Online and Subscription-based Support Alternatives

Keith Pleas, Tim Daniels, and Bob Chronister review some online and subscription-based support options.

ITPro Today

June 30, 1996

8 Min Read
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If you don't have the advantage of inhouse technical support or the luxuryof 24 X 7 support, don't lose hope. Many companies are turning to online andsubscription-based support for immediacy and a large amount of supportinformation. These support options, including Microsoft Developers Network(MSDN), Microsoft Technical Support Network (TechNet), the Internet, andCompuServe, 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 vendorsupport will identify a solution (at a cost), online and subscription-basedsupport require time to research your problem and come up with a solution. Suchsupport works best when you know the problem and where to look for an answer. Ifthat's the case and you're bargain shopping for technical support, consider whatsome experts say about these alternatives.

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

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

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

Professional: The MSDN Professionalsubscription includes the Library subscription and Microsoft's DevelopmentPlatform, 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 importantbecause it's almost impossible to acquire as a standalone product within the US.

Because software releases don't conveniently fall at quarters, Microsoftalso sends out premium releases of OSs as they ship. More important,Professional subscribers get selected OS beta versions. If you're not anofficial beta tester, this subscription is a great way to get early OS versionswithout having to submit bug reports and so on.

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

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

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

Pricing and Availability: Startingwith the April release, Microsoft is making MSDN available through traditionalreseller channels. At the same time, you'll see the launch of a single-issueLibrary version for $99, which lets you upgrade to the regular Librarysubscription.

by Keith Pleas

Microsoft Technical Support Network
Whereas the MSDN is for developers, Microsoft developed its TechNetsubscription program for system administrators, system integrators, and supportprofessionals. Microsoft distributes TechNet monthly on CD-ROM to keep theinformation up to date and eliminate the need for off-cycle releases. EachTechNet issue includes technical information on Microsoft OSs and desktopapplications on one CD-ROM, and drivers and patches on a second one. You accessthis information through a browser with full-text searching, prioritized queryresults, bookmarks, and annotations. Screen 2 shows the browser.

Technical Information: The mostvaluable TechNet component is the Microsoft Knowledge Base. Daily, Microsoftsubmits new articles that cover everything from new bugs to improveddocumentation to pointers to other information resources. The fullMicrosoft Knowledge Base has more than 50,000 articles and information aboutMicrosoft's products on various platforms, such as the Macintosh.

Microsoft's Product Support Services (PSS) personnel are responsible formost articles, and the product groups often disseminate information through thischannel. Although the TechNet subscription can lag behind the online MicrosoftKnowledge Base ( by several weeks, the interface andaccess speed are better than with any online version.

TechNet is more than monthly drops of the Microsoft Knowledge Base. It hasa variety of technical information on Microsoft applications, systems, and (to alesser 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 thatcomes with your TechNet subscription. This CD-ROM contains all files thatMicrosoft posts on its other online support forums (e.g.,

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

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

by Keith Pleas

We all know the promise of electronic support, such as no set operatinghours and information that's readily available. Well, the Internet certainly hasits share of NT support. As more and more companies choose NT to deploy theirWeb 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 If you prefer a moreinteractive environment, try From this page, select TechCenter for a user-led discussion on several Windows NT topics.

Still not satisfied? How about for theinteractive version of Bob Chronister's Tricks & Traps.

European Internauts and others can visit Rick's Windows NT resource centerat If you live in France or speak Frenchfluently, try the NT French user group Web page at

If you cut your Internet teeth on news groups, check Other NT-specific news groups,,and Check your local news server for availability.

Finally, you can access commercial Web sites. High on the list isMicrosoft's ( for BackOffice-relatedsupport. If you have questions about NT Workstation, try Digital's NT information center at is also worthy of a bookmark. Most NT vendorshave some Web presence. You can always try tosee whether your favorite vendor is on line. For more information on useful NTWeb sites, check and select the Hot Sites button. See yaon line.

by Tim Daniels

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

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

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

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

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

Sysops can also hold online conferences that address specific topics andanswer specific questions. However, you don't see these online conferences oftenin the support forums.

With CompuServe, no matter where you go you have a local access number. Youcan access CompuServe from most cities with reasonable security. Local access onthe 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 goto a local ISP that might not provide national or international access.CompuServe's access lines are already in place with several nodes. You can arguethat the new tunneling Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) methods will circumventthis problem. However, such capabilities are not available today, and CompuServeis here and available now.

by Bob Chronister

Contact Info

Microsoft Developer Network800-759-5474 (Outside North America, contact your local Microsoftsubsidiary, or call 303-684-0914 in the US to obtain local contact information.)Web: Library: $199/year Professional: $499/year Enterprise:$1499/yearMicrosoft TechNet800-344-2121 (dept. 3131) (Outside North America, go tohttp:// Single one-year subscription (12 issues): $299/year AdditionalTechNet CD licenses: $39.95/year Single server, unlimited user license:$699/yearCompuServe800-433-0389 or 614-798-3356 Email: [email protected] Price: Standard Monthly Plan (5 hours/month): $9.95/month, $2.95 eachadditional hour

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