It's 2:00 a.m. Who's looking out for your systems?

The idea of 24 X 7 support is simple: A vendor supplies quality technical support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Windows NT Magazine decided to test that idea by having me call some 24 X 7 support vendors and asking them to answer some routine Windows NT-related questions--at 2:00 in the morning!

I called Digital Equipment and Microsoft (a list of 24 X 7 support providers is in Table 1). Both have long provided NT 24 X 7 support. I asked two questions: "How can I configure a second network card in a server so that it can have a different IP address from the original card?" and, "How can I route traffic between the two cards?" These aren't fluff questions, but they're certainly within reason.

The Call to Digital
First, I called Digital the afternoon before I wanted to call in my questions. I inquired about the availability of per-incident support, how much it costs, whether I can call any time--even on Christmas--and so on. The person on the phone told me that even if I never used Digital's per-incident service, I could set up a free access number to speed things along in case I need help. So far, so good.

Next I waited for 2:00 a.m. (okay, I went home and then came back) and called Digital's support number, 800-354-9000. I selected option # 2 from the voice-mail tree, and within a minute, a human voice greeted me. I explained that I was having trouble upgrading my NT server and needed to contract for technical support. I also told the operator that I had an access number.

After I gave the operator some basic information, she pulled up my account and told me NT tech support would cost $240 per incident. I explained to her that earlier in the day, someone had quoted me a price of $75 per half hour, with a half-hour minimum. The operator was unaware of this policy, but to her credit and my delight, she honored that price. She said something about the customer always being right and that she just wished the day people would tell the night people what was going on.

Next the operator asked me to describe my problem in as much detail as possible. I rattled off my situation, stopping a few times to let her catch up and double check what I had said. Then she told me that NT tech support would call me back within the hour. I asked, "Why so long?" She replied that nobody was on site that late and she would have to page a support engineer.

About 38 minutes later, I received a call from John, a very cheerful (which is amazing, considering the hour) support engineer. He said that the price quote I'd received was incorrect for after-hours support. The correct price was $90, not $75, per half hour.

John then asked me to describe my problem in detail. I did so, and he immediately took me through the steps to fix it, mimicking my keystrokes on his machine at home.

After resolving the problem, John pointed me to some additional resources for help now and in the future. He asked whether I had the Windows NT Resource Kit. I said I did, and he pointed me to the exact book and page number for the answers to my questions.

Total time to resolve the problem was 10 minutes. Add in the 38-minute wait time, and the solution still took less than an hour. The service was courteous and the information first rate. The call was worth the $90.

The Call to Microsoft
Next it was Microsoft's turn. I dialed 800-936-5900 and got the standard one-minute disclaimer about my call being monitored. After listening to the obligatory choice tree, I chose the per-incident option. A human voice greeted me within a minute and asked whether I had ever called for technical support from Microsoft before (who hasn't?). The operator quickly located my records in the database. I needed to update some information, so we exchanged some administrative details.

The operator then asked what product I wanted support for. I said Windows NT Server 3.51. He then asked whether I had a networking or setup problem. "Network," I said.

"That'll be $195 per incident. How would you like it billed?"

"American Express," I said.

I gave some more information, and then I was on hold, waiting for the next available support engineer. (Elapsed time so far: three minutes.) I was on hold 20 seconds (I know because I was looking at the clock).

Steve greeted me and asked what my problem was. I explained my predicament in as much detail as possible. He asked a few questions and then gave me two solutions. He asked what I intended to do with this server and picked the appropriate solution. Steve actually explained both solutions after I pressed for additional information.

Finally, we walked through the steps to resolve the problem. Total time to resolution, including wait time and administrative work, was an impressive 17 minutes.

After we finished, Steve suggested some additional reading and pointed me to the exact chapter, page, and even paragraph I needed. He also tried to look up some additional information related to my initial question. He couldn't retrieve it because the server was undergoing maintenance. Undaunted, Steve requested my fax number and promised to fax me the information. I asked some more questions, and Steve was very knowledgeable and courteous, answering each additional query.

When I was satisfied and said so, Steve gave me his direct phone number in Charlotte, North Carolina, the incident number, and his full name. Doing business with this professional was really a pleasure. Although the price was steep, the support was first rate and made me feel a little better about spending the money.

Both vendors provided competent support. I guess I expected that much. What I didn't expect was that both organizations demonstrated a friendly demeanor, professionalism, and willingness to go the extra mile. I have no problem in recommending either support line.