Windows XPSP3, Thoughts

Okay, so Microsoft has amazed me in light of their usual track record with software patches, and created a patch that doesn’t appear to blow anything up. Granted, all I use my Windows XP image for is the running of the Copilot remote assistance software, for those especially difficult support sessions. But, I can say that so far, Windows XP Service Pack 3 has broken nothing that I am aware of.

In fact, without reading the documentation for the patch, I would have almost no idea what this patch did accomplish aside from taking an inextricable amount of time to install. That being said, there is one cool feature that I am very happy to see. Windows Vista, being the giant ugly, resource hogging, unusable piece of bloat ware that it is, does have a really cool network level feature called internet black hole detection. Basically, internet black holes are created when less skilled network admins filter way too much of the useful signaling traffic the internet depends on to function properly. This is often done with the careful deployment of many, badly configured firewalls. Don’t get me started on firewalls, they accomplish about one tenth of the things people think they do, but I am getting sidetracked here. The end result of a network that has created a black hole in itself is that a very useful signaling system called Path Maximum Transmission Unit Discovery, or PMTUD is broken. The fallout from breaking this obscure, but tremendously important protocol is that many websites on said black holed network will be randomly inaccessible to many of us end users, who would like to visit those websites. Like I said, Windows Vista has a black hole detection and correction service written into the network level. With the installation of Service Pack 3, Windows XP gains this little feature.

In my opinion, this feature alone makes Service Pack 3 a good choice for immediate installation by most people. PMTUD issues are very frustrating for us, as they are the result of absolutely nothing wrong with our service, but we are usually charged with finding a workaround for them anyways. It is pretty hard for us to fix something that is broken on someone else’s network. But, the addition of this patch into a very mainstream operating system such as Windows XP, means that a general purpose workaround now exists that is readily available by default. The better solution would be to educate other networks about how black holes get created, and why they are so very, very bad. But, I suppose that will never happen. The next best thing is to work around them.

Windows XP Service Pack 3

I can honestly say, I am so behind on caring about Microsoft Products, that I had no idea SP3 was even in the works, but it was, and it is here! Windows XP Service Pack 3 has been released as of today. As with all software patches, especially those labeled Microsoft *anything*, I am extremely wary of actually installing this puppy. Oh, I am sure it fixes many, many gloriously awful issues, and of course, causes 3 times as many new ones. I just can’t get excited about trading the bugs I know, for a whole host of new ones. But, I do have an ace in my sleeve today. I don’t run Windows XP as my primary workstation. I keep a copy of it running on a virtualization system called VMWare. VMware allows me to run a virtual computer, on my computer. So, I can have a copy of Windows XP, a copy of Windows Vista, and I can play with the latest Linux distributions, all without gumming up my workstation. It has lots of cool features too, like the ability to back itself up to a known safe state, so I feel pretty confident that installing this service pack won’t annoy me for very long. But I am rambling, I should I stop that.

Like I said, I am wary of any major Microsoft patches, and I strongly suggest you be wary as well. Better that I install SP3 on my virtual computer, and it blow up, rather than you install it on your PC, and it blow up. My virtual computer is very easy to fix, and I wouldn’t care very much if it wasn’t. I will post my impressions of the patch in a few days, after I have had several moments to see what breaks, what is cool, and of course, what makes me shake my head in utter disbelief.

Trouble Ticketing system

In order to better serve you, the customers, and to keep our own sanity, we are starting to use a trouble ticketing system. This is helpful because, as we have grown, we have discovered we cannot keep all of this stuff in a pile of notes on our desk, nor does it all fit in our brains all that well. So, we have centralized all the case notes in a very easily accessed system. The hope is, we will forget less, and when we have a caller with an ongoing issue that may span several days, one of us does not have to play the, “I wonder what the last tech already tried” game, we can just look at the case notes! I know, nothing terribly exciting, but it is important, and we hope it makes our support service faster and more effective.

New Webmail Version

My latest project around here, in between all the other urgent projects, has been to deploy a new version of our webmail service. Frequent users will be relieved to know that we are not switching platforms, our webmail is still based on the horde system, so the usual features everyone enjoys will be present, but now, there will be some new ones.

The biggest difference between the old software, and this one, is that the old software is just for email. The new version is what is commonly called groupware. it has a lot of the features of MS Exchange or IBM Lotus Notes; the already known address book, but also notes, calendars, appointments, and the ability to share any of these with other users. Their is also a new spam reporting feature, which will tie in with an adaptive filter on the mail servers, and hopefully make our spam tagging much more accurate.

Of course, this is a work in progress, in between all the other more urgent issues I tend to deal with regularly, and as such, is guaranteed to be broken in more ways than one. Just a few:

  • Report as spam does nothing at this time, pretty sure you’ll get a bounce notice if you try to use it.
  • Address Books have not been migrated from the old database to the new one, I’m kind of dreading this step. I am also regularly blowing away the address book data in the new database, as I test, and retest, and retest, while I try to build a migration script for existing data. So, expect your address book to disappear from the new software quite regularly until I determine I am “done” with this part. No, this won’t hurt your current address book, once I have a migration solution ready, I will mirror the old data into the new software. *UPDATE* The solution for this issue was far easier than I could have dreamed, currently address books from 2008-03-21 are mirrored from the old webmail, and I will re-mirror them at least one more time.
  • Filter Rules have all the same issues I just said about address books, hence, I am also fearing migrating existing filters. The process is about the same, so when I finish one, the other should follow close behind.
  • Mail Folders are stored in a slightly different place in the new software, which causes it to break all the sent-items folder settings for just about everybody. I’m trying to shoehorn that back into the old spot, so this issue will just go away.
  • You might notice that the main page is a customizable portal, with many potential add-ons, one of which is a program called ‘fortune.’ Fortune is a fun program that basically generates odd little quips not unlike a fortune cookie. Some of them are quite hilarious. There is an option to display potentially offensive fortunes, as well as the tamer variety. Please don’t add the offensive ones to your portal if you are offended by just about anything, most of them make a wardrobe malfunction look minor.
  • No, I don’t know why there is an ‘@’ symbol next to the user name box on the main login screen. I really want it to go away, but I can’t figure out where in the code it is created. It doesn’t hurt anything, so this is the last issue I will probably take care of, unless I find it while looking for something else.
  • And I guarantee, there is much, much more.

So, that being said, if you want to tinker around, with all those issues tucked away in the front of your mind, feel free. The new webmail site is located at, new-webmail.amplex.net. The one thing that shouldn’t be effected is your actual stored email. Letters are stored on the mail servers, the webmail software resides on the web server, which simply accesses your mailboxes. It is the one thing that just works, everything else….. not so much.