Technet to the rescue. (Hardware Clinic) (Column)
by Mark Minasi
This month I want to tell you about a not-to-be-missed service that supports Microsoft products. But first, some coming attractions.
In the next few months, I intend to talk about networking. Networks have become so inexpensive and so attractive that most small businesses either have one or are thinking about getting one. Some people are even considering a network for their homes, according to the E-mail I'm getting. Therefore, starting next month I'll begin telling you all about affordable networks.
Now let's talk about Microsoft support. Like most of you, I do a lot of work with Microsoft products. They can be big, ugly, complicated beasts, but they are also powerful, which is why I use them in the first place. Unfortunately, Microsoft (like many other companies) is facing some serious problems with customer support. Getting help with Microsoft products has grown tougher with each passing year.
This is not intended to be a criticism of Microsoft - at least not entirely. If you buy Microsoft Office, a package that contains Word for Windows, Excel, PowerPoint, and Mail, you'll pay about $300 for four powerful pieces of software. It's hard for any company, Microsoft included, to sell software for $75 a copy and have enough margin to pay for phones, computers, and people to staff a support service. As a result, it's tough to get Microsoft support on the phone.
For some products, you can't get Microsoft on the phone at all unless you're willing to pay. For example, if you have NT Advanced Server, Microsoft's flagship network operating system, the only numbers you can call are an 800 line, where you'll have to come up with a credit card number before anyone will help you, or a 900 number. Each call you make costs $150. That's not a typo.
Besides phone lines, Microsoft provides support in many other ways. It offers professional seminars, white papers, its various Resource Kits, and something wonderful called the Knowledge Base. I can best describe why the Knowledge Base is so wonderful with a quick story.
A couple of years ago, I was teaching a Windows technical support class for a big client. One participant asked this question: "When I exit Windows, my machine hangs. The drive light runs for a second, but the blinking cursor stays up in the corner after that, and the PC doesn't do anything."
"Is it a PS/2?" I asked.
She said that it was a PS/2, so I told her, "Try adding the line PS2MOUSEATEXIT=FALSE to your SYSTEM.INI, in the [386enh] section."
She went to her machine at lunch, inserted the line, and returned to report success.
She had a PS/2-type mouse, and Windows tried to reset it on exit, as it always resets mice when you exit. A PS/2 mouse, however, can take a minute or two to reset, making the system look as if it has hung. If she had waited a couple of minutes, the Windows reset routine would have been completed. But who wants to wait two minutes to get out of Windows? No one. So Microsoft included a command in Windows, PS2MOUSEATEXIT, that can tell Windows not to bother trying to reset the mouse. The downside is that not resetting the mouse can make the mouse not work right in DOS applications after you've exited Windows.
The company had placed a few techie guru types in the class to make sure I didn't say anything wrong - they were slumming, you might say. They grabbed me at the next break.
"Where'd you find out about that mouse command?" they asked. "It's not in any book we ever read, it's not in the Windows documentation, and it's not in the Windows Resource Kit." I was tempted to tell them that I'd discovered it while running a protected mode debugger on the Windows kernel or some other kind of bafflegab, but I ~fessed up.
"I found it in the Knowledge Base," I told them.
The Knowledge Base is an insanely large database of all the bugs found in Microsoft products and the fixes and work-arounds Microsoft has found for them, along with useful tips and tricks. It's so large that a search for articles related to Windows for Workgroups yields 1075 hits. It's not the final word on all Microsoft products, but it's mindbogglingly useful.
Now how, you may ask, do you find this Knowledge Base? One way is to get onto CompuServe and type GO MSKB. (And once you're in the Knowledge Base, you can really run up a tab searching it.) The Knowledge Base is so useful that for about six months back in 1992, 1 was using a communications program and a macro to download the whole thing and keep it on my hard disk. It took up all kinds of space, however, and was a real pain to keep up-to-date. Searching it was a chore, as well.
The other way to get the Knowledge Base is to subscribe to Microsoft's TechNet service, a little tool I call my sorcerer's apprentice. it's a service that gives you about 16 CD-ROMs year containing the entire Knowledge Base, any of Microsoft's white papers, the complete text (and most of the illustrations) of its Resource Kits, the course books that you'd get if you signed up for Microsoft's $1,500 seminars-including the PowerPoint slide show that the Microsoft instructors use - as well as conference proceedings, the text of Microsoft Systems Journal, Microsoft FastTips, and corporate backgrounders.
About once a quarter, TechNet comes on two CD-ROMS. The second CD-ROM is called Patches and Drivers. The March 1994 edition's Patches and Drivers disc is 148MB of updated Windows, Windows NT, and DOS drivers, as well as "fixer" programs. You could download them from CompuServe and pay big connect charges, or you could just slip this CD into your drive and get the file that you need.
How expensive is it? The cost is $295 per year (plus $15 shipping and state sales tax; for more information, call 800-344-2121). That's more than most home users can afford, but small businesses or even home-based businesses should consider TechNet when making software purchases. As I've indicated, just using the March TechNet CD has saved me hours of CompuServe connect time.
It's even saved me hard disk space. Now and then I'll run across an updated driver that I don't need right now but that looks useful. So I download it, and it sits on my hard disk taking up valuable storage space. With TechNet, I just zap those old files and reach for the CD when I need an updated driver. The entire Windows NT Resource Kit costs around $100. There's no need to buy it (or the Windows Resource Kit or Windows for Workgroups Resource Kits) when you have TechNet, and, even better, you can search the books electronically.
Let's try an example search of TechNet to get a feel for how it works. Suppose you have a Novell Netware network and you have the following problem. Sometimes - only sometimes, which is the maddening part - you'll be working in Windows, and you'll try to start up a DOS session. The screen clears so that the DOS session can start, and a blinking cursor appears in the upper left corner of the screen. At that point, the system is locked up. What should you do?
Start up the TechNet software. On the opening screen, one of the menu options is Search, so click on that. A field marked Query: opens up. You want to see what it knows about Novell and DOS, so type in novell and dos. Click on the button marked Find, and the CD-ROM drive chugs away. The search program reports 812 articles found. Holy guacamole! That's way too much to look through! Typing novell and dos located every article where the words Novell and DOS both appear. Instead, I can type novell near dos, which will give me only those articles where the word Novell appears near to the word DOS. (What does near mean? By default, near means "within eight words." You can redefine near to whatever distance you like.)
This search narrows things down - to 238 articles. You'll see a dialog box that shows you a one-line description of each article, and you can then read each article online, or you can print it. If you see an article that looks interesting, you can put a bookmark in the CD-ROM reader software so that you can return to the article anytime you want. But still, 238 articles is a lot, so let's narrow it further.
A check box labeled refine search allows you to type in new criteria and thus conduct a search within a search. Check that and ponder what keywords to use to narrow the search. This Novell problem is sometimes called the Black Screen of Death, so let's try the word black. Refining the search with black reduces the number of articles to a mere three. One article turns out to be about FoxPro developers, and Black happens to be the name of a FoxPro developer. The other two articles, however, look promising. The title of the first is "System Hangs with MS-DOS Applications and Novell NetWare." The document turns out to be several pages of information about the Black Screen of Death, with the following suggestions:
First, remove any extraneous TSRs and device drivers from your AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS. (Everybody tells you to do that.)
Second, don't load any programs automatically on Windows startup. (Ditto.)
Third, add the lines INDOSPOLLING=FALSE and TIMERCRITICALSECTION=10000 to your [386enh] section of your SYSTEM.INI file. (Somewhat more technical information.)
Fourth, get the latest Novell drivers.
Fifth, replace your VIPX.386 and *vtd drivers with updated drivers, found right on the CD.
I've tried this fix on a friend's machine that had the Black Screen of Death, and it worked. The search took about five minutes, and the TechNet software copied the files onto my hard disk for me.
If you're a DOS, Windows, or NT support person, think about picking up TechNet. It'll turn you into a guru.