Friday, March 19, 2010

(Editorial) Microsoft’s XP Mode Boondoggle

It will go down in history as one of the more anti-climactic “surprise” announcements. Microsoft’s Windows XP Mode, which was billed as an eleventh hour killer feature for Windows 7, arrived with a thud, thanks in large part to its curious need for Hardware Assisted Virtualization (HAV) support.

The company’s media apologists quickly scrambled to defend the decision, pointing out that most new business-class PCs were shipping with HAV-enabled CPUs anyway. However, this argument did nothing to stem the tide of complaints, both from consumers - who purchased seemingly state-of-the-art, multi-core PCs only to learn that they were incapable of running XP Mode – and from small business customers who wished to leverage the capability on existing, non-HAV-supporting PCs.

A year later, and Microsoft has finally caved to the pressure. Just this week the company released an update to XP Mode’s underlying virtual machine engine – Windows Virtual PC 7 – that allows it to run on non-HAV-supporting PCs. All of which begs the question: Why the bizarro requirement in the first place?

Microsoft’s official line has always been that HAV was necessary in order to ensure an “optimal” end-user experience. However, I suspect a more sinister motive. Specifically, I believe that the “Great XP Mode Boondoggle” was in fact a concession to Intel Corporation – a kind of apology for royally screwing-up with the whole Windows Vista “too fat to fit” debacle

By tying VPC 7 to HAV, Microsoft was helping Intel to discourage small business users from buying low-cost PCs sporting “consumer” versions of its powerful dual and quad-core CPUs – parts that were intentionally neutered in order to create differentiation among the company’s myriad SKUs.

Of course, the whole exercise backfired. Savvy users balked at the restrictions (some even built workarounds using VirtualBox or VMware Player), while small business owners and consumers were left dazed and confused by the various XP Mode “compatibility matrices” that cropped up on the Internet

And then there was the matter of Microsoft’s Enterprise Desktop Virtualization (MED-V). A forerunner to VPC 7 and XP Mode, MED-V does not – and thanks to the aforementioned VPC 7 update, never will – require HAV, ostensibly because enterprise customers would never put up with these sorts of “marketecture” shenanigans in the first place

In fact, XP Mode users can likely thank Early Adopter Program (EAP) customers – many of whom have no doubt been evaluating the VPC 7-based MED-V 2.0 in pre-release form – for this reprieve. Now the only question is whether or not Microsoft will provide updated integration components that allow XP Mode VMs to run with good performance and functionality under the non-HAV update

As of right now, the plan is to not release an optimized integration solution for users of VPC 7/XP Mode on non-HAV PCs. But you can be sure that MED-V customers will get them, and this provides hope that somehow they’ll trickle-down: Either unofficially, through some end-user hack; or officially, as part of yet another “mea culpa” update

Regardless, it’s a good day for Microsoft’s small business customers and end-user consumers. The “Wintel” duopoly tried to foist another bogus restriction on its customer base, and the base fought back.

You balked. They blinked. Chock one up for the little guy!

Figure 1 – Get This and Similar Charts at


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

(OfficeBench): A Decade of PC Benchmarking

As OfficeBench approaches its 10th anniversary it’s time to look back at the history of this iconic test script. With over a million downloads, and with countless copies of its various incarnations in circulation around the globe, OfficeBench is one of the most widely deployed business productivity test scripts in history. And we’re still improving it, with the latest incarnation – OfficeBench 7 – available for free download from the web site.

When I first conceived of an Office Automation test script, the popular benchmarks of the day – Winstone and BapCo – were static and inflexible. They only worked on stand-alone PCs, and then only with a “clean install” of the OS. Frustrated by these limitations, and needing to test Terminal Services scalability as part of my contract to Intel’s Desktop Architecture Labs, I sat down and started writing my own, “bulletproof” test script.

The net result, OfficeBench, was a first-of-its-kind linear test script, one that used the programmatic interfaces of Microsoft Office (OLE automation – a.k.a. COM) to drive the suite through a series of common business productivity tasks. The script was simple, reliable and, if necessary, could scale to tens of thousands of concurrent Terminal Services users.

Figure 1 – OfficeBench 7 ( Download )

More importantly, it worked with the existing installation of Office as configured in the runtime environment (no more clean installs). All of which helped to make OfficeBench the lightweight (less than 2MB to download), easy-to-use choice of performance-oriented IT pros everywhere.

All of which brings us to the topic at hand: OfficeBench’s 10 year anniversary. It was a decade ago this week that I released OfficeBench 1.0. Now, with version 7 “in the wild” for six months, we’ve got something even more exciting to reveal: We’re now publishing comparative OfficeBench test results from across the globe.

Using a new, interactive OfficeBench Performance Explorer widget (see below), you can now explore OfficeBench results from across the range Microsoft environments. Filter by Windows or Office version, CPU type or RAM size. The widget will apply your filters and then scour our online database of OffieBench results (almost 8500 users) to return the averaged scoring results for systems that match your specified criteria.

The OfficeBench Performance Explorer (Interactive)

It’s a great way to assess your own PC’s performance and also to see how other combinations of CPU, Memory, Windows and Office Versions perform across a selection of real-world PCs. Use the widget as a base reference for your own testing. Or simply mine the various combinations to see how changing a single criteria – for example, upgrading from XP to Windows 7 – affects the outcome.

Don’t see your particular hardware/software combination represented above? Then download OfficeBench 7 today! You’ll then be able to compare you own configuration to those of similarly equipped users while adding a unique new reference point to our growing repository of real-world performance data.