When Net providers upgrade, watch out for e-mail gremlins

The provider began tinkering with its Telnet interface, eliminating the menu and
dumping users directly into a Unix shell. That must have been fun for new customers. It
took me a few tries to find my e-mail without knowing which version of Unix was involved.


Then the provider, without any warning, installed another version of its server
software, which failed to support user names longer than eight characters. I couldn't
access my jmccormick@penn.com e-mail account for about a week, and there was no
work-around.


Apparently the provider's former Linux-based Alpha server accepted long user names, but
the Digital Equipment Corp. Unix replacement couldn't handle long names over Telnet
connections.


If you sent me e-mail that bounced, now you know why.


I had to set up a new e-mail address, powerusr@penn.com, and the provider's
system administrator was sympathetic enough to give me an alias, so the old address is
working again, too.


There's a lesson here for administrators: Never make big server software changes
without notifying your users. Most people won't have to do anything, but certain users may
need to take steps to protect themselves from the glitches common to most upgrades.


What's faster and almost as cheap as backup tapes? The market is full of
removable-media drives, from tiny devices like Iomega Corp.'s Zip to magneto-optical,
CD-recordable and phase-change dual CD drives. But there's yet another low-cost option: A
swappable second hard drive.


You can interchange primary and secondary hard drives mounted in inexpensive housings
as easily as floppy diskettes. Although this usually happens because users switch between
operating systems or for security reasons, the removable hard-drive option is worth
considering for its rock-bottom cost.


A high-speed, quality-brand 1G hard drive now costs only about $100. Many people
haven't noticed how far prices have been dropping recently.


Durability is good, too. Delicate hard drives with automatic head parking are ancient
history. Today's hard drives stand up to normal handling and are less vulnerable to dust
damage than removable media.


Yes, removable-media drives are reliable, but don't forget the reliability of housing
each disk in its own drive mechanism. Of course, the data on such a drive will be slightly
more vulnerable because if the drive breaks, expensive processing is necessary to recover
the data. With removable media, you just pop the disk into a new drive.


On the other hand, I've never had one of my hard drives fail in the time it took the
host PC to become completely outdated.


A removable hard-drive adapter, available from many sources and actually built into
Nexar Technologies Inc. PCs, costs less than $70. Extra drive trays are under $30.


The removable media vs. removable hard drive price comparison is this: Internal Iomega
Jaz or similar 1G drives are about $450, 1G cartridges are $145 each (one cartridge
generally is included), and 9G worth of cartridges cost $1,305. For 10G, the total runs
$1,755. Cost per megabyte: about 18 cents.


For hard drives, an adapter is about $70 and 10G of media (two 5G drives) will set you
back $450 each. Total: $970, for a total cost per megabyte of about 10 cents.


Installation costs and any special handling are similar for both options. Obviously,
the cost advantage is strongly on the side of removable hard drives, and this only
increases as you go up the capacity scale.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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