Making the most of Microsoft Support

J. Peter Bruzzese calls Microsoft Support for the first time in 15 years and is impressed. Here's how you can get the most out of this resource

Have you ever done something on your server that you immediately regretted? Something simple like bouncing the server during the middle of the day because you forgot about the users connected to it? Well, that’s nothing compared to what I went through.

I recently wrote about a nonprofit that I assisted to implement a data protection solution. Given the nonprofit’s infrastructure, which included multiple virtual machines on Hyper-V as well as Active Directory and SharePoint, I wanted to go with SC DPM (System Center Data Protection Manager). Unfortunately, the host server wasn't set up properly, and I had the pleasure of spending a long time reconfiguring the host and child virtual machines, after which I installed SC DPM, which took all day to complete. I encountered one error after another, each of which revolved primarily around a SQL installation that didn't go very well. Once I worked through these snafus, SC DPM installed and configured itself.

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Confession: I don't have a lot of experience with SC DPM. As luck would have it, just by clicking around, I quickly fell into peril. I set up a custom protection group, chose my data drive and my external USB backup drive, and started playing with the software. Big mistake -- without realizing how powerful DPM can be, I removed the protection group and literally watched as both my data drive and external drive vanished. Looking under Disk Management in the Computer Management portion of the console, both drives showed up as unallocated. No volumes, no partitions, nothing. No data. No backup. I was ready to cry.

Microsoft Support: A first time for everything

I took the server home to rebuild it. I was convinced the data was irrecoverable but tried Test Disk, a free disk recovery tool. Test Disk found the data on my external drive, so at least I could recover from a two-week-old backup. The tool couldn't do anything for me on the server's data drive. I decided to do something I had never done before: contact Microsoft.

I admit to being a bit shocked by the response, which was immediate and helpful. It started with several persons working to organize my support. Emily Ohlsen handled all the connections and got me through to Jason Buffington, Senior Technical Product Manager for SC DPM -- in other words, the perfect guy to speak with. He was at a conference (and was busy with multiple sessions he was charged with presenting) but still called me at 6 a.m. to see whether he could help. That was impressive. They made sure I was routed to the right people under Microsoft CTS (Commercial Tech Support), and I was on the line with Michael Jacquet and Thomas O'Malley, both from Texas. Within an hour, Jacquet and O'Malley saw where the backup sector was to restore my tables and restored it on the disk. They used a scary tool called Disk Probe that I promptly deleted off my system when they were done. All of my data was just as it was before.

You may contend that it is only because I'm a journalist that I got that kind of support. I, however, don't think that is accurate. Microsoft Support is certainly tiered with varying price points, but all of them lead back to the same core of professionals (6,000-plus worldwide) within CTS. This one experience made me think about the value in Microsoft Support. The one time I needed them, they impressed me that much.

Microsoft Support: How much hand-holding do you need?

For those who anticipate heavy hand-holding, Microsoft Services Premier Support offers the highest level of proactive support, account management, and problem resolution services. There are four offerings to choose from depending on your IT environment (Foundation, Standard, Plus, and Ultimate). Yes, the cost for this level of support could be in the thousands or tens of thousands, but it is for larger enterprise customers who need help with setup and migration issues that go well beyond fix-my-problem support.

Professional Support Options include many self-help support options that Microsoft expects to expand in the future. Microsoft Support aspires to be "out of the phone support business" by pursuing improved proactive monitoring and providing more Fix It-type options, better diagnostic solutions, and more self-help through Solution Centers, Community Resources, and the like. In addition, there are Problem Resolution Services that offer a pay-per-incident option. A single incident rate is $259 during business hours and $515 after hours. Note: Email-only support is $99, and you can buy a five-pack of phone incidents for $1,289.

Let me just say, if someone had told me at the moment I was ready to burst into tears (in a very masculine way, mind you) that I could pay $259 and the problem would vanish within an hour, I would have paid without blinking.

Some of your programs may offer support calls within the package. Do you have TechNet, MSDN, or Software Assurance? These typically have assisted support incidents. Are you in any of the Partner programs? Sometimes they allow you a free call or two as part of the program. It pays to know what you have because you never know when you might need it.

Microsoft Support: More tools makes for better support

Among the tools Microsoft Support used to help me was Easy Assist, a remote-control app that is easy to install and allowed Microsoft Support to control my screen, push apps my way, and make adjustments. Microsoft Support has a load of other tools to help gather and analyze data. More and more, they are finding ways to put these tools online to help administrators help themselves. Consider the Exchange Team's release of the Exchange Remote Connectivity Analyzer, a free tool that can be used to determine and troubleshoot connectivity.

Another tool that is helping Microsoft Support be more proactive is Customer Experience, a program that is part of the installation wizard of Microsoft servers and applications. If something bad happens, the tool gathers a greater level of context relating to the event, which can then be helpful in finding ways to avoid those events in the future.

The purpose of the support team is to "earn customer loyalty and improve product quality." I can say they certainly accomplished the first part with me. Prior to the support call I was calling down evil on SC DPM and ruing the day I ever laid eyes on it. After the support call I'm ready to begin working with it, and even to install the 2010 new release.

Have you ever had to call Microsoft for support? If so, what is your "in the trenches" horror story that your they (hopefully) helped you work through?

This article, "Making the most of Microsoft Support," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com.

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