Digging for Resources

Your company's Web site is drawing more visitors than ever expected, and it won't be long before traffic slows to a crawl if you don't do something about it. You only have a few weeks to figure out which type of cache implementation will work best for your network and decide what to buy.

Research projects such as this one can be daunting, but there are many ways to find new products and technologies. We asked network professionals and research experts to share their tips and techniques for sifting through reams of data and extracting the kernel of information they're seeking.

Besides reading trade publications such as Network World and scanning Network World Fusion, folks recommend exploring the Web and reading daily newsletters.

Yet net executives and analysts say the best research is accomplished by talking to peers and trusted vendors. This is how you get the inside scoop on the proven performers.

"Most people are very proud of their solutions and simply love to tell you about it," says Garren Shannon, systems and programming manager for Washington State University in Spokane. "Those who have horror stories also love to tell you about them."

Vendor-sponsored seminars and trade shows provide a key opportunity for peer networking. Fellow attendees with similar IT needs can tell you how the products they've tried panned out.

If you're researching emerging technology, the Internet is the place to go. The only problem is the sheer volume. A few years ago, a basic search would reveal 10 to 20 links. Today you get upward of 3,000.

Some people keep looking until they find what they want. But others say before searching it's best to think about the topic, define the goal and scope, confirm known data and then use keywords to broaden the search.

Try several search engines, such as AltaVista, Lycos, Northern Light and Yahoo, and use the search tools on individual sites to find text. Look for significant data in the first two paragraphs.

"Software research really wastes time because not one company sells everything," Shannon says. He recommends finding a site that offers good information about lots of applications, as Beverly Hills Software (www.bhs.com) does for Windows NT and 2000. For hardware, Shannon sticks with proven vendors, such as Cisco Systems Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp. and NEC Corp.

Another tip is to search the Web sites of trade organizations and participate in user groups.

"Industry trade organizations are great because you're getting feedback from many different vendors, not just one perspective," says Jason Wright, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan in San Antonio, Texas.

There are groups devoted to almost every specific topic, such as the Computer Security Institute and the System Administration, Networking and Security Institute.

Check a user group for common issues that may affect your use of a given product. But use caution. While you can often get valuable information from discussion forums, the responses could be tainted by lack of experience, technical ability or improper implementation.

Irwin Lazar, an analyst with The Burton Group Corp. in Sterling, Va., reads newsgroups on topics that interest him. "If I have a special requirement, such as to learn something about Microsoft Exchange, I'll sign on to the appropriate list and post a question," he says.

Wright frequently visits the U.S. Security Exchange Commission (SEC) home page at www.sec.gov /index.html to search for a public company's 10-K annual report.

"The SEC 10-K can be taken as gold," he says. "This is the document that companies report to the government, so you know it's very factual."

Even with tenacity and patience, the volume of information required to make enlightened decisions or formulate intelligent questions for vendors is overwhelming. To sort your data, file by topic or project. Save your URL list or organize the data you intend to reuse or recycle within Outlook.

Kevin Kampman, a Burton Group analyst in Springfield, Ohio, saves clippings and Web pages into Lotus Notes for full text search and retrieval.

What works for Richard Howard, systems support branch chief for the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C., is to digest a little information every day from various e-mail newsletters. "It gives me a quick gulp on what is going on in the areas that I'm interested in," Howard says.

David Curle, an analyst with Outsell in Minneapolis, subscribes to several e-mail newsletters, including some from vertical portals or publications. "Many of them I only skim quickly each week, but the advantage is that they come at me; I don't have to go and get them,"he says.

You should also be open to the unexpected.

"Good research is rarely a linear exercise. Allow for departures from the norm, serendipity, and occasional fringe perspectives to inform a larger truth or viewpoint," says Tom Valovic, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

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