How not to request a product review

Like many of my fellow Microsoft MVPs, I regularly receive messages from software vendors requesting me to review their products. This is not unexpected as it’s perfectly reasonable for vendors to seek reaction and feedback about their work from people who are active in the industry. The fact that a product review might be positive and therefore usable in publicity is just a side-effect. Or perhaps not.

In any case, most requests find their way to my electronic wastebasket. There’s not enough time available to go through the process of downloading software, finding suitable systems on which to install the code, grappling with the inevitable pre-requisites and other requirements that must be met before the software will install, learning enough about its functionality to make an intelligent assessment, and finally writing and publishing a review.

Setting up a realistic test of any software usually takes a couple of days and then you have to remove the software in case it causes problems with other products, future updates, and so on. Those who complain about Microsoft’s testing prowess when it comes to the interaction between Exchange and third-party products should try installing a couple of third-party products on the same Exchange server. The “interaction” between different products can be interesting and instructive. And those who complain about TechNet might have a look at product documentation generated elsewhere. You’ll like TechNet afterwards.

In any case, I have plenty of other things to write about without having to figure out the details of yet another software installation, which accounts for the automatic reflex that exists in my brain to delete email announcing the chance to test software.

Perhaps my attitude would be different if the typical message asking for a review was well written. Take the following text from a recent communication. I have removed some text and altered some words to protect the company that sent me the email. However, you’ll get the gist:

From: Webmaster Blah []
Sent: 03 April 2014 06:38
To: Tony Redmond
Subject: Request for Product Review

Dear MVP,
Mr. Tony Redmond


I am writing on behalf of Blah Data.

I stumbled upon your blog through Google Search and found quite a bit of useful information.

We would like to introduce our company Blah Data established since 2007.  We have around 50 K satisfied customers across 80 countries and 150+ products to fulfill the user requirements. Blah is a leading data recovery company and our products are trusted globally by corporate and home users.

We would appreciate if you can have a look at our product Blah Software is an effective EDB to PST conversion tool that will allow users to repair damaged EDB file and convert it into PST. The software is capable to convert multiple exchange mailboxes in one go.

Hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you for your time and consideration

Thanks & Regards
James Smith

I’m sure that James Smith is a skilled marketing professional but really…

  • It would be nice if the message was personalized. The way it is written makes it seem like it’s a form note sent to many different MVPs. I especially like the “Dear MVP” salutation.
  • James stumbled upon my blog through Google Search. There’s no notion of a detailed examination of the market to identify subject matter experts there, just a stumbling through the output of Google search to find people. For all I know, I might have earned this chance to review the software by random choice. Being selected in this way made me feel very special.
  • I’m sure that the company carries out its business in a laudable manner. Hyperbole is to be expected and it is laid on thick with statements such as “… a leading data recovery company… trusted globally…” No backing data is provided to support the assertions (are all of their 50K claimed customers truly happy, I wonder). I had not heard of this company before receiving the email. Clearly a deficiency on my part.
  • The lack of punctuation and the indefinite article in the paragraph exhorting me to look at the product creates an impression of a hastily written message. Not just one, but two. The last sentence in that paragraph is odd too. I imagine that it refers to Exchange (the product) rather than some odd interaction involving conversion, but it’s hard to understand what the writer means.

Leaving aside the copious thanks that close the message, the overall impression is that this company does not really care about their image as projected through communication with people who might review their products. The lack of attention to detail makes me think that their software is likely to exhibit the same characteristics and confirms that I should not bother to go anywhere near it.

They asked for a review and got one. It’s just that their email was reviewed rather than their software. And they failed. Absolutely.

If I write anything about a software product, I do so independently and because I am interested in the product rather than being asked (or paid) by a software vendor. That’s the only way to remain objective in a world where so many so-called reviews are barely-disguised paid-for advertisements that are worth not a jot.

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Noise-cancelling headphones and laptop woes

Reading the review of the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear headphones, I am reminded quite how good these headphones are.  The review goes into a level of technical detail that audiophiles will enjoy. All I can say is that I use these headphones every day and enjoy their capabilities very much indeed.

I bought my QuietComfort 20 (which also comes in a 20i variant for iPhones) last October as a replacement for a set of Bose MIE2 headphones (yes, I like Bose products), mostly because the MIE2 set is not particularly good in airplanes and other noisy environments. That’s not surprising because the MIE2 is not designed to cancel noise in the way that the larger model Bose QuietComfort 2 or 3. I used to carry an older-model headset with me when I was taking long-haul flights weekly but tired of the size of the sets. The fact that noise-cancelling capabilities were bundled into a smaller form factor seemed like a good thing and justified the expense.

Since then I’ve used the QC20 in airplanes and many other noisy environments such as alongside busy roads and in all cases I can say that the performance in terms of noise suppression is impressive. It’s meant that I have been able to turn down the volume of my Nokia Lumia 1020 (which I use to listen to radio and podcasts) while still being able to hear everything clearly.

The sole weakness I have found in comparison to earlier Bose in-ear headphones is that the more rigid wire between the headphones and the device that you use (like my Lumia 1020) is not at good in acting as an aerial for FM radio. This might be because the wire is better protected than before, which is a good thing as the wires on other Bose sets have a tendency to part near the earphones after a while. However, it does mean that I hear a lot more static than before when listening to the radio in any but optimum conditions.

I do wish that the battery lasted a little longer as it seems to expire at the most inconvenient time, probably due to my own incompetence at monitoring its use. Overall, the QC20 is truly worth the money if you want something that’s extremely portable, high quality, and guaranteed to make even the tinny sound of an aircraft sound system sound good.

It’s nice when technology works and not so nice when it doesn’t deliver as expected, which was the case when I bought an HP Envy 17-184nr laptop. I like big laptops, which I use as desktop replacements, and was very happy with the previous HP Envy 17 model. However, the Envy 17s are designed as consumer PCs and two years of hard work had made the 17 cranky and noisy (one reason to wear a noise-cancelling headset), so I decided to take advantage of some recent cost reductions to buy a replacement. The new Envy 17s come with fast CPUs, great 17″ full HD screens, and Beats Audio (whatever that means).

Typically, I remove the hard disk that comes with laptops and replace it with a high-performing SSD (in this case, the Samsung Pro Series 512GB) and some extra memory so that the laptop can easily handle running several virtual servers. I like the Envy 17s because they come with two hard disk slots and so went ahead and bought two SSDs for the upgrade.

However, I wasn’t impressed when I discovered that HP doesn’t include the SATA cable necessary to connect the second drive to the motherboard. Nor do they include the rubber fittings that keep the primary hard drive in place (and getting them off the standard drive is a pain). I guess not many people go ahead and upgrade their laptops so it’s reasonable for HP to assume that they can save a few dollars per laptop by cutting back on the extras. But it was unexpected  - and discovering the necessary parts isn’t easy, even if you examine the HP Envy 17-184nr manual carefully. On the plus side, the 17-184nr is easier to work with as only one screw needs to be removed (rather than 6 for the older model) to gain access to disk bays, memory sockets, and so on.

Oh well. It’s all working now and I’m happy with the performance of the laptop. But technology wouldn’t be technology if you didn’t have something to complain about, would it?

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What Microsoft needs to do to fix modern public folders

The amiable Kanika Ramji, program manager for Exchange public folders, might have gulped a little when she saw the packed crowd at the “Experts Unplugged” session covering Exchange’s longest-lasting and most-persistent collaboration technology at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) on April 1. After all, the Internet had buzzed with criticism after Microsoft revealed the scalability limitations that afflict modern public folders and much of the passion surrounding that issue had transferred into the room.

After the session I think Kanika was more optimistic because the discussion never descended into bickering and hostility. Sure, some strong words were said, but the net outcome of the session (which proved the wisdom of including this kind of interaction at MEC) was extremely positive. The development group went away with clear marching orders as to what should be done: fix the scalability problems, OWA support for calendar and contact public folders, and better management and reporting tools.

The discussion about scalability was interesting. Microsoft couldn’t but admit that the 10,000 public folder limit was ridiculous. Many people in the room represented companies with over 100,000 old-style public folders and hard questions were asked about how Exchange 2013 could have shipped without the scalability limits being known.

It’s hard to change a software architecture to something radically different. New-style public folders hold their content in public folder mailboxes instead of dedicated databases. There’s nothing wrong here because Exchange databases are very scalable and high performing. The issue is all to do with the public folder hierarchy and specifically, how updates have to be made to the primary copy of the hierarchy, which is automatically created in the first public folder mailbox in an organization (a good reason to get this aspect of your deployment correct).

In a busy public folder deployment, it’s quite likely that folder updates happen regularly. Each update has to be referred back to the primary public folder mailbox and then rippled out to all of the other mailboxes, each of which holds a copy of the hierarchy. The current model works well inside small deployments but runs out of steam as the number of folders (and therefore the likelihood of more updates) scales up. Microsoft set the current limit at 10,000 folders because they know that everything works at this threshold. Pass it and you run into increasing instability as the primary copy of the public folder hierarchy struggles to cope with inbound changes and the subsequent updates back to the hierarchy copies.

Microsoft says that they want to get the limit up to 1,000,000 folders. A reasonable amount of engineering effort and (possibly more important) test and validation will be needed to get them to that point. Until they do, customers who want to move large numbers of public folders to on-premises Exchange 2013 servers or Exchange Online in Office 365 will simply have to wait. No timescale was promised but reassurance was given that this is a top-priority work item. We shall just have to wait and see.

One thing is for sure. Microsoft understands that the credibility of their attempts to modernize public folders and to reassure customers, all of whom have used Exchange for a very long time, is at stake. They have to fix the scalability problems this time round. No other option exists.

And while Microsoft is working at improving modern public folders, perhaps they’ll also fix the other horrible flaw that exists in the implementation – the fact that if you lose the mailbox containing the primary hierarchy, no method is available to transfer responsibility for hierarchy updates to one of the secondary copies currently exists. That doesn’t sound like a highly available solution and it’s a huge and gaping hole in the current implementation. It’s funny how the passing of time and the pressure of real customer deployments exposes all the flaws in computer systems.

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Exchange Unwashed Digest: March 2014

March 2014 saw a lot of preparatory effort for the Microsoft Exchange Conference in Austin, which took place at the end of the month. However, before we got to MEC, we had to cope with a late breaking bug for Exchange 2013 SP1 and some other stuff too… Here’s what happened in my “Exchange Unwashed” blog in March.

Exchange 2013 SP1 suffers late-breaking bug that affects third-party products (March 5): I felt so bad for the Exchange developers when a really late change in a couple of lines of XML code caused problems for third-party products that depend on transport agents to integrate with Exchange. Fortunately the fix is easy and I regard SP1 as easily the best and most stable release of Exchange 2013 to date.

EMS command logging reappears in Exchange 2013 SP1 (March 6): One of the features reintroduced in Exchange 2013 SP1 is command logging, which means that you can see the PowerShell commands executed by EAC as it performs actions. It’s good to see this feature back because similar features in the Exchange 2007 and 2010 EMC allowed administrators to come to grips with the syntax and use of PowerShell. I hope that they do something to remove the gratuitous use of GUIDs to identify objects like databases because it makes the output less useful. I think they might – at least, I heard at MEC that the conversation has started.

Apple releases iOS 7.1 – Exchange administrators applaud (or not) (March 10): This was really good news because nothing happened after the iOS 7.1 release reached iPhone and iPad devices that connect to Exchange with ActiveSync (EAS). The reason why is that it proves that the work done by Apple (to fix their code that calls EAS to communicate with Exchange) and Microsoft (to bulletproof Exchange 2013 and the latest builds of Exchange 2010 – and of course, Exchange Online – so that bad client behavior won’t affect the server) works. That’s something that we should applaud. And I do.

Exchange’s interesting document fingerprinting feature (March 11): Another new feature introduced in Exchange 2013 SP1 and another that I like very much. Basically the idea is that you can provide Exchange with examples of documents that contain sensitive information. Exchange creates a digital fingerprint for the document that can then be included as a data type that transport rules should check. A very good way to extend the DLP feature and one that I think will be very popular with customers.

Contemplating the RSS feed for Exchange Knowledge Base articles (March 13): Microsoft provides an RSS feed for new Exchange 2013 knowledge base articles (other feeds cover other versions). There’s lots of useful information to be mined from the feed, if only it wasn’t quite so repetitive.

Exchange message tracing extended to 90 days in Office 365 – what about the on-premises version? (March 18): Message tracking has always been part of Exchange and it’s a very useful facility because it helps administrators to answer the immortal question posed by users “what happened to my message.” Office 365 now allows you to track messages up to 90 days old and has a nice new GUI to help. It would be so nice to see this utility being provided to on-premises customers, don’t you think?

No warning about patch required for Exchange 2013 SP1 (March 20): As is well known, I hate chastising the Exchange development group. Unless there’s good reason to do so, of course. And so there was on March 20 when I had to point out that customers could be left in the dark about the need to patch Exchange 2013 SP1 for the pesky transport agent problem referred to above. But all is well now because Microsoft responded by updating the knowledge base articles, which is a reasonable solution to the issue.

Technology is so much easier when everyone shares their knowledge (March 25): This is kind of a mixed post. On the one hand, I used it to recognize some of the important contributions made within the Exchange community. On the other, I complained that some of my fellow Exchange MVPs could do a lot better in how they contributed. But I’m a grumpy old man and it’s OK to complain – right?

What to do (and what not to do) at the Microsoft Exchange Conference (March 27): The last post of the month set out my thoughts on how MEC attendees might approach the conference so as to make best use of their time. It will be interesting to see if anyone now comments whether the advice was any use. Of course, I think it was, but I could be wrong.

MEC has been and gone and we’re already well into April. Lots to write about keeps on appearing. It’s great to work with technology.

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The colorful side of MEC 2014: All the stuff that makes a conference

What can I say about the Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) that recently finished in Austin? Lots of blogs and other comments have already been posted, including my assessment of the messages contained in the day 1 keynote, the splendor of the sessions delivered on day 2, and some closing thoughts on the most important messages coming from the conference.

But there’s always more to say. Like describing the colorful side of MEC, the side that compliments and balances the formal array of sessions and other carefully arranged events that populate the agenda. Here’s my take on the best stuff from MEC 2014.

Yammer: Microsoft is doing its best to convince people that Yammer is useful. And so it came to pass that all the MEC attendees were invited to participate in a Yammer something. Various made-up nouns are used to describe this like “YamJam”, none of which I understand. In any case, I gave it my best shot and duly emerged as a wonderful contributor to the yamming… Seriously, every technology has its place and its advocates like Christophe Fiessinger do their best to advance the cause. It will be interesting to see where Yammer ends up. I doubt I shall end up as a Yammer MVP!

Yammer stats from MEC

Yammer stats from MEC

Pillow and Skittles: The nice people who run the MVP program in Microsoft like to publicize the names and faces of the MVPs so that people recognize and know us. And so we ended up with our faces being plastered all over boards (pretty normal) and pillows and skittles. The pillows were the kind that you would only ever use at a technology conference and should never appear in a home environment. Microsoft VP and head of Exchange development Perry Clarke demonstrated the correct way to use the pillow, but I’m still not having one anywhere near me. As to the packets of skittles featuring beaming MVP faces? Well, the skittles were nice and the packaging was easily disposed. Enough said.

Warning: sleeping Perry can be dangerous

Warning: sleeping Perry can be dangerous

Best Session: An easy choice. Vivek Sharma did a fantastic job of explaining what happens behind the scenes to deliver Exchange Online at massive scale. The detail he provided about workflow processing, capacity management, reporting and analysis, and all-in commitment to keeping the service running added to the credibility of Office 365. You might have doubted Office 365 before this session, but not afterwards.

Session with most blank faces: Tim McMichael delivered an incredible session about the way that Exchange leverages Windows Failover Clustering to enable Database Availability Groups. I enjoyed it very much, but I noticed that many in the audience struggled to cope with the sheer amount of detail provided by Tim. He’s obviously an expert who positively wallows in the details of all things related to clusters.

Worse session: There was no worst session, at least not in those that I attended. The keynote ranks as the most disappointing session as its energy level, pacing, and delivery just wasn’t at the expected standard. Things weren’t helped by lousy audio in the ballroom, a surprising thing when professional audio technicians are available to tune the sound. Our “Experts Unplugged: Support Issues” session on Monday afternoon was afflicted by bad audio too. I was positioned on the right hand side of the stage and couldn’t hear Tim Heeney speak from the far left hand side. Nor could I hear many of the questions that came in front the audience. My bad ears or poor audio arrangements? I think the latter.

An evolving conference: Technology conferences can be accused of following the same old playbook year in year out. I think TechEd is certainly guilty of this practice. MEC tried some different things and the best evolution was the Experts Unplugged sessions. Some of these didn’t work because of poor audience participation (no questions) or the wrong set of experts. But those that did fairly sizzled with a cut-and-thrust between experts and audiences as questions were posed and debated. Small rooms and a mixture of talents on the panel appear to be the recipe for success here.

Cardboard Tony at the Exchange Museum

Cardboard Tony at the Exchange Museum

The walkabout cutout: The nice people at Microsoft asked me for a headshot the week before MEC. That headshot was duly Photoshopped onto a body that was 40 pounds lighter than reality and sporting a red velvet bowtie that I wouldn’t wear in a fit. But the cutout seemed to be a popular place for photos outside the Exchange museum (lots of good stuff to view there) and it was stolen at the end of MEC by some nameless (and shameless) product group members who took the unfortunate Tony on a tour of Austin. Each stage on the cutout’s progress was recorded photographically, including some interesting shots with members of the public who obviously thought that they were being filmed for some weird TV show. My cardboard friend ended up in the Old School Grill at the speaker party, where he joined the band. Latest reports are that he made a flight to Seattle and is now somewhere in Redmond. How appropriate!

Cardboard Tony in the Old School House bar

Cardboard Tony in the Old School Grill bar

Quizzes: Binary Tree and ENow Software both ran good quizzes at MEC. Binary Tree took their name and used it as the basis for binary code puzzles that people had to solve. I think many cheated and used online binary calculators to solve the puzzles but that’s OK. Many also used the InterWeb to check the trivia questions posed in the ENow Software quiz and four bright sparks ended up fighting it out for the $1,000 cash prize. I was invited to host the final round and delighted in asking five tough questions extracted from my treasure trove of Exchange trivia (otherwise known as rubbish long forgotten). The winner ended up with ten crisp $100 bills, but it was funnier to see the face of Maarten Piederiet, the runner-up, as he received 500 $1 bills to take home to Holland.

The final stages of the Enow quiz (credit: J. Peter Bruzzese)

The final stages of the Enow quiz (credit: J. Peter Bruzzese)

Meals and drinks: No one expects gourmet food at a technology conference and we were not disappointed at MEC. Any of the food I tried was rubbery, warmish, and basically awful. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I was disappointed at the inability of the caterers to provide hot coffee though. Any cup I poured was tepid brown ink. Uuugh.

Gifts: Many thanks to the nice people at SolarWinds who gave me a brand new xBox One because I was the top tweeter at MEC. I’m past the age when xBox gaming is really attractive and anyway, a U.S. device wasn’t going to function too well in Ireland, even if I paid the outlandish customs duty that the fine customs staff at Dublin Airport were likely to extract if I turned up with the xBox. So I gifted it to Greg Taylor of Microsoft for his kids. And Greg gave me his Dell Venue Pro, the gift provided to all MEC attendees – and appreciated by almost everyone. There seems to have been some problems with devices but that’s to be expected and the problematic Venues were quickly swapped, so all is well.

Logistics: Generally logistics worked extremely well and the organizers executed everything needed to deliver an impressive conference. The fact that no paper guides were produced puzzled some but then again, you don’t need paper when the conference web site is so good and you’re given a Windows tablet to access it and the OneNote notebook containing all the conference info. I liked this a lot.

Twitter: I tweeted a lot from MEC in a form of experiment for myself. I normally write down notes at a conference and decided to replace this with short tweets to capture essential information as I heard it in sessions (feel free to review my Twitter stream to see what you think). Like any other tool, it’s important to use Twitter the right way to be effective. I was happy that I captured information that is useful to me and seemed to be useful to others who consumed it. I apologize to anyone who was offended by the tone of some of the tweets, especially when I was under inspired by the keynote. As I said to Jeff Teper, social networking is a double-edged tool: when things are going for you, social networking acts as an accelerant. When things aren’t going so well, the same effect applies.

So that’s it – the unseen side of MEC, the bits that make conferences enjoyable events to attend. I also enjoyed meeting those who attended MEC in different roles – vendors (I know booth duty can be excruciatingly difficult at times), product group members (lots of new faces), other Microsoft employees (the support guys, consulting staff, and others), MVPs (a great bunch), and everyone else. You all made MEC. It was great.

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Posted in Cloud, Email, Exchange, Office 365, Outlook, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Exchange Oscars at MEC 2014

The Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) brings people together who are interested in Exchange and associated products. It’s a great gathering of talent and passion and it provided a suitable time to recognize people who have made contributions to the development of Exchange over the near and long term.

The Exchange product group and the Exchange MVPs came together on the evening of April 1 to have some fun and laughter over food and drink, to rehash old stories of versions long gone, features long cut or never shipped, challenging customers, experiences at past conferences, and generally chill out after day 2 of MEC. And then Greg Taylor acted as the master of ceremonies to distribute the “Exchange Oscars.” As usual (and as expected), Greg did an excellent job of introducing each award with some well-founded commentary.

Exchange MVPs had voted for members of the product group in several categories and the reverse had happened so that product group members voted for MVPs. The right people were recognized by their peers, which is always a good thing.

Happy Exchange Oscars 2014 recipients

Happy Exchange Oscars 2014 recipients

The two top awards were the Exchange Hall of Fame Oscars. Paul Robichaux was recognized in the MVP category along with David Espinoza from the product group. Both have truly made a long-term contribution to the development of Exchange and richly deserved the recognition. Others recognized were

Product Group:

  • Brian Day (most helpful PG member)
  • Jeff Mealiffe (best presenter)
  • Scott Schnoll (most wishes he was still an MVP)
  • Shawn McGrath (best tool – ExRCA)
  • Ross Smith IV (best EHLO blog post since last MEC)

Exchange MVPs:

  • Lee Benjamin (best at knowledge sharing)
  • Paul Cunningham (best code contribution)
  • Michael Van Horenbeeck (most promising MVP)
  • Ed Crowley (the “tough love” award)
  • Jeff Guillet (most influential blog)
  • Andy David (most active poster on various distribution lists)

It was a great evening that was well organized by Marissa Salazar and well attended by both the product group (many new faces were spotted) and MVPs. I think this event will become part of MEC tradition. Roll on the next MEC!

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SQL 2014′s link to Exchange 4.0

It was nice to read the memories of ex-Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Hal Berenson in a post about SQL 2014’s delayed durability feature. Like me, Hal used to work at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), where he specialized on database engineering. He tells the story of prototyping delayed durability to fix some performance issues in Rdb/VMS in 1986. As explained in TechNet, delayed durability is accomplished by “transaction log records are kept in a buffer and hardened to disk when the buffer fills or a buffer flushing event takes place.” As it turns out, the prototyped code was removed from Rdb/VMS and never used in production.

The description of how delayed durability works should be pretty familiar to anyone who knows anything about the Exchange Information Store and the way that ESE, the database engine, handles transactions. Exchange captures information about transactions in the current transaction log and only commits them to the database when the complete transaction is available.

As Hal explains in his post, after he left DEC and joined Microsoft, he helped the Exchange 4.0 development team address some performance problems that they had in the Store. MAPI was the only client protocol in use at the time and MAPI just loves properties when it comes to processing email. Each adjustment to a property (and there could be 40 or more made to process a message) was an individual transaction with a subsequent impact on performance as each transaction was logged. Hal suggested that the ESE team use delayed durability and the problem was resolved. Exchange 4.0 shipped with the feature in March 1996.

MEC attendees can get the latest information about how the Information Store and ESE combine to deliver robustness and durability by going to “The Latest on High Availability and Site Resilience” at 10:45am on Tuesday. And if you’re at MEC, why not come along to my 8:30 session on Wednesday when I talk about the wonders of  Retention Policies. What could be a better start to the day?

I just love war stories like this. An idea that didn’t work out for a DEC product eventually helped to solve a major performance issue for Microsoft’s first enterprise email server and is now in SQL Server 2014. Time flies when you’re having fun…

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