Direct Connections To The MSNEWS Server
This page describes why it is advisable to connect directly to the MSNEWS servers when you read and post to the Excel newsgroups. This page was written by Len Meads, and appears here with his generous permission. This article is © Copyright 1999, Leonard E. Meads.
Using The Microsoft Public Server To Access
Microsoft Public Newsgroups
Copyright © 1999, Leonard E. Meads
All rights reserved.
A user with a question about Microsoft ("MS") products can often find help in the Microsoft public newsgroups ("NGs"). To increase the chances of getting a speedy, accurate answer to a question in the MS public NGs, I always recommend connecting directly to the MS public server rather than via a Usenet server.
Before explaining why this is desirable, let's first (a) define "MS public server" and "Usenet server" for use here, (b) get some background on the MS public newsgroups, and (c) briefly discuss news message propagation.
MS Public Server and Usenet Server
"MS public server" refers to the free news server provided by MS Online Support to host the MS public NGs, and that is commonly known by the alias msnews.microsoft.com. This server is actually a "farm" consisting (in late July 1999) of 4 computers whose IP addresses are 126.96.36.199, 188.8.131.52, 184.108.40.206, and 220.127.116.11. The MS public server is a specialized, "corporate vanity" server that is not part of Usenet.
"Usenet server" refers to any news server or service, other than the MS public server, that provides access to Usenet NGs and the MS public NGs. As used here, it includes web-based news services such as Deja.com.
MS Public Newsgroups
The MS public NGs provide peer-to-peer support for MS products. MS Online Support creates these NGs, but does not give technical support in them. Responders are users who voluntarily reply to help others.
These NGs use the hierarchy name microsoft.public.*. They are proprietary, "corporate vanity" NGs, and not part of Usenet. In late July 1999, about 1000 official MS public NGs existed. There were 21 dedicated to Excel, including 6 non-English language groups.
From time to time, MS opens new NGs and closes old ones by adding or removing them, respectively, from the MS public server. When an old NG is closed, it might be replaced, sometimes by one or more new NGs. Closed NGs often remain in Usenet as orphans, i.e. they appear on Usenet servers but not on the MS public server. This occurs because most ISPs pay little attention to their news service and fail to remove an NG when MS closes it. ISPs are also often lax in picking up any replacement NG that MS creates for a closed NG.
Propagation of News Messages
In theory, a news message posted to an NG via a local news server is distributed through a series of exchanges with remote servers until the message appears concurrently in the NG on all servers. In practice, message propagation is imperfect, so a message may be delayed or lost. These potential propagation problems also apply to any reply trying to get back to the originating server.
Propagation problems can be magnified or reduced depending on the quality of the server. Many ISPs devote few resources to their news service, which increases problems. Commercial news servers that specialize in providing news tend to have far fewer difficulties.
The propagation of news in the MS public NGs is further complicated because the MS public server is not part of Usenet. Historically, MS has had bi-directional news feed relationships with only certain ISPs. Other Usenet servers that carry the MS NGs "slurp" messages from the MS server in order to circumvent MS's refusal to exchange messages. This can produce uneven results in the slurped NGs. A significant problem is that a message posted to a slurped NG may not propagate well to the MS server because there is no formal mechanism to handle it.
Advantages of Using the MS Public Server
Using the MS public server gets messages to more people most likely to respond with a helpful answer, with minimal propagation problems, and ensures that all current official MS public NGs are available.
It is important for a query to reach the MS server because most of the more knowledgeable and prolific responders in the MS NGs connect to it. Directly using the MS server avoids the propagation risks inherent in using a Usenet server to transmit a message to the MS server and to receive a reply from it. Thus, using the MS server maximizes the chances of quickly getting a good answer.
Propagation delay and loss from Usenet to the MS server can be severe. For example, during part of April 1999, almost all Usenet-originated messages in the microsoft.public.excel.misc NG either never appeared on the MS server, or did so in clumps once every few days and only after a 4-8 day delay. There have been other prior significant episodes as well. Whatever the causes were for these disruptions, the effect on Usenet posters was the same -- their messages to the MS server were slowed or lost.
An unsuspecting poster on a Usenet server would not even know his message failed to appear on the MS server unless he connected to it. Using the MS server in the first place eliminates this uncertainty.
Another benefit of using the MS server is that it carries all the current official MS public NGs. I doubt any ISP does this, though the commercial news servers may. Thus, a poster might not have access to a desirable NG, or even know of its existence, using a Usenet server.
Of particular concern is how Usenet servers handle NGs closed by MS. A Usenet server might (a) carry a closed NG that has no replacement, (b) carry a closed NG but not its replacement, (c) carry a closed NG and its replacement. These cases can cause confusion for Usenet posters and a reduced level of support.
For example, as of late July 1999, microsoft.public.excel.worksheetfunctions was still on various Usenet servers although MS closed it on December 17, 1998. Most regulars in the old NG abandoned it soon after its closing, and migrated to its replacement microsoft.public.excel.worksheet.functions. As a result, in my opinion, the overall level of help in the old NG is inferior to that in the new NG. Unfortunately, most users still in the old NG seem unaware of the switch. As more ISPs eventually remove the closed NG over time, the audience for the remaining users' questions will continue to shrink along with the chances of getting help.
Disadvantages of Using the MS Public Server
A drawback in everyone using the MS server is that if it crashes it takes everyone with it. Also, the individual computers in the farm can get out of synch. This will cause erratic results, viz. messages may appear and disappear in an NG during different sessions.
Pending a fix, these problems can be worked around. For example, in the event of a crash, people can fall back to a Usenet server. Synchronization problems can be handled by everyone connecting to the good computers in the farm using an IP address instead of the alias.
In my opinion, these relatively infrequent and workable problems are outweighed by the advantages of the routine use of the MS server.
Special Considerations for AOL and Deja.com Users
The MS server uses the Network News Transfer Protocol ("NNTP"), which is the standard in Usenet. Therefore, an NNTP newsreader (e.g. Outlook Express, [Free] Agent, Netscape) is required to connect to it. This complicates things for users of AOL and Deja.com.
AOL uses a proprietary news protocol, so an AOL member cannot connect directly to the MS server using AOL's proprietary newsreader. However, an AOL member should be able to use an NNTP newsreader after establishing an Internet connection via AOL Link.
Deja.com is a Usenet archiver that provides access to Usenet via either (a) its website for free, or (b) an NNTP news server for a fee. Those who use the website do so with a standard web browser, which uses the Hypertext Transfer Protocol ("HTTP"). Since this method does not employ an NNTP news server on the user's end, message management for users is poor in comparison. Also, messages are likely to see increased delays in both directions because they are, I believe, still subject to Deja.com's archiving schedule. Deja.com website users must also get an NNTP newsreader to connect to the MS server since an HTTP web browser cannot do so. (An HTTP browser may have an integrated or associated NNTP reader that can be used.)
I strongly recommend connecting directly to the MS public server whenever using the MS public NGs because doing so gets messages to where the regulars are, with the minimum of message delay and loss, and provides access to all current official MS public NGs. AOL and Deja.com users will need to use an NNTP newsreader to connect.