Preparing for Exams with limited material

I was recently tasked with preparing for a proctored exam that had very limited ‘exam prep’ type material available for it and felt I should pass on some of the lessons learned (It took two attempts to pass) to my readers.

The product was a very niche hardware appliance, and this brings us to our first limitation, exams for hardware based products are hard to get real world exposure to, hardware products are pricey and exclusive and you often can’t just ‘play around with it’ in a Lab.  Fortunately for me, I had access to a ‘virtual edition’ of the product that was released a year or so back for smaller scale deployments, thank the stars for virtualization no? Smile  Try hard to get some hands on, virtual editions make it easy, but its not always impossible to get some hands on time, reach out to a vendor directly, or a stakeholder in your exam process (you are taking it for a reason right?)

The second problem was, as a niche product, there is very little written material available for it in my normal formats, forums, exam prep guides, technical books etc.  That said, this problem was mainly on me, there was a lot of material on line, manuals, white papers, best practice pdf files, but I usually use that sort of stuff as a supplement, not a primary source, so I had to adapt fairly quickly

Hit the vendor websites, read everything you can get your hands on, buried in all the marketechture documents you will find the little gems you need to succeed.

Find an expert, I was lucky enough to have access to one of the vendors technical consultants, and spent an afternoon with him to go over some of the things I was drawing a blank on, this was probably the single most important step I took.  I picked up more from an expert in an afternoon than I did reading over 600 pages of material, find someone, buy them lunch, coffee, whatever, make it happen, the results will be amazing!

Don’t be afraid to fail, my exam was really weakly blueprinted by the vendor, I had very little info going in what I would be tested on, which areas were focus, how broad the exam footprint was, don’t be afraid to fail and have to try again, learning from an exam what weaknesses you have can help hone the final study phase on areas you need, if you can click through questions without much thought, you know your stuff, if you resort to guessing, it needs improvement! lots of improvement Smile

My first attempt needed me 10% below the passing baseline, not my finest work, but considerably better than I expected, so I spent the weekend playing with the virtual edition and re-reading some of the areas I know I struggled on, the second result was a pass at over 85%, don’t be afraid to try again!

Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. – Winston Churchill (1874 – 1695)

I used to dread failing an exam, and for years I had a perfect record of passes, but I was spending months preparing for tests, even if I knew the content, that just doesn’t work with my work/life balance today, nor the fast changing pace of the industry I operate in

I hope this helps some of you tackle those harder to reach exams, how do you prepare for them?

6 years and rocking a 7.1 WEI

This weekend I decided to give my aging PC a bit of a make over, I picked up a Corsair SATA 3 120GB SSD and 8GB of Corsair XMS2 DDR2 6400 memory during my first visit to the local Frys (what a dangerous place to go with a debit card!)

I had already decided to rebuild the system, but the new hardware purchases were kind of spur of the moment, my old system (with the Bios dated at 2007) was getting a little long in the tooth, and managed a respectable 6.2 WEI score, but used a mechanical drive and was humming along on 4GB of RAM due to some hardware failures a while back

This system was built in 2006 with a first generation Core 2 Duo 1.86Ghz, 2GB DDR2, a GeForce 7950 graphics card and an Asus P5WDG2 WS Professional board.  The board is the critical component here, and while it doesn’t sport newer tech like USB3 or SATAIII, it was an expensive and top of the line board in its day, which is no doubt the reason I have survived so long with it as the core of my system

Over the years numerous upgrades have happened, including the system being moved piece by piece from the UK to the US when I emigrated in 2008

it now sports a 2.4Ghz Core 2 Quad, 8GB DDR2 6400, ATI Radeon 5700 HD, Corsair SATA 3 SSD, and it’s like a completely new system


Windows runs VERY fast off of the SSD, boot times are still not brilliant, owing to the aging BIOS with its old school linear boot cycles, but the system still boots relatively fast, and once in I really feel the difference

Both my laptop and tablet have SSDs in so I was really feeling the sluggishness of my PC, and this minor purchase sure made the difference

I have had a few friends say they really only ever thought of putting SSDs in mobile devices for the battery benefits, and that the capacity was a real challenge for them, but on a desktop with near unlimited drive scalability it’s not hard for me to have a 2TB Data drive (or on my case, 3 of them) and an SSD for the boot device

I install most of my games and larger apps into the Data drive, including Visual Studio SDK files, iTunes music etc, but the critical windows and application components run off of the SSD and perform outstandingly.  This is one upgrade I shouldn’t have waited so long for.

The Power of Community – Usergroups

Some of you will know that I am active in a number of regional user groups, in fact, some of you may have found me or my blog by attending one of the events I have spoken at or helped co-ordinate.

The Boise user group scene has kind of dried up over the last few years and I endeavor to help change that.  It was always a goal of mine to have an active and vibrant forum for local users to network and discuss topics of interest, and while we are served very well by the local VMware user group (with over 100 people in regular attendance) I feel the general IT scene is underserved still

Recently I assisted Jeff Wilding and some Microsoft Staff kick off the Boise Microsoft Unified Communications User Group by presenting a piece on Exchange migrations and some of the considerations to be made in this space.  After assisting him with preparations, and giving my presentation I was asked if I would be interested in taking a larger role in future events and I have committed myself to helping this group succeed.

I also feel now would be a great time to get the Boise IT Pro User Group back up and running with a regular schedule, and with such a broad focus the topics could be endless

If you, or someone you know are interested in this space, and helping out the local IT community do not hesitate to get in touch with Jeff Wilding, Mark Rezansoff or myself

Regional Groups

You will notice a new page listed at the top of my blog that will display the most current info I have on a number of regional user groups that I have participated in, as well as any other prudent industry events that may be of interest

UAG in a Multi-Platform world

I have had queries from a couple of clients of mine regarding the deployment of UAG in a multi platform environment, not only Windows, but Mac OS X, Linux, Mobile devices etc.  The demand seems to be for a secure connectivity solution that can handle this sort of bi-modal environment with minimum aggravation to users

one particular client emphasized a client-less solution to meet there needs as they are considered early adopters on the OS front and as we all know, that usually breaks software clients!

UAG seems to be synonymous with Microsoft Direct Access, and as an advanced platform for the deployment of Direct Access, that is an understandable misinterpretation, but UAG is much more than just a heavy duty implementation platform for Direct Access

The Trust Pyramid

As a new generation of users and devices enter the workplace, IT is presented with a set of new and unique challenges, to deliver content anywhere it’s desired to facilitate business needs, but keep it secure and manageable, also for business reasons, but how do we accomplish that when so many devices are not managed? personal cell phones, iPads, home computers? do we just block access from these devices? that’s fast becoming an unavailable option, especially as board level staff are bringing their shiny new iPad to the table.

The Trust pyramid fits nicely with UAGs remote access technologies, as each of them provide a different level of access and control while being deployed and managed from a common platform from an IT perspective

  • Direct Access – Windows 7 Enterprise Only, Full, always on network access for the most trusted and managed of systems
  • SSL VPN – Multi platform/browser, Configurable access to applications and services for less managed devices such as non domain OS X systems and Linux boxes
  • Web Portals – Multi platform/browser, Restricted, specific access to applications for personal devices unknown to the IT department

As part of the pyramid we also take into account what we present, not just how we present it, for instance a user accessing the network via direct access may have full access to LOB and CRM systems, but users coming in on a personal tablet may be limited to non restricted file data and email, by providing separate connectivity mechanisms in this manner, UAG helps us meet the IT governance needs of our organization while also empowering users to do things whatever way is convenient for them.


Aside from Direct Access which I’m sure will have numerous posts of it’s own, SSL VPN connectivity through UAG provide non Windows 7 systems (either via ActiveX for IE sessions, or Java for non IE sessions) seamless access to systems configured to utilize it, this can spread the remote access to non Microsoft devices, and third-party browser software such as Mozilla and Opera.  SSL VPNs allow access to desired network services that would otherwise not allow access without a traditional fat-VPN configuration (and the client that goes with it usually).  These operate by creating a secure tunnel between your device and the UAG server and then funneling any data appropriate to the connection over the secure tunnel.  as this technology utilizes SSL and HTTPS technology there are very few circumstances where it does not work.

Web Portals

Web portals are the most restricted of access methods, providing an interface to access a web application that is fronted by the UAG itself, so users are actually talking to UAG, and in most cases UAG talks to the back end servers on their behalf.

This allows IT to be a little more liberal with the devices they allow access to the portals, as the access is so limited, and provides access to the users that they desire, email, SharePoint, or whatever the corporation deems available.

These can be configured and customized to a high level, even presenting different portals to different sets of users to really fine grain the access to the system.

Light Peak is dead.. Long live Thunderbolt

Intel has finally realized a commercial package for it’s light peak initiative, in the form of Thunderbolt.  Apple were the first to bring this to bear in the new MacBook Pro lineup announced last week, however Intel have been quick to claim that this will not be an Apple exclusive technology and will be available to other partners and OEMS.

Despite the name, and initial plans, Thunderbolt is currently based on an electrical medium, not an optical one, which shuns away from the initial concept of an optical interconnect for high demand peripherals and buses, but Intel have committed to continuing work on an optical option in the future, stating that results from testing on the electrical side were far better than expected, and keep both costs and complexity down for this initial offering.

Change of plans?
Light Peak was destined to be a transport medium, not a protocol itself, it wasn’t set to replace USB or FireWire, but the physical mediums used to connect these devices.  The consensus initially was that USB may well be the protocol of choice, but Intel have opted for a combination of Display port and PCI Express thus far.

This diagram from Intel shows a simplified version of how the technology works


As you can see, the Thunderbolt controllers at both ends (say, a monitor and a MacBook Pro) combine the signals from the two sources to cross a single cable, this allows the single mini display port on a MacBook Pro to provide the video signal to the monitor, as well as other peripheral connectivity.  Like USB, the ability to daisy chain these connections is built in, for example, allowing a monitor to have Thunderbolt ports for other connections back to the MacBook Pro

Utilizing PCIe in this manner provides some interesting possibilities, by extending the bus to remote devices there is potential to connect numerous other controllers directly to the PCIe bus on the remote device, and connect seamlessly to the host system via the single Thunderbolt cable.  For instance, rather than just finding USB ports on a monitor, a manufacturer could build an entire controller into the monitor for USB, FireWire, eSATA and have those controllers connect to the PCIe bus of the host system via Thunderbolt.  This opens up some interesting possibilities in deployment options for vendors, as well as streamlining the way we connect peripherals to the host system (I for one have very few spare ports on the back of my systems at present, a way to streamline more effectively than multiple USB hubs is always appreciated!

The downside to this is obviously the extension of the PCIe bus outside of the host system, which has already caused some parties to claim security concerns, although this is no different than with existing bus extension technologies that operate at such low hardware layers, such as Express Card and FireWire.

Lots of bits, not a lot of cable
The most staggering achievement of the new technology is the bandwidth it brings to consumer devices, each Thunderbolt port provides two full duplex, bi-directional 10Gbps channels totaling 40Gbps, although only adds display port 1.1a support on top of this, rather than the newer 1.2 standard, even so, this amounts to a combined total of almost 60Gbps of bandwidth, from that single port!

The potential for this technology is quite astounding, and with bandwidth like that there are a myriad of new ways of approaching connectivity that could be imagined, however the standard at present is an Intel only offering, requiring the purchase of controllers from Intel, this itself could hinder the protocols adoption by third parties, especially ones loyal to competitors such as AMD, which would ultimately undermine the growth of the standard.

Look out for compatible devices from Promise and Lacie already announced, as well as other vendors in the near future

The Chief Digital Officer

New York City recently appointed Rachel Sterne as their Chief Digital Officer (CDO), tasked with helping the City improve how it communicates with residents using modern communication mediums and social media

An interesting appointment for sure, traditionally the social media banner has been trumpeted by the CMO and the marketing department, sometimes well, and sometimes exceedingly poorly as anybody who has been on Twitter for longer than a few years can attest to.  But does the appointment signify a shift in thinking about the way we approach and utilize social media? traditionally they have been seen as lucrative avenues for marketing, utilizing crowdsourcing and word of mouth to promote from within the target audiences trusted influencers.  More recently a public relations and customer service avenue has been tackled with the likes of Twitter and Facebook providing users an avenue to comment and receive feedback from the organizations they do business with, but with the social setting of such scrutiny the willingness of corporations to go down this path has been slow and riddled with troubles if not done properly with the right people at the helm.

Utilizing social media for effective communication back to the masses is one of the next hurdles for social media to tackle, finally turning the technology into a truly duplexed conversation and not just a broadcast platform for the masses

Rachels appointment has raised some concerns, around her credentials, the position itself and what exactly it hopes to achieve, but I for one am interested to see the outcome of her tenure and what achievements and changes lie ahead for New York City, and their new CDO

Another day, another blog

Those of you that have known me for a while will know that this is not my first foray into blogging; As a matter of fact it’s not even my second or third.  Try as I might, finding the time to blog has been an ongoing challenge for me, and my dislike of documentation (don’t get me wrong, I love documentation, just not when I have to write it!) has not helped matters either

My new role as a Senior Solutions Architect began a few months back and as part of my role I will be required to write blog posts each month, albeit a little toned down from my normal audience, to be delivered on our corporate blog.  I figure I might as well write the normal detailed and complete blogs I am used to writing and have them cut the bits they don’t want out, this way I can serve my readers, as well as meet a corporate objective.  Who knows, perhaps they will embrace the deep technical dives I hope to deliver over time

Talking with colleagues the subject of a podcast or video podcast has also been revived, feeling it is a better way for some of us to deliver the deep technical content we want to deliver without requiring us to pick up minors in journalism to do so

I look forward to actually delivering on my blog promise to myself this year, it can only serve to help me and my career, and if everything goes the way it should, my readers as well.