GET PLUGGED IN

by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, July 1992

It's happened again. I was bailed out of a potentially awkward situation by my favorite and most vital information source, Netwire.

A client called and described a random printing problem with her company's newly upgraded Netware 3.11 network. The first page of a document would be split into two pieces. The first piece consisted of a randomly sized portion from the upper center of the page. It would print on a page by itself, often mixed with gibberish caused by out of sequence printer codes. The rest of the page, minus an occasional word or two, came out as a completely separate page. This was usually perfectly formatted. Unless you noticed that first portion was on a separate page, you might not notice the few missing lines and might attempt to use the resulting printout.

As I worked to isolate and document the problem, concentrating particularly on the Print Server NLM (Netware Loadable Module, a way of implementing features directly within a 3.xx server so they become a part of the operating system, Netware - NLMs are direct descendants of the Value Added Processes or VAPs used in 2.xx versions of Netware), I received a similar complaint from another client.

This gave me the vital clue. This might be an internal problem (within Netware) rather than a blown hardware or software. That night I logged onto Compuserve, a commercial on-line communications network and entered the command "GO NETWIRE". This allowed me to access Netwire, the official electronic support organ of Novell.

I bypassed the on-line discussion area and went directly to the FILES section. Here, I scanned the descriptions of updates, patches, and fixes for the print server software. Within minutes I had located a file that contained updates to PSERVER.NLM (for 3.xx file servers), PSERVER.VAP (for 2.xx file servers), and PSERVER.EXE (for dedicated workstation-based print servers) to fix the exact problem that my clients had experienced. After entering a few simple commands, I had downloaded the files into my computer, ready to be transferred to the appropriate clients.

Since I was accessing Netwire, anyway, I also downloaded a few text files containing methods to fine-tune and/or debug Novell Networks and, even individual machines. One particularly helpful item summarized the latest hints on installing Microsoft Windows in a Netware environment. While parts of it presented old (for me) information about the Netware for Windows files - a must-have for any system administrator even thinking about implementing Windows on Netware - it also offered additional information based on results from the real world.

Then, I looked in on several forums - areas where individuals can interact via the posting of mostly public and occasionally private messages. I quickly scanned the system for questions that either looked interesting for my own use or had been left unanswered or inadequately answered.

After seconding a recommendation given by a systems integrator from New York to a systems administrator at a small firm in Iowa, I switched from Netwire to a manufacturer's area on Compuserve. I wanted to see if new drivers were available for its boards. Drivers are, generically speaking, programs that allow various types of hardware to hardware or hardware to software communications - in this case allowing a network interface card or NIC to talk to the computer in which it resides and to other computers over the network. I subsequently found and downloaded the latest drivers.

It was getting late, so I logged off of Compuserve. I wanted to get a good night's sleep so I would be able to rescue those two clients first thing in the morning.

Now, four months later, I just finished fixing the same problem using the same files that I had previously downloaded. It surprised me (though it really shouldn't have, production cycles being what they are) that Novell hadn't yet incorporated the fix into it's production product during the intervening months. Still, my ability to access to Netwire saved me.

In addition to critical files such as this fix, I have obtained loads of great "handy" files. For instance, I now use a special version of the NDIR (the Netware directory command). If used with the usual parameters, it runs just like any other version of NDIR, but, if used all by itself, it's menu driven! For those interested, it is in part three (out of four) of the DOS/Windows update series of files available on Netwire and is the only version that I have ever seen (previous or since) that works this way. That series includes updates of many of the standard Netware commands and, except for the applicable time-based charge for accessing the system, is free for the taking.

Many useful utility programs are available. PERFORM II, for instance is Novell's standard way of testing the overall performance and efficiency of a network. Many manufacturers publish figures based on this common (and free) benchmark. You can run it to find inefficiencies or outright errors on your network. You can even use it to develop before and after figures when trying to fine-tune your system. There are hundreds of examples like this one.

Frequently a problem will crop up with some new software or hardware. A call to the manufacturer (or, heaven forbid, actually reading the documentation) will often result in finding a requirement for the latest version of portions of Netware or its associated drivers. Often, the only way to get these files is from Netwire (optionally via your chosen reseller).

I cannot overemphasize the importance of having access to Netwire for active Netware system administrators. In addition to the files themselves, the ability to get answers is incredibly helpful. Novell personnel usually respond within 24 to 48 hours, but other "visitors" often contribute answers faster. These answers from out in the field are sometimes more accurate and detailed than Novell's answers. Keep in mind that these fellow "visitors" aren't restricted (short of libel and slander laws) in mentioning brand names as Novell personnel sometimes are. Since Compuserve also contains many manufacturer forums, you get an added bonus of access to them.

If you don't have a Compuserve account now, get one! Just make sure it's in your company's name if you don't want to pay for it yourself. (Unless, of course, you want to access the games, or one of the sexual discussion forums - then get a second account in your own name - those expense audits can be nasty!) Look inside the box of your communications software. Many publishers include a free startup kit or at least a discount certificate. If that doesn't work, call Compuserve at 800-848-8199.

As always, questions, comments, and topic suggestions are always welcome.

1992, Wayne M. Krakau