Much More About Remote Access Service

I've talked about using Remote Access Service (RAS) for dialing between Windows NT systems. Even I was much impressed by RAS for this purpose--I simply set it up, call, and I'm connected. Drive letters are available; printers work.

Connecting RAS to the Internet is not so simple. Microsoft doesn't control all access to the Internet--not yet. So you can find almost as many ways to access to the Internet as you find Internet Service Providers (ISPs). You also discover a lot of ways for a connection not to happen.

The Art of Connecting
The RAS Internet login process is familiar: You dial up, the modem connects, and the service identifies itself and asks your username. Then you get a prompt for your password. If the service accepts it, the system goes into Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) mode, and you have a network-to-network Internet connection. Of course, even online systems that follow this routine vary in important ways including how ISPs log in their users.

To help you connect and deal with the variations in login routines, I'll give you some tips I didn't cover in "Top 10 RAS Problems Solved" (Windows NT Magazine, January 1996). I'll also pass along some observations I collected during a week of getting my own Internet connection going on NT.

First, RAS is not a clone of the Windows 95 dialer, although you certainly see a family resemblance. Internet applications under Win95 automatically cause the dialer to run. Under NT, before you run applications, you must run RAS and connect. RAS's install options are different from Win95's, too. Knowledge of Win95 will help, but understanding general modem troubleshooting is more important.

Second, many ISP software packages won't install automatically on NT. You'll have better luck with packages designed for Windows 3.1 than with 95-specific code. Yes, Win95 and NT are supposedly compatible, but that compatibility goes only so far: Many install programs use some 95-only feature that NT lacks. Expect to dual-boot or install on a Win95 machine and move the software.

For instance, I use Earthlink Network, a provider from California that heavily promotes its TotalAccess Internet front-end package. That software works like a dream on Win95, but its installer doesn't complete on NT. The window goes away before installation finishes. Rather than mess with such problems, I focused on getting RAS operating.

Earthlink, like many large ISPs, provides specific instructions for setting up RAS. Be warned: If you choose a small ISP, you may know more about NT than the ISP does. Many a small ISP is run by three UNIX gurus who don't understand Windows 3.X, let alone NT and RAS.

RAS Homebrew Suggestions
While getting my Internet connection up, I learned much more than I wanted. I freely admit that TCP/IP routing, subnet masking, and such still leave me clueless, so your experience will probably be better than mine.

The following are some important lessons I learned. They are by no means a complete how-to, even for the lone user connecting to the Internet, but I think they'll help.

Don't expect your Internet connection to work the first time. Even experienced users tear their hair out setting up RAS. Read the RAS Help topics, "Getting Through Large Blocks of Text and Two-Second Gaps," and "Troubleshooting Scripts Using DEVICE.LOG." Don't leave firearms within lethal range of the modem. Be patient.

When you install RAS, if you have a network card, pick a TCP/IP address for your computer, or the Network Control Panel won't let you finish. This warning applies even if you're only using NetBEUI in your office. You cannot pick IP for dialout only. I just put in a bogus IP address, 145.145.145.145, to get around this problem. (I can hear Joel Sloss, technical editor for Windows NT Magazine, screaming, "NO!'' all the way from Colorado.) A bogus address is certainly not recommended and will work only on the one computer that you're connecting to the Internet. If you want PCs to use this RAS connection, you must decide on an IP address scheme anyway.

Take your ISP's recommendations for connecting NT as just a starting point. Many ISPs, especially small ones, have little or no NT experience, and their instructions are sketchy at best. Take time to find someone in customer support who knows RAS, and take notes.

If you have problems, use Terminal to pretend to be RAS, and dial in manually. Watch the timing between commands because RAS thinks a two-second pause is a command--another big difference between the Win95 dialer and RAS. Earthlink's modem front end has a multiple-
second pause before it puts up the Login: prompt, and Earthlink's switch.inf script doesn't take this pause into account. I read the notes in switch.inf carefully and added a wait loop.

When you create your RAS phone book entry, unless someone tells you otherwise, make sure you use only TCP/IP (Network button) and accept any authentication, including clear text (Security button). Click on Authenticate, and use your current username and password on the edit screen, or you'll have to give authentication information each time you dial.

Don't spend $20 less and buy a no-name modem. RAS supports many modems, but some brands are, to be charitable, not well designed. A generic modem is false economy. Spend the money on a Supra, a USR, or even a Hayes modem. I have a battered Intel 14.4EX. RAS identified it immediately, it is reasonably immune to noise, and the aluminum case makes a great coaster.

Once you connect successfully, use the Remote Access Monitor to watch the traffic. If you click on the "lights" on Monitor, it will show useful statistics. For instance, I get lots of modem overruns that slow throughput. The Monitor shows me what kind. If you have an internal modem, the Monitor can help you tell whether any traffic is going through--the classic, has-my-connection-hung problem.

Get an external modem if you can. The Monitor can't tell a bad telephone line from a wrong number. I started the RAS install during a big Los Angeles rainstorm. I got a noisy phone line three out of five times and wouldn't have known if I hadn't been listening. Another time-saver is to power cycle external modems while you're debugging, clearing them back to default state.

Turn on the FIFO (first in-first out) for your modem's serial port. The FIFO feature of most modern serial port chips implements an eight-character buffer in each direction. Buffering is important in a multitasking operating system. NT may be reading the disk when a character is read in from the modem and might not see it before the next character overwrites it. Enable FIFO is on the Ports Control Panel, Settings menu, Advanced... submenu. This feature works on most internal modems' serial ports, too. You have to reboot NT to enable it. If you have an old I/O card, the $20 investment to change it is worthwhile.

RAS Works--Now What?
After RAS connects, any Winsock-compliant application should work normally. I say should because Winsock, the Internet interface that most applications use, is an evolving standard. Certainly, Netscape, Eudora, Explorer, and such work well once you set them up right.

I was about to write a lament on the unequal treatment of non-Intel NT, how no browsers are available; how you have to use old 16-bit ones under emulation. But an Internet Explorer version is now available for each kind of NT CPU. (The software had been on the Internet only three days when I found it.)

Visit http://www.microsoft.com/ie/ie.htm for your copy of the Internet Explorer for Windows NT. Be warned: This software lives on the same pool of machines as Microsoft's popular new Internet Information Server (IIS), the Web server product available for free download. Getting a complete copy of the 849KB Explorer self-extracting archive took me five tries, probably because of the site's heavy traffic.

I've since installed Explorer twice on different Intel-based NT systems. Each install took fewer than three minutes. I've cruised the Internet for (too many) hours with nary a crash. Of course, many sites use advanced Netscape features, such as tables, that don't display correctly with Explorer. These features are why so many Web pages are "Enhanced for Netscape" and why Microsoft is playing catch-up in the Internet game.

Non-Intel NT users have to be content with Explorer for now because Netscape won't work on non-Intel NT systems. When the new 80386 emulator in NT 4.0 hits the street, you'll get hot Web-browser features such as Shockwave and Java. For now, Explorer for NT lets you surf the Internet and download programs.

Returning to IIS: A pitched battle is raging on the Internet about whether IIS is less expensive than Netscape's Web server. Netscape points out that IIS requires NT Server, whereas Netscape's product runs on NT Workstation and includes several back-end improvements that cost much more from Microsoft. Both companies have position papers online about why each is the more cost effective. Read them before deciding.

Speaking of Netscape, once I had Explorer working right, I used it to download the latest Netscape browser, which also worked fine. It's more than 3MB, so you need some patience to get it. And Eudora Pro, Qualcomm's popular Internet mail package, also installed and ran without incident, once I found out all its mail parameters.

Cool Image Software
While testing Internet Explorer, I came across an NT-savvy company, Black Belt Systems (http://www.intermarket.net/blackbelt/bx_home.html). It offers WinImages, powerful image-manipulation software for all four NT platforms. It does morphing, animation, and image enhancement. I haven't (yet!) tried this software, but the Web site proves that hot cross-platform software can come from small companies. A demo is available for Windows 3.X, 95, and NT, free for downloading.

Winding Down
Next month includes three big multimedia shows, so I'll have more "war journal" coverage of graphics and NT products. Excuse me for now; I have to get my email from my new Internet connection.

Contact Info
Black Belt Systems * 800-852-6442 or 406-367-5513
Earthlink Network * 213-644-9500
Microsoft * 206-882-8080
Netscape * 415-528-2555