Windows Server Follows Trend of Two Updates per Year

Subject: General Tech | June 19, 2017 - 08:59 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows, windows server

Microsoft seems to want to release feature updates for their software twice per year, once in the fall, and once in the spring. First, Office 365 announced that it would adopt a semi-annual schedule, targeting September and March, give or take a bit. The Windows team then announced that they would follow in Office’s footsteps.

Now, the Windows Server team has followed suit.

microsoft-2015-windows-10-10159-upgrade.png

It’s interesting, because Windows Server typically pushes out two major versions every four or five years: one with a number, and another with that same number alongside an R2 suffix. Each of these lines up with a consumer refresh of the NT kernel, although both Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2003 R2 used the same kernel... because Windows XP lasted a while.

Sure, a lot of a name would normally be marketing, but it also gated the major features that Microsoft was able to add (because they wanted a single Windows release to interact with software fairly uniformly across its lifecycle for enterprise reasons). Now, with the whole company pushing the “as a service” model, even Windows Server will be on the feature release treadmill.

Source: Microsoft

Rumor: New Edition of Windows 10 Pro Planned

Subject: General Tech | June 6, 2017 - 02:07 AM |
Tagged: microsoft, windows, windows 10

The Verge is reporting on an allegedly leaked slide from Microsoft that announces a new edition of Windows 10 Pro. It is given the placeholder name “Windows 10 Pro for Workstation PCs” and it has four advertised features: Workstations mode, ReFS, SMBDirect, the ability to use up to four CPUs, and the ability to use up to 6TB of RAM.

microsoft-2017-windows10proworkstation-grandmofongo.jpg

Image Credit: GrandMofongo (Twitter)

If this rumor is true, I don’t believe that it will behave like Windows 10 Enterprise. Because it unlocks the ability to address more RAM and CPU sockets, I doubt that users would be able to switch between Windows 10 Pro and “Windows 10 Pro for Workstation PCs” with just a no-reboot login to an Azure Active Directory. This is just speculation, of course, and speculation on a rumor at that.

The Workstation mode is kind-of interesting, though. The Windows 10 Creators Update introduced Game Mode, which allowed games to be prioritized over other software for higher performance (although it hasn’t been a hit so far). Last month, they also announced power management features to throttle background apps, but only when running on battery power. It makes sense that Microsoft would apply the same concepts wherever it would be beneficial, whether that’s optimizing for performance or efficiency for any given workload.

It does seem like an odd headlining feature for a new edition, which I’d assume requires an up-sell over the typical Windows 10 Pro SKU, when they haven’t demonstrated a clear win for Game Mode yet? What do you all think?

Source: The Verge

Windows Git gud

Subject: General Tech | May 29, 2017 - 02:41 PM |
Tagged: git, windows, microsoft

Microsoft have moved their huge collection of source code from an internal proprietary tool to Git.  The repository is 300 GB and is very popular with The Register reporting 8,421 pull requests and 1,760 official builds a day.  To help people access the repository they have developed their own Git Virtual File System, which present Git as a FAT file system to users.  This has not been viewed as favourably as they had hoped, the popularity is causing the service to process requests slowly, however it is still generally faster than going straight to Git.  If you want to give it a shot, read through this blog post over at Microsoft.

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"Redmond's certainly feeling pleased with itself about the move, in particular stroking itself about being able to move the whole 2,000-strong Windows OneCore team from the Source Depot internal tool to Git over a weekend."

Here is some more Tech News from around the web:

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Source: The Register

How To: Add AptX Bluetooth Audio to a Windows PC

Subject: Mobile | May 10, 2017 - 05:11 PM |
Tagged: windows, sony, qualcomm, mdr1000x, CSR Harmony, bluetooth, aptX, a2dp

Recently, to prepare for a long plane flight I bought a pair of Sony MDR-1000X Bluetooth noise canceling headphones. While I won't get into the specifics of these headphones other than that I have been really satisfied with them, when I returned from my trip I wanted to start using them at the office.

Seemingly that would be easy, as these headphones feature a 3.5mm input, but I am frequently walking around the office and I wanted to fully utilize the wireless features. While I could have just used any Bluetooth adapter compatible with Windows, I wanted to test out one of the features of these headphones —  AptX technology.

Qualcomm aptX.jpg

AptX is an alternate Bluetooth audio codec from Qualcomm which aims to feature higher audio quality. Sebastian took a look at a pair of AptX-enabled headphones earlier this year, and I have wanted to check out the technology ever since.

I went to Amazon, and did a search for "AptX Bluetooth USB" and found a wide array of options, so I did what anyone would naturally do — I bought the cheapest one and hoped it would work

IMG_4560.JPG

After receiving the USB adapter, I first installed the CSR Harmony software from the Azio website. This is a piece of software that sits on top of the Windows Bluetooth Stack and enabled advanced Bluetooth features, including AptX, on certain Bluetooth chipsets.

Once the software was installed, I plugged in the device and found a new Bluetooth icon sitting in my Windows tray.

Screenshot_1.png

From here, you can simply right click the icon and search for a new Bluetooth device.

Screenshot_2.png

Once I put the headphones into pairing mode I was able to pair to them successfully.

Screenshot_3.png

And, that's it! Once you are successfully paired to an AptX device, you should see this popup from the Windows tray confirming that AptX is working. From here, you can use the headphones just like you would with any Windows audio playback device. 

This certainly isn't a review of AptX audio quality, I will defer to Sebastian's analysis for that in which he calls the headphones he tested "audiophile-approved Bluetooth."

For a $12 investment, it seems like a no-brainer for users who already have an AptX-enabled device that they use on their smartphone.

Source: Azio

Microsoft Announces Windows 10 S for Education

Subject: General Tech | May 2, 2017 - 10:16 AM |
Tagged: Windows 10 S, windows 10, windows, OS, operating system, microsoft, Education

Microsoft has introduced a new version of Windows 10 today during their education event, with low-cost education-specific laptops (starting at $189) to feature Windows 10 S, a lightweight edition of the OS for education.

Windows 10 S.png

During the presentation it was revealed that the only way to install applications that are not found within the Windows store on Windows 10 S would be to upgrade to Windows 10 Pro. The installation and configuration saves to a USB key that saves the state of the student’s laptop, so that any laptop in the school can be used by the student after inserting their USB key, which reconfigures the OS to the last state used with that key.

Microsoft demonstrated the speed of their streamlined version of the OS with a first boot, which took around 10 seconds on a new machine due to the stripped-down features and limited pre-installed applications. Windows 10 S will be available free to all schools on their current "genuine Window Pro PCs", and free subscriptions to Microsoft Office 365 and Minecraft: Education Edition were also announced.

Windows 10 S will arrive this summer, and while a future on low-cost consumer devices for a Windows Store-only version of the OS seems likely, Windows 10 S seems geared specifically for the education sector for now.

Source: Microsoft
Subject: Processors
Manufacturer: AMD

** UPDATE 3/13 5 PM **

AMD has posted a follow-up statement that officially clears up much of the conjecture this article was attempting to clarify. Relevant points from their post that relate to this article as well as many of the requests for additional testing we have seen since its posting (emphasis mine):

  • "We have investigated reports alleging incorrect thread scheduling on the AMD Ryzen™ processor. Based on our findings, AMD believes that the Windows® 10 thread scheduler is operating properly for “Zen,” and we do not presently believe there is an issue with the scheduler adversely utilizing the logical and physical configurations of the architecture."

  • "Finally, we have reviewed the limited available evidence concerning performance deltas between Windows® 7 and Windows® 10 on the AMD Ryzen™ CPU. We do not believe there is an issue with scheduling differences between the two versions of Windows.  Any differences in performance can be more likely attributed to software architecture differences between these OSes."

So there you have it, straight from the horse's mouth. AMD does not believe the problem lies within the Windows thread scheduler. SMT performance in gaming workloads was also addressed:

  • "Finally, we have investigated reports of instances where SMT is producing reduced performance in a handful of games. Based on our characterization of game workloads, it is our expectation that gaming applications should generally see a neutral/positive benefit from SMT. We see this neutral/positive behavior in a wide range of titles, including: Arma® 3, Battlefield™ 1, Mafia™ III, Watch Dogs™ 2, Sid Meier’s Civilization® VI, For Honor™, Hitman™, Mirror’s Edge™ Catalyst and The Division™. Independent 3rd-party analyses have corroborated these findings.

    For the remaining outliers, AMD again sees multiple opportunities within the codebases of specific applications to improve how this software addresses the “Zen” architecture. We have already identified some simple changes that can improve a game’s understanding of the "Zen" core/cache topology, and we intend to provide a status update to the community when they are ready."

We are still digging into the observed differences of toggling SMT compared with disabling the second CCX, but it is good to see AMD issue a clarifying statement here for all of those out there observing and reporting on SMT-related performance deltas.

** END UPDATE **

Editor's Note: The testing you see here was a response to many days of comments and questions to our team on how and why AMD Ryzen processors are seeing performance gaps in 1080p gaming (and other scenarios) in comparison to Intel Core processors. Several outlets have posted that the culprit is the Windows 10 scheduler and its inability to properly allocate work across the logical vs. physical cores of the Zen architecture. As it turns out, we can prove that isn't the case at all. -Ryan Shrout

Initial reviews of AMD’s Ryzen CPU revealed a few inefficiencies in some situations particularly in gaming workloads running at the more common resolutions like 1080p, where the CPU comprises more of a bottleneck when coupled with modern GPUs. Lots of folks have theorized about what could possibly be causing these issues, and most recent attention appears to have been directed at the Windows 10 scheduler and its supposed inability to properly place threads on the Ryzen cores for the most efficient processing. 

I typically have Task Manager open while running storage tests (they are boring to watch otherwise), and I naturally had it open during Ryzen platform storage testing. I’m accustomed to how the IO workers are distributed across reported threads, and in the case of SMT capable CPUs, distributed across cores. There is a clear difference when viewing our custom storage workloads with SMT on vs. off, and it was dead obvious to me that core loading was working as expected while I was testing Ryzen. I went back and pulled the actual thread/core loading data from my testing results to confirm:

SMT on usage.png

The Windows scheduler has a habit of bouncing processes across available processor threads. This naturally happens as other processes share time with a particular core, with the heavier process not necessarily switching back to the same core. As you can see above, the single IO handler thread was spread across the first four cores during its run, but the Windows scheduler was always hitting just one of the two available SMT threads on any single core at one time.

My testing for Ryan’s Ryzen review consisted of only single threaded workloads, but we can make things a bit clearer by loading down half of the CPU while toggling SMT off. We do this by increasing the worker count (4) to be half of the available threads on the Ryzen processor, which is 8 with SMT disabled in the motherboard BIOS.

smtoff4workers.png

SMT OFF, 8 cores, 4 workers

With SMT off, the scheduler is clearly not giving priority to any particular core and the work is spread throughout the physical cores in a fairly even fashion.

Now let’s try with SMT turned back on and doubling the number of IO workers to 8 to keep the CPU half loaded:

smton8workers.png

SMT ON, 16 (logical) cores, 8 workers

With SMT on, we see a very different result. The scheduler is clearly loading only one thread per core. This could only be possible if Windows was aware of the 2-way SMT (two threads per core) configuration of the Ryzen processor. Do note that sometimes the workload will toggle around every few seconds, but the total loading on each physical core will still remain at ~%50. I chose a workload that saturated its thread just enough for Windows to not shift it around as it ran, making the above result even clearer.

Synthetic Testing Procedure

While the storage testing methods above provide a real-world example of the Windows 10 scheduler working as expected, we do have another workload that can help demonstrate core balancing with Intel Core and AMD Ryzen processors. A quick and simple custom-built C++ application can be used to generate generic worker threads and monitor for core collisions and resolutions.

This test app has a very straight forward workflow. Every few seconds it generates a new thread, capping at N/2 threads total, where N is equal to the reported number of logical cores. If the OS scheduler is working as expected, it should load 8 threads across 8 physical cores, though the division between the specific logical core per physical core will be based on very minute parameters and conditions going on in the OS background.

By monitoring the APIC_ID through the CPUID instruction, the first application thread monitors all threads and detects and reports on collisions - when a thread from our app is running on the same core as another thread from our app. That thread also reports when those collisions have been cleared. In an ideal and expected environment where Windows 10 knows the boundaries of physical and logical cores, you should never see more than one thread of a core loaded at the same time.

app01.png

Click to Enlarge

This screenshot shows our app working on the left and the Windows Task Manager on the right with logical cores labeled. While it may look like all logical cores are being utilized at the same time, in fact they are not. At any given point, only LCore 0 or LCore 1 are actively processing a thread. Need proof? Check out the modified view of the task manager where I copy the graph of LCore 1/5/9/13 over the graph of LCore 0/4/8/12 with inverted colors to aid viewability.

app02-2.png

If you look closely, by overlapping the graphs in this way, you can see that the threads migrate from LCore 0 to LCore 1, LCore 4 to LCore 5, and so on. The graphs intersect and fill in to consume ~100% of the physical core. This pattern is repeated for the other 8 logical cores on the right two columns as well. 

Running the same application on a Core i7-5960X Haswell-E 8-core processor shows a very similar behavior.

app03.png

Click to Enlarge

Each pair of logical cores shares a single thread and when thread transitions occur away from LCore N, they migrate perfectly to LCore N+1. It does appear that in this scenario the Intel system is showing a more stable threaded distribution than the Ryzen system. While that may in fact incur some performance advantage for the 5960X configuration, the penalty for intra-core thread migration is expected to be very minute.

The fact that Windows 10 is balancing the 8 thread load specifically between matching logical core pairs indicates that the operating system is perfectly aware of the processor topology and is selecting distinct cores first to complete the work.

Information from this custom application, along with the storage performance tool example above, clearly show that Windows 10 is attempting to balance work on Ryzen between cores in the same manner that we have experienced with Intel and its HyperThreaded processors for many years.

Continue reading our look at AMD Ryzen and Windows 10 scheduling!

Blizzard Cutting Support for Windows XP and Vista

Subject: General Tech | February 19, 2017 - 05:07 PM |
Tagged: pc gaming, blizzard, windows, EoL

Most companies have already abandoned Windows XP and Vista, including Microsoft once Vista leaves extended support in April, but Blizzard is known for long-term support. This is the company that is still selling Diablo 2, even producing retail disks for it last I checked, almost seventeen years after it was released (including a patch last year).

blizzard-battlenet-real01.jpg

Later this year, World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm will no longer support Windows XP or Vista. This will not all happen at once, even though it would actually make less sense if they did. I mean, why would they coordinate several teams to release a patch at the same time and maximize annoyance to the affected users who cannot schedule or afford an upgrade at that specific time?

Although, if that’s you, then you should probably get around to it sooner than later.

Source: Blizzard
Manufacturer: PC Perspective

Living Long and Prospering

The open fork of AMD’s Mantle, the Vulkan API, was released exactly a year ago with, as we reported, a hard launch. This meant public, but not main-branch drivers for developers, a few public SDKs, a proof-of-concept patch for The Talos Principle, and, of course, the ratified specification. This sets up the API to find success right out of the gate, and we can now look back over the year since.

khronos-2017-vulkan-alt-logo.png

Thor's hammer, or a tempest in a teapot?

The elephant in the room is DOOM. This game has successfully integrated the API and it uses many of its more interesting features, like asynchronous compute. Because the API is designed in a sort-of “make a command, drop it on a list” paradigm, the driver is able to select commands based on priority and available resources. AMD’s products got a significant performance boost, relative to OpenGL, catapulting their Fury X GPU up to the enthusiast level that its theoretical performance suggested.

Mobile developers have been picking up the API, too. Google, who is known for banishing OpenCL from their Nexus line and challenging OpenGL ES with their Android Extension Pack (later integrated into OpenGL ES with version 3.2), has strongly backed Vulkan. The API was integrated as a core feature of Android 7.0.

On the engine and middleware side of things, Vulkan is currently “ready for shipping games” as of Unreal Engine 4.14. It is also included in Unity 5.6 Beta, which is expected for full release in March. Frameworks for emulators are also integrating Vulkan, often just to say they did, but sometimes to emulate the quirks of these system’s offbeat graphics co-processors. Many other engines, from Source 2 to Torque 3D, have also announced or added Vulkan support.

Finally, for the API itself, The Khronos Group announced (pg 22 from SIGGRAPH 2016) areas that they are actively working on. The top feature is “better” multi-GPU support. While Vulkan, like OpenCL, allows developers to enumerate all graphics devices and target them, individually, with work, it doesn’t have certain mechanisms, like being able to directly ingest output from one GPU into another. They haven’t announced a timeline for this.

Microsoft finally reaches step 1; admission

Subject: General Tech | December 23, 2016 - 12:54 PM |
Tagged: windows, microsoft, windows 10

Chris Capossela, Chief Marketing Officer at Microsoft, was on Windows Weekly recently and admitted, for the first time, that Microsoft may have gone a bit too far during their "Get Windows 10" extravaganza.  This shocking revelation supposedly occurred a short while after they released the version in which the red X in the popup window broke with their GUI's standard and no longer closed the window and cancelled the installation.  According to Slashdot this is the first time Microsoft have admitted to the use of excessive rendition techniques on Windows 7 and 8 users.

10-cmos-who-are-kicking-ass-and-what-you-can-learn-from-them-24-638.jpg

"It's no secret that Microsoft has been aggressively pushing Windows 10 to users. Over the past year and a half, we have seen users complain about Windows 10 automatically getting downloaded to their computer, and in some cases, getting installed on its own as well. The automatic download irked many users who were on limited or slow data plans, or didn't want to spend gigabytes of data on Windows 10."

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Source: Slashdot

Windows 7 and 8.1 did stop shipping to OEMs

Subject: General Tech | November 2, 2016 - 12:57 PM |
Tagged: microsoft, OEM, windows, EoL

We've known for quite some time that Microsoft planned to stop providing OEMs with keys for Windows 7 or 8.1 this Halloween and they have made good on that promise.  If you already have a valid license you will contine to be able to use it on your machine and even reinstall from scratch but you won't be able to buy a machine without Windows 10 anymore.  On the corporate side this is being ignored, the new machine may ship with Win10 installed but that will not last long.  This is your last chance to grab one of the few remaining unused Windows 7 or 8.1 keys, The Register managed to spot at least one company still offering a Win7 downgrade so get moving if that is your plan.

windows-7.jpg

"If you can get Dell, HP Inc, Lenovo or any other PC-maker to sell you a PC running Windows 7 Professional or Windows 8.1, please let us know how you did it because Microsoft no longer sells the operating system to OEMs."

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Source: The Register