IT Systems and the Wider World for windows 10 and windows 11
IT Systems and the Wider World
If you look at the world of PC use and work today compared to just a few short years ago, it’s very clear that everything has changed. Indeed, the whole dynamic of the workplace is different, with employees of major corporations now effectively setting policy for attendance, wages, and more. All of this came out of the pandemic of course.
Before 2020, businesses around the world had been telling people they had to work from the office because that was just the only way to do things and that nobody would get anything done if they didn’t.
Then Working from home became not just compulsory but favorable both for employees, who found a better quality of life not having to commute, had more money in their pockets for exactly the same reasons, and businesses that enjoyed plummeting energy bills for workplaces where people weren’t in attendance.
Many businesses have tried to return to normal since, generally with mixed success. Apple is a good example of this, being fairly desperate to get people back to the workplace having just spent five billion dollars building the place, and workers who have in some instances taken legal action to prevent their employers from forcing them into the office. This is an action that would have been unthinkable only a few short years ago.
When you’re a systems administrator or providing IT support however, this new workplace dynamic throws up all manner of new and unexpected challenges.
In Chapters 5, 6, and 7, I wrote about how you can support remote workers, how important it is for both you and them not to make any assumptions about them or their circumstances, and how to make sure you get all your ducks in a row when working in a support environment.
It’s Not Where You Work, It’s the Country You Work In
It's the circumstances workers find themselves in however that I want to look at more in this chapter, and there’s no better place to start than off on a foreign trip. Actually, it doesn’t even have to be foreign, you might be from New York and sent on a work trip to rural Arkansas, which might seem foreign enough for you. When people are working abroad though, there are challenges they or you might not expect.
Let’s begin with architecture. Most of the people who read my books live and work in the USA, though there are many other people right around the world. The USA and Canada tend to build houses and buildings very differently to other countries in the G20, the group of the 20 largest economies in the world.
This is in part because they are the youngest countries in the G20, having both been founded around 1776, but also because they are some of the largest countries in the G20. What I’m talking about here is the fondness for using wood as a construction material for buildings. Wood is used for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its sheer abundance. I have friends in Vancouver, which is a fairly large metropolitan city on Canada’s west coast, but to get to it, I first have to fly over around 3000 miles of forest (see Figure 16-1).
Figure 16-1. The greenery in Canada stretches for thousands of miles
The great distances between cities and metropolitan areas also dictate building techniques and the materials used. Unless you have suitable quarries nearby, stone and brick building materials are expensive to transport, so it’s much more sensible to use what you already have to hand. It’s for these reasons that other large countries in the G20, such as China, Australia, and Brazil, also use wood construction for buildings in rural and remote areas.
The USA and Canada having been formed around 1776 make those countries a little under 250 years old as I write this from my home in central southern France. My home, or at least the oldest part of it, is a full 100 years older than both of those countries, having been built around the mid to late 1600s (see Figure 16-2).
Figure 16-2. It’s not all green fields and blue skies in France, but they certainly help
The walls in the oldest part of my home are up to two feet thick in places, and while this makes it brilliant for nights loudly playing my vinyl copy of Jeff Wayne’s “The War of the Worlds” in front of the fire, it’s terrible for my Wi-Fi signal. In fact, the problem when I bought the house was so bad, with the telephone line entering in that part of the house, that I quickly installed Ethernet cable and a mesh Wi-Fi system from Netgear.
I however am the lucky one, as many people live and work in parts of the world where the buildings are a thousand years old, old enough that anything made of wood would have long since disintegrated into dust. Southern European countries like Italy and Greece and most middle-eastern countries have a great many towns built hundreds and hundreds of years ago, and I think you can probably tell where I’m going with this.
When you get the tech support call from the guy from the Boston office that he has a problem with his laptop in that he can’t maintain a good Wi-Fi signal, and he’s got important meetings that afternoon, you should ask if he’s still on that business trip to Medina Azahara in Spain, which was founded in 1560 and is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Indeed, you don’t even need to travel to exotic and remote locations with names nobody is able to correctly pronounce to experience these problems. Beijing, China, Rome in Italy, Mexico City, and Mumbai in India are also UNESCO world heritage cities because of their architecture that dates back hundreds of years. Jerusalem, Israel, is known for being a huge hub for technological development, and the oldest parts of that city are between five and a half and six and a half thousand years old. So when you get the call from the guy, we’ll say his name is Jeff for the sake of argument as it’s still on my mind, then you should perhaps tell him to go and sit by a window.
Sand, Dust, Water, and Snow Can All Kill Your Laptop
Of course, thick stone walls are just one example of where support calls can come in from remote workers and those on business around the world. Even closer to home, there can be challenges. Back in 2019, we had “the beast from the east” blow over Europe and the UK, bringing with it temperatures as low as –35 Celsius (–31 Fahrenheit). Yours truly was travelling to Microsoft in Seattle during this extreme weather event and wound up in intensive care in Seattle with a bout of pneumonia that damn near killed me.
Now I’m not suggesting that Robin from accounts is going to sit outside a coffee shop in –30 degrees to file her weekly report in a blizzard, but it’s a good example of how technology really doesn’t like extremes. There are stated tolerances for laptops and tablets of the temperature range in which they will happily operate. While it’s far from likely that somebody will ever use a laptop in the extreme cold (unless you’re a polar scientist of course; Ed), it works the other way too.
Microsoft doesn’t publish the operating tolerances for my Surface Laptop Studio; you usually need to purchase a truly ruggedized laptop to get those figures. Panasonic say the operating tolerances for its Toughbook range are around –29 degrees Celsius (–20 Fahrenheit) to 63 degrees Celsius (145 Fahrenheit). You’ll find the usual operating tolerances for an average home or work laptop or tablet will be around –10 degrees Celsius (14 Fahrenheit) to 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). You might think that this could be enough for all uses, but I’ve learned to never make assumptions. This summer where I live and elsewhere in Europe, we’ve had record temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit) with a high of 47 degrees Celsius (117 Fahrenheit) reached in parts of Portugal.
This of course is getting dangerously close to those tolerances, and in some parts of the world such as India and parts of Asia, temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) are not uncommon for prolonged periods.
It’s unlikely that anybody would be sitting outdoors with their laptop in such heat, though don’t discount the foolhardy, but a laptop left sitting in the sun in the garden on a hot summer day can fry its components, screen, and battery all too quickly.
Note:The terms “rugged” and “ruggedized” can often be used to describe laptops that have only been fitted with rubber bumpers to make the device more suitable for a child at school. Equally, there is a big difference between the meanings of the words “water-resistant” and “waterproof.”
Then there’s water and sand. Many people want to go to the beach for their summer holiday, but sand is as much a killer for technology as water can be. For this, we have the IP (Ingress Protection) rating system you’ll be used to seeing for smartphones.
The first number relates to dust and solid ingress, and the second number relates to water ingress, so a smartphone with an IP rating of 65 is protected tightly from dust and from water jets from any angle.
It is safe to assume that a normal home or workplace laptop or tablet will have an IP rating of 00 (double zero), given that the USB and other ports, the keyboard, and the trackpad will all let in water, and the ports and keyboard will let in dust and particles.
Then there are the heat vents to consider which will let in anything at all. A laptop marketed as having a “spill-proof keyboard” will still only be able to cope with small quantities of coffee before the liquid will seep into other parts of the device.
Note:The biggest killer of keyboards and laptop keyboards has been for decades now, and continues to be, pizza.
This means that using a laptop on the beach is a bad idea, but what for the people who have no choice? (What? No choice but to work on a beach? Cool!; Ed) I’m talking here about people that work on construction sites or in environments such as desert countries where sand, dust, and perhaps even strong winds are an occupational hazard.
Here, a ruggedized laptop or tablet isn’t always an option, as an engineer might, for example, need a powerful GPU to render plans on-site. Ruggedized laptops can be powerful, but rarely are they built to that type of specification.
Note:I want to slip in a note about ruggedized laptops and tablets that conform to MIL-STD (military standards) and MIL-SPEC (military specification) requirements. You should always be careful to choose equipment that has been tested by a thirdparty laboratory and know exactly what tests it has passed, and not just from a manufacturer that says it’s “military grade” or “military grade compatible.”
Is the Infrastructure Sound?
We’ve all heard the story of the guy who called IT support because his computer wouldn’t switch on. When asked to reach around the back to check the power cable was plugged in, he replied that he couldn’t see it because of the power outage.
When getting calls for support, it’s always worth keeping an open mind about the external factors that can affect our IT systems. For example, someone telling you they can’t access their online services, Microsoft Azure or Google Workspace, for example, could be down to a permissions or an account error for them, but it’s always worth asking if anybody else is having the same problem.
Outages can also be caused by everything from the digger on the construction site next door ripping through a cable to a nationwide outage for a website or service. In this regard, websites such as isitdownrightnow.com and downdetector.com can be highly useful, but so can searching for the company on Twitter. There you can get an even faster response as it takes just a few seconds for people to start complaining there about outages.
It's here that appropriately logging support calls can help. In Chapter 7, I wrote about how to set up your reporting, logging, and support paperwork and mechanisms in such a way as to make supporting users simpler and quicker. Having a support mechanism that allows you to filter support requests by type, date, and so on can help you to quickly identify if a problem sits with the user’s own machine or if it’s elsewhere, for example, an external business site has an expired security certificate, and your colleague Theresa has already put the wheels in motion to issue a new one.
A searchable support system can also help identify perhaps more esoteric problems, such as a misconfiguration or a permissions error with a cloud system, by crossreferencing the current call with others that have come in over the previous days and weeks. The more information you have at your disposal, the easier a comprehensive diagnosis can be.
The Hip Bone’s Connected to the Leg Bone
You’ve probably heard the song “The hip bone’s connected to the leg bone…” and perhaps sung it as a child in school as a way to help you learn basic human anatomy. It’s the same with our IT systems, and sometimes it’s all too easy to forget just how far those connections can spread.
In the previous section, I spoke about how an Internet connection can be wiped out by a digger ripping up a cable on the construction site next door, something that’s been known to happen quite often if I’m honest. I want to give just two examples from my own life though about how the interconnectedness works.
Let’s say I’m using my Windows 365 account. This links to a virtual machine on a server, in a datacenter somewhere in France as I like to keep the connection local purely for reasons of maintaining a speedy connection.
My desktop PC, which is most commonly what I use to connect to Windows 365, is connected via Cat7 Ethernet cable to a small gigabit four-port switch box and then on to my Netgear mesh router system. This in turn plugs into a separate router which is needed as it’s connected directly to and controls my Starlink satellite broadband connection.
That router is performing two tasks, one of which is gathering satellite positioning data from Starlink’s servers to make sure the dish is always pointed in the right direction.
The other is that it’s sending my connection request to a satellite in orbit, which is in turn processing it and passing it back to a ground station that will connect via gigabit fiber to the ground telecoms network in France. That network passes the signal through several stops on the ground at interchange stations until it is correctly routed to the Microsoft datacenter in which my virtual machine is running.
We can see in Figure 16-3 that the connection can only be traced so far before it’s repeatedly timing out. Now in this particular case, it’s happening that way because of the security Microsoft has in place for its server and cloud infrastructure, but using the TraceRT command in this way can help diagnose where a dropped connection or a bottleneck for the connection might be taking place, with the last connection being identified as a Microsoft network in Paris (par21.ntwk.msn.net) on the IP address 126.96.36.199.
Figure 16-3. The route Internet traffic takes can be long and sometimes problematic
The systems at that datacenter route the request to the correct server, which in turn routes the request to the correct virtual machine, which performs the request. Then the response is sent back exactly the same way, but possibly with different connection waypoints en route.
The second example is from before I had satellite broadband installed and needed to connect to the Internet via a slow 3.5Mb/s ADSL line over the telephone wire. This connected via an Orange Livebox Wi-Fi router which was plugged into the phone socket and went via a cable to a box on a fairly creaky old wooden telegraph pole in the road that in turn connects to a great many more creaky old wooden telegraph poles that occasionally fall over in the wind (see Figure 16-4). It's not until it gets to the local town where it will connect to a fiber line and out to the rest of the world that things improve.
Figure 16-4. Not all Internet connections in the world are high-quality fiber
About a year and a half ago, my ADSL line suddenly went off. I called Orange who ran some tests and could see there was indeed a fault. They sent an engineer who opened the cream box you can see at the top of the pole in the photograph in Figure 16-4 and poked around for 20 minutes in the mess of wires to be found there. Eventually, he found the issue; a wire had come loose from its connection in the wind, and he reinstated it, restoring my ADSL connection.
In the process of doing this however, he moved, disconnected, dislodged (we never really got to the bottom of it) another wire, and took both the phone and Internet connections for my neighbor across the road offline, and offline they stayed for some weeks until Orange finally sent an engineer who could identify the problem.
You can see then that having quick links to the status pages for services, and hopefully your ISP will also provide such a page, can be invaluable. Some of these status pages are linked as follows:
- Microsoft Office 365 – portal.office.com/servicestatus
- Microsoft Azure – status.azure.com
- Google Workspace – google.com/appsstatus/dashboard
- Amazon Web Services (AWS) – health.aws.amazon.com
- Zoom – status.zoom.us
You should also check if service providers for your business or organization, such as IP telephony and online security, have service status pages.
And for Everything Else…
So we’ve established that stone walls, dust, sand, water, a strong gust of wind, and even a pizza can be enough to bring down network connections and screw up your laptops and other hardware. Let’s not stop there though just when we’re enjoying it.
I have two dogs, Robbie and Evan (see Figure 16-5), with the possibility of two Border Collie puppies coming in the next month or so, so I’m very excited. Dog, cat, and other pet hair is well known to be a good cause of problems with electronics, especially when a buildup of hair and fur blocks heat and air vents, and causes increases in temperature for electronic components.
Figure 16-5. I couldn’t resist sneaking a photo of my dogs into this book
Tip:Some problems can be caused by the use of poor-quality cabling. Unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cables are commonly used for networking, as they’re cheap.Good-quality shielded cables, however, can prevent many of the problems associated with UTP cables, such as picking up interference from television, radio and cellular signals, microwave ovens, and powerful motors.
Power can also be a problem. You might take a high-quality, stable electricity supply for granted. Here in France though, the electricity supply can be, let’s say, a little flaky. This means that sudden and brief power interruptions are common and power cuts can happen from time to time.
Shortly before I first moved to France, and knowing this would be an issue, I purchased uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) for all of my computer, electronics, and home appliances kit. Everything from the TVs to my Rega turntable and amplifier to my desktop PC would be plugged into these boxes which, as they contained their own battery, could smooth out the power interruptions and protect what is many thousands of Euros worth of kit.
Around this time, I read a story in an expat group on Facebook from a man and his partner who had moved from California to France. He was a graphic designer and had brought with him two hugely expensive high-quality monitors for his work. He’d plugged these into a surge protector, as is always the advice with any electronics kit, but within a week both had completely blown and had to be replaced. He was, unsurprisingly, pretty upset, and it’s a great example of how you always need to consider the power networks of countries in which you live and work.
Tip:Of course, laptops don’t need to be plugged into a UPS as their internal battery will perform the same job. A surge protector for them and their power supply though is still always recommended.
Our PCs, the Planet, and Climate Change
As the author of a book about IT and climate change, The Green IT Guide (Apress, 2022), just in case I haven’t mentioned it before, I couldn’t let this conversation about infrastructure pass without bringing in the subject where it’s appropriate.
As I write this, Russia is six months into its invasion of Ukraine, an invasion which has thrown the world’s energy markets into complete turmoil with electricity and gas prices having risen in the UK by more than 150% so far, and Germany scrambling around to find natural gas and having to pay way over the odds for it, which is pushing up prices (I’m pretty sure it’s not all Germany’s fault; Ed).
This is in turn causing a huge surge in demand for solar panels on homes and businesses, the cost of which have fallen by 60% or more in recent years. A friend has recently had solar panels fitted at his home, though he had already arranged this before the crisis, and I’ll be fitting them too which was always the plan, but something I just hadn’t gotten around to yet (so perhaps not the best two examples of your point then; Ed).
Both of us will be fitting batteries. These serve several purposes. The main purpose is to store energy that can be used at night when the solar panels aren’t generating any power, so you can still provide power to equipment such as refrigerators without needing to use power from the grid. The second reason, and certainly one where it pertains to this conversation, is that these batteries act as a sort of super-UPS for your house.
Now there’s a caveat here, and you will need to research this for your particular solar installers, as not all battery systems kick in immediately on a power interruption. Some take a few seconds to engage, which means you would still need to use UPS boxes on your high value equipment and surge protectors for everything else. There’s no doubt though that installing solar panels with a battery backup can be a huge benefit in many ways, not just in reducing the use of fossil fuels.
When you are purchasing cloud and other services for your business or organization, it’s worth considering the sustainability policies of the providers. All the main players in the market have clear sustainability policies (though Tencent was a little late to the party), but you’ll find that other providers don’t yet have their own policy.
This could be because they just haven’t gotten around to it yet, and it could be that their services run on top of other services from the big players such as Azure and AWS. It’s always a question worth asking however.
Note:Beware of carbon offsetting as a method of becoming more sustainable. This sounds great, but just buying to tree planting and other projects that frankly would have happened anyway is doing absolutely nothing to help the company investing in those projects to reduce its own carbon emissions.
The point to all this is that with the correct environmental and sustainability policies in place, you can actually reduce the volume of support calls you receive and make it quicker to fix some of the issues that will arise. Now I can see the confused look on your face, so let me explain. The battery example is just one. Using Internet video and voice telephony for meetings, and using online meeting tools such as collaborative whiteboards instead of flying people around the world, is not just considerably cheaper and a far better use of people’s time, but if a problem is encountered, both it and the people reporting it will be much physically closer to you.
Also, adopting a policy of purchasing laptops that are repairable, rather than being glued together as most laptops still are, can not only be much cheaper for you in the long term, but can reduce downtime as it’s much faster to swap out a stick of RAM than to have a user wait two weeks for a replacement laptop to arrive.
All in, having one eye on sustainability is not only a great way to convince your bosses and stakeholders that they can save huge volumes of cash, but the right policies implemented in the right way can make your own job much easier too.
It’s very clear that we’ve come a considerable distance from the days of the stand-alone PC sitting in the corner of the office with a stack of floppy disks sitting next to it. The sheer size and scale of the networks to which our IT equipment is connected, and the number of different types of devices that never existed before such as SonicWalls and virtual machines, can be difficult to comprehend.
It's important therefore to never forget this big wide world exists and to be prepared to think outside of the box when problems arise… especially given the solution to that problem might be outside of the box anyway.
We’re going to bring things back down to earth though with a bump in the next chapter and get all serious for a while. The huge networks and the wider world that we connect to can present enormous security problems for your business or organization, and the risks involved in getting something, even the smallest detail, wrong can end up with your name splashed over the national and international media for all the wrong reasons.
So in the next chapter, we’ll look in depth at security in Windows 11, completely jettisoning the usual advice of “always keep your antivirus software up to date, and Windows patched” in recognition that the world simply isn’t the same place it was a few short years ago and that the way we respond to security, hacking, and malware threats has to change to meet the new and constantly changing nature of those threats.