Nonprofit Tech Deals: Microsoft Azure

Last week while I was at the Church IT Network National Conference in Anderson, SC, a colleague pointed me to a fantastic donation from Microsoft via TechSoup: $5000/year in Azure credit. At a hair over $400/month, this means you can run a pretty substantial amount of stuff. Microsoft just announced this program at the end of September, so it’s still very new. And very cool. Credits are good any time within the 12-month period, so you don’t have to split them up month by month. They do not, however, roll over to the following year.

The context of the conversation was for hosting the open-source RockRMS Church/Relationship Management System, but Wowza Streaming Engine is also available ready to go on Azure. And many other things. (and for those of us in the midwest, Microsoft’s biggest Azure datacenter is “US Central” located in Des Moines, as Iowa is currently a very business-friendly place to put a huge datacenter)

If you’re a registered 501c3 non-profit (or your local country’s equivalent if you’re outside the US), head on over to Tech Soup to take advantage of this fantastic deal.

As an added bonus, if you have Windows Server Datacenter licenses from TechSoup or that your organization purchased with Software Assurance, each 2-socket license can be run on up to two Azure compute instances each with up to 8 virtual cores, reducing the cost of your instances even further (as standard Windows instances include the cost of the Windows license at full nonprofit prices.). This also applies to SQL Server.

Here’s the process:

  1. Read the FAQ.
  2. Register your organization with TechSoup if you haven’t already done so.
  3. Head over to Microsoft’s Azure Product Donations page and hit “Get Started”
  4. At some point in the process you’ll also want to create an Azure account to associate the credits with. If you’re already using Office 365 for nonprofits, it’s best to tie an account to your O365 domain.

Microsoft: Grrrrr. You Suck.

Yesterday, for reasons unknown, our entire network dragged to a crawl around midday. Those reasons became quite clear this morning when word hit the blogosphere (here, here, and here, among others) that Microsoft had pulled another fast one on us network admins and rammed a patch down our throats, bypassing the normal WSUS approval process. Apparently, the Windows Installer update pushed out a few weeks ago makes this possible

The patch in question was a major version relese to Windows Desktop Search, which is categorized in WSUS as an “Update”. Our WSUS machine is configured to auto-approve critical patches, but not routine updates. Imagine my surprise when I find that it is already in the “approved” category and has installed itself on all of our machines. Between the time it synced and the time it pushed out to the machines, I hadn’t gone near the WSUS machine to approve it…

And Microsoft’s PR flacks are telling us that those of us who did get the patch had already approved it. Nice try, Microsoft. I and hundreds of other admins have a far different story to tell.

The least they could do is warn us this was coming, so that we could test it. Instead, we had 200 machines sitting there, reindexing themselves while people were trying to get things done.

I like WSUS, generally, it makes my job a lot easier when it comes to managing the patches that Microsoft constantly needs to issue – but it really ticks me off when they abuse the system for their own self-serving goals.

I’d be willing to bet a donut that this somehow breaks Google Desktop. Micrsoft has a long track record of dirty tricks when they feel squeezed by the competition… anyone remember Win32 v1.32? the patch from 1.31 did very little, except for one key thing… it completely broke OS/2 compatibility with 32-bit Windows applications. Any 32-bit app written with 1.32 or later was unable to function with the 1.31 libraries that you could install on OS/2.

Y2DST Headaches and Microsoft Advil 2007

As most of you in the IT world have figured out, Congress’ well-meaning push to save $30-odd million a year in energy costs has ended up costing the IT industry and the economy considerably more than that in the changeover.

After spending 2 weeks patching systems and trying to make the Exchange calendar rebase tool work (unsuccessfully), I woke up Sunday morning hoping for the best and expecting the worst. As it turned out, all our Windows 2000 systems were unpatched. Apparently it was the Windows 2000 patch that was the one Microsoft wanted $4000 for – luckily they published a workaround late last week that involved patching the registry with the new timezone data.

In trying to troubleshoot this further, I’d discovered that Microsoft had set up a DST Support chatroom for anyone suffering from DST pains. I posted my problem and hunkered down to wat, as it looked like the Microsoft experts in the room were pretty buy, mostly with fairly inane questions from people who could have figured out the answer with a quick Google search a few weeks ago. After a short wait, I got a private chat request from JamesC saying he thought he could help me and would be happy to do so in a one-on-one chat. He also helped me boil down KB914387 to the simple language of “Back up your registry, patch it, run this script, and this is the backout procedure”, which allowed me to patch the Windows 2000 servers in fairly short order.

The big issue we’d been running into is that the rebasing tool kept crashing on the third mailbox when trying to generate its list of mailboxes and their associated time zones. I decided to head into the office where I had more screen space as well as some peace and quiet from the kids. As I got in, James sent me a debugger tool to install while he quickly grabbed a bite to eat.

I fired up the Microsoft-provided VM and loaded up the debugger while James ate and set up a LiveMeeting session so he could remotely control the session. This is where it got crazy. James was working from home, on his Mac, via VPN and RDP to his machine at work, from there was connecting to the LiveMeeting server, where he had remote control of my RDP session into the virtual machine running on my laptop, and from that session we frequently had another RDP session going to the mail server. I’m amazed it worked at all. I’m also amazed that Microsoft lets James have a Mac.

James spent the next several hours poring over debugger output and fiddling with assembly code trying to make the application do his bidding. Backing him up was none other than the guy who wrote the rebasing tool in the first place. After several hours of this, they both threw their hands up and resigned themselves to the fact that this approach wasn’t going to work (it must have been a weird issue if the guy who wrote it couldn’t even grok it) and that we’d have to try the manual approach. After a few false starts, James got the tool to do its thing.

Naturally, there are a few users this morning who have some appointments that are “pooched”, but that was expected.

It was truly impressive to watch James engage in Extreme Nerd Sports and poke at assembly and debug code in an effort to make the machine do his bidding. Over the course of the 8 hours, I got to know James a little. I ran across his blog (which I won’t link here to keep his personal blog from being associated with Microsoft), and discovered that he is also a committed Christian – yay for God putting the right people in the right places!

James has been spending the last few months working 16 hours a day on DST conversion. His official job at Microsoft is debugging Exchange code, and from the looks of it, he’s darned good at it. In order to help us poor customers, he’s had to miss not only Valentine’s Day but his wife’s birthday as well. I hope Microsoft makes it worth the trouble. You’ve earned yourself a serious break. Mrs. C, you are a saint. Thank you for letting us pick your hubby’s brain.