Archive for the ‘Software’ Category

Sage Pastel Xpress/Partner V12 and 64 bit Outlook

The Sage Pastel Xpress and Partner products pretty much rule the South African landscape for accounting packages. Almost everywhere you go, you’ll find some Pastel product keeping the books up to date. Our school is no exception, running Partner for the 3 ladies in our accounts department.

With my recent move to Office 365 for mail, I installed Office 2016 64 bit edition on the PC of the debtors clerk to access her mail in Outlook. No problem there, everything worked as it should. However, a few days later she called me back as she was unable to send statements out of Pastel Partner, as the PC now through up an error message when Partner tried to invoke Outlook. This wasn’t a problem in the past, as we’ve only ever used the 32 bit editions of Office. Office 2016 is the first time we’ve installed the 64 bit edition of Office.

It turns out that out of the box, Partner V12 can’t interface with Outlook 64 bit. I don’t have a 32 bit edition of Office 2016 at work, so I needed to get the functionality restored. Luckily, a bit of internet searching revealed the answer: use a replacement DLL file on the Partner installation disk. The process is as follows:

  • Close Partner and Outlook.
  • Copy the NewMail.dll file from the Pastel disk\Utils\Outlook 64-bit folder to C:\Program Files (x86)\Common Files\Softline Pastel. Overwrite the existing file.
  • Run the Component Setup utility in the Pastel folder in the Start menu. This will briefly re-register files, including the replaced DLL file.
  • Try to mail any statement from inside Partner, it should now invoke Outlook correctly.

I checked a Partner V11 disk and this didn’t contain the DLL file, so I assume it only started being introduced with V12. It’s possible that using the DLL file from the V12 disk would work with previous Partner versions going back a while, but I don’t know how compatible or reliable it will be. I have yet to test Partner V14 or V17 to see if they are compatible out the box or will also need the DLL file replaced. Since V14 and V17 were digital downloads with no extra folders, it’s going to prove interesting when I migrate the accounts department.

Lessons learned from migrating to Office 365

May 30, 2017 1 comment

My migration of staff email accounts from our onsite Exchange Server to Office 365 continues as I write this, though now at a somewhat quicker pace. With just under 50 mailboxes left to move, I should be done by the the end of this school term. So far the move has been mostly trouble free, with no email being lost. There have been some small incidents that have helped to shape future mailbox moves and have provided valuable lessons. In no order, here’s some of what I’ve learnt along the way:

  • If you plan to migrate your user’s existing mailboxes up to the cloud, you absolutely need a fast internet connection. 20Mbp/s minimum in both directions, but the faster the better.
  • If possible, get your users to perform mail cleanups before you move their mailbox. The less items in a mailbox, the less time it takes to move said mailbox into the cloud. There’s also less clutter for users after the move, which usually makes people happy, since less clutter is always a good thing.
  • If you are doing a staged migration, try to move as many mailboxes as you can per batch, so that you don’t draw the process out too long. The longer you run two systems, the more risk of something breaking or going wrong along the way.
  • Watch out for user accounts that have been renamed, i.e. people with surname changes. If this isn’t cleaned up properly before being synced to the cloud, it can come back to bite you in the ass. Cue frantic searching and entering arcane commands into Powershell.
  • Users don’t always appreciate or use manuals you may have written. Write a manual anyway, so that you’ve covered your ass.
  • Mailbox moves often don’t happen as fast as you think they should. Budget extra time for a large move.
  • Modern Outlook Web App is a really nice mail client. Light years from Exchange 2007 version obviously.
  • Use Office 2016 for fixed desktop users to connect to Exchange where possible. All previous versions are not going to get the same attention and support from Microsoft in case of trouble.
  • Office 2016 perpetual (i.e. the version you volume license and uses MSI installer) won’t get feature updates over its lifespan. This means no new and cool features like Focussed Inbox.
  • Some programs that interface with Outlook don’t like the 64 bit version of Office.
  • Direct users to the stand alone Outlook apps on Android and iOS. The built in mail client should connect with too much hassles, but Android and Exchange have always had a slightly rocky relationship in my view.

I’m in the process of moving the last giant mailboxes over in the coming week. Once that’s done, the pace of migration should go up as I move other users over with more “normal” size mailboxes. Once everyone has moved, it’s a case of testing to make sure everything is ok, then changing MX records to cut over for direct email delivery to the cloud and to cut out mail coming onsite and then back out again.

The slow migration to Office 365

When it comes to corporate mail servers, many would argue that Microsoft Exchange is the king of the hill. It’s a behemoth of a product that powers so many offices around the world providing vital features. If set up correctly, Exchange has been one of those products that in my experience just hums along quietly, doing its job without demanding a lot of attention.

At the end of 2009 when my first colleague and I migrated my school’s network, Exchange 2007 was our mail server of choice. Not only would it provide everything we needed, it would offer many new features to a school that was used to using a very broken Pegasus Mail/Mercury mail server/Novell Netware combination. It also helped that we got Exchange free of charge under the national SA Government agreement with Microsoft, which ended about 6 months after we installed Exchange.

Since that time, this Exchange server has processed millions of emails and survived moving from a decrepit physical machine to a XenServer implementation to finally ending up in Hyper-V. I’ve probably had 10 incidents or less with this server over the last 7 years. External internet connectivity or issues with upstream mail servers not withstanding, our mail server has done its job perfectly.

Like all things in technology however, there comes a time to move on. The web interface of Exchange 2007 has become really dated and leaves you tied to Internet Explorer for the best results. Those were the days before Microsoft became cross browser friendly, where the “lite” version of webmail was seriously crippled. While I would have upgraded us internally to a later version, we couldn’t afford an upgrade. After the government agreement expired, we were stuck. Quotes I received for updates versions made my eyes water and no one could quite work out how to price software for schools. I think every reseller I contacted only knew how to deal with the corporate world.

In the intervening years, Microsoft essentially resolved my dilemma by introducing and refining Office 365 for Education. Originally billed as Live@Edu, the product provided some nice perks – 50GB mailbox, huge (then called) Skydrive storage etc. The problem was that the product lacked unity and cohesiveness at the time. Live@Edu folded into Office 365 and things have only gone up and up since then. For no cost to us, we get access to the latest version of Exchange, albeit Exchange online, 50GB mailbox, superior spam filtering, access to Microsoft Teams and all the other applications available for education users. As long as their is competition with Google’s G-Suite for Education, we all stand to benefit from that rivalry which forces Microsoft to up their game.

Towards the end of 2015, I decided to migrate all my student mailboxes over to the cloud since students had miniscule amounts of mail compared to staff. It got their mailboxes offsite and gave me some valuable experience on how the migration process would work. It took some reading up on how to do it, but the process is something like this:

  • Sync your on site Active Directory to 365 with the new Sync Tool. The new tool is far better than the old version and what was possible in the earlier days.
  • If you want to be able to simply connect to on premises Exchange and migrate the mailbox like that, you need to have a working Outlook Web Access instance running, secured by a SSL certificate. This lets 365 sync the selected users mailbox to the cloud.
  • The process takes a while, especially over slow connections. The faster internet speeds you have, especially upload speed, the better.
  • You are limited to either a cutover or staged migration for Exchange 2007. Cutover is defined as moving everyone at once then changing DNS MX records so that mail flows directly to 365. Staged is slower, where you move some mailboxes at a time and still use the onsite server as the engine for routing mail. There’s slightly more work with staged, but it lets you be methodical and careful.
  • You can upload Outlook PST files as another method of moving mailboxes, but it’s the same issue as an online migration – you need good uploading speed.

This year I started moving staff mailboxes over for the first time. I had only planned to start once our fibre optic internet connection was in, but the unexpected delays in getting our line in has pushed me to start now already, even over our horrible ADSL connection. I’ve now synced about 10 staff mailboxes over and given staff a manual on how to use the new interface. Some are familiar with it already having had access via their universities or other institutes. The real problem is identifying users who can adapt to the new interface and give feedback on the manual. This is easier said than done when you still have some staff who can barely work with the existing system, 7 years after it went online…

Eventually my goal is to have moved all mailboxes over the cloud, with not one email having been misplaced during the journey. Once that is done, I intend to decommission my on site Exchange server, as well as the actual Windows VM it’s running in. It will be good to not have to support Server 2008 as well, one less old OS to worry about.

In short, there’s precious little reason to have an onsite Exchange server anymore if your internet connection is fast enough. Microsoft does a better job of server uptime than what we can do on our own, they have better spam filtering and they provide a package of products that is not only compelling, but free for education as well. The only real reason to have onsite Exchange anymore is because of privacy or regulatory concerns or if you need some sort of feature that Exchange Online can’t provide.

Upgrading Windows 10 via WSUS

November 15, 2016 Leave a comment

Windows 10 is supposedly the “last” consumer Windows edition Microsoft will release. While the version will stay as 10, over time the whole OS will mature, grow and mutate into something that will look and feel very different from the original release of July 2015. One side effect of this is that in a corporate environment using WSUS, it becomes possible for new versions of Windows 10 to be deployed as an in place fully automatic upgrade, the same way any other patch or service pack is installed. I was curious to see how this worked, so I approved the Anniversary Update (also known as version 1607) for installation at work and let my PC download the update.

Sure enough, the process was the same as what my home PC went through when it upgraded to the 1607 update. A couple of update screens and quite some time later, I was back at my desktop, duly upgraded. Everything was still in place, bar the RSAT pack which had to be updated to a version compatible with v1607. Overall, an extremely smooth and hands free process, just time consuming. I imagine it would easily take twice or thrice as long if the machine runs on a mechanical HD and not a SSD.

That being said, there was one major problem with the 1607 update – checking for updates from WSUS broke due to a bug in 1607. Windows 10 1607 would start to search for updates from the configured WSUS server, only to have multiple services in the background crash repeatedly, with no indication to the user. To the end user, it simply looks like the search is stuck at 1% and never moves from there. Apparently, if one leaves the process running long enough, updates will eventually download. This is obviously an unacceptable bug and Microsoft were made aware of it. They promised a fix in one of the monthly update roll ups, which was subsequently delivered and verified as having fixed the problem. Now you have a chicken and egg situation: deploy the 1607 update via WSUS, but then struggle after that, since you need the Cumulative Update to fix the problem.

You could manually install the update, but this becomes unwieldy in a large organisation. If deploying Windows 10 via deployment tools, you could make sure that the base image has the update injected already, which prevents the issue from cropping up in the first place. Sadly, the 1607 update is delivered from WSUS as an encrypted ESD file. While it is possible to decrypt this and inject the update, I don’t know if it’s possible to convert that back in to an ESD file. Even if you could, the checksum wouldn’t be valid and WSUS would probably fail to work with the modified file.

There’s always a possibility Microsoft could revise the 1607 update in WSUS so that the ESD file comes with the last Cumulative Update installed so that it works correctly out the box. I recall something like this happening with the November 1511 update, which I declined as it was another 3-4 GB download. Unfortunately, one doesn’t know when or even if this will happen. It’s also possible the problem will never be fixed. With the Creators Update due out early 2017 (March?) it’s possible that Microsoft uses that as the new baseline. If I’m correct, once the Creators Update is approved in the WSUS console, it will supersede the Anniversary Update, so the problem should be solved by bypassing the 1607 update.

I look forward to eventually rolling out Windows versions like this, though I think it will be beneficial if every computer had a SSD inside it first. Mechanical hard drives really do slow things down these days. A nice side effect of this is that Windows shouldn’t end up suffering from “Windows rot” as the Windows directory is replaced with each major upgrade. This should keep performance up compared to something like Windows 7 that gets bogged down after years worth of updates. Interesting times ahead…

Categories: Software Tags: ,


November 6, 2016 Leave a comment

About a month ago, I received an email at work from the company which develops our school administration software. The email advised us that the company was planning to migrate their backend email delivery provider from Mandrill to SparkPost. We were advised that if we wanted to keep mail delivery free we’d sign up for an account with SparkPost. The email was poorly worded, as both my colleague and I assumed that the change over was going to be happening in a matter of days. Since our school sends out tons of email via the admin package, I acted quickly and got us signed up for a free account.

After getting signed up, I got the company to switch the backend provider on our account over to SparkPost, which worked correctly. I was advised to set up SPF and DKIM records in our DNS zone so that mail sent via SparkPost would be far less likely to be rejected as SPAM. It took me a bit of research on the correct way to set up these records, most especially the SPF record. We have mail coming from our domain from both SparkPost and our MX records, so both need to be covered. A catch is that your SPF record cannot require more than 10 DNS lookups or it would be not be considered a valid record. It took me a bit of fiddling to find the right balance, but I got it done eventually. As a bonus, the SPF record should help get mail delivered to Gmail recipients quicker – we’ve often have long delays in mail getting delivered to Gmail in the past probably due to the lack of the SPF record.

Once term started and users started sending mail, some problems came to light, namely that a lot of mail was simply being rejected as SPAM and that pulling out the list of automatically suppressed email addresses was impossible via the web interface. The SPAM problem comes from the fact that some of the IP addresses used in SparkPost’s free tier pool have been tainted by other users. Since we have no control over which server sends the mail, it’s a crap shoot in which mail gets through and what is blocked as SPAM. One solution is to upgrade to a paid tier and buy dedicated IP addresses, but this was not something we had budgeted for and as such isn’t a viable option just yet.

Contacting their support, I asked for help. I got a reply that apologised, told me that they were terminating accounts for SPAMMING and that they had made some change that would hopefully help our account. Time will tell if that really is the case. We cannot afford to regularly have 20 odd % of our mail routinely fail to deliver because it’s identified as SPAM due to a tainted IP address.

Getting the suppression list was a challenge. I found a command on their blog which would pull it out of a command line using cURL, a Unix tool. This displays a raw bit of JSON code on the command line which includes all the suppressed emails and reasons why it was suppressed. It took me quite some time to figure out that I could echo this output using the > command to a text file with the entire output of the command. Then I needed to get this processed into something I could use, preferably a CSV file for import into Excel. Thankfully I found an website that does just that – website here. Armed with the now useful CSV file, I imported into Excel and made a spreadsheet for our registrar to follow up with the relevant parents so that we can get correct email addresses.

This whole adventure with SparkPost has taught me quite a bit about email out there on the internet, especially when you operate on a bulk scale. It’s also taught me that the spammers have really ruined email as a communication tool. I struggle to explain to staff in plain English why exactly their email isn’t getting delivered, as the concepts are not straight forward for people who don’t have the faintest clue of how email delivery actually works.

Still, SparkPost should be useful in the long run, especially if they get their tainted IP problem sorted out. I have more insight now into the process than I did when Mandrill was the backend delivery tool. I get the feeling that at this point in time, SparkPost is still very much a programmer’s tool rather than something that is geared towards end users. Hopefully in time SparkPost will make their website more user friendly and capable, which will greatly elevate the service I think, especially for a non-programmer like myself who simply needs to get something done.

Categories: Software Tags:

Those WTF moments

October 14, 2016 Leave a comment

Sometimes in the world of IT, you have moments where all you can do is scratch your head and ask WTF happened. Such was the case on Monday this week, before I even got back into work and before the term started. I received a text from my head of IT who said that he was unable to access one of our (virtual) servers to post our PowerPoint daily notice we show our learners. In-between getting dressed and packing my bags for work, I remoted in to take a look.

I couldn’t see the server on the network nor could I Remote Desktop in to it. Ping worked surprisingly, but that seemed to be about it. Going to Hyper-V manager revealed the server was on and I could connect via the console. I picked up a clue as what to what could be wrong when I noticed that the Heartbeat status wasn’t being reported to Hyper-V Manager. This indicated that the service had stopped running for some reason.

The previous Friday I had rebooted all our servers in order to finish their update cycles, as well as to prepare them for the term ahead. This particular server had come up from the reboot ok, so I didn’t do an in depth check. It’s never given me an issue like what happened before, so I made the mistake of assuming all was well. Anyway, after connecting, I could see that all the Hyper-V services were not running inside the VM. Manually trying to start them didn’t work. I tried to upgrade the Integration Components since Hyper-V indicated that my other VM’s needed an update for the components. No matter how I ran the setup file, it would not execute on the sick VM. By this time I had to leave to get to work, so the problem had to wait until I got in.

After arriving at work and settling in, I cloned the VM to my PC so I could play around more easily. Numerous attempts at a cure all failed, until I came across a post on the internet that described the same symptoms as I had. There was a link to a Microsoft KB article, which included steps on how to fix the problem. The KB dated from a few years back, so I found it incredibly bizarre that the problem only hit us now. Still, the sick server is running Server 2008, so I went ahead and made the change in the registry as documented. A reboot later and the server on my PC was suddenly working normally again. All relevant services were starting up correctly again and the server was back in action.

Since it was successful on my local cloned image, I went ahead and made the same change on the sick VM itself. Sure enough, one reboot later and we were back in business. In the aftermath, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what caused this issue. While I did have IIS installed on the server years ago, I don’t recall there ever being a SSL certificate on that server. How exactly we ended up with the situation is probably something I’ll never fully know. As I said to my colleague, we’ve both seen random stuff over the years, but this one was really a WTF moment in a big way.

Categories: General, Software

Keeping Adobe Flash Player updated on a network

The Adobe Flash Player plugin is a pain in the arse. It’s a security nightmare, with more holes in the codebase than Swiss cheese. It seems every other week Flash makes the headlines when some or another security vulnerability is discovered and exploited. Cue the groans from network admins and users around the world as Flash has to be updated *yet* again. Unfortunately, one can’t quite get permanently rid of it just yet, as too many websites still rely on it. While you could get away with not using it at home, in a school where multiple people use a computer and visit different websites, one doesn’t have much choice really but to make sure Flash is installed.

On Windows 7 and below, the situation with Flash is a bit crazy. There’s a version for Internet Explorer (ActiveX plugin), a version for Firefox that is installed separately and Google Chrome bundles its own version – I’m not sure about smaller or niche browsers, but I think modern Opera inherits Flash via its relationship with Chrome’s engine. Thankfully with Windows 8 and above, Flash for Internet Explorer is distributed via Windows Update. It’s automatic and contains no 3rd party advertisements, anti-virus offers, browser bundling etc – all things Adobe have done in the past with their Flash installers. Trying to install Flash from Adobe’s website on Windows 8 and above will fail, which at least may help to kill off the fake Flash installer routine used by malware authors to trick unsuspecting users.

The usual method of installing Flash is highly cumbersome if you run a large network – not to mention that EXE files are much less flexible than MSI files for deployment and silent install options. Thankfully Adobe do make Flash Player in MSI format, but it’s not easy to get hold of directly. You have to sign a free enterprise deployment license to be able to legally distribute Flash and Reader in your organisation. The problem becomes how to distribute the updates especially if you aren’t running System Center or another product like that. Enter WSUS Package Publisher, indispensable if you make use of WSUS on your network.

WPP allows you to use the enterprise update catalogs Adobe and some other vendors offer. Using this, you essentially push the updates into your existing WSUS infrastructure, where it ends up delivered to the client computers like any other update. One thing you need to do is tweak the update as you publish it, so that it isn’t applicable to computers running Windows 8 upwards – if you don’t do this, the update will download on newer Windows versions, but will fail to install repeatedly and will need to be hidden. The other thing I’ve also discovered that needs to be fixed is that the silent install command line switch needs to be deleted. When a MSI file is delivered via WSUS, it is automatically installed silently. I discovered this the hard way, since one of the Flash updates I imported was failing to install on every computer. Turning on MSI logging and searching for the error code eventually lead me to discovering what was wrong, after which I corrected the problem and now know what to do with every new update that comes out for Flash.

Since using WPP, I’ve felt happier about the safety of my network, as I can usually get Flash pushed out with 2-3 days of the initial download. This is far better than having to visit each computer manually and keeping Flash up to date that way!