Online software can help take the place of shoddy documentation

John McCormick

Books about software aren't as exciting as software itself, but they're almost as expensive. I remember the days when most computer books that crossed my desk were just rewrites, often poor ones, of program documentation. It was obvious that some of them were marketed merely to document illegally copied programs.

That's no longer the case. But the move away from basic software tutorial books is due only in small part to improved documentation. Most of the docs I get with new programs are no better than they were a decade ago.

The real reason for the decline in the number of new computer books is the free help available on the Web, from user groups, and from high school and college courses. More and more new employees are computer-literate.

Now all we need to do is change the way the books are delivered.

By this time next year, a lot of books will appear in electronic form. I'm surprised it's taken so long. A well-bound book is pleasant to read, but the convenience of having 20 or 30 volumes in a pocket-sized package, not to mention search capability and fast updates, must eventually force most publishers to move in the e-book direction.

Online subscription

I also look forward to online subscription libraries as a practical alternative for publishers as well as users. Technical books cost $50 and up, and most power users need a full shelf that must be updated every year or so. It's time for publishers to put these volumes online for a monthly subscription fee. The fee should include unlimited access.

That way, agencies could budget a fixed cost for all technical books and automatically see new editions as they are published.

A support staff could buy one or two hard copies of the most-used books and keep subscriptions to less-used reference databases. The arrangement would be perfect for system managers. It's too late for them to order a book when something goes wrong, but buying in advance risks paying for information that might be outdated by the time it's needed.

What's most useful among the new tech books?

• The $70 MCSE Windows 2000 Accelerated Exam Training Guide by John Alumbaugh, from New Riders/MTP of Indianapolis, at www.newriders.com, is not only useful for studying for a certification exam, but equally handy as a quick reference to common problems.

• Whether you're developing multimedia or just trying to push more data through a congested pipe, data compression is a good thing to understand. Start with the $75 second edition of Introduction to Data Compression by Khalid Sayood, from Morgan Kaufmann Publishers Inc. of San Francisco, at www.mkp.com. This textbook isn't JPEG for dummies. The heavy math may not be for you, but much of the book is accessible. It makes clear the reasons for selecting various compression algorithms.

• If you're migrating to Windows 2000, get a $45 copy of Windows 2000 Active Directory Design and Deployment by Gary Olsen from New Riders. It has a list of premigration tests, a sample return on investment analysis and other useful statistics for persuading management to migrate. Much of the information could be helpful in planning and implementing an enterprise migration plan.

• The $50 Wide Area High Speed Networks by Sidnie Feit from the Macmillan Technical Publishing imprint of New Riders shows how asynchronous transfer mode, Synchronous Optical Network, frame relay and Integrated Services Digital Network operate in the real world. This is not a textbook. It explains each protocol with detailed technical descriptions as well as comments about installation and operation useful to anyone who supervises such networks.

• All sysadmins should have a copy of the $45 Network Intrusion Detection, An Analyst's Handbook, second edition, by Stephen Northcutt and Judy Novak, New Riders. This excellent book is up-to-date about the Internet distributed denial-of-service attacks earlier this year, and it tells how to distinguish false alarms from real intrusions. Northcutt was the original leader of the Defense Department's Shadow intrusion detection team.

• I might be preaching to the choir, but the quarterly Microsoft Developers Network Library DVD often has useful reference material. Although much of that material can be found on the Web for free, an initial subscription comes with the developer software. It's an indication that you'll eventually need a DVD drive in your PC if you use Microsoft Corp. products.

John McCormick is a free-lance writer. E-mail him at [email protected].


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