27 Jun 2008

The Zen of Hosting: Part 8 - Microsoft Dynamics GP and Terminal Services

For this instalment the product I am going cover is Microsoft Dynamics GP which is very interesting compared to MSCRM (part 6) and MOSS (part 7) in that it is not web based and thus a completely new challenge to expose in a web based hosting environment. For those who not know the architecture it is a Windows form application (not sure if it is .Net or WinAPI) but the GUI is a thin veil to a monster SQL database with so many tables and stored procs it is scary. So the normal way is that the user gets this client installed and the client directly connects to the SQL server. So if you thinking for hosting that you end up having to allow direct connections over the web to SQL, think again. The security risk of this just makes that a huge no. So after spending some time investigating the other people offering hosted GP, the solution everyone else seems if give you a server and let you remote in via Citrix. As this is a Microsoft end to end solution, Citrix is not an option, but Microsoft does have Terminal Services (TS) to compete and in Windows Server 2008 it can compete better than before. TS has always been this way to connect to a full session, which is nice, but we don't want nice, we want amazing. So the TS in Windows 2008 has a feature called Remote Applications.

Remote Apps lets an admin publish an application to a user, so it runs from a special icon, an MSI file (which you could deploy using AD or System Centre) or from a web site, and looks just like it is running on the users machine. In the background it is spawning a normal TS session on the server, starting the application and pushing the UI of the application only to the user. It's great as the user thinks it's on it's machine and it's super fast thanks to the lots of server power the application has and it is not fighting for resources on the client machine.

As this is the first version of this there is still some rough edges which need addressing. Firstly the application still runs on the server, so if you go File -> Open you browse the servers file system :( I know TS an share drives from the client to host, but the look like other drives not the normal C, D etc... users are expecting. What should be happening is that the admin should be able to disable the servers drives from being exposed and the clients drives are the only ones shown. The same should apply to printers. One advantage for GP is that working with the file system isn't a big requirement, but the printing is and that is less of a pain. The next area is security, it is still launching a TS session and that means if you want to allow a user to run a remote application, they end up needing login rights. I understand the technical requirements around this but there should be a way to separate people who will login via TS to the machine and those who just need Remote Apps on the terminal service level. Despite this Microsoft Dynamics GP looked like it was going to be difficult, but in the end was very easy to deploy.

23 Jun 2008

When to use what

The official MSCRM blog (http://blogs.msdn.com/crm – which I knew out of my head. I am aware I need to get a life) seldom excites me because they are still so far behind what companies, like where I currently work, but Amy Langlois really did shine today. So forgive this +1 post and if you are a Microsoft Dynamics CRM developer working with the SDK you must read it because it contains vital information on changes they are making to the SDK assemblies and when/what you should be using in your code.

Read all about it at: Web Services & DLLs or What’s up with all the duplicate classes?

23 Jun 2008

The official way to change MSCRM ports

Finally Microsoft have released a support article which details how to change the MSCRM web site ports correctly. This also fixes the workflow doesn’t work et al issues (see here). This is great to have, not because details a third way to do it (so besides the SQL edit and IFD tool), but that it actually fills in the gaps for everything else you need to do such as reconfiguring Outlook clients and data migration tools etc…

You can read it at http://support.microsoft.com/kb/947423/

23 Jun 2008

The Zen of Hosting: Part 7 - MOSS

Next up on the technology list I want to profile in the series is Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), which you may think is easy since HMC supports it's little brother Windows SharePoint Services (WSS). Unfortunately the added complexity MOSS brings adds significant challenges to the mix and the first question is how do you do deal with users in MOSS while keeping the customers separate? Dealing with users means that you must provide all the functionality of the authentication system and any web part in MOSS (like the People Picker) while making sure one customer doesn't see anything or anyone from another customer.

Well the answer is easy, use a custom authentication provider. The out of the box the AD provider is not up to the task as it means that all users can see all others. Next thought would be to use the forms based one, but that means additional replication of users from AD to a database which is also a pain. MOSS also includes a generic LDAP provider which seems like the perfect fit as you can specify the root OU to start from (so limiting what each site can see), but this provider is very error prone due to the HMC structure/properties so in the end you are better off building your own LDAP one. So all you need to do once the custom authentication provider is build a custom provider for HMC which setups and manages the site creation and feeds the information on what a customer has directly to HMC.

A great example of how this is done, is one of our first customers who got their own mini-environment within our hosted environment. So they don't sit on our big MOSS farm, they have their own one and have some special customizations to it, but the principals of their solution and the HMC one is very similar. The customer is South African Tourism's (SAT) and their web site is www.freesatsite.co.za. One of the special changes is the use of specialised custom authentication provider, which was changed from an LDAP one to one that uses Windows Live! So your MSN login becomes your web site login (how cool is that) and it includes a full self provisioning system which allows SAT members to login, and provision a new site in seconds. Rather than being completely separate domains each new web site is a sub-site of www.freesatsite.co.za. Please don't think I suddenly became a great MOSS expert, I really just provided servers and the environment for this brilliant solution, the team that built this solution are the guys from Blacklight who designed the UI and all the themes support and to Mark Lenferna de la Motte and his team who did the bulk of the heavy lifting configuration to make MOSS do it's magic.

20 Jun 2008

The Zen of Hosting: Part 6 - Microsoft Dynamics CRM

So in the first five parts we have looked at the standard stuff, now lets dive into a real product and we'll tackle the one I am most familiar with: Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0. Thankfully MSCRM 4.0 is the first version of the product to really support a hosted model. Somehow MSCRM 3.0 could do hosted, but based on the architecture you would have ended up hacking a lot in it to get it to work. I never did hosted MSCRM myself in version 3.0 so that thinking is just based my understanding of the architecture of MSCRM 3.0.

So how is MSCRM 4.0 different from 3.0 and how does that allow it to be easily hosted? Well firstly you can now have a single deployment with multiple databases, one for each organisation. This means that each organisations data, settings and customizations are completely separate! This is great if every machine is on the domain but in hosting you need a way to provide a way to login over the web or via a special client. This is because in a hosted model, despite the fact you have a domain, your end users may be on a separate domain. Thankfully MSCRM 4.0 provides BOTH! This is configured using the IFD tool which actually enables MSCRM to look at what the source IP address is, and if it is a local network IP uses standard NTLM authentication. However if it sees it as external IP address it presents a form based authentication which the user can use to login with, this means that not only does the web interface work over the Internet but it also means the outlook client works too.

If you are a regular MSCRM user you likely love the dynamic export to Excel, and for those who don't know what it is let me explain briefly. In MSCRM you can export almost any data to Excel and it can be updated dynamically live from within MSCRM. This works by creating a data set in the Excel spreadsheet and putting the SQL for your query in the data set. The problem with this scenario is that Excel uses direct connections to SQL to do this, so does this mean you need to expose your SQL server? Not at all, if you are running the Outlook client a button is added to Excel which actually reverses the SQL and uses the normal MSCRM web services to get the data! So you can still just expose MSCRM to the net, keeping security high, and lowering administrative overhead. Note: This is only available if you are using IFD deployments.

If you are planning to do hosted MSCRM you may find the hosted deployment guide interesting, as it explains how to setup MSCRM 4.0, however it is not the most logical guide as it is broken into three sections. The first section is how to configure your environment for hosted MSCRM. This is actually the exact same information as included in the HMC guide for configuration of the environment, which brings us to the second section how to use HMC with MSCRM. So not only do they repeat what is in the HMC guide, they then tell you to do go through that guide. It's pointless and a massive waste of space. The only advantage is that if you had never heard of HMC this might point you in the right direction. The last section in contrast has some interesting and useful information on the additional steps for MSCRM to get it to run in an IFD mode like how to edit the install configuration file to setup IFD from the install (but the easier and less error prone route is to use the IFD tool) and any extra configuration needed for hosted (such as changing the security of the web site in IIS to anonymous).

Something that is vital for a happy hosting environment for MSCRM is that you must make sure the async service is running all the time. This is vital not only because it manages the workflow (and what good is MSCRM without workflow), imports and background processes but in a hosted scenario it also handles logins which are done via the forms based authentication.

Really MSCRM is pretty easy to get hosted and setup and while the demo HMC web console doesn't provide automatic provisioning tools, a lot of the third party ones do have options for MSCRM. Something I have learnt is that when you deploy MSCRM 4.0, even if it is not a hosted deployment it is worthwhile to make every MSCRM deployment an IFD. My reasoning for this is two fold:

  1. Authentication is handled in a superior way, as you have normal NTLM and forms based. This can give you a way to solve those complex Kerberos based issues caused by problems in AD without needing to mess around with AD.
  2. If not now, at some point in the near future, someone in your business will want to work from home or while on a business trip. You can save them having to mess around with VPNs and just point them to the same URL as they normally use (provided you have setup your DNS and firewall right), so you will save some headaches for you and your users.

If this has interested you, make sure you go to TechEd Africa as there is a IFD Tips and Tricks session for Microsoft CRM!

17 Jun 2008

HMC 4.5 Is Out

Guess a couple of weeks is really only one week and some change in Microspeak (for SA it’s only one week thanks to public holidays). Read more on it the MSDN blogs.
15 Jun 2008

The Zen of Hosting: Part 5 - HMC and Exchange

A little note from the editor (he he, like I have an editor). The previous post was late due to circumstances I can't even explain, sorry about that (to make it up, I have post this a few hours earlier). Also if you have been reading on the site the formatting has been slightly out due to security permissions, which I will remember to fix up in future. Anyway hope you enjoy the posts, and now back to the regular scheduled (he he) broadcast.

So part 4 was a really massive post because there is so much that HMC does for AD, but this post is a lot short because HMC provides similar functionality for Exchange as AD. The primary similarity is that it uses properties in AD to completely separate companies so that even on a GAL level you cannot see other companies email addresses (see the end of part 4 about the security issues).

Exchange management is also an area where I learnt not to trust the management web interface is showing me everything HMC could do, cause in reality it is just a subset. For instance if you want to create a distribution group, there is no option in the interface or even in the samples. However if you dig through the SDK you will find the details of how it can be done and the SDK has a sample in the documentation which you can copy, paste and edit and use that.

The biggest headache with the Exchange deployment for me was not HMC, which was really easy in comparison, but the setting up of the auto discover system and the certificates for that. At the end of the day there was three critical things I used to get it solved:

  1. Making sure the DNS was correctly setup. I'll cover DNS issues in part 11 (yeah I’ve written that far in advance).
  2. Using http://www.testexchangeconnectivity.com which is a prototype web site from the Microsoft Exchange team which allows you to run tests of common Exchange systems over the Internet.
  3. Lastly setting up the auto discover redirect, which is not normally needed but in a hosted environment is essential. The reason it is so essential is that unless you are going to automate your DNS provisioning (which you should anyway and HMC doesn't do out the box) and automate your purchasing of SAN (server alternative name) certificates which are extremely expensive and I wouldn't know where to start with that (BizTalk maybe) you are going to have to setup a single certificate and direct all customers through one interface. The easiest way to do it is from an article I found on the Exchange team blog: More on Exchange 2007 and certificates - with real world scenario (search for The Other Method).
13 Jun 2008

The Zen of Hosting: Part 4 - HMC and AD

In part 2 I started to write about Active Directory and how to get a single domain to work with multiple organisations, so lets get back to AD and look at how HMC helps with it? Well what HMC does to AD is it gives you a way to setup the OU structure and it sets up a number of properties on the AD object.


One of the great things about the OU structure is that allows you to have a top level organisation (which is called the hosting company), a second level organisation/s (the resellers) and a third level organisation/s (the customers). The second level is very exciting as this is actually the level at which sales are done and due to the structure the multiple resellers can exist and can work with their customer base but are secured away from other customers and resellers. If you thinking of white boxing a hosting solution, this is how it is done.

Security is obviously taken into account by the HMC engine will let a administrator on a hosting company level manage anyone within the system, on the reseller level you can work add accounts to your own account and any of your customer via the web interface. But does this mean you will spend your admin days in the web interface? Definitely not! Your AD skills still apply and you can still manage users, computers, set group policies and reset passwords etc... But you should be doing provisioning (creation of items) through the web interface or the engine as it will save you from having to edit AD properties manually later on for instance. If you aren't looking at white boxing it then you would just have your hosting company and one reseller and then various organisations as customers.

You may have picked up that I said you can use the engine to provision and you may have thought that meant you need to use the SDK and write code, well you don't have to! Microsoft have actually included a tool called Provtest which is a command line tool on your HMC server which you pass an XML file to. It takes the file and parses it and pushes it to the engine and displays the result. This is actually the same way the SDK works, in that you pass XML to the web services or COM+ object to do things. Microsoft also includes many samples with HMC, and even more in the SDK. So what you may find yourself doing it a lot of that, especially when you get to Exchange management.

One of the ways HMC also modifies the AD object properties is that the login name gets set in such a way that it allows each customer to have their own domain name (sort of) however it's just on the AD account name. This isn't an easy concept to grasp without an example, so lets say the hosting company domain is Contoso.local, and lets say that a customer named Northwind signs up with one of their resellers (who the reseller is, is not important). The Northwind guys decide they want their domain to be Northwind.com, so via the web interface they add Fred and set his login to be [email protected]. What HMC does is set the AD account name to [email protected], however in the background it sets the SAM account name (or the pre-Windows 2000 name) to be contoso.local\fred_northwind.. Yes, it should be dot-dot, the first dot for the SAM account and second for the grammar. So all customers are on the same domain at the core but the account name is what they would use to login to OWA, their machine or an application like MSCRM.

The SAM account name is vitally important still as most applications don't like using account name internally. For example MSCRM allows you to login with the account name, but when adding users individually you cannot use the account name, you must use the SAM account name. Odd though the multiple user add option does work with the account name. This is a annoying problem as it means you need to expose the (ugly) SAM name to your customers and if you have named you hosting level with something distinctive it could limit your white box ability!

This disconnect between account name and SAM account is a massive pain in ass for service accounts too, as I lost way too much time during the deployment on many services just retyping passwords and resetting them because I thought I was losing my mind. Only to realise that the application didn't like something in the username and wanted the SAM account name. The worst experience I had with passwords during all of this was with Forefront, where it not only didn't like the account name but also didn't like the fact the domain name (on the hosting company level) had a dot in it.

The security isn’t perfect though as there are times when you can see all users in the system. In an earlier version of HMC, there was a problem with the address books where everyone could see everyone but that has been corrected. For MSCRM though the add multiple user interface shows all users when you hit the lookup if you have not configured MSCRM correctly. I’ll come back to this point later in the series when I take about MOSS.