WOOT! //Build 2017 Here I come!!

Build2017Hey there! So excited! I'm posting this as I just successfully registered for the Microsoft //Build conference in Seattle in May. Did I mention I'm soooooooo excited! This conference consistently sells out within hours of registration opening. Last year, I was excited by the introduction of Conversations as a Platform. I still am excited about it, even though I've had little time to explore it this year. There are hints of free time coming up in May where I hope to explore this and other ideas that I gather at this conference. Maybe I'll see you there!


Impressions from //Build 2016: Putting the 'personal' into personal computing

This year marks my 6th year attending the Microsoft //Build conference, the first being //Build 2011 when everything changed -- for me and for Windows -- with the release of Windows 8.0. For those who are not familiar with the conference, //Build is the premier Microsoft Developers conference where Microsoft often makes big and life changing announcements for its ecosystem of developers. For example, in years past Microsoft has open sourced their .NET (Roslyn) compiler right ON STAGE at //Build. Attendance is kept low on purpose (about 4,000), so getting into the event can be tough. This year was no different in that there was an insane number of announcements and introductions at the conference during both of the keynotes. Here are some of the highlights and things that got my attention.


Certainly, everyone was excited to see what the latest progress was on Microsoft's virtual reality headset Hololens. That Alex Kipman and the HoloLens team announced the  official shipping of the product at the conference was even better, with the idea crowdsourced Galaxy Explorer App being available on the Windows Store and all of the source code available on GitHub for all developers to use as a learning tool. You could also say that the much anticipated and hoped for announcement that not only was Xamarin - a widely popular and deeply useful cross-platform mobile development tool purchased by Microsoft in February  - was now going to be included in Microsoft's MSDN subscriptions as a native part of Visual Studio, including it's free Community version of Visual Studio, brought down the house. But of course Microsoft took it a step further and Open Sourced all of Xamarin's source code to the masses, something that has been speculated that they just purchased for between $400-500 million, so that the developer community could help build and grow it. CRAZY! There were also a lot of other great announcements and highlights around new services from the Microsoft Azure cloud platform (Functions, IoT Suite, Service Fabric general availability, and Container Service), Office 365 (Group  Connectors, Skype for Business Web and Mobile SDK, and new(ish) Microsoft Graph beta APIs) and the Xbox Dev Mode release.  I can guarantee that some of these I'll be going more in-depth in future blogs. If you just look at the individual pieces, the individual announcement, you will be missing the bigger, more important vision of the conference.

Don't get me wrong, all of this is exciting in of itself, but there was a foundational shift announcement that really hit me as just as or even more important.  These are the types of things that when I see and experience them, I get that temporal rift flutter in my stomach that everything that I knew or have known about computers and/or the use of technology in our society, in our businesses and in our lives just changed or that is about to. It's been awhile since I've gotten it, so I almost missed it out of neglect and a sense of compliancy. See I am one of those few (at least that will still admit it) that actually LOVES/LOVED Windows 8. No really! I'm not kidding. I've been in the Tech industry for over 30 years now, so I've seen a lot of things come and go as far as trends and the "next big thing". And I've been writing code and doing development on those platforms my whole career.

When I attended //Build 2011, except for a function here or a web service there I'd been out of the code writing full time habit for about 12 years, mostly out of boredom. Writing the same boring app, with the same UI, same user interactions, the same... EVERYTHING... over and over for the desktop just hadn't appealed to me in a very long time. Then by sheer chance I attended //Build 2011 where Windows 8.0 and the immersive, beautiful, design centric, (and imo incredibly visionary and strategically leapfrogging) "Metro" way of writing apps was introduced. Taking the immersive, contextual and important information push to the user instead of them hunting for it kind of app was certainly already taking hold in the mobile world, but no one had really thought of what it might mean on the desktop, business workhorse app kind of level. For the first time in a really long time, my desire to code returned. I started a new notebook to hold the avalanche of app ideas that flooded me at the conference and continued in the months following.  Unfortunately the company's signature app, Office, wasn't onboard with that vision at the time of its release and that contributed greatly and essentially to its demise. To say that I was disappointed in Microsoft's hurried abandonment and backpedalling from that evocative, strategically imperative vision with its next OS release would be an understatement. The app idea notebook started to gather dust again as I focused on bringing most of my ideas to web based apps, like Office 365 Add-ins. We were back to the boring again at the desktop and even the mobile level.

Or at least I thought.

Conversations as a Platform

"The future isn't going to be man vs machine, but man with machines." - Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Windows 8 "metro" apps were all about a single context, meaning that the developer was encouraged to limit the scope of an app to one single task or one single user scenario and make that experience immersive to the user. Instead of mega apps where 100s of tasks and 100s of pieces of information are buried waiting for the user to find, information created by or exposed by the app was pushed to the visual surface with what are called Live Tiles; surfacing important and needed information to a user before they even went looking for it. At this year's //Build, Microsoft's CEO Satya Nadella introduced a new paradigm for app development, one that for me is again evocative, again exciting. Conversations as a Platform.


Apps in the Conversations as a Platform world again consist of single scenario apps, but this time using human language as the new UI layer. These apps, or BOTs as they are known, will interact with the user, other people, and our digital assistants like Cortana and will use cloud microservices to infuse intelligence, meaning and context into all of their interactions. As envisioned, and it is a lofty vision, these BOTs and microservices will help automate the analysis and presentation of information to the user in a way that is meaningful for the interaction or conversation that is happening at any given point in time.

"Conversations as a platform. Taking the power of human language and applying it pervasively to all of our computing." - Satya Nadella

This new way of computing, and of developing apps, was highlighted on stage with Cortana in Outlook, the Just Eat BOT, Skype for Business BOTs, and even the very cool but sort of creepy in how pervasive and helpful it was Starbucks BOT.

As a developer, I encourage you to watch both keynotes from the conference. Also check out the new BOT Framework. Of course start building those BOTs! And check back here to see what I come up with for my own ideas of using this new development platform.


//Build 2016 videos, including the keynotes and most of the sessions: https://channel9.msdn.com/Events/Build/2016

Microsoft's BOT Framework: https://dev.botframework.com/

Skype's new BOT SKD: www.skype.com/developer

Contana Intelligence Suite: www.microsoft.com/cognitive-services/en-us/apis





Windows Azure: Perfect for hosting a Project Server 2013 Demo/Dev environment

Don't get me wrong. Project Online is great. It's easy to create an instance. It works (generally speaking) just like a Project Server 2013 environment and as a non-infrastructure type person, I don't have to worry about having a server machine sitting  under my desk making noise, chewing up my electric bill waiting to be hacked by some teenager (or govt agency) on the other side of the world. On the other hand, there are just some situations where having your own "on premise", honest to goodness instance of Project Server is needed. Doing OLAP reporting? Not possible with Project Online. Writing apps to consume Project data? Very hard to do (and currently in flux) with Project Online. But if you are Active Directory and Security challenged like I am, what are you to do? Mostly, I have been leaning on my friends who are gurus in that kind of stuff to help me out. But I have some credits on Windows Azure that I've been wanting to use and thought this would be a great opportunity. Depending on your MSDN subscription and other programs you might have access to the amount of credit you have to play with will vary between $50-150 per month. Also, if you don't have an MSDN subscription or Azure credit from another program (like the Microsoft Partner Program, BizSpark or something else), then you can actually purchase what you need.

AzureWindows Azure is a lot of things. It's a server farm. It's a data farm. It's a media hosting service. It's a web hosting service. It is a basically a dynamically expanding and contracting computing resource mega house with data centers around the world, all hosted in the dubious buzzword of "the cloud". If you don't have an Azure account, you'll need to sign up for one. Go to http://azure.microsoft.com to do so. Warning: Using this isn't free. That's the trade off. In exchange for money (or credits), someone else worries about patches and server maintenance and security. It probably is cheaper to get a server machine and stick it under my desk, a one time expense (not considering electricity and hardware upgrades), but then I'd have to worry about getting hacked and up time and maintenance and... BLECH!

Now I'm not a complete clueless newbie when it comes to installing operating systems, servers and such. There was a point in my career, long, long ago, when I did maintain desktops, servers and such for the company I worked for. I also used to be a field systems engineer for a software company I worked for and we went out to troubleshoot installation issues with customers. I discovered quite quickly though that I didn't want to do that. It wasn't my THANG. I wasn't passionate about it. So I went back to software dev and to implementing and teaching business solutions software. But the remnants of those days do still linger in the back recesses of my brain.

Luckily for me (and for you too) I don't have to rely on my sketchy knowledge of doing this. First off, the Azure team has created a gallery of already built machines with commonly used profile for you to choose from. Need a server running Windows Server 2012 R2? They have that. SQL Server 2012 SP1? Yep. Even want to test on just released (RTM) environments like SQL Server 2014 RTM? They have that too. There is even an already built server with SharePoint 2013 already installed! Additionally, there are a lot of great blogs about how to actually create whole server farms on the Azure platform. Specifically, I recommend using Keith Mayer's Step by Step instructions for creating a SharePoint 2013 farm. It is fantastic. Basically, you will be setting up three (3) servers; a Domain Controller, a SQL Server server, and a SharePoint/Project Server server/web front end.

This will only get you about 85% there on your Project Server farm. You'll need to install Project Server on the SharePoint server you create. If you've never done that, it is actually easier than it used to be given that Project Server is now an application service on SharePoint. There are some great MSDN articles and videos available. (Take a look here: http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ee662109(v=office.15).aspx). You'll need to download the Project Server 2013 software bits first. Whether you do this from your MSDN account, use a trial version of it or use an existing licensed copy is up to you. Normally, you would download the iso or .exe to your own computer, then upload it to the server you are installing it on. DON'T. Download it directly to your SharePoint Server Virtual Machine on Azure. Why? Because the Azure platform as a wickedly fast connection to MSDN. It will take you only a fraction of the time to download it.

After all of that, you have a Project Server 2013 farm running. You can create projects on it, enter risks, issues, create enterprise custom fields, resources and everything you normally would on a true on premise server farm. Have caution though. You will be charged for every millisecond that these servers are running. So here's what I do: I turn them off when I'm not using them. Basically I start with the SharePoint/Project Server and turn that off. Then I turn off my SQL Server server and then lastly I turn off the Domain Controller. When I want to use them again, for a client or debugging an app I'm writing, I turn them all back on, in the reverse order that I turned them off (DC, SQL SERVER, SP/PS). Be sure to wait until one is done cycling up before turning the next on.

And that's it.

Are you talking to your computer screen right now, telling me that demo images of Project Server 2013 already exists and that I could use those? If you are, then you are correct. And I could load those up on the beefed up desktop or laptop computer if I wanted. Realistically though that would require me to carry or have a machine with 32 gigs of RAM and at least a 1-2 TB hard drive in it. That sounds suspiciously like specs for a server machine. Also, that is WAAAY more hardware than I personally want to lug through airport security or to a client site. Some do (including some of those friends I told you I was leaning on for help) and that is a personal choice. The Azure platform is just another option for you to consider. And hopefully this post will help you on your way.