Many people who work with computers and networks don't read the documentation that comes with the products they purchase. Some are even quite smug about it. In addition, as a cost-cutting measure, most hardware and software manufacturers have greatly reduced the amount of printed documentation they include with products. However, to properly administer and troubleshoot a network, you must have information about the products you are using, and in many cases, you must turn to resources other than the product manufacturer to get it. This lesson investigates some of the many sources of information that are now available to the network administrator.
If the hardware and software products you purchase do not come with thick volumes of printed manuals as they used to, there is often documentation included in some form. Even if you don't need to read the manual to install or configure the product, you should always keep all the documentation that comes with it on file, because you might need it later when you're reinstalling, upgrading, or troubleshooting the network.
Although you may be working with devices or software products that you think you know very well, you might still need the documentation some day. Suppose, for example, you're faced with a network that was first installed several years ago. You want to upgrade the computers to a new operating system, but you know that you will have to install additional memory in all the computers first. Even if you know these computers well, if you haven't upgraded them before, you might not know exactly what type of memory modules you need, what combinations of modules the computers support, or how much memory they are capable of using. To complicate things further, suppose that the company that manufactured those computers was acquired by another company and no longer makes or supports that particular model. If whoever bought those computers filed away the documentation that came with them, you'll easily be able to find the information you need. If not, you'll have to determine by trial and error what memory configurations the computers can use, which could waste a lot of time and money.
Because of the high printing costs, many products now include documentation in other forms. CD-ROMs can contain documents in various formats, which are discussed in the following sections.
Many manufacturers use plain ASCII text files to provide late-breaking information about problems, revisions, and compatibility issues related to their products. The traditional name for this type of file is README.1ST or something similar. It's always a good idea to check the software distribution CD-ROMs that accompany the products you buy for files with this type of name or with a .txt extension. To view text files, you can use a simple program like NOTEPAD.EXE, which is included with all current versions of Microsoft Windows, or you can simply copy them to a printer, typing a command like copy readme.1st lpt1 at the MS-DOS command prompt.
Acrobat is an application created by Adobe Systems, Inc. that creates and displays documents in a proprietary format called the Portable Document Format (PDF). These files preserve all the original design elements, layout, and formatting characteristics of the original documents they are created from, including fonts and full-color illustrations. You create .pdf files by using a special printer driver supplied with Acrobat, which compiles the document you've created in another application into a single file.
To view a .pdf file, you must have Acrobat Reader, which is available free of charge from the Adobe Web site at http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html/. There are versions supporting more than a dozen different hardware platforms. Acrobat Reader displays the documents in fully laid-out pages, just as they would appear when printed, as shown in Figure 18.1. You can print out a .pdf document, if you wish, enabling you to create a facsimile of a printed manual. Acrobat Reader also includes a plug-in for your Web browser so that you can click on links to .pdf files on Web sites and display them. When the publisher creates the .pdf files specifically for Web access, the Web browser plug-in can display a document as it's downloading, one page at a time, so that you don't have to wait for the entire file to download before any of it is displayed.
Figure 18.1 Adobe Acrobat creates .pdf files that you can view and print usingthe free Acrobat Reader program
The ease with which Acrobat can create .pdf files has made it a very attractive solution for manufacturers seeking to publish their documentation, marketing collateral, and technical documents at less expense. Despite being a proprietary format, .pdf has become a de facto standard in the computing industry. The .pdf files can be quite large, making them better suited for CD-ROM distribution than Web distribution. Adobe allows third parties to include Acrobat Reader on their own CD-ROMs, so that if you find that a product includes documentation in .pdf format and you don't already have Reader, you can usually install it from the CD. Another advantage of .pdf files is that they are searchable. Publishers can also choose to create an index of key terms in a collection of .pdf files, which speeds up the searching process.
Although intended for use on Web sites, some manufacturers also use Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to create their documentation and include it with the product on a CD-ROM. Viewing the documents on the CD-ROM is the same as viewing them on a Web site once you have pointed your browser to the home page file on the disk. Depending on how the HTML files are organized, searching them might or might not be possible.
In addition to including printed manuals with their products, virtually every hardware and software company at one time maintained a free technical support telephone line. Whenever you had a problem, you called what was often a toll-free number and usually got the help you needed. Alas, the days of free telephone support are now gone. The costs of hiring, training, and maintaining an effective technical support staff have risen so high that manufacturers have had to either limit the support they offer or charge a fee for it. Today, some products include free technical support for a limited period of time or a limited number of incidents, but after that you usually have to pay for help from the manufacturer's technicians. Depending on the company involved, the fee for technical support can be based on an hourly rate or a per-incident charge, but it usually isn't cheap.
Because calling for technical support can now be a significant expense or an expenditure of limited company resources, the question of when to pick up the telephone and ask for help is more difficult than it used to be. When support was free, many users called frequently for problems they could easily have solved themselves, simply to avoid the bother of reading the manual. This abuse of the manufacturer's generosity is one of the main reasons that free telephone support is largely a thing of the past. Today, people are more likely to seek out alternative avenues of support before paying for help.
There are times, however, when calling for technical support is proper and, indeed, necessary. Some manufacturers might have known issues with a product that have not yet made it into their documentation, their Web site, or even their Readme files. You could spend hours attempting to research a problem when the whole issue could be solved with a 5-minute telephone call. Generally speaking, the best course of action when you're stuck for information about a product is to check the Web and Usenet (discussed later in this lesson) first, and only call technical support as a last resort.
In recent years, the Internet has come to be the single most valuable source of information about computer networking and the products used on networks. Virtually every manufacturer of computer products maintains a Web site, and the information resources you find there can often be extremely valuable. Some of the features commonly found on manufacturers' Web sites are as follows:
There are a great many other Web sites containing useful networking information besides those run by product manufacturers. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites devoted to each of the popular operating systems in use today, as well as sites devoted to major applications, computer hardware, and networking principles. However, when dealing with information from what is essentially an unknown source, you must be careful to verify anything that seems unlikely or potentially dangerous. You can sometimes tell from the nature of the site whether the information there can be trusted, but the Web has a way of making even the most egregious misinformation seem convincing.
Usenet is a worldwide, text-based Internet bulletin board system that consists of tens of thousands of newsgroups devoted to every topic you could possibly imagine. Usenet is not as user-friendly as the Web, but it provides an enormous amount of valuable technical information. To access Usenet newsgroups, you must have a client program called a newsreader and access to a news server. The clients and servers communicate with each other using a specialized TCP/IP protocol called the Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP). Newsreaders are available as stand-alone programs, or they can be incorporated into other applications, such as the Microsoft Outlook Express client included with Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Most Internet service providers (ISPs) include access to a news server as part of a standard Internet access subscription, but the quality of the service that individual ISPs provide can vary greatly. The thousands of Usenet newsgroups generate several gigabytes of information every day, and news servers can only keep a limited amount of information available. Depending on the amount of storage a news server has, it might only be able to keep a few days' worth of messages available at a time. In addition, some servers have incomplete news feeds, meaning you won't see all the messages that have been posted to a particular group. When you're trying to carry on a dialog with someone, this can be a problem, as you might not see all the responses to your questions. If you require more complete and comprehensive Usenet access, you can subscribe to any one of several commercial news services for a small monthly fee. These services guarantee full access to all Usenet newsgroups and usually retain messages for a longer period of time.
To access Usenet, configure your newsreader with the name or Internet Protocol (IP) address of a news server and download a list of the newsgroups, as shown in Figure 18.2. The list is alphabetical and the newsgroup names consist of several cryptic abbreviations separated by periods, such as the following:
Figure 18.2 The Usenet newsgroup list
In most cases, you can work out the subject of a newsgroup from its name, but you might find yourself stumped with some of them, such as sfnet.tietoliikenne. yhteydentarjoajat. This is due in part to Usenet being an international service, so some of the newsgroups are in languages other than English. As you become accustomed to Usenet jargon, you'll learn where to go to find the newsgroups concerning a particular subject. Because Usenet is a computer-based medium, there are a large number of newsgroups devoted to technical computing issues, such as networking, programming, applications, and the like. You'll find that there are newsgroups devoted to individual networking protocols, operating systems, programming languages, and many other related topics. For example, there are hundreds of newsgroups beginning with the word "comp," which are all computer-related.
Usenet is primarily a text-based service, and "netiquette" dictates that you do not post anything other than text messages on most newsgroups. This is because many news server administrators try to conserve storage space by maintaining only the groups that are text-only. Newsgroups that have the word "binaries" in their name, however, are groups that permit the posting of binary files, such as program and image files. These files are posted to news servers in a format called uuencode, which is a series of algorithms for converting files into a series of 7-bit ASCII characters. Most newsreaders today automatically encode and decode binary files as needed, but you might in some cases see that a binary file appears as page after page of seemingly random ASCII characters.
When you have found a newsgroup that you want to access, the newsreader enables you to subscribe to it. Subscribing means only that the reader adds the selected newsgroup to the list of groups that you want to access regularly. After you've selected a number of groups, you can work with your list of subscribed groups, rather than deal with the gigantic full list. When you've subscribed to the newsgroups that you want to read, you have the reader download the message headers for them. The message headers contain the subject of each message, the name of the person who posted it, and the date and time it was posted, as shown in Figure 18.3. By scrolling the display, the size of the message is also shown.
Figure 18.3 Usenet newsgroup message headers
Newsreaders typically can display the headers in several different ways: chronologically, alphabetically by subject or author, by size, or by thread. A thread is a series of messages with the same subject. One person posts a message containing a question or comment, and other people reply to that message. This is usually the easiest way to read a newsgroup. By studying the message headers, you can determine which messages you want to read. Most newsreaders enable you to mark the messages or threads you want to read so that you can download them all at once. When you instruct the reader to do so, it downloads the text of all the messages you checked. For text-only messages, this is usually a rapid process. If you're downloading messages that contain binary files, it can take quite a while, depending on the size of the files. When the download is complete, you can select a message, and the newsreader displays the text, as shown in Figure 18.4.
After reading the message, you can compose a reply and send it to the newsgroup or send an e-mail directly to the author. Your message goes to your news server, which eventually uploads it to other servers. Within a matter of hours, your message has been propagated to news servers all over the world.
Figure 18.4 A Usenet newsgroup message
It's a little more difficult to separate the signals from the noise in Usenet than it is on the Web because anyone can participate. In addition, what used to be a medium frequented primarily by technical people has been invaded by many other types of users. Unfortunately, off-topic material ("spam") is a major problem on Usenet, as it is with e-mail. You might have to wade through any number of get-rich-quick schemes and other advertisements to find what you want. Some newsgroups are moderated to keep out the spam, and some news server administrators run software that filters out a good part of it.
When you configure a newsreader, you have to supply your e-mail address to post messages to Usenet newsgroups. However, many unscrupulous advertisers use automated programs that strip e-mail addresses out of newsgroup messages to build mailing lists that they use to send spam. It's a good idea to insert an extra word into the e-mail address you supply to prevent yourself from being victimized in this way. For example, if your e-mail address is email@example.com, you might want to change it to firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a common practice, and most Usenet users will know to remove the "stopspam" if they have reason to send you legitimate e-mail.
When you evade the spam and other nonsense, Usenet is an extraordinary resource for information of all types. In many cases, you can post a question about a product and get several responses in a few hours, sometimes from the people who designed or invented it.
The CD-ROM products released by several major manufacturers are another good source of information about computer and networking products. Sometimes the disks are free, but in most cases you must purchase a subscription for CD releases that come out monthly or quarterly. Microsoft's TechNet is one of the most popular CD-ROM subscription products. Each month, you get several CDs that update your library of information about all Microsoft products. The disks include the manuals and Resource Kits for Microsoft products, marketing collateral, the complete Knowledge Base, audio and video training materials, and hundreds of other articles and book excerpts, plus data disks that have the latest service packs, patches, and evaluation copies of new products. TechNet includes its own searchable viewer application, which makes it easy to locate the information you need, as shown in Figure 18.5.
In addition to TechNet, there is also the Microsoft Developers Network (MSDN), which is a subscription-based CD-ROM service intended for software and hardware developers. The disks include software developer's kits (SDKs) and driver developer's kits (DDKs) for all Microsoft products, as well as copies of all the operating systems, a developer Knowledge Base, and an enormous amount of other information. There are three subscription levels with different prices and different levels of access. Other companies produce informational CD-ROMs as well, although few are as comprehensive as those produced by Microsoft.
Figure 18.5 The Microsoft TechNet interface
As you are no doubt aware if you're reading this, there are a great many books available on networking and computer-related topics. Books tend to cover a fairly limited range of specific networking products. You won't find dozens of books on every product you use, but major products, such as operating systems, are covered in depth. However, there is no better resource for background information and networking theory than many of the books currently available on the market. One of the more useful practices in the computer book publishing industry today is that of including a searchable electronic version on a CD-ROM, like the one in this book. Not only does this make the book more portable, it also enables you to search for information with greater speed and precision than if you were looking it up in a printed index.
Magazines and trade newspapers are good places to look for current technical information and industry news. However, be aware that the information in a typical monthly magazine is written at least three to four months before you see the issue. Weeklies are more current and tend to provide more timely information. Many weekly trade newspapers are now available online, which can make paper subscriptions unnecessary.
Match the resources in the left column with the appropriate descriptions in the right column.
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