If you don't have the advantage of inhouse technical support or the luxury of 24 X 7 support, don't lose hope. Many companies are turning to online and subscription-based support for immediacy and a large amount of support information. These support options, including Microsoft Developers Network (MSDN), Microsoft Technical Support Network (TechNet), the Internet, and CompuServe, offer an advantage over traditional vendor support.

Be warned, however, that what you gain in available support information, you lose in the time you spend finding a solution. Whereas traditional vendor support will identify a solution (at a cost), online and subscription-based support require time to research your problem and come up with a solution. Such support works best when you know the problem and where to look for an answer. If that's the case and you're bargain shopping for technical support, consider what some experts say about these alternatives.


Microsoft Developers Network
Microsoft's key resource for developers is the subscription-based MSDN. It has three subscription levels--formerly Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 and recently renamed Library, Professional, and Enterprise. MSDN covers most Microsoft technical documentation for developers, Software Developer's Kits (SDKs), Device Driver Kits (DDKs), and domestic and foreign versions of all Microsoft OSs. The Enterprise version's complete BackOffice Test Platform contains all BackOffice components.

Library: The heart of MSDN is the library of technical documentation. It includes a development-related Knowledge Base (13,000 articles); product documentation for all SDKs, DDKs, and development tools; source code for 1600 sample applications; technical articles; OS resource kits; selected Microsoft Press development books; Microsoft Systems Journal; and several articles from non-Microsoft development magazines.

Microsoft updates and distributes this information quarterly on CD-ROM, and you access it through a browser with full-text searching capabilities. Screen 1 shows how the browser looks. You can search the library with wildcards and Boolean operators such as near. You can customize and save these queries for later use. The browser also supports user bookmarks, recording topic annotations, and topic printing. The MSDN Library subscription includes quarterly editions of the library, bimonthly issues of Developer Network News, and two priority phone-support incidents.

Professional: The MSDN Professional subscription includes the Library subscription and Microsoft's Development Platform, which Microsoft distributes quarterly. It includes the latest SDKs, DDKs, and domestic and foreign versions of Windows, Windows for Workgroups, Windows 95, and Windows NT Workstation. The foreign software is important because it's almost impossible to acquire as a standalone product within the US.

Because software releases don't conveniently fall at quarters, Microsoft also sends out premium releases of OSs as they ship. More important, Professional subscribers get selected OS beta versions. If you're not an official beta tester, this subscription is a great way to get early OS versions without having to submit bug reports and so on.

Two types of computer professionals will benefit from the Professional subscription: system administrators who want one source for all Microsoft OSs (except NT Server), and developers who need the SDKs. Microsoft used to sell them individually, but acquiring them was difficult even if you knew they existed. Developers who deploy applications internationally can use the foreign OS versions to build localized machines for testing.

Enterprise: MSDN's Enterprise subscription is the most complete. It includes the Professional subscription plus quarterly updates to the BackOffice Test Platform, which Microsoft created for developing and testing BackOffice-based solutions.

Just as the Professional subscription includes periodic updates of beta and released OSs, the Enterprise subscription includes premium releases of BackOffice components. Besides the two phone-support incidents that come with the Library subscription, the Enterprise subscription includes two phone-support incidents for installing the BackOffice Test Platform.

Pricing and Availability: Starting with the April release, Microsoft is making MSDN available through traditional reseller channels. At the same time, you'll see the launch of a single-issue Library version for $99, which lets you upgrade to the regular Library subscription.


Microsoft Technical Support Network
Whereas the MSDN is for developers, Microsoft developed its TechNet subscription program for system administrators, system integrators, and support professionals. Microsoft distributes TechNet monthly on CD-ROM to keep the information up to date and eliminate the need for off-cycle releases. Each TechNet issue includes technical information on Microsoft OSs and desktop applications on one CD-ROM, and drivers and patches on a second one. You access this information through a browser with full-text searching, prioritized query results, bookmarks, and annotations. Screen 2 shows the browser.

Technical Information: The most valuable TechNet component is the Microsoft Knowledge Base. Daily, Microsoft submits new articles that cover everything from new bugs to improved documentation to pointers to other information resources. The full Microsoft Knowledge Base has more than 50,000 articles and information about Microsoft's products on various platforms, such as the Macintosh.

Microsoft's Product Support Services (PSS) personnel are responsible for most articles, and the product groups often disseminate information through this channel. Although the TechNet subscription can lag behind the online Microsoft Knowledge Base (http://www.microsoft.com/kb) by several weeks, the interface and access speed are better than with any online version.

TechNet is more than monthly drops of the Microsoft Knowledge Base. It has a variety of technical information on Microsoft applications, systems, and (to a lesser extent) tools. The full contents list is

  • Microsoft Knowledge Base
  • Microsoft Resource Kits
  • Microsoft FoxPro for Windows
  • MS-DOS
  • Microsoft LAN Manager
  • Microsoft SQL Server
  • Microsoft Windows
  • Microsoft Windows for Workgroups
  • Microsoft Windows NT
  • Microsoft Windows 95
  • Microsoft Word for Windows
  • Microsoft Mail for PC networks
  • Integration and networking information
  • Product and technology descriptions
  • Conference notes (TechEd and FoxPro)
  • Case studies
  • Supplemental drivers and patches

The Supplemental Drivers and Patches CD-ROM is another major component that comes with your TechNet subscription. This CD-ROM contains all files that Microsoft posts on its other online support forums (e.g., ftp.microsoft.com).

These files include code samples; utilities and templates; patches and minor software updates; printer, video, and keyboard drivers; Microsoft's entire software library; and the European Windows drivers library. The primary advantage of a TechNet subscription is convenience.

TechNet is a subscription-based program with monthly issues on CD-ROM and a dedicated support forum on CompuServe. This program is available directly from Microsoft and through its traditional reseller channels.

Internet
We all know the promise of electronic support, such as no set operating hours and information that's readily available. Well, the Internet certainly has its share of NT support. As more and more companies choose NT to deploy their Web sites, these companies will devote more sites to NT support.

If you need support for running NT on an Alpha, visit the Alpha FAQ at http://www.garply.com/tech/comp/sw/pc/nt/ant_faq.html. If you prefer a more interactive environment, try http://www.bhs.com. From this page, select Tech Center for a user-led discussion on several Windows NT topics.

Still not satisfied? How about http://www.winntmag.com/forums for the interactive version of Bob Chronister's Tricks & Traps.

European Internauts and others can visit Rick's Windows NT resource center at http://rick.wzl.rwth-aachen.de/rick. If you live in France or speak French fluently, try the NT French user group Web page at http://www.fwntug.org.

If you cut your Internet teeth on news groups, check out comp.os.ms-windows.nt. Other NT-specific news groups include comp.os.ms-windows.nt.pre-release, comp.os.ms-windows.nt.software.backoffice, and comp.os.ms-win-dows.nt.misc. Check your local news server for availability.

Finally, you can access commercial Web sites. High on the list is Microsoft's (http://www.microsoft.com/backoffice) for BackOffice-related support. If you have questions about NT Workstation, try http://www.microsoft.com/NTWorkstation. Digital's NT information center at http://www.windowsnt.digital.com is also worthy of a bookmark. Most NT vendors have some Web presence. You can always try http://www.vendorname.com to see whether your favorite vendor is on line. For more information on useful NT Web sites, check http://www.winntmag.com and select the Hot Sites button. See ya on line.


CompuServe
When you think about support, CompuServe has many advantages over other online services, including the Internet. I've spent almost four years providing support on CompuServe to users with Windows NT-related questions. CompuServe makes this support easy to give and receive.

One way to find an answer to a technical support question is to post a message. Once you create a message, CompuServe places your question in a forum where other users and support staff can provide answers and clarifications. CompuServe maintains all messages regarding each question, in a thread. If you need clarification or additional information about a question, CompuServe lets you easily travel through the thread to find responses. Support for threads and multiple postings is just now starting to appear on the Internet.

Microsoft recently pulled its support forums from CompuServe as part of its Internet strategy. This departure leaves users wondering whether to make the same move. The biggest concern of users contemplating the Microsoft Internet news groups is "What reader can I use to get the same functionality as CompuServe provides?" The major Internet players such as Netscape and Mosaic don't have the offline capabilities of a NavCis, Virtual Access, OzCis, or TapCis reader. In fact, many superb readers for CompuServe let you download messages and threads and store them in a database. Such applications are available for CompuServe, but not for the Internet.

CompuServe also provides an organized structure. Each support forum has a sysop responsible for screening uploads for viruses, providing access to files, and generally policing the forum. If someone uses inappropriate language or becomes offensive, the sysop can prevent the user from accessing the forum.

Because each CompuServe forum is structured, sysops can easily maintain library files and forum messages. The sysop will often zip the week's messages and place them in a library. Likewise, the sysop can place new library uploads in alert messages that appear when a user accesses the forum. Many sysops use special versions of the news readers to automatically maintain the messages on their forums.

Sysops can also hold online conferences that address specific topics and answer specific questions. However, you don't see these online conferences often in the support forums.

With CompuServe, no matter where you go you have a local access number. You can access CompuServe from most cities with reasonable security. Local access on the road means you can get to the CompuServe forums, connect to the Internet, and go to FTP sites.

Many users prefer to access the Internet through CompuServe rather than go to a local ISP that might not provide national or international access. CompuServe's access lines are already in place with several nodes. You can argue that the new tunneling Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) methods will circumvent this problem. However, such capabilities are not available today, and CompuServe is here and available now.

Contact Info
Microsoft Developer Network
800-759-5474 (Outside North America, contact your local Microsoft subsidiary, or call 303-684-0914 in the US to obtain local contact information.)
Web: http://198.105.232.6/msdn
Price: Library: $199/year Professional: $499/year Enterprise: $1499/year

Microsoft TechNet
800-344-2121 (dept. 3131) (Outside North America, go to http://198.105.232.4/TechNet/overview.htm#HowTo)
Web: http://198.105.232.4/TechNet
Price: Single one-year subscription (12 issues): $299/year Additional
TechNet CD licenses: $39.95/year Single server, unlimited user license: $699/year

CompuServe
800-433-0389 or 614-798-3356
Email: NETWORKINFO@cis.compuserve.com
Price: Standard Monthly Plan (5 hours/month): $9.95/month, $2.95 each additional hour