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Help Yourself to NT Support
Making the move up to Windows NT Workstation from Windows 95 or Windows 3.x may be a wise choice, but it can be intimidating, too, when you consider your support options. While Microsoft has continued to maintain its free (toll-call) phone support system for all registered users of its applications and end-user operating systems, the free ride ends when it comes to business systems such as Windows NT. Even desktop users of NT Workstation have no free options once they've used up their two no-charge support calls.
After that, summoning Microsoft for help with configuring or managing your NT Workstation system costs you at least $95 per incident. But before you dig deep into your pockets, you may be able to take advantage of other free or low-cost options that can prove as helpful as-or more helpful than-those tech-support calls of the past.
The best-kept secret among PC support professionals is a treasure trove of information called Microsoft's Technical Support Knowledge Base. This is the primary tool Microsoft support personnel use when you call for help. You can find the Knowledge Base on the Web at http://www.microsoft.com/kb or on America Online at Keyword:Microsoft. If you have the Find extensions from Microsoft's PowerToys add-on, you'll see a shortcut to the Knowledge Base on the Start menu under Find. This searchable database includes thousands of articles on every application and operating system Microsoft produces, as well as articles related to troubleshooting hardware from nearly every PC and peripheral manufacturer on the planet. Simply choose Windows NT Workstation under the Product option and enter a search string such as "IDE drives"; you'll see plenty of information to point you toward a solution.
Your next stop for free technical support should be the Web itself. It abounds with thousands of sites devoted to using and fixing Windows NT, including WINDOWS Magazine's NT Enterprise Edition page (http://www.winmag.com/ew). Commercial organizations, like Beverly Hills Software (http://www.bhs.com) and Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com/NTWksSupport), offer some other helpful sites. In addition, private individuals, like Frank Condron (http://www.conitech.com/windows) or Richard Graessler (http://rick.wzl.rwth-aachen.de/rick), maintain many great Web sites. These offer information and valuable Web links for NT users. One of my favorite sites is The Association of Windows NT Systems Professionals (NTPro) (http://www.asug.org). The links at NTPro will lead you to plenty of sites you'll want to add to your Windows NT support bookmarks.
Another overlooked Internet resource is the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) network. IRC is a means of conducting Internet chats with individuals or groups located anywhere in the world. To access IRC you'll need software for chatting, such as mIRC or Netscape Chat. Check out The Consummate Winsock Applications site at http://www.stroud.com under IRC applications for more information about IRC utilities. Once you've set up your IRC program, connect to one of the undernet.org or efnet.org servers and join the #windowsnt channel. Here, at any hour of the day or night, you'll find people ready to try to help you with your Windows NT problem. Be patient on IRC, though. The people you'll meet on the network are volunteers who offer help because of their Good-Samaritan nature. A polite, concise query will usually get you the quickest, most accurate response.
Internet newsgroups can also provide Windows NT technical support. Some newsgroups focusing on NT have the prefix name comp.os.ms-windows.nt, and cover topics like setup, administration, NT advocacy, beta information, and hardware and software troubleshooting.
Microsoft also offers a public news server (http://msnews.microsoft.com) with groups dedicated to various technical-support topics. The Windows NT groups here are prefixed microsoft.public.windowsnt. Like chat rooms or IRC channels, newsgroups are mostly maintained by volunteers.
IRC and newsgroups offer both benefits and drawbacks for seekers of NT information. IRC is a real-time solution that can offer fast answers-provided someone with appropriate knowledge is online when you post your question. Newsgroup threads are created as people upload mail messages to news servers. This information is text-based e-mail, and it might take a day or more for you to receive an answer. However, the odds of someone reading your request for information and responding with a correct answer is quite high, because thousands of newsgroup participants may read your post every day.
A few online caveats
You should know that while the Web gets all the media attention regarding access to adult or pornographic content, IRC and the newsgroups have their share of smut as well. If you want to avoid it, don't join any IRC channels or newsgroups with names that imply activities or discussions that you may find offensive. It's nearly impossible to accidentally access offensive material on an Internet news server, but IRC can be a different story. Unless you configure your software to prevent it, any other user can send you offensive messages. If this is a concern, check out the #newbies channel on IRC for information on how to block unwanted messages.
Using IRC could make you vulnerable to security risks such as the Out-of-Band threat and the ICMP-Ping denial of service issue. While you are logged on to an IRC server, intruders can determine your dynamic IP specifics and bombard you with packets, hogging your TCP/IP connection until you disconnect and reconnect. Microsoft's security page at http://www.microsoft.com/security contains information on these security threats and links to hotfixes. I've used IRC for years without problems, but vigilance is definitely required.
Other online options
If you don't have access to the Web, or if Internet security threats leave you with sweaty palms, you can get help through online services such as America Online and CompuServe. AOL has NT chat rooms and message areas that could help you track down answers to your technical questions.
CompuServe's WINNT forum is a moderated message thread system visited by software professionals from all over the world. The content found there will be free of objectionable material. Many hardware and software companies use CompuServe as an alternate support channel and encourage their employees to participate in the forum areas.
Low-cost support options
If the free help isn't enough, you can find plenty of low- and mid-priced NT support options. Microsoft TechNet (what I call the mother of all support resources) is available for an annual subscription fee of $299 per single-user license. IS departments can also obtain server/client licenses that allow multiple users to access TechNet. TechNet is a CD-based support database that contains tech-support information, updated drivers, service packs and additional utilities that can prove invaluable when you're trying to solve a troublesome issue. TechNet includes the complete MS Knowledge Base, as well as the full text of the NT Workstation Version 4.0 and 3.5 Resource Kits, technical white papers and other documentation.
Some might think that TechNet is overkill for a Windows NT end user, but the wealth of information available will expand your knowledge and save you time. Small LAN administrators should get a subscription to Microsoft TechNet now. This handy tool will save you more time when tracking down answers than any other technical-support resource. The entire database is available in a searchable format so you can drill down to an answer in minutes.
With Windows NT Workstation now shipping as the pre-installed OS on many systems, PC manufacturers have begun to offer their own NT support. Hewlett-Packard, Gateway 2000, Micron, Dell and others offer technical support for Windows NT Workstation if it shipped factory- installed on any of their systems. Most vendors also offer 24-hour, toll-free support. When evaluating new Windows NT systems, be sure to ask about the manufacturer's policy regarding operating-system support.
All is not lost
Moving up to Windows NT doesn't have to be a harrowing experience. After running NT on my own for some years, I have found these alternate support options preferable to the phone-based support I once relied on. Become familiar with them, and you, too, can build your own personal network of support options when you need answers fast.
Contributing editor Rick Furnival is a professional engineer and network administrator with Sullivan, Donahoe & Ingalls of Fredericksburg, Va. Contact Rick care of the editor or the addresses on page 20.