Nice set of updates to Azure over the last few days – Data Sync now in the HTML Portal – Updates to the CLI

Scott Guthrie posted about the Azure-related changes that have happened over the last few days.

Of particular interest to me was that Data Sync was now in the new HTML portal, and that the Azure store now works in a bunch more countries.

Generally I like the newer HTML portal but I'm still finding that it applies different validation rules to SQL passwords than Windows Azure SQL Database itself does. That's a pain as I still have to use the older portal.

Regardless, here is the list of changes:

  • Mobile Services (job scheduler support, Europe Region Support, Command Line Support)
  • Web Sites (scale improvements, integrated source control)
  • SQL Data Sync (support in the new HTML portal)
  • ACS Management (support in the new HTML portal)
  • Media Services (job and task management, blob storage support, reserved compute)
  • Virtual Network enhancements
  • Subscription Filtering Support
  • Windows Azure Store (now available in more countries)
  • Glenn Bock also posted a few days back about changes to the CLI that help with automation of site and virtual machine creation.

    Windows Azure SQL Reporting – Great to see a dramatic price decrease for lower volume users

    I was really excited about Windows Azure SQL Reporting being released. That lasted until I saw the pricing. If I just deployed a server and didn't use it, the price was 89c per hour for up to 300 reports per hour. What many people didn't understand is that the price applied whether or not you used the reporting server.

    That meant that the minimum price for deploying a server was 89c x 24 hours x 365 days = $7796.40 per year.

    That price was way more expensive than just deploying an Azure VM and purchasing a standard edition license for SQL Server to put on it. And the standard edition license had way more functionality, apart from the high availability provided by WASR.

    At every session where I showed the product, the feedback was the same: "Love the idea, but have you seen the price?".

    Many of us complained loudly (internally) to Microsoft about this, and I'm pleased to say that I just got an email that covers dramatic price reductions.

    From February 1, 2013, the price drops to 16c per hour (all USD) for up to 30 reports per hour.

    That means the minimum price for deploying a server is 16c x 24 hours x 365 days = $1401.60 per year, as long as you don't exceed 30 reports per hour. The pricing still isn't where I'd like to see it, but it's way more palatable now.

    If you've been put off by the pricing of Windows Azure SQL Reporting, it's time to take another look at it.

    Placeholder images for testing reports

    Lorem Ipsum has long been used to provide placeholder text for testing report and document layouts. Programs such as Microsoft Word have also included options for generating sample text. (For example, type =rand() anywhere in a blank area of a Microsoft Word document and hit enter).

    Matthew Roche and Donald Farmer both sent me a link the other day to an online service that provides placeholder images. This could be quite useful when testing report layouts in SQL Server Reporting Services.

    You'll find it here:


    As an example, here's a random sports image. Of course I have no idea what you'll see on this page 🙂

    Create a system image in Windows 8

    One of the things that I've just come to accept is that the designers of Windows 8 and I think very differently.

    It'll take a long time to convince me that shutting down the computer is a "setting". Even after using Windows 8 for quite a while now, I still find that I struggle nearly every day, just trying to do things that I previously knew how to do. That's just not a good thing.

    Today I decided to create a system image as I hadn't made one lately. I started in Control Panel looking for Backup options. That yielded nothing except programs that wanted to "Save backup copies of my files with file history".

    I thought "oh well, let's just try the new search options". I hit the Windows key and typed "Backup". No, nothing came up there either.

    I searched again all over the Control Panel options to no avail.

    So it was time to hit Google again. Once again, clearly lots of people used to know how to do this and have been trying to work out where this option went.

    The first trick is that there are a bunch of Control Panel options that don't appear in the Control Panel. In the address bar at the top, if you click on Control Panel, you'll find there is an option that says "All Control Panel Options". That is curious given that's where I thought I was when I opened Control Panel. No hint is given on that screen that there are a bunch of hidden options. None the less, I then checked out "all" the options.

    The option that you need to create a system image in Windows 8 turns out to be the "Windows 7 File Recovery" option that appears in this extended list. Why does it say "Windows 7" when it's for "Windows 8" as well and I'm running "Windows 8"? Why do I have to choose an option that says "File Recovery" to create a system image backup?


    But at least I've recorded it here for the next time I forget where to find it.

    Visual Studio Image Library now available for download

    One of the challenges in any application development is trying to make your application look like it's really designed for the target environment. Using the same icons/images that are used in the target environment, and for the same purposes, helps greatly with this.

    It's great to see that Microsoft have published an image library for Visual Studio that lets your own applications use the same images that they use in the operating system.

    You'll find info about it (and the download) here:


    CTP for Power View and SSAS Multidimensional Cubes

    When Power View appeared, one of the big outcries was "but what about connecting to existing cubes!".

    Great to see that the SQL Server team have addressed that. A CTP that allows connecting Power View to SSAS Multidimensional cubes is now available:

    Help the team get this out the door by trying it and providing feedback.

    Visual Studio 2012 Update 1 now available for download

    Good to see the Visual Studio 2012 team get update 1 out the door. I'm using it now and am pretty happy with it.

    I like the way that the tools are now being updated out of band. Hopefully, the SQL BI folk will get their templates updated to VS2012 soon too.

    You can get it here:

    Detailed list of what's changed is here:


    An update on using Rosetta Stone: Studio now isn't very useful and is not great value as an add-on option

    I had a surprisingly large number of responses from my previous posting about learning Chinese. An update for those considering Rosetta Stone ( for Chinese, Spanish or any other language that they offer:

    I had to renew my "Studio" subscription today and it's now a much worse deal than it was.

    It's now $75 for 6 months for Studio sessions.

    • Online classes used to be 45 mins. Recently they reduced them to 20 mins. Given how often people have connection issues, etc. that 20 mins can disappear very quickly.
    • They've also reduced the number you can attend. You used to be able to have 2 scheduled at any point in time. Now they limit you to 2 "group sessions" per month during the period. (You can pay for additional private sessions).

    The combination of these two changes now makes it much less useful. Two x 20 min sessions per month is an almost meaningless amount of practice.

    They also now automatically change you to auto-renew when you subscribe. They tell you where to remove this auto-renewal but the first 4 or 5 times that I went into that screen, no such option appeared. Later, an option did appear and I used it.

    Overall, things just aren't what they used to be at Rosetta Stone. It's now pretty hard to recommend the Studio option where it was a no-brainer before.

    FURTHER UPDATE: <sigh>

    Even after I renewed, I could not even connect to their "new" service. Although the system processed the renewal, it still tells me it's expired. My online chat person "Siva S" tells me that the problem is that I've purchased all 5 levels of the program. I can't wait till they explain to me how making an extra purchase from them stops me from logging on. Siva told me that they had "renewed" the program. I'd have to speak to Customer Care; they aren't available and then disconnected himself. Impressive (not).

    Their website is now full of issues too. It insists that my billing address is in the USA, even though it pretends to accept changes to it.

    Overall, it's gone from something that could be recommended (with some limitations) to now being an app to avoid. That's a pity as I liked much of it before.

    Skype support and dead parrot sketches

    We as an industry have a lot to answer for. One thing is the level of support provided for users. Here's the conversation I'm having with Skype right now. It feels like being in a Monty Python skit. I was really hoping that when Microsoft purchased Skype that things might improve.


    8:33:44 PM greglow

    Initial Question/Comment: Subscriptions (Unlimited Country, Unlimited Europe, Unlimited Region, Unlimited World)

    8:33:44 PM System

    Thank you for contacting Skype Customer Support!

    8:33:49 PM System

    Donna Faye has joined this session!

    8:33:50 PM System

    Connected with Donna Faye

    8:33:50 PM System

    Thank you for contacting Skype Customer Support!

    8:33:54 PM System

    Please hold for the next available Live Support Agent.

    8:33:59 PM Donna Faye

    Hello! Welcome to Skype Live Support! My name is Donna L. How may I help you?

    8:34:09 PM greglow

    I've got a subscription (skypename greglow)

    8:34:21 PM greglow

    It's set to auto-renew

    8:34:45 PM greglow

    Why have I been getting messages about my Skype number expiring, if it's set to renew automatically

    8:34:54 PM greglow

    and has recently renewed automatically

    8:35:09 PM Donna Faye

    Thank you for the information.

    8:35:29 PM Donna Faye

    To better assist you may I know your Skype name, please?

    8:35:37 PM greglow


    8:35:44 PM Donna Faye

    Thank you.

    8:36:14 PM Donna Faye

    I understand your concern that you receive an email notification stating that your calling subscription will about to expire. Am I right?

    8:36:43 PM greglow

    No, I got an email telling me that one of my Skype numbers was going to expire

    8:37:08 PM greglow

    When I went to the website, it said it was part of the subscription and the subscription was set to auto-renew

    8:37:18 PM greglow

    The subscription auto-renewed on Oct XXth

    8:37:24 PM greglow

    But the number still expired

    8:37:43 PM greglow

    When I logged on today, it said that the number had expired and that I had 52 days left to reactivate it

    8:37:58 PM greglow

    I did that but am trying to understand why that happens at all

    8:38:36 PM greglow

    Why do you expire numbers that are part of auto-renewing subscriptions?

    8:39:49 PM Donna Faye

    Upon checking your account, your calling subscription link to three Online Numbers.

    8:39:55 PM greglow


    8:40:10 PM greglow

    but until an hour or so ago, one of them had expired. why?

    8:40:54 PM Donna Faye

    Let me explain to you that now Online Number are detach to a calling subscription unlike before it was attach to the calling subscription so therefore each Online Number will recur individually.

    8:41:29 PM Donna Faye

    Upon checking your account it shows that all your Online Number will expire on October XX, 2013

    8:41:44 PM Donna Faye

    If you don't want to be charged again for you can cancel it anytime.

    8:41:59 PM greglow

    I have set it to charge automatically

    8:42:06 PM greglow

    so why do the numbers expire?

    8:42:32 PM Donna Faye

    No they are not expired they are all active.

    8:42:33 PM greglow

    if there is an automatic payment set up, why does anything expire?

    8:42:52 PM greglow

    yes, but one of them was expired, and I only fixed it a few hours ago

    8:43:07 PM greglow

    I'm trying to understand why it expired

    8:44:54 PM Donna Faye

    The email you got just notify you that you should have good enough funding source of your calling subscription and Online Number in order for this to recur.

    8:45:12 PM greglow

    Agreed. I did that but the number still expired. Why?

    8:45:38 PM Donna Faye

    However do not worry on this hence all Online Number are active and not expired.

    8:45:41 PM greglow

    When I logged on today it said that the number had expired and that I had 52 days left to reactivate it. Why did that happen?

    8:46:14 PM Donna Faye

    May I know the Online Number you are pertaining, please?

    The number that had expired was (07) XXXX XXXX (Australia)

    8:49:19 PM Donna Faye

    Okay, do not worry on this Online Number because this will expire on October XX, 2013.

    8:49:38 PM Donna Faye

    Thank you for all the information.

    8:49:46 PM greglow

    I understand that it won't expire now until next year. I'm trying to understand why it stopped working this time

    8:49:51 PM greglow

    so I can avoid that next time

    8:50:39 PM Donna Faye

    What do yo stop working, you mean that Online Number is unable to be reach out?

    8:50:59 PM Donna Faye

    *what do you mean by stop working

    8:51:18 PM greglow

    The Skype number +61 7 XXXX XXXX stopped working because it expired

    8:51:32 PM Donna Faye

    No, this into expired.

    8:51:34 PM greglow

    I'm trying to understand why it expired

    8:51:50 PM greglow

    Sorry I don't follow "this into expired"

    8:52:39 PM Donna Faye

    Let me inform you that this Online Number is not expired.

    8:52:54 PM Donna Faye

    Please disregard the notification you see on your Skype account.

    8:53:02 PM greglow

    Sorry, this is getting very frustrating. I already told you I fixed it today. I want to know why it happened.

    8:53:20 PM Donna Faye

    Hence I can rest assured you that this is active until October XX, 2013.

    8:53:21 PM greglow

    So I can avoid it happening again, on this account, or on our other accounts

    8:53:34 PM greglow

    Can I speak to someone who really understands this please?

    Donna Faye

    Skype send a notification to Skype users for their Skype product in order for them to be aware the expiration of your product however your Online Number still active on your account hence when your calling subscription Unlimited World recur your Online Number also recur.
    8:57:59 PM Donna Faye
    I do apologize for this matter, please allow me to resolve this issue for you.
    9:02:48 PM greglow
    My question is still the same: if it's set to auto-pay, why did it expire?
    9:03:50 PM greglow
    Why did it stop working? Why did I have to "reactivate" it?
    9:04:08 PM greglow
    Why didn't it just keep working if it's set to auto-pay?
    9:04:30 PM greglow
    This isn't a difficult concept
    9:04:34 PM Donna Faye
    Let me clarify to you that this is not the really expired what is emphasizing on this is when you don't have good enough funding source when you calling subscription recur the Online Number will possibly expired but seem that you have a good funding source then this will continue until 2013.
    9:05:10 PM greglow
    When I logged on today, it was not working, and your website said it had expired and that I had 52 days left to reactivate it
    9:05:17 PM greglow

    and so on, and so on, and so on….


    Experiences with learning Chinese

    I've had a few friends asking me about learning Chinese and what I've found works and doesn't work. I was answering a question on a mailing list today and I thought I should post this info where it might be useful to many. The question that was initially asked was whether Rosetta Stone was useful but I've provided much more info on learning the language here.

    I’ve used Rosetta Stone with Chinese but it’s really hard to know whether to recommend it or not. Rosetta Stone works the same way in all languages. They show you photos and then let you both see and hear the target language and get you to work out what they’re talking about. The thinking is that that’s how children learn. However, at first, I found it very frustrating. I’d be staring at photos trying to work out what they were really trying to get at. Sometimes it’s far from obvious. I could not have survived without Google Translate open at the same time. The other weird thing is that the photos are from a mixture of countries. While that’s good in a way, it also means that they are endlessly showing pictures of something that would never happen in the target language and culture.

    For any language, constant interaction with a speaker of the target language is needed. Rosetta Stone has a “Studio” option. That’s the best part of the program. In my case, it lets me connect around twice a week to a live online class from Beijing. Classes usually have the teacher plus two to four students. You get some Studio access with the initial packages but need to purchase it for ongoing use. I find it very inexpensive. It seems to work out to about $70 (AUD/USD) for six months. That’s a real bargain.

    The other downside to Rosetta Stone is that they tend to teach very formal language, but as with other languages, that’s not how the locals speak. It might have been correct at one point but no-one actually says that. As an example, Rosetta Stone teach Gōnggòng qìchē (pronounced roughly like “gong gong chee chure” for bus. Most of my friends from areas like Taiwan would just say Gōngchē. Google Translate says Zǒngxiàn (pronounced somewhat like “dzong sheean”) instead. Mind you, the Rosetta Stone option isn't really as bad as "omnibus"; it's more like saying "public bus". If you say the option they provide, people would understand you.

    I also listen to ChinesePod in the car. They also have SpanishPod. Each podcast is about five minutes of spoken conversation. It is very good for providing current language.

    Another resource I use is local Meetup groups. Most cities have these and for a variety of languages. It’s way less structured (just standard conversation) but good for getting interaction.

    The obvious challenge for Asian languages is reading/writing. The input editors for Chinese that are part of Windows are excellent. Many of my Chinese friends speak fluently but cannot read or write. I was determined to learn to do both. For writing, I’m talking about on a computer, not with a pen. (Mind you, I can barely write English with a pen nowadays). When using Rosetta Stone, you can choose to have the Chinese words displayed in pinyin (Wǒ xǐhuan xuéxí zhōngguó) or in Chinese characters (我喜欢学习中国) or both. This year, I’ve been forcing myself to just use the Chinese characters. I use a pinyin input editor in Windows though, as it’s very fast.  (The character recognition input in the iPad is also amazing). Notice from the example that I provided above that the pronunciation of the pinyin isn’t that obvious to us at first either.  Since changing to only using characters, I find I can now read many more Chinese characters fluently. It’s a major challenge though. I can read about 300 now and yet you need around 2,500 to be able to read a newspaper fairly well.

    Tones are a major issue for some Asian languages. Mandarin has four tones (plus a neutral tone) and there is a major difference in meaning between two words that are spelled the same in pinyin but with different tones. For example, Mǎ (3rd tone马) is a horse, Mā (1st tone妈) is like “mom”, and ma (neutral tone吗) is a question mark and so on. Clearly you don’t want to mix these up. As in English, they also have words that do sound the same but mean different things in different contexts. What’s interesting is that even though we see two words that differ only by tone as very similar, to a native speaker, if you say the right words with the wrong tone, you might as well have said a completely different word.

    My wife’s dialect of Chinese has eight tones. It’s much worse.

    The reason I’m so keen to learn to read/write Chinese is that even though the different dialects are pronounced so differently that speakers of one dialect often cannot understand another dialect, the writing is generally the same. The only difference is that many years ago, the Chinese government created a simplified set of characters for some of the most commonly used ones. Older Chinese and most Cantonese speakers often struggle with the simplified characters.

    This is the simplified form of “three apples”: 三个苹果  

    This is the traditional form of the same words: 三個蘋果 

    Note that two of the characters are the same but the middle two are quite different.

    For most languages, the best thing is to watch current movies in the target language but to watch them with the target language as subtitles, not your native language. You want to know what they actually said, not what it roughly means (which is what the English subtitle would give you). The difficulty with Asian languages like Chinese is that you have the added challenge of understanding the subtitles when they are written in the target language. I wish there were Mandarin Chinese movies with pinyin subtitles.

    For learning to read characters, I also recommend HSKReview on the iPad. It is targeted at the HSK language proficiency levels. (I’m intending to take the first HSK exam as soon as I’m ready).

    Hope that info helps someone get started.