I just came back from this year's Expert conference, TEC 2009. Last year it was still called the "Directory Expert's Conference" (DEC). This year the conference has been extended to include training on Microsoft Exchange as well, hence the name change. And of course not to forget that Quest has taken over Netpro - but has this really changed the scope or focus of TEC? Not at all, as was very immediately visible from the start, with a very funny introductory video. It started off just like a very glitzy marketing presentation that turned quickly into a hyperbole of fuzzy marketing buzzwords and photos of smiling executives. The initial bemusement turned into bewilderment, and quickly I could see some rolling eyes and frowns around me, just when the marketing fuzz stopped right in the middle of it, and into the video stepped the image of Gil Kirkpatrick, DEC's founder and Quest's Chief Architect who, looking annoyed, asked the marketing voice what all of this was about. Nothing at TEC was going to change from what DEC was - this was no marketing trade show, but rather a place for people to learn and exchange experience about Microsoft products - specifically Active Directory and Exchange. The video then stopped to make place for the real Gil Kirkpatrick coming on stage to a big applause and delivering the welcome speech.

As a sign of the times, the conference was somewhat smaller as last year - the organisers spoke about a difference of about 30% of attendees compared to last year's DEC. When Gil asked the audience who had to jump through extra hoops to get to TEC, several hands flew up. Those who went however, had an excellent, varied and carefully balanced programme waiting for them. As with all conferences, it can sometimes be a challenge picking a presentation to go to from multiple presentations going on at the same time. I was ver pleasantly surprised to see that some key presentations were given more than once so that I could attend them even though I had missed them the day before. Also, presentations were recorded this time and will soon be made available to attendees which especially for me is an additional value.

The "day before" - i.e. Sunday, several pre-conference workshops had already been given. This was a tough decision for me, as I was torn between going to Laura Hunter's workshop on ADFS and Bahram Rushenas's workshop on codeless provisioning with ILM 2. I chose ILM and the workshop turned out to be very informative, as it gave me a very good glimpse into codeless provisioning with ILM. I still felt sad to have missed Laura's ADFS workshop that has received high praises (which did not surprise me as Laura is an passioned expert on this topic, as well as a gifted speaker). But one can't have everything! ;-)

The second workshop was again on ILM. Dave Lundell, a DEC veteran and one of the most knowledgeable sources on ILM that I have met to date, presented on the topic "Taming the Chaos – Building a Practical Lifecycle Mgt. Application in the ILM “2” Portal". I knew it was going to be good because I already attended (and raved about) his ILM 2 workshop last year at DEC. This one turned out to be a truly wild ride! Dave and his colleague Brad Turner from Ensynch pushed the envelope by demonstrating what I've often heard but never really seen "in action": that ILM 2 is more than just a provisioning tool, but in fact a whole platform that allows all kinds of lifecycle management for enterprise data. He took an excellent example out of the world of enterprise IT: the management of an OID (Object Identifier) management. Enterprises can receive an OID tree within the "private enterprise" branch by requesting it from IANA. This OID tree can then be used to number enterprise-specific schema extensions, SNMP objects and other things that need an OID and are used within an enterprise. The OID space should be properly managed in order to give it the correct structure and making sure that no OID is assigned twice. This unfortunately is very rarely done in any enterprise - perhaps because of its technical nature and because the negative effects are usually not visible immediately when the OID tree space not managed properly - and there are few who "do it right" and properly manage their OID space. Dave and Brad showed how to implement OID management with ILM 2. This was very interesting because it gave us participants a deep dive into the guts of ILM 2, its data structures and workflow possibilities. It also really pushed ILM 2 to its current limits. Ensynch has written several custom workflows and contributed them via the codeflow web site in order to get around some current limitations in ILM 2. Those guys continue to amaze me.

Of course, the news about Microsoft's delaying ILM 2's official release for a whole year put a bit of a damper on the party. Disappointment was tangible from customers and vendors alike. I can certainly understand that although ILM 2's maturity has evolved since last year, Microsoft wants to play it safe and gain some more experience with deployments, and iron out some kinks that are still present in the current beta version. That however doesn't help those partners of Microsoft who have made a significant investment for ILM 2's supposed imminent release. Gemalto for example, was poised for a big launch and threw a big party that, well, was still a great party although with excitement rather muted because the cause for the celebration was gone. Attendees were also very disappointed, many of them having come to TEC specifically for the purpose of sharpening their skills in order to prepare for an imminent deployment of ILM 2.

But back to positive aspects of TEC 2009, which were many - an you obviously can't blame Quest or TEC for Microsoft delaying ILM 2! The first presentation I went to was Brian Puhl presenting on his experience over the last few years rolling out federation agreements. As one can expect from Brian, it was interesting, funny and thoughtful. Of the lot of information provided I especially liked Brian's experience with the entirely non-technical problem around creating trust agreements - and the multiple iterations of procedures that Microsoft went through until they had a model that actually works. In the beginning, there was the list of the "10 commandments" - you shall do this, you may not do that, and you must do it like this, and so on. The resulting list was probably bullet proof from the standpoint of mitigating every conceivable risk, but turned out to be so draconic that nobody, not even Microsoft's departments could comply with it. The next iteration was an extensive questionnaire about the state of security and management of identities that a partner had to fill out. The problem there was that many partners certainly did not want to divulge all this information about their internal controls and security subsystems that they thought were confidential. The next iteration then was a definition of a lowest common denominator "bar" that a partner had to jump over in order to qualify for federation. Three "bars" were defined with diffierent classifications for non-critical, medium-value and high-value and confidentiality content. To qualify, a partner had to vouch that certain criteria were met. Each criteria then had a point score, and the resulting total score would determine which "bar" the customer had reached, and hence qualified for within the federation agreement. This turned out to be very workable.

Another TEC-veteran is Pamela Dingle, formerly of Calgary-based Nulli Secundus Identity Management consultancy. Pamela has just flown the coop and started a company called "Bonzai Identity" with the goal to help enterprises get to grips with identity management by carefully nurturing good practises, aligning business processes, making sure that data is correct, and helping organisations make the "right decisions" over time. She writes that "It is like gardening; you will have much better luck making small adjustments throughout the life of your garden than you will allowing a wilderness to grow and then wading in with a machete". Her talk at TEC was entitled "A survivalist's guide to identity management" and focused on the business process shortcomings and warnings signs that can really bog down identity management projects. A great overview and invaluable compilation of experience that can avoid very costly traps and maximise the value of those projects.

TEC is legendary for bringing out the best of Active Directory experts and get not just best practises from the real pros, but also hard-core technical info that you can't find in other places. There is a gang of "usual suspects" whose presentation I always try to attend because it doesn't get much better than that when you want to learn about Active Directory and dive deep into the technology. Apart from Brian Puhl, who is responsible for running AD in Microsoft's IT department, there are Laura Hunter, Joe Kaplan and Dmitri Gavrilov. Interestingly enough, those AD Gurus have become quite turned on by ADFS and federation, and (except for Dmitri) presenting on that topic.

This has been the first time I've had the honour to speak at this TEC, and even twice! My first presentation was on the subject of authorisation: once you've authenticated the user, then what? How do, can and should applications decide how to allow (authorise) a user to do and see things? It is a subject that I've focused on quite a bit over the last months and something that I am dedicating a whole track to on May 6th at our European Identity Conference in Munich. I couldn't help feeling that this particular presentation was a bit of an "odd one" at TEC, because I unfortunately could not just yet teach people how to use technology to do it: We are still early in the game because big vendors such as Microsoft and Sun have yet to commit to standards in this area, come up with frameworks and stipulate good practises. It's not completely satisfying when at the end of the presentation you have illustrated the problems and pain, but can't really point to a solution yet. However I see encouraging signs that vendors are taking this seriously and thinking about ways to tackle these problems. It is not just a lack of technology, but the fact that, well, there certainly is a lack of standardised technology and the current "best practises" that encourage application developers to just hardcode security into their applications just exacerbate the problem. I would obviously like to see more interaction between the vendors instead of everybody just thinking within their own box. At our European Identity Conference I am bringing some of the thought leaders, visionaries and experts together and will try to rally them into working together to find solutions together as an industry.

My second presentation was on the TEC's equivalent of a "Friday afternoon" - on the last day of the conference shortly before lunch. I was very excited about the topic because I was presenting about "Cool LDAP Innovations". As TEC is about Active Directory I thought it was important to share a different perspecitve on what is happening outside of AD with other directory servers. Since AD world is essentially closed (you can't rip out AD from a windows network) there is no competition in this space, and in my opinion very little innovation. Compared to other directory servers, AD and ADAM has fallen behind in technology, so I felt a bit tongue-in-cheek, talking about some cool stuff that other vendors were doing. The evening before I managed to itercept Nathan Muggli and asked him if he'd attend, and he kindly did. I finished early and a lively discussion started. After a few minutes I was delighted to see the whole thing starting to look like a BoF session and I decided to sit down in the middle with the other participants and we continued disussing.

Kevin Kampman from the Burton Group (technically a competitor, but I prefer to see him and his co-workers as distant colleagues) gave a presentation entitled "the case for identity services". Out of the pain points that he highlighted I could identity the same ones I talked about in the "authorisation" presentation the day before. It's great when a smart experienced guy like Kevin arrive at the same conclusion - it means that we definitely have a case!

I've had to scramble after Kevin's presentation, grab a quick lunch and then hop into the car to drive back to Los Angeles where I came from this time. I had thought that the drive through the desert would have been more exciting, but I've since been told that for things to get spectacular, Death Valley or Arizona would be the best option (both close, but I didn't have time for the detour). Just having gotten back to Europe this morning, I am still thinking back about this intense and englightening experience and am definitely looking forward to the next one!