(Note this article was written in 1995.)
If you use a variety of computer products, you’ve no doubt noticed that getting support via a real-time telephone call to a breathing (and hopefully sentient) human is getting harder: this support costs most computer vendors big money, and many are eliminating or reducing this route in favor of various on-line mechanisms. So, how does a computer user go about getting technical support online? Most of you are familiar with Yahoo and Lycos by now, but are there other sites that you can go to to get help when your computer is acting up?
I’ve been using a variety of on-line sources over many years, and in general found them a double-edged sword: on one hand, if you know the name of the file, patch, driver, or other fix, you can generally get it and get it quickly at any time of day or night via some on-line source. However, if you don’t have this information handy, or if you have a problem and have no idea whether it is vendor A or vendor B that is the cause, you might be in for a rough ride tracking this information down.
There are two real-world problems. The best way to demonstrate how to get online support is to pose some real-world problems and show you how we went about solving them. We chose two different problems, mainly because they provide a good illustration about trying to solve a problem that has at least two vendors’ involvement and because they represent typical problems found in corporate and home users’ environments.
Problem #1. We are trying to load the latest software on our Compaq Prosignia VS network server, and something doesn’t work. Our server is running either NetWare or OS/2, and it comes with its own SCSI connector and Ethernet on the system board, so we think maybe the ownership is Compaq’s and the solution, after much analysis, was to get an updated disk driver. Finding out where to obtain this driver shouldn’t be too difficult. This problem is an example of knowing the particular file name (you look at how your server is set up for the particular operating system and eventually figure out which file requires updating) and just being able to track down the latest version of it somewhere in the on-line universe. Compaq has a variety of on-line support locations, including ftp and Web sites, their own bulletin board system, and Compuserve, among others.
Problem #2. We are running Microsoft’s Windows NT version 3.5.1 and we want to connect this machine to the Internet via a PPP Portal account. NT has some nice tools built-in to the basic operating system, including support for IP and Internet connections. However, what we are lacking is the ability to figure out how to script the login for our Internet service provider, in this case the Portal Information Network. Here is an example of a support question that is more open-ended, and will require some searching around to find the right kind of help.
So what did we find out?
Let’s start with Compaq. As we said, they have several sites, and interestingly, each site has roughly the same file directory structure and content, so once you learn your way around one you can pretty much figure things out on the others. Let’s start with the Web, since after all, that’s what this magazine is all about. Connecting to Compaq’s web site (www.compaq.com) and clicking on “service and support,” then “download files,” then “drivers” brings us to a webpage.l If you are looking for a particular driver, you’ll notice that they are grouped according to operating system, which is both good and bad: good because it makes the total number of files easier to find. Bad, because it means you’ll have to download more code than you need at the particular moment. In our example problem, the NetWare set of drivers (called SP1212.EXE) take up close to a megabyte, and the particular disk driver that we need is about 25 kilobytes. Probably the best bet if you need any particular driver from Compaq is to first download a file which is an index of all the various stuff on Compaq’s support site. This is just a text file and it is available via the Web page that is cited above.
What about on Compuserve? Here you type in “go COMPAQ+” to connect to the appropriate place and select driver updates. The resulting screen shot is here (link to compaq.gif) which is a similar list of files that we’ve seen already on their Web page. The main difference is that the Web allows for more explanatory text than the one-line descriptions on Compuserve. The other issue is that because Compaq chunks together all the drivers needed for each particular operating system, you can’t necessarily search for the file name you are interested with the standard Compuserve file-finding utilities — unless you happen to be looking for SP1212.EXE, which is unlikely.
Let’ s move on to our second problem, trying to get NT connected to our Portal account. After spending some time with the NT printed documentation and the various help files that come included with the operating system, we realize that we are going to have to learn how to setup NT’s Remote Access Service’s (RAS) scripting software, which is contained in a file called SWITCH.INF. Let’s see if there is anything on either Microsoft’s own site (http://www.microsoft.com) or perhaps Portal’s web page (http://www.portal.com). Portal yields nothing of interest on NT. And, when I sent in email to “firstname.lastname@example.org” asking for help, they answered that no one on their staff currently used NT, so sorry, they couldn’t help me. Looking through Microsoft’s Web site, you get to a page (following “products,” “NT,” and “Surfing the Internet with NT”) — which is titled “Configuring NT to Surf the Internet.” This page mentions the SWITCH.INF scripting but doesn’t give any examples. Another link is called “Troubleshooting your Internet Connection,” which has lots of useful advice for IP-related issues, but nothing on scripting.
So far, not so good. Let’s try another spot on Microsoft’s web server, what they call the “knowledge base,” or a set of information about previously-solved problems. A search of “SWITCH.INF” yields many articles, only one which looks promising: “Bypassing Service Provider Banner’s in SWITCH.INF.” We go to that article, and at the bottom we see a reference to another article, “Automating Remote RAS Logons Using SWITCH.INF scripts.” Ah ha! We see that the url for the Bypass article contains the article number at the end. Substituting the article ID for the Automating article, (Q125975), we get a new location, which still is very general and not very useful. What we really need is an example script for another Internet service provider. Wait a minute — Compuserve offers PPP service to the Internet. How about there? We disconnect from the Internet and dial up Compuserve, go to the WINNT section. One of the forums called WinNT RAS just happened to have an article on how to setup SWITCH.INF to connect to Compuserve. Bingo! That got us started.
Now, there are lots of other places on the Internet with help for NT. I’ll just mention a few of them. A good place to look is in Yahoo under Computers:Operating Systems:Windows NT category. There you’ll find several private archives of all sorts of information on NT, includes the Windows NT Resource Center of Beverly Hills Software, http://www.bhs.com Another site on Yahoo’s NT list is Rick’s Windows NT Info Center in Germany, at http://rick.wzl.rwth-aachen.de/rick/ And another reference is the NT Internet FAQ.
We found Question #4B4 (on automated logins) to be very helpful in this FAQ. Now that we know what we are looking for, it was time to turn to Lycos. We used the keywords SWITCH and RAS to narrow the field, and found our way to a document on an NIH server which has information about the SWITCH.INF settings for a Cisco terminal server.
After printing out these pages, we were able to figure out the scripting needed for Portal — but as you can see, searching around the Web took some careful thinking. Now, we have just touched the surface but wanted to give you a good idea of how to explore these sites and track down what you’ll need.
Some tips: 1. Find a good archive and learn how to search it. While the various Internet tools such as WAIS are fairly simple to use, it helps to spend some time understanding what they can and can’t do. Picking the right keywords is, well, key. For example, had we searched Lycos with the words “SWITCH” and “INF” we wouldn’t have found the NIH/Cisco information. Why did we use the keyword RAS? Well, that is the acronym for Microsoft’s Remote Access Service, which is the service that provides the remote PPP login.
2. Yahoo has a nice structure for finding particular companies, Lycos is better at tracking individual web pages. Keep that in mind in your quest.
3. Don’t forget about the vendors’ own BBS and Compuserve forums: they can be easier to search and retrieve information if you are familar with their structure, know how to get to them, and if they have a good search engine in front.
4. And don’t forget about other resources that we didn’t mention here: Usenet newsgroups, Microsoft’s new Network, AT&T Interchange, and other on-line places such as Prodigy or Apple’s Eworld. And there are a few places on the web worth checking out, such as Ziff’s (www.ziff.com) and CMP’s web sites (techweb.cmp.com) All could have some important data. Does this mean that you’ll need accounts on all of these services? If you do a lot of tech support, probably.