Picture this: Your Windows NT network goes down at 4:15 p.m., just 45 minutes before time to go home. A problem that should take 45 minutes to correct turns into hours of tweaking and futzing around. Now it's midnight, your desk is littered with stained coffee cups and candy bar wrappers, and there you sit. In just six short hours, the information research department will come in expecting to have all systems on line. In a panic, you think, "Who can I call to help get my Windows NT network back on line?"

To aid in your quest for help, I went in search of around-the-clock, 24 X 7 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) technical support for NT. Here are the available support options and who to call. After you digest the options, read the sidebar, "NT After Dark," on page 46 for an account of a simulated NT network crisis and the support people who came to the rescue.

Who's on Call?
At the first sign of trouble, you probably turn to your hardware vendor for support. Vendors such as Dell Computer, Gateway 2000, and Micron ship their systems with NT installed and provide technical support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

For example, after you completely load NT, Dell's DirectLine technical support technicians will walk you through troubleshooting network issues, problem determination and resolution, and proposed corrections for hardware-related error messages. However, Dell will not help load or install NT, install peripheral devices, or perform work administrative duties such as establishing user profiles, printer queues, system security, and login scripts.

Configuration and Customization
I'm not trying to single out Dell. Most hardware vendors follow the same support policies. The bottom line is that hardware vendors support NT only to get it working with their hardware. So your hardware vendor is probably the right call if NT doesn't work with a particular CD-ROM drive or sound card.

The best support for NT configuration and customization problems comes from those with the most experience: the people who designed NT, or people trained and authorized to support it. Microsoft states, "Only one company is responsible for the quality of Microsoft products: Microsoft." Microsoft's complete 24 X 7 product support for NT programs and options is the most extensive alternative. With Microsoft's direct support, its Authorized Support Centers (ASCs), and Microsoft Solution Providers (SPs), you get a three-tiered product support ladder.

Contacting Microsoft Directly
Microsoft has an elaborate and comprehensive set of technical services for organizations worldwide. Four direct services (premier, premier global, custom consulting, and technology consulting blueprints) are available for global enterprise organizations. You can purchase all these services with one Microsoft Master Service Agreement (Table 1 lists Microsoft service and support phone numbers).

  • Premier provides proactive support planning and problem resolution for Microsoft products. It also includes rapid response times, with immediate 24 X 7 server-down response and special consulting and planning services.
  • Premier global extends Premier to serve multinational organizations. You work with a Global Technical Account Manager to quickly resolve any Microsoft technical issue anywhere in the world. You get reports on how your organization can best use its support resources, and experienced technical recommendations for dealing with growth, migration, and other changes.
  • Custom consulting helps plan, build, and manage distributed computing environments. Highly skilled in client/server architecture and design, Microsoft consultants frequently provide project management, ensuring a quality implementation by working with you and your third-party partners.
  • Technology consulting blueprints are predefined consulting projects around specific technology topics such as migrating to NT from a Banyan VINES environment, Microsoft Exchange planning, and Internet/intranet application planning.
TABLE 1: Services and Support Reference
Digital Equipment * 800-888-4234 (US only. Other countries: Look for your local distributor on the Web at http://www.digital.com/info/misc/contacts.txt.html.)
HP * 415-857-1501 or 800-633-3600
Microsoft * 800-936-5900 (US only. Other countries: Look for local tech support on the Web at http://www.microsoft.com.)
NCR * 513-445-5000 or 800-262-7782
Software Spectrum (Technology Services Group) * 214-840-4915 or 800-773-2876
Stream International * 617-440-1094 or 800-507-0363
Unisys * 847-593-4722 or 800-757-8324
Vanstar * 510-734-4000 or 800-535-2563
Wang Federal * 703-827-3384 or 800-311-8707
Wang Laboratories * 800-334-2523 (US only. Other countries: Look for your local office on the Web at http://www.wang.com/branches/branches.htm.

MS Authorized Support Centers
The second tier on Microsoft's support ladder consists of ASCs, which are members of the SP program. Microsoft specially selects them for their ability to provide a broad range of mission-critical support. ASCs meet stringent admittance requirements. For example, they must answer at least 20,000 technical support calls per month, be specially trained and certified on Microsoft products, have a certain number of engineers intern with Microsoft service engineers, and be able to provide support and isolate problems in multivendor environments. ASCs must provide open support and not limit support to proprietary projects or customers who purchase the ASC's software or hardware.

Microsoft's quality control is stringent. Each ASC has a dedicated Microsoft ASC Technical Account Manager who ensures that ASCs have information, tools, and knowledge to support Microsoft products. Technical Account Manager Glenn E. Morris says, "I monitor the ASC's open incidents and talk with my accounts several times a day, acting as a resource for information, products, betas, and training. I also get involved with technical situations that require Microsoft expertise. My quality-control role includes monthly feedback on ASC performance, making blind calls to ASC call centers, and regular reviews of ASC training and infrastructure plans. Recently, I have been gathering and preparing NT 4.0 technical support information for ASCs."

Depending on your needs and which ASC you work with, you can choose one service such as outsourcing your Help desk or getting support visits on demand, or you can choose full services such as complete planning, implementation, and maintenance.

To select an ASC, Morris suggests you get recommendations from your local Microsoft representative or service engineer, or check the ASC Web page at http://www.microsoft.com/supportnet/SupportPartners. From this page, you can connect to individual ASC Web sites. Or you can call an ASC for pricing and types of service, level of service commitment (e.g., response-time goals, escalation procedures, customer-satisfaction goals), electronic services and Web access, trial-period information, and references.

MS Solution Providers
Microsoft SPs are independent consulting companies working with Microsoft to help customers successfully implement business solutions. SPs include Value Added Resellers (VARs), developers, consultants, and technical support and training organizations. All SP staffs include Microsoft Certified Professionals (MCPs) who have demonstrated technical proficiency with Microsoft products. All SPs receive early access to Microsoft product information and technology. Some SPs can provide multivendor support, systems integration, long-term onsite support, and customer software development. SPs can also staff a corporation's Help desk or implement an ongoing training plan.

More than 2,500 SPs are in the US. The SP program is also worldwide and extends to all Microsoft subsidiaries.

Payment Options
Now that you know who to call, what will such support cost and what will you get? You can buy support on a fixed rate or on a time-and-materials basis (pay-as-you-go, hourly). Some vendors let you purchase blocks of time or bulk rate hours, and then they debit your account with each telephone support or onsite support incident. Others bill according to several prepurchased support requests. With a fixed rate plan, you negotiate the price of support per month or year, per incident, or per server.

To provide Help desk-level support, Software Spectrum, an ASC in Garland, Texas, has a program called SmartLine. With a SmartLine account, you dial a toll-free number to get to a technical support analyst, and Software Spectrum tracks your incident information.

What Support Is Right?
Individuals and organizations need to choose the right type of support for the situation. Knowing whom to call and when to call is an important part of getting your problem solved.

No two organizations are the same, and neither are their support needs. You must evaluate technical support services and options in terms of your company's specific needs. Jeff Bankston of BCI Associates (a Florida consulting firm) says, "Choosing the right type and level of technical support is a matter of assessing the impact a downed system can have on various business operations."

Bankston suggests looking at your company's organizational structure and analyzing departmental and personnel functions to determine support priority levels for those computer systems. For example, you can develop a table showing severity levels, definitions, systems affected, and level of support required to correct the problem. Based on the assigned support priority level, you can decide on an appropriate type of support and seek out a vendor (see the example in Table 2).

TABLE 2: Sample Priority Level System
Severity Level Definition System Affected Priority Level
A. Server Down Business outage or mission critical server is not functioning Sales order tracking system Level 1: Custom support package to ensure server is operational 99.9% of the time
B. Urgent High-impact problem where production is proceeding but in a significantly impaired fashion Marketing internal Web server Level 2: Call pack support
C. Important Important issue that does not have significant current productivity impact Public relations Level 3: Ad hoc support during business hours

Other factors that will influence the type of support for your organization include budget, size of the installation, and required response time. In some cases, you need to consider a combination of in-house, Help-desk, and onsite support.

Choosing a Support Vendor
When choosing a technical support vendor, be sure to ask the following questions: What functions will the service provider perform? What percentage of its revenue is derived from service? Can the service provider support your network in every city in which you need support? How will the service provider divide your company's support tasks between in-house and contracted expertise? Are services pay-as-you-go or fixed rate? What response time do you need? How does the service provider define response time? Do you need coverage eight hours a day, five days a week, or 24 X 7? How many technicians work for the service provider, and are they certified to work on NT? What is the ratio of service contracts to engineers? (Look for at least 15:1) Does the vendor have a good reputation? Also, check the contract for scope of work, a problem escalation policy, and a no-excuses clause.

Getting Good Support
Keep in mind that the quality of technical support you receive often hinges on the quality of information you provide the technician. Before you engage a technical support analyst or technician, make sure you both agree on what the problem is and the parameters for an acceptable solution.

As far as the technical support vendor is concerned, its responsibilities for incident submission and resolution are to document each incident and its resolution in a service request, use escalation management processes to help ensure timely resolution, and confirm that the incident is resolved.

You are responsible for determining problems. Problem determination activities can include performing network traces, capturing error messages, and collecting configuration information. You also must perform problem resolution activities that the support team suggests. These activities can include changing product configuration, installing new versions or new components of software, and modifying processes.

To meet your obligations, collect as much information as you can. Use the following checklist as a guide to the kinds of information you need when you call for support:

  • Problem description and symptoms: Try to give details about messages displayed, etc.
  • Error log information: Use Event Viewer, or get a copy of the *.EVT file. Review any related entries on that day or around the time of the problem.
  • Configuration and version information: Provide your OS version, machine vendor and model, number of CPUs, memory, I/O cards, logical/physical disks, etc. Have information such as firmware, hot fixes, customization, and serial numbers as needed.
  • Recent changes to the system or environment: Explain activities leading up to the problem, especially patterns.

Helping You Help Yourself
You can access the 70,000-plus Microsoft Knowledge Base articles and the Microsoft Software Library files through the Microsoft Network (MSN) and other online services (for details, see "Online and Subscription-based Support Alternatives," page 53). You can access information at http://www.microsoft.com and ftp://ftp.microsoft.com.

Plan for Support
NT is a huge system, and your investment in it is substantial. Your expectations of this advanced network OS are probably high, too. Getting the most out of an enterprise network built around NT servers and workstations is the result of good planning and execution--including technical support plans. Ultimately, the success of your NT network depends on your ability to keep it running.

Contact Info
Digital Equipment * 800-354-9000
Price: Support per incident: $240; Support per half-hour (half hour minimum): $75-$90

Microsoft * 800-936-5900
Price: Network support per incident: $195