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Support savings

News Analysis
Mar 03, 20034 mins
Data CenterDriversPatch Management Software

Tapping Usenet and vendor sites for technical help and updates conserves time and money.

Is the support you find online for problems with your network gear worth it?

That depends on where you search, whom you ask for help and how much time you have to find an answer, IT managers say.

“It all depends on the situation,” says Edd Smith, storage architect for Cox Communications, a large cable provider in Atlanta. “We use quite a few different approaches, all centered around the Internet. We also have a few guys who use Usenet a lot.”

Usenet is a collection of more than 15,000 newsgroups and discussion lists where you can submit messages about computers, hobbies or a variety of topics, and others can respond. These free discussion lists are easily accessed from Google Groups, which lets you search by date, newsgroup or keyword for subjects of interest. Volunteers and peers who simply want to help when needed maintain the groups.

A plethora of other free and dependable sources for network information also exist where users can download the latest patches, fixes and updates for their software or hardware. There are discussion forums that volunteer systems operators maintain, such as Novell’s product support forums; vendor sites, such as Cisco software center, and mailing lists for Network Appliance file server users.

Smith pays for technical support contracts covering the network gear he uses. However, he also taps free sites for patches, fixes, drivers and other software his company might need. “Sometimes we are just searching the Web looking to see what updates are available, what problems they fix and if they apply to our situation,” he says. “In a proactive way, we download current revisions [for software and hardware] and install them.”

Smith has more than 300 Solaris and Windows NT servers attached to both direct-attached storage, EMC Symmetrix and Clariion storage arrays, and he says he finds EMC’s PowerLink site particularly useful.

If you’re looking for help with operating systems, you’re likely to find newsgroups helpful, too.

“As a former Novell [systems operator] for Novell’s support forums, the support you get there many times surpasses what you get when you call [a vendor’s technical support],” says Terry Rodecker, a senior network administrator for a large financial institution in Oklahoma City. “On the forums, you’re actually working with people who have been through it all, not just folks who are reading from a script.”

Another user, Mike Maday, LAN manager at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says the Google search engine provides one of the most direct and fastest ways to find help online.

“I just search for error codes online at Google,” Maday says. “For instance, if I have a Cisco switch with a problem, I’ll grab the error code off of it and type it into Google’s search box. Within the first 20 hits, I’ll be able to find someone else who has already fixed it. This morning I was updating boot disks for Novell’s ZENworks – I searched online and found it. No phone calls were needed.”

But online forums and discussion lists, for all their help, have caveats. Sometimes they can offer unreliable or flippant advice, users say.

“We usually search Google Groups first for answers,” Rodecker says. “For the most part Usenet groups are very helpful. I wouldn’t recommend a novice use the online resources, as they have no real way of knowing if the information they’re getting is accurate or not, and novices don’t have the experience to guide them in determining the good from the bad advice.”

Ryan Brooks, lead programmer/analyst for the Governor’s IT Initiative at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, has tapped Usenet with hit-or-miss results.

“If the problem you’re encountering is one that is commonly posted to the board, you’ll get a couple of quick replies that often drip with sarcasm, because you were unable to find the answer yourself [which had already been answered on the group before],” Brooks says.

“If, however, the problem is challenging, it will either go unanswered or will die out after a few replies. It seems no one on Usenet has enough investment in other people’s problems to have much staying power,” Brooks says.

Rodecker says that if timeliness is important, he’ll skip the online search and go straight to the vendor’s support, either on the phone or online. But “if the answer can wait a little or isn’t important to actually getting around an issue [such as a workaround has already been put in place], we’ll use the online sites,” he says.

A sampling of support options
Patches, fixes, and downloads


Popular Usenet groups include:

Novell NetWare