Asking Questions, Seeking Solutions

A wealth of information about Microsoft products is easily and publicly available

I spend a significant amount of time each week answering questions that readers of Windows & .NET Magazine and its UPDATE email newsletters send to me. I don't mind attending to this task because these email communications keep me in touch with the problems and situations that readers are facing daily and help me concentrate my research and evaluations on areas that offer the greatest benefit to them. One of the most common statements readers make is, "You've probably never heard of this problem, but I'm hoping you can help." In most cases, I can provide answers or point readers to a helpful resource. Many of the questions I receive are pretty basic or at least seem basic to me. After providing user and reader support for almost 20 years, I've come to realize that IT information is cyclical: Problems I encountered 10 years ago still appear, but the new class of IT professionals is either too young or too new to the industry to have seen them before.

When I help solve more complex problems or problems that are specific to newer technologies, readers often respond with, "How did you know that?" The answer to that question is easy: With very few exceptions, no problem is unique. If you've run into a problem with a standard OS or application, someone likely has experienced the same problem or a similar problem with the same root cause. The questions readers ask me have many recurring themes, and most pertain to a new implementation of a standard product. As upgrade cycles progress, users tend to run into problems that are common to most implementations of a particular product. So, information that the bleeding-edge technology adopters discover a few weeks after new software is released is just as valuable a year or two later, when trailing-edge adopters begin to move to the same (or an upgraded) version of the software.

I'm struck by the fact that the information to answer the questions I receive is usually publicly available, yet almost every request to me contains the phrase, "I've tried everything, but . . . " Yet when I send an answer, I often get a response asking me where I found the data. And for a large percentage of the cases, I found the information on Microsoft's Web site. The tips that follow might be basic for some of you, but if you've struggled to find exactly what you need on the comprehensive site, they will be helpful.

Looking for Answers
Say what you will about Microsoft, the company provides a huge amount of information about its products to end users and systems administrators. The various Microsoft sites can almost always provide answers to questions about Microsoft products.

I often jokingly say that in order to find an answer on the Microsoft site, you need to already know the answer. The situation only seems that way because, whatever the problem is, you must understand what you're looking for to know how to search for it, and knowing the Microsoft name for what you're asking about is really helpful.

Microsoft Product Support Services. The first place to start looking for solutions on the Microsoft sites is the Product Support Services (PSS) home page at http://support.microsoft.com. This site is basically the Web interface to the Knowledge Base. Whenever you encounter an error message, PSS is usually the best place to start looking for information. Readers often tell me that when they search on an actual error message on this site, they discover no useful information. The trick when that happens is to search not just on the error message but also for information about the module generating the error message. Or, do a situational search, such as looking for articles about a particular product's installation or about whatever action was being taken when the error occurred. You can usually narrow your search by checking out the hits you get: Retarget your search by adding or removing words from your search parameters.

TechNet. The next step is to go to Microsoft TechNet at http://microsoft.com/technet. Although the TechNet site links to the PSS site, I don't usually recommend starting a search here—too much information is available from this page. What's most important about TechNet is that cross-product information is available in the TechNet library under the IT Solutions and IT Tasks sections. As often as I suggest it, I can't help but reiterate that all systems administrators can benefit by reading the information available in TechNet before beginning any project. You'll find everything from deployment guides to specific how-to information about Microsoft's products. A visit to this site before you begin your project will give you valuable information and might prevent problems in the future.

Microsoft newsgroups. Possibly the most useful places for accurate, up-to-the-minute information about Microsoft products are the Microsoft newsgroups. These online bulletin boards are fully supported by Microsoft and accurately reflect the problems and solutions that some of the most conscientious Microsoft software users find. On its Web site, Microsoft combines newsgroups into Web browser—accessible areas: for the Product Support Newsgroups area, go to http://support.microsoft.com/newsgroups/default.aspx; for the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Newsgroups area for developers, go to http://msdn.microsoft.com/newsgroups/default.asp; for the newsgroups for IT professionals area, go to http://www.microsoft.com/technet/newsgroups/default.asp.

You can read the newsgroups online with a Web browser, but I prefer to use a Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) newsreader. If you don't have a favorite newsreader, the NNTP reader that all versions of Microsoft Outlook Express include works just fine. The advantages of using newsreader software rather than a Web browser are a matter of information delivery. With a newsreader, you can subscribe to groups and threads that interest you and have the information downloaded directly to your computer as a background task, which gives you more flexibility in storing and reading the information. The only information you need to provide to use newsreader software is the name of the NNTP server that configures the newsreader software: To access the Microsoft newsgroups, the NNTP server name is news.microsoft.com. These publicly available servers don't require a specific password or username, so you can remain anonymous if you prefer.

I haven't revealed any startling secrets in this article—just some of the key resources I use when trying to solve my own and readers' problems. I find the newsgroups especially useful because their environment is near real time. The newsgroups for more popular or complex products see a tremendous amount of traffic that contains much helpful information. If you aren't making use of these problem-solving resources, you should be. Of course, you're always welcome to ask me for help, too.

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