface

I preordered one, because I’m a fanboi. OK, that’s only part of it. I genuinely want a Windows Tablet because I want to see how well 8 works as a Tablet OS. And I want to get rid of upgrade [edited for clarity of thought -KLT] our Touchpads and iPad. I want to see how that keyboard really works out, because this could be a device that really puts a dent on my laptop use.

There’s a problem here, though, too! Windows RT! It’s not really Windows 8! Sure, it looks like it, it sort of acts like it, but you’re not going to be putting the old TweetDeck on it! OK, this is for another post altogether. I’ll talk about Surface after ours gets here and we’ve spent some time with it. Might not be until after Summit, though, because I might shove it in peoples’ faces to get some feedback.

Attempt at Final, Coherent Thoughts

As someone with the desire to figure things out and work around shortcomings, I think the OS is fine. In fact, I think it has taught me how to use Windows 7 a little better—namely, by pinning apps that I use every day to the Taskbar, so they’re always there. The number one reason to this on 8 is for ease of access to the “Run as different user” options (hold Shift while right-clicking). On both OSes, it’s a way to get an app-specific Recent Files list (like there was on the 7 Start Menu).

It still goes back to what our parents are going to think of when they try to use this thing, though. That’s what has me worried. It’s obvious that large swaths of the PC industry are moving away from desktops and laptops in favor of phones and tables (mostly the consumer space). I think Microsoft finally work up to that, but the problem is they’ve gone too far. It’s still a waiting game to see how it’s going to turn out.

We’ll start to find out for sure on Friday.

Random Word Tip (#1?)

I’m full of random bits like this, but I’m not really good at pulling details out of things I do which others might not know, so they don’t come out very often. If I were better at that, I’d have more things to write about!

I admit that I’m a crazy Word Pedant™, and will lots of times go overboard on making sure things are done the “right” way. All that said though, there are still new things to discover in it. This is one of those things. With the benefit of hindsight, this is a pretty basic piece of functionality that I probably should have already had a handle on. I do like these settings, and for the type of documentation that I’m doing now, it has a real benefit.

Table Properties

Long story short, we’re after these two checkboxes in the Table Properties dialog:

Row Options shown in the Table Properties Dialog

(The Table Properties dialog is an option on the context menu if you right-click anywhere in a Table, or also the Table Tools | Layout tab of the Ribbon.)

These two options do just what they say they do:

Allow rows to break across pages. This setting is similar to the “don’t let a single sentence of a paragraph sit on a page by itself” setting (which I can’t currently find in Word 2010, so maybe you can’t control that anymore). It comes into play if there’s multiple lines of text in a table cell (or every cell in a row). It will force the whole row to break down to the next page instead of splitting the row contents across a page break.

This is good for the ETL documentation I’m working on these days, because some of the source-to-target mappings that are being documented have some pretty long descriptions and/or script bits to handle conversions & such. In a four or five column table on a portrait Letter page, some of these rows wind up pretty tall. It’s really confusing to read if these long snippets wind up broken across pages. This situation is made worse because all of the other columns’ data is back on the last page, and half of the mapping description is hanging out by itself on page two. It does mean there’s sometimes half a page left blank because of a tall row, but that’s the lesser of evils, in my opinion.

Repeat as header row at the top of each page. (Just to note, this option is also available as a button on the Table Tools | Layout tab of the Ribbon. That part of the Ribbon will show up with the cursor in a table, and this particular option is greyed out unless the cursor is in the first row of a table. That right there is a good illustration of both the blessings and the curse of the Ribbon, but I digress.) This option can be set for one or more rows at the top of the table. When set, these rows will repeat, as they are, at the top of the table as it spans from page to page. This setting is useful for obvious reasons with big tables that span multiple pages.

Example

Making up a table in Word to mimic an ETL source-to-destination mapping document will make a useful example to show what these options will do.

With a table that spans across a page break, the default behavior in Word will yield a table that looks like this:

Default Table formattingThere are a couple problems with this.The first one is how there’s a row split across pages, leaving the back half of the mapping script sitting by itself on the second page. Obviously if this is printed, the rest of it is on the page you just turned over, so it’s not that far away. If it’s on-screen, it’s even closer—just a quick scroll up. Even so, I think it’s simply better form, if you can, to keep whole rows together to make consumption of the data easier.

Likewise, if looking at just the second page, the column headings aren’t visible. Perhaps not as big of a deal with a small table, or a document where the same general table is repeated throughout, but if the table is large, or perhaps one that spans multiple pages (I’ve had some of those going on recently), it’s very convenient to be able to see the headers on each page. Think of how nice it is to Freeze Panes in Excel.

Enabling the two options discussed above on the same table will result in this table:

Word table formatted with discussed options

Now both problems have been solved. The penultimate row is no longer broken across pages—it now is forced down to the second page in its entirety, easing comprehension of its contents. Additionally, the column headers now repeated on the second page save one’s sanity for obvious reasons.

The repeated header rows are kind of “virtual” rows—you can’t even put your cursor in it. They update in real-time when the actual header row is changed, so they are always correct.

There you have it. Go forth and format tables!

Right, I Installed Windows 8 CP

I know, all of my friends have been busy playing with the Gold bits of SQL 2012, and that’s all well and good. I should be doing that, too, really really. Except…Well… I don’t exactly need to worry about that at this point, unfortunately. Different story. Instead, I’m playing with the Beta Consumer Preview release of Windows 8, because I like Windows (news flash).

Back in college, I would use my laptop as the test-bed for new stuff. I carried it to classes, so I got a lot of keyboard time with it (and a lot of show & tell, too). New Office & Windows versions were the most-used victims, as I took notes in Word—these were the days before OneNote. After my freshman year, I had a desktop, too, so I always had a more stable place to get work done if I had problems with anything. I would have used my current laptop for this, but it’s an old boat anchor (a Latitude 120L), and has too old/crappy of a video card to run the display at its full res in 8. Tried it with Dev Preview & the best I could get was 800×600. I fiddled with the disk subsystem in my ESXi server & installed 8 directly on that hardware to test a couple of applications that I wanted to make sure worked before I got to…

Blowing Up the Main Desktop

It was a perfectly healthy, couple year old install of 7, but it was on a semi-decent machine (Presler core P4) with a good video card, so it had to die (you know, for science).

Windows Experience Index for test machine. Overall Score 4.5

CPU bound... just the way I like it

The usual first step of this process is copying the ISO contents to a USB stick for install. Since I don’t do this very often, I always have to look up the steps to make sure I don’t forget something while fumbling around in diskpart. For whatever reason, this time I stumbled upon a link to the Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool. This is a neat little thing that automates the task of transferring an ISO of Windows Install media to a bootable USB disk (don’t let the “Windwos 7” in the name fool you). I doubt it’s faster than XCOPY, but it’s a little easier.

The install itself went pretty quickly after a couple false starts. Can’t really compare it to anything, but it did seem fast. On its first boot, it offers to let you attach a/your Live account to it, like Windows phones do (and Google accounts on Android and AppleID on the iPhone). On my first test machine I went ahead and tied it to my Live account just to see what it did. The answer: other than grabbing your account’s picture and making it fairly ticklish to figure out how to auth when RDPing to the machine, I’m not really sure what it did. It may not be fair to say that since I spent a total of about 20 minutes on that install, but that’s how not-obvious it was.

On my “real” test install, I put the machine in our test domain, did my usual early system settings changes, & worked through the high points of my application install list. No real hiccups there, so I was able to get on with…

Actually Using the Thing

This all happened a month or so ago now, but I’ve still only gotten a fistfull of good usage hours with it. In that time, I’ve gotten a few things to talk about and/or show. None of these are really earth-shattering; just the things that stick out for me. For a more general overview of it, check out some of PeterB’s DrPizza’s Peter Bright’s articles related to the topic.

Obviously the biggest change and the elephant in the room is the introduction of the Metro UI to Desktop Windows. One of the side-effects of this is the Start Menu goes away. This is a pretty big shock, and it still catches me off-guard when I hit the Windows Key and the main monitor (I’ve got two on this machine) flips over to the Start Screen. Gone is the ability to organize things via folders. Instead, if an app wants to put shortcuts on the Start Menu, they just wind up on the Start Screen. They get arranged into blocks of icons by default, and you can arrange/delete them further if you like. Near as I can tell, that is the extent of the organization options one has. The problem that I found is if you install something like Server Admin Tools (there’s already a pre-release version for Windows 8, which is fantastic) that adds a lot of shortcuts all at once: the default behavior is apparently for these icons to simply be barfed all over the Start Screen.

Start Screen showing icons all over the place

Organization is Overrated in 2012

I don’t think this is a good thing, but in this architecture, I’m not sure what else can be done. If one’s interested in keeping the Start Screen tidy, there’s going to be a lot of micromanagement to do. On the other hand, back in Vista, a search bar was added to the bottom of the Start Menu. Handily, that text box had focus when the Start Menu was raised, so one could mash Flag (“Flag” is how I usually refer to the “Windows Logo Key”, primarily because “Windows Logo Key” is way too damn many syllables) and start typing to bring up whatever shortcut they’re going for. Judging by commentary I’ve read about that particular feature (OK, it’s mostly Ars readers), it seems a decent chunk of people use that as their primary app starting/finding vector for things that aren’t pinned to the Taskbar. In Windows 8, even though there isn’t a visual cue for it, this functionality is still there. Hit Flag, and start typing. A search screen will come up showing results for Applications, Settings (Control Panel Applets), and Documents; these are all the same categories of things that the Search bar in the old Start Menu will return. Not being one who uses this search to find things very often, I’m going to need to get used to it if I don’t want to spend more time than I do now managing what the Start Screen looks like.

Start Menu screenshot showing the "Recent" list of files

This feature leads the list of ones I didn't get at first, but now will miss the most

One thing I can say for certain: I’m going to miss is the “recent” list that shows up for some applications in the old Start Menu. This is the list of docs that will cascade out from the app’s shortcut when an app is pinned or otherwise lands on the main part of the Start Menu. I admit that I don’t use this feature all that often, but there are a few things, Remote Desktop being one, where I use the recent list almost exclusively when calling the application. It does work the best when a small set of files are used all the time (like, say, shortcuts to the ETL servers), but it’s really useful for that sort of thing. I haven’t found a way to mirror this functionality in 8, and that’s a bummer.

Once over the initial hurdle of getting past the Start Screen (hint: click on the “Desktop” button), in what I would consider normal use, I don’t feel like I’m using anything other than Windows 7 (or Vista, for that matter). My normal usage pattern on this machine resembles what most people would consider “work”—Office apps, web browsing/research, Quicken, Twitter (old TweetDeck!), and Live Writer for blogging. I would say photo editing/management, but that barely gets done anymore. Non-“work” stuff involves Windows Media Center, and not much else; don’t have time for gaming anymore, either. All of these things are non-Metro (“classic”) Desktop apps, and as such, operate on the desktop. Using this kind of application and launching them either using pinned Taskbar icons or opening documents straight from the file system means that I hardly ever see any Metro UI elements.

That’s pretty much a good thing, until a bunch of time goes by and one forgets what they’re doing. Then, for example, a random app is needed from the Start Menu. Hit Flag, and get smacked in the face by the full-screen Metro Start Screen. This has happened to me more than a few times since I’ve been using 8. I also haven’t put Acrobat Reader on the machine yet, so when I open a PDF, the built-in reader app launches, which is a Metro app. Smacked in the face again. This one is of course my own fault, as I’ve delayed putting Acrobat on to at least try the built-in reader for a while to see what I think about it. It’s very jarring when this happens. It’s also disruptive at the moment, because it’s so different and still new.

Speaking of these full-screen Metro apps, they have two major drawbacks to me. One is the fact that they’re full-screen. On a machine with a nice high resolution, I hardly ever maximize windows/applications to use them, so this is a little annoying. There is the fixed two-app display thing available, but it’s still a little wonky when it involves one Metro app and the Desktop. Since the Desktop behaves as a single application in this situation, if it’s the app on the small side of the split-screen, then the windows running on the Desktop become the same little thumbnails that pop up when you mouseover window buttons on the Taskbar. As a result, it’s likely that you can’t read what’s going on and you definitely can’t interact with them. This arrangement isn’t overly useful.

The second major drawback is something that got in my way early on: The only arrangement choice with Metro apps is on the main monitor. What if I want to put that application on the smaller of the two monitors I have (which isn’t the main one)? Turns out, that can be done. Among the list of keyboard shortcuts outlined in this Windows Team Blog entry is Flag – PgUp/PgDn, which “Move[s] Start screen to Left/Right Monitor.” That command does exactly what it says it does, but also moves full-screen Metro apps with it (plus the “primary” Taskbar). It appears to be the same functionality as the “Use this monitor as my main monitor” checkbox on the Display Options dialog, just in handy keyboard shortcut form. The operation itself is smooth and fast, even on my less-than-optimal hardware, and technically it does address what I was trying to do. As part of moving the whole Metro…environment, for lack of a better term, it takes the built-in split-screen functionality with it. I guess that makes sense, but all of these “features” just continue to make the whole thing feel contrived.

While using this, a couple specific items stuck out at me, and I’ll go through those next.

File Copy Status

From the “it’s the details that count” category, we have the File Copy Status Dialog. (If this thing has an actual name, I obviously don’t know what it is.) Couple new things here which, as a completely crazy person who likes to watch numbers change, are welcome additions.

New File Copy Dialog showing the "More Details" view

Best thing to happen to the File Copy dialog since the File Copy Dialog

First, I almost always hit the “More Details” button to see what kind of throughput I’m getting on a copy/move/delete. Finally, in Windows 8, if you flip it to the More Details version of that little dialog, the setting sticks! Every time a file is copied, the status dialog opens with all of the details showing. Awesome.

Even better is a little throughput histogram which is now shown. This thing pulls triple duty, visually representing both percent complete and current/historical throughput, and also showing the current throughput in text form. Because at the moment I’m not overly enthused with this OS, this dialog is probably my favorite new feature.

New Task Manager

There’s a new Task Manager in 8. It brings some of the functionality of the full-blown Resource Monitor down into the smaller Task Manager package. I find this a bit of a mixed blessing, but in general it’s pretty nice. I usually leave Task Manager run all the time, so am a little worried about the performance impact with the new one—I’ve sometimes seen Resource Monitor peg out a CPU core while displaying disk activity.

That’s all well and good. BUT! With this machine, I got the old task manager! At first, I thought it was just because I decided to put it in the domain for this evaluation. Long story short, I had Task Manager pinned to the Taskbar on this profile, and I had used that shortcut to start it. Turns out, there are now two different Task Managers in Windows—the old one is still taskmgr.exe & the new one is TM.exe. The new one does eat a lot more RAM than the old, so there’s at least that going on between them. I’d guess that the old one will go away at some point, but for right now, we’ve got a choice on which one to run.

Minor Issues

I’ve had a couple non-UX/UI issues so far, both related to specific applications.

The first one is with the “new” TweetDeck (version 1+). I tried to install it, and it went on, but when I tried to sign in to my TweetDeck account on first launch, it couldn’t do it. The password I was using is right, but I couldn’t get anything other than an “unable to log in” error. Since Twitter has changed it so it can’t be used without using a/your TweetDeck account, I wasn’t getting anywhere with that. I put the most recent Air-based version on, and it is running fine.

The other application problem I am having is with Windows Live Writer. It is pretty unstable in general, but it will also crash pretty much all the time when trying to open an in-progress draft post. This makes it slightly ticklish to pick up again on a post if LW wasn’t left running. What I have found out that works is if the in-progress file is opened from the file system. That will start up LW & open the desired file. Better than nothing.

Overall Thoughts at the Moment

My feelings at the moment mirror what a lot of other people are saying: This OS is going to kick some serious ass on a tablet, and I can’t wait to get my hands on some of that. What it doesn’t do as well so far is be a desktop OS. IMO, this situation is most glaring with a multi-monitor setup. I don’t like how Metro apps are basically locked to full-screen and generally don’t feel very flexible. It also bugs me that the “classic” desktop sometimes behaves like a single application (like when it is involved in the Metro split-screen arrangement). I’m stopping short of outright calling the multi-monitor experience broken, but it’s sub-optimal, at least.

It will be interesting to see where all this goes. Since Metro apps are stuck in their box, and do a fairly good job of breaking what I consider the “normal” desktop computer workflow, I wonder if vendors will release multiple versions of applications so both desktop and tablet users will be able to use applications that function in their respective native environments. Not knowing much about software development, I don’t know how much easier (or cheaper) said than done that statement is. There’s been a lot of talk about browsers being released as native Metro apps. Obviously there will have to be some set of applications released as Metro apps, since that finger-friendly interface will definitely be the main one used on Tablets. My hope right now is that vendors (and Microsoft, for that matter) continue to support the Desktop work environment.

Bottom line: Other than minor-to-moderate problems with the UI & UX, it seems to be just as solid of an OS as Windows 7 is. I think it’s possible to use the OS mostly just like Windows 7, too. I want to emphasize that statement, because I feel like there’s a lot of frothing at the mouth about how terrible Metro is on the desktop. Although I don’t like everything about it either, there is plenty of “old” Windows still there. I truly, honestly, don’t believe Metro being in Windows 8 like it is right now is going to be as much of a failure as some on the Intarwebs are saying. Disruptive? Yes, definitely… But so were Windows 95 and Mac OS X.

Time will tell whether or not I change my mind.