Windows Server 2012 R2: a godsend for grumpware

Life is no fun if you’re a developer nowadays. I spend a lot of time thinking on behalf of my clients, and almost all of those are end-user businesses that make, sell or pronounce judgement on stuff. None of this stuff is software – it’s far more likely to be light fittings, or wine, or lumps of steel pipe.

Windows Server 2012 R2: a godsend for grumpware

There’s a whole separate stratum of business, though, which is all about making software products. I’m not thinking about the team that writes and updates the Excel codebase on behalf of the whole of humanity; I’m thinking about those IT businesses that produce industry-specific databases and applications. For instance, someone, somewhere, had to write that XP application that enables you to order a spare part from Ford.

Microsoft tends to move the goalposts for developers every couple of years

The real-world experience of using networks – in fact, that of using PCs at all – in most small businesses is almost totally defined by the class of developer that I’m talking about here. Every business has a PC in the corner of the office that runs Bankline, or one of the courier waybill-generating applications, which are notorious for their poor adherence to the shifting world of standards.

Microsoft tends to move the goalposts for developers every couple of years, and history shows us that wherever these new goalposts come to rest will typically be poorly aligned with their customers’ needs. It will also make it difficult for them to take time to learn the new skills required to keep up with the pace of change – so they don’t bother learning.

I often give thanks for these sacrificial programs. A little awkwardness from these harassed developers can provide powerful validation for network integrators; it makes all of our ancient, sometimes derided, knowledge and arcane hackery more valuable, perhaps even invaluable. Wherever it was that the developer decided to stop, that’s where the rest of the LAN has to stop too – or at least where it has to accommodate itself to the awkward registry keys, the group policies, the frozen configurations and those rogue machines that must be left disconnected from Windows Update or risk death.

It often seems as though the more crucial the job performed by a piece of software, the more perverse the demands it will place on a modern PC setup. Do you need virtualisation, deduplication, thin client access, Remote Differential Compression and Wi-Fi? Every one of these tech innovations will uncover some curmudgeonly old lump of junk application that won’t work with them. Some of these grumpware apps actually poke little probes out into the pool of modern system services, purely so they can spot whatever it is their developer took a dislike to and then put up a petulant warning dialog about it.

Others are worse. More than once I’ve participated in what looks like a normal software project, only to discover that from the vendor’s side of the deal, it looks much more like an “all your bases belong to us” power grab. The software package itself may not be all that badly behaved, but the vendor or partner is, and firmly intends to exert control over all aspects of the customer’s IT department, in order to magnanimously let them use the vital software product. This is difficult to handle, not only because such usurping of the incumbent support department’s territory becomes increasingly dangerous as computing becomes more complex, but also because in certain business sectors, there’s really no other way an app’s developers can make a sensible living.

Charging tens of thousands of pounds for a database that assists with the working practices of dentists’ surgeries, haulage businesses or haute couture fashion houses, for example, might look good for the developer on day one of the relationship. However, three years down the line, with only a few tens or hundreds of installations sold, the cupboard will start to look a little bare. That’s especially so where the original developer has cashed out and has now spent those original tens of thousands on the golf course, old Bentley or steam engine, or whatever else took their fancy.

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