HIGHLIGHTS

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

The trade show season is upon us. Over the last month I have attended FIVE trade shows! I've got to - it's my job.

The first show was the Chicago Netware Users Conference sponsored by CAN2 (pronounced "can squared"), the Chicago Area Novell Networkers. This was a small, focused show, targeting Netware administrators. It was also the site of a couple of shots in the war of the network analyzers. Analyzers take the raw information going across the network wire, interpret it to various degrees, and then display it for troubleshooting and optimizing the network.

Network General exhibited its Expert Sniffer, the latest version of its network analyzer. They are trying to leap-frog Novell's Lanalyzer, which has historically presented its test results in an easier to interpret format. Their new system is based on an expert system that can reduce the volume of information collected from its analysis of the traffic on the network wire down to a minimum of data.

It is a kind of management by exception. The expert system determines what it "thinks" is the appropriate information required to diagnose any problem it discovers. It then displays only that pertinent data and its associated diagnostic messages. The results are rather impressive.

The user interface was straightforward enough that I was able to anticipate the demonstrator's keystrokes on the way to the final determination of the sample problem. When she switched into the old-fashioned manual mode, however, I could just barely follow along. The new expert system really makes the difference. I can't wait to see Novell's counterstrike.

On the lower end of the network analyzer spectrum, Intel was promoting (though sadly, not demonstrating) its new software analyzer, Netsight Analyzer as an alternative to Novell's Lanalyzer for Netware (when you're on top, everybody wants a piece of your action). This product has great potential for those unwilling or unable to invest in a Sniffer or Lanalyzer.

The second show was the Midwest Computer Show sponsored by the Illinois CPA Society. It had some general-purpose exhibits, but was really aimed at CPA's, either for running their own offices, or to get them to suggest products for their clients.

The biggest trend was toward electronic claims filing. Many programs were displayed that provided this capability to existing tax processing systems without doing any tax processing themselves. Some systems were designed to be used by service bureaus that would in turn market their services to accountants.

An interesting side issue was the presentation by Arthur Anderson & Company of a pre-release version of their completely rewritten tax processing software, A-plusTax. It's about time! After spending untold hours attempting to beat that program into shape for my clients, I'm glad to see them get that series of programs out of the stone age. The current version doesn't meet the (admittedly strict) standards that I used to evaluate mainframe programs back in the seventies, much less microcomputer standards of usability and reliability in the nineties. The new version looks much better and, as a bonus, runs noticeably faster.

One aisle down from the Arthur Anderson booth, I found what may be the motivating factor for their rewrite, CCH Computax's ProSystem. This system competes almost module for module with the A-plusTax system. It has a very modern user interface, extensive context-sensitive help, full network compatibility, and it is already in wide distribution. Considering the CCH's (Commerce Clearing House for the uninitiated) reputation as a tax authority and their long history in computerized tax processing (I worked on their mainframes processing returns during the 1976-77 tax season and it wasn't a new service for them then.) they should add some much-needed competition to this narrow field.

The Third show was LANDEX, given by LANDA, the Local Area Network Dealer's Association in cooperation with its Chicago Chapter. It was a dealer-only show that revolved around a series of seminars with only a small exhibit area.

Both the technical and business oriented seminars were very valuable, with the WAN (Wide Area Networking) session being my personal favorite. Several vendors expressed their surprise at the degree of cooperation and information sharing among theoretically competing LAN integrators.

In the exhibit area, Networth presented their Netware Application Engine, their concentrator-based platform for Novell's Run-time Netware and other dedicated server applications. It is a complete 486/33 microcomputer with RAM (random access memory), a hard disk, two internal Ethernet connections (to connect to the rest of the concentrator) and two 16-bit ISA (Industry Standard Architecture or AT-Bus) card slots. It plugs directly into their Series 4000 Intelligent Hubs (Ethernet concentrators). This is an incredibly bright idea. It is a great solution for running database servers, gateways, communications servers, fax servers, email servers, and any other application that would benefit from being run separately from the file server. Now that Run-time Netware is available (a stripped down version of Netware that can run an NLM or Netware Loadable Module, but can't be a file server), this product should be in high demand.

Also of note were the optical disk and SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) offerings of Micro Design International (MDI). So far they are the only company that I've found that completely integrates optical jukeboxes transparently into a Netware 3.11 environment. Other products that I have encountered make the optical subsystem a separately managed add-on to Netware. MDI can make Netware treat the jukebox just like any other drive. This allows them to tap into all of the inherent speed-up techniques of Netware, including caching, and elevator-seeking (the ability to reorder disk access requests into the most efficient sequence -- absolutely vital in an environment where inefficient ordering can cause a cartridge to be reloaded unnecessarily).

The fourth show was Softeach, a dealer-only series of seminars given by Merisel, a large microcomputer products distributor. There were sixteen seminars and two receptions in two days!

The announcement with the most potential interest was the introduction of a line of token ring products by Standard Microsystems Corporation (SMC). Current token ring cards use either the IBM chipset or the Texas instrument chipset, with minor variations based on the manufacturer. The only room for real innovations has been in the driver software (which allows the hardware and software to communicate). SMC is using the technology it purchased from Western Digital to attack performance, reliability, and pricing problems via hardware. Because of SMC's history in the ARCnet and Ethernet markets, they have a good chance of succeeding. This ought to shake up the marketplace!

The fifth (and at least for a few of weeks, the final) trade show was the Laptop Expo. I didn't see any individual standout products, but rather a new movement that impressed me.

The PCMCIA (Personal Computer Memory Card International Association) standard for add-on function cards for laptop computers was evident everywhere. The cards fit into any computer that has a slot following the PCMCIA specifications. There were many different functions available at the show. I saw Ethernet cards, high-speed combined fax/modem cards, 3270 emulation cards (for IBM mainframe terminal), applications software cards (like Microsoft's Excell), and RAM cards. By eliminating the need for proprietary expansion slots, this standard will remove the risk of having an "orphan" laptop.

I am still looking for a program to calculate just how much shoe-leather or seat-of-the-pants fabric that was sacrificed to these shows and seminars in the never-ending quest to keep up with changes in this industry.

1992, Wayne M. Krakau