Point and Click For Help

FRAMINGHAM (03/17/2000) - Amid all the wonders of the Internet age, perhaps the greatest payoff to network professionals has been this: Endless waits for bungling telephone support staff are giving way to the growth of online support. While vendors have offered online technical support for several years, a growing roster of independent sites such as Experts Exchange, LinuxCare, NoWonder and PC Support provide a timely, cost-effective and more wide-ranging source of technical information.

IT staffers are bullish on this new resource, and it's easy to understand why.

The sites offer expert advice, and users often get answers within hours. Best of all, the sites are free in many cases. At least they have been while the support firms have been racing to increase their base of registered users.

In the eight months since its launch, NoWonder has built a marketplace with 500,000 subscribers. CEO Anthony Lye says the site is intended to be an environment where sellers fight over buyers. As of now, no money changes hands.

But in the next few months, technicians will begin posting competitive bids to answer users' questions, with NoWonder taking a commission on each transaction.

Meanwhile, Experts Exchange has registered 300,000 members and 45,000 experts since its 1996 launch. Experts Exchange gets more directly involved in transactions than NoWonder by employing a point system.

Experts accumulate points for answering questions - the average value is about 200 points per question - and the more difficult the question, the more points the user has to offer to get an answer. Experts then can redeem their points in exchange for support. Users who don't wish to provide support can purchase points directly from Experts Exchange.

Regardless of the model, online support has become the IT pro's best friend.

NoWonder has helped Jen Carroll cover a lot of technical ground in the first year and a half of her career. As a junior network administrator for eSmartBuildings.com, a colocation facilities and network consulting firm in Salt Lake City, Carroll helps maintain networks running everything from Windows NT and Solaris to Oracle and Linux.

Carroll has sought online help for snafus ranging from software errors to network protocol problems. "NoWonder has provided fresh approaches to troubleshooting issues - ones that I was too frustrated to see," says Carroll.

However, Carroll says she only turns to the site when she's in a hurry and has no immediate access to a resource - such as a book or colleague - that could answer her question.

Darcy Morse, a network administrator for the Richland School District in Richland Center, Wis., has been a devotee of Experts Exchange since her first visit last April. Morse says Experts Exchange offers her a quick and inexpensive alternative to telephone or on-site support. She also has found the site's database of previously answered questions to be a great research tool.

Most recently, Morse turned to the site for help with a network route-mapping problem. She first approached her contracted support provider, whom she pays $100 per hour for a predetermined number of hours per year. When she didn't get a quick answer, Morse chose to go online. In just 90 minutes, she received the input she needed to solve the problem.

Chris Rondeau, an Experts Exchange user who also has become one of the site's most productive experts, says he rarely sees questions that can't be answered within a few days.

Rondeau, a senior systems administrator with the Atlanta office of engineering firm URS Corp., visited Experts Exchange last summer for help debugging a file that he couldn't access, and he's continued to ask questions every few months.

In the meantime, however, he's answered some 200 questions and become one of the top points-earners on the site. As a result, he gets free answers to Microsoft-related questions that would cost him $195 an hour through a vendor.

Rondeau's advice to IT pros is to depend on online support sites for solutions to problems that aren't mission-critical. But that doesn't mean they won't come in handy in an emergency situation.

"You never know," he says. "You can get lucky."

Kontzer is a freelance writer in San Jose. He can be reached at tony@goodink.com.

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