Sometimes the stability of some software makes one want to break out in a cold sweat. Let me recount two tales where significant systems have ground to a halt, with almost no means of working out what really happened.

The first tale relates to a release candidate (RC) of Office 97. We all recognise that no software is going to be perfect--especially the first release after a major rewrite.

I was trying to do some OLE automation of Word from Excel. No problem with the code, or so I thought until I ran it. It went bang in a big way. Bang to the extent of shutting down Excel. I removed a few offending lines of OLE automation code, and it ran like a dream. How do you debug this sort of problem? With great difficulty.

My clients phoned yesterday to tell me an Exchange Server had died, and they couldn't recover it. The X.500 directory on that server was corrupted, and they didn't have a recent full backup (the server was an experimental one that had escaped into a week's worth of real-world use by mistake). Recovering from that problem turned out to be impossible. Exchange Server just doesn't have the necessary tools to unpick the sort of mess that real-world users in real-world situations can achieve. And that lack of tools is worrisome. Even browsing through the Microsoft relevant disaster recovery documentation and scouring the Microsoft Exchange Server Resource Kit provided no clues about how to recover. Reinstalling made the problem considerably worse.

One issue that fell out from this learning experience was that we can now have servers running lots of active processes: SQL Server and Exchange Server are examples. And soon our Web engines will be running lots of active processes, too. And then let's take the complexity one level higher with distributed directory services.

We have a clunky collection of truly unpleasant backup tools, such as a hacked version of Backup for Exchange Server and the built-in tools for SQL Server. Some vendors are integrating such backup services into their products, but NT needs a proper storage engine, preferably hierarchical in nature. Microsoft claims they are providing opportunities for third-party vendors, but the worldwide NT platform is starting to desperately need a credible, built-in backup solution with wizards to tell you precisely what hasn't been backed up. Surely the protection of the core OS and its data is an operating system function?

Dead Web?
Is it just a cultural thing, or is Microsoft's Web site becoming completely impenetrable? The front page has turned into a lurid splash of colour upon colour, with sundry hotspots and clickable things that take you around the site. Worse still, depending on which client you use, you appear to get different URLs to pages. For example, a friend wanted to know where to download the latest Hewlett-Packard printer drivers for Windows NT 4.0. I wandered around Microsoft's site, stumbling in the dark, and finally found a URL for the location of the files. I then copied the URL and sent it to him. He reported that he couldn't find the drivers at that address. Apparently, Microsoft used Active Server Pages (ASP) to build the site, and ASP can be quite dynamic, producing different URLs depending on the client's browser.

This dilemma raises an interesting issue. URLs have become a priceless commodity in the Internet world. If I find something useful, I can mail you a URL and you can get straight back to that point without having to navigate your way around the site. If you have clever email clients, like Microsoft's Exchange Server, the URL is automatically highlighted and underlined and you just click it to fire up your browser and load the relevant pages. Because servers are going database-driven and active in nature, we really need an alternative way of expressing URLs so that their transference value as bookmarks is not lost.

Virtual Access and Ameol2
Being able to give a wholehearted recommendation to a European product is nice. Virtual Access from Ashmount Research in London is an excellent product that is like a grown-up newsreader, except it can handle local conferencing, too--and CompuServe, CIX, UseNet, and a host of other systems. This product is multiuser and multiservice, and it doesn't require high-end hardware to run.

For a lot of people, installing Notes or Exchange Server is overkill. They want something smaller and lightweight but still crammed with useful functionality, such as private and secure conferences and multiple local accounts. Virtual Access offers these features and more, and it is not expensive. Point your Web browser at http://www.ashmount.com and see for yourself. Naturally, you can download a time-limited trial version to explore all the functionality.

I also want to mention the fabulous Ameol2 product from CIX in London. It's an offline reader for the CIX Conferencing system and for UseNet and Internet email. Ameol2 is even better than Visual Access and is probably the best newsreader available anywhere.

Unfortunately, CIX have decided to focus on supporting their existing CIX Conferencing customer base with Ameol2 rather than selling Ameol2 to the public. So to get this product, you need a CIX Conferencing account: This requirement isn't bad because the product is something akin to Europe's answer to The Well. It's definitely the place to be if you want to know what's happening in the European NT marketplace. Check http://www.compulink.co.uk for more information on this service and Ameol2.