I’m sorry, but SIMS8 can’t come fast enough

I haven’t really been on SupportNet, Capita SIMS support portal, regularly since changing roles about 20 months ago, the only time I pop on nowadays is to find something when I’m helping out my old team during busyhard times (you never really escape at my work). On this occasion I stopped by the forum and one thing jumped out at me. The lack of progress. Now I appreciate I’m about to unload both barrels into my foot, but I think it needs to be said.

The same issues exist today that exists when I was dealing with SIMS .net on daily bases over 20 months ago. That’s nearly 2 years. There are still people who aren’t using SOLUS3 – you know that free tool Capita created to ease the woes of upgrades and deployments. Despite a large number of users already using it and all the major bugs being resolve. More worrying, Capita has even issued SOLUS2 with it’s marching orders. It’s not a question of if, but when. The last release will be Autumn 2014 unless they are forced to push it back. Again.

I don’t think pushing it back is the answer. Pushing the date back is like putting a plaster over a gunshot wound. OK, it might help stop the bleeding, but it’s not the answer. Now I accept my approach of nagging my boss until he allowed me get on top of SOLUS3 whilst Capita was throwing major development time at it so I can make sure it works for our schools might not be possible for everyone. In fact it’s impossible, there aren’t enough developers to go around. But something has epically failed. Why, why, why hasn’t someone gone. Right, this needs to happen. It’s not going to go away. We have these problems:

  • SIMS Discover needs SOLUS3 – Sorry, you don’t install SIMS manually why? So why is installing Discover manually an option?
  • SIMS .net needs MORE access rights to installupgrade – switching UAC off is just plain stupid
  • Upgrades are just a pain

We need to resolve. Lets get SOLUS3 setup.

Now if your one of the support teams I’m attacking, before you start defending yourselves. Step back. Being busy isn’t an valid excuse. If you weren’t busy, you’ll be at the job centre. Someone, either yourself or your boss should be reviewing whats happening. Regularly. If your trying to do workarounds, you’re never going to have time to implement a fix. See what your doing is a putting a plaster on a gunshot wound and stop, get to the hospital. I know smaller support teams this will be a lot harder, especially when schools are doing their own thing, but I think this actually makes it easier.

SOLUS3 is a bit of a different beast. The way I explain SOLUS3 to new IT staff is, SOLUS3 is your tool. It’s a IT technician’s tool. This tool will manage SIMS .net across your network – it also keeps SIMS .net at a safe distance so you don’t enter the mists of MIS land. At the same time it keeps the MIS manager away from any sort of Windows permissions – you’re not giving any non-IT staff administrator access to YOUR network. System Manager is the DataMIS managers tool, it keeps people out of THEIR database, including IT staff. I’ve found this has been really useful with new IT staff coming from the “real” world and they have found the clear what you do and don’t do has helped keep them out of trouble. You do get the odd, why can’t I get a SCCM package, but when you point out that would require either Capita forcing schools to buy more Microsoft licenses or them reading more Capita documentation, they tend to go quiet.

Now I think the issue is the MIS support people are trying to push SOLUS3, when it should be the IT support people. If you look at the problems people are having with SOLUS3, they are IT problems, firewall and DNS mainly. Which MIS support staff don’t resolve. IT support staff do. If you’re now saying, but we don’t have any IT support people, it’s all third parties. What would happen if something, non-MIS related was required to be pushed out? What I’d do is organise a third party to support it, get the community together and issue training. So, find someone who has deployed SOLUS3 successfully and get them to do some training sessions for those pesky IT support teams. The cost of even getting even a Capita trainer in at £££, booking a venue could be offset by charging fees to delegates and to be honest, it isn’t that much when you compare it to even 1 day of failed SIMS upgradesdeployments. Costs can be cut by using a central school as the venue, by using a non-Capita trainer, by joining forces with other local support teams or even going completely digital. Support forums like EduGeek are a excellent way for the community to support itself with very little effort. I would also not be fussy by who attends, if they support one of your schools, offer them the training. Don’t get caught up in the fact their going to resell your knowledge. Think bigger picture.

So, do I think their will be much progress? Do I think Capita will stick with their Autumn 2014 is the last SOLUS2 release?

Well I also noticed they still had the following documents on the SupportNet homepage as sticky items:

  • Technical Guide – Network Impact of SIMS
  • Technical Guide – Optimising SIMS .net startup speed
  • Technical Guide – Remote Working with SIMS

Sound pretty useful, till you look at the dates, 06 April 2005, 08 April 2005 and 11th June 2004 respectively.

Take the first one, Network Impact of SIMS – to quote a bit of it:

Unfortunately, minimum hardware specifications are set to rise as we cease support for Windows 98.

Realistically Windows 2000 and Windows XP we would recommend a minimum of 256MB.

I’m sorry, didn’t Microsoft and even Capita just drop support for Windows XP? Why haven’t they updated a document that is important enough to warrant being displayed on their support portal? In over 9 years?!?

Looking at Optimising SIMS .net startup speed, why are worrying about turning the antivirus off certain directories? Aren’t our computers these days powerful enough to handle it? Surely it’ll be a good idea if we’re not using SOLUS3 and giving everyone and their dog access to a protected folder location – Program Files. Why are we worrying about SIMSload, it’s does nothing once the SOLUS3 agent gets installed. Why would anyone compress the drive nowadays?

Remotely accessing SIMS .net is a hot topic – the general concession is to use RemoteApp (Terminal Services). But the “official” Capita response is the Remote Working with SIMS document… which says to use a VPN. I’m not a fan of this idea. FMS, the Capita SIMS finance package, for starts doesn’t work well over a VPN, it’s not a speed issue, I’ve got 50MBs and that’s the lowest package I could get, it’s a latency issue. SQL doesn’t like latency. If you think of that 50MBs as the number of lanes and the latency as the speed what the cars are traveling. SIMS .net isn’t immune either, it just more modern, so it copes better.

I’m sorry, but SIMS8, the next generation of SIMS which is rumoured to be in the “cloud”, can’t come fast enough for me to wash away all this silly technical problems. It’s ridiculous that things aren’t further along. Take the file sets for the School Census, I can see 4 file sets that came out in May, it’s still a manual import. SOLUS3 should be deploying file sets. Automatically. The biggest strength of SIMS is the community, it’s also the biggest problem. Viva la revolution!

Cloud revolution

Want a job? Head to Superdrug

One of the things you’ll find when your going to interviews for your first job after leaving education is that they ask the same types of questions. The main one that feels me with dread is “Give an example of good customer service you have provided”. I hate that question. Hopefully your interviewer would have been kinda enough to at least state that, as you are ill experienced, you might want to give examples of good customer service you have received. Sounds simple enough, but what is good customer service?

The first thing that jumps to my mind is examples bad customer service. We all remember bad customer service, they stick with us, they are almost etched in our mind and often good customer service is overlooked and quickly forgotten. It’s harsh fact in the IT world that the best people are those that no-one knows what they do and only after they leave do people realise how good they were.

The example that prompted me to write this post was after visiting my local Superdrug. Now you have to understand, I’m not a fan of shopping, in fact, that’s an understatement. I’m often messing about if I’m not too busy daydreaming. So when the missus has dragged me shopping, and if I’m being honest, Superdrug is possibility the worse shop she could drag me to. The idea of spending any length of time looking at make-up horrifies me, combine that with the lack of entertainment (trolley racingiPad “testing”comfy chairs) combined with the prospect of holding bright print bags and your pretty much got a full-on sulk for the rest of the day.

Superdrug Ipswich

The thing that impressed me was one of the staff, he clearly had spotted my sulky face and had been watching us as my missus perused the aisles. As we ventured near the final stretch towards the tills he moved from the shelves he was stacking at the back of the store, not to the tills but the boxes near the tills and continued unpacking stock. When we finally came to queuing for the tills after what felt like an eternity, he stopped unboxing and headed for the till. He opened the till, despite us being the only person in the queue. He stated that they have a 2 for 1 offer on fizzy drinks and would we be interested – the fizzy drinks being stored next to the tills – when we collected a pair and placed them on the counter, he asked if we wanted them out or bagged.

This was good customer service.

He spotted a unhappy customer, me. He decided the best way he could help was to get me out of the shop as quickly as possible, the less time I spend in the shop, the more likely I was to return and more importantly, with my money.

He stayed efficient. He didn’t stop working, he carried on even when waiting for us to pay – it also meant the missus didn’t feel rushed (at least by the staff!)

He saw a sales opening, he took it.

For me, the ticks all the boxes. It shows common sense, that your able to put your feet into the customers shoes, right up to the end this guy is thinking of me, the customer – I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had shop assistance put items into a bag when you both know your going to take it straight out of the bag (a rant for another day perhaps). It shows this guy can see the real benefit of good customer service, not only has he increased his sales today, but future sales by turning a unwilling customer, into a sightly more willing customer.

For more helpful tips on Customer Service read Tricia Morris‘s 7 Customer Service Lessons from a Jedi Master.

Should I purchase Full SQL or is Express enough?

One of the common questions I used to get asked whilst supporting SIMS .net was, do I need Full SQL. SIMS .net uses Microsoft SQL Server as it’s relational database management system (RDBMS) so it’s important to ensure the engine is correctly sized for job at hand. Microsoft SQL Server has come in a number of editions over the years, I won’t detail all the various editions but the two editions schools should be concerned with is Express and Standard. Express is the free edition that Capita bundles as part of their installation media and Standard edition requires purchasing additional Microsoft licenses.

Standard edition can either be licensed by the number of processor (cores) or by users. I personally tend to go for processor licenses so I don’t need to worry about buying new licenses when adding new users later on down the road. It does however come down to pricing – I tend to find processor licenses break even around the 30 user mark (based on Academic licensing anyway).

So why should you shell out of Standard edition? Now to be fair to Capita a number of features that Standard has over Express, like SSIS and the SQL Agent Capita has created tools to workaround the limitations, they’ve created a data transfer tool to extract the data from the SIMS .net database into the SIMS Discover database for example, they’ve created routines within SIMS .net to create Windows Scheduled  Tasks for SQL jobs like B2B. With that said, the one thing Capita can’t get around is the hard resource limits Microsoft has set. Express is limited to 1GB RAM and 1 CPU (max of 4 cores).

When deciding what edition of SQL to use, I normally follow the following diagram

Which SQL Edition is right for me?

I simply believe a Primary school doesn’t need SQL Standard edition. Secondary schools who use Lesson Monitor, a Capita bolt-on module that is used for recording attendance for individual lessons rather then just AMPM, will be using the system pretty much all day rather then just morning and afternoons, so your concurrent users will be alot higher and therefore require more then 1GB RAM. It’s rare that a Secondary school will not be recording individual lessons, however other bolt-ons exist from third parties that will allow the same thing but not have the same impact on the server, so you may be able to get away with Express by using a web based bolt-on.