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"WORKING THE NET"

By Art Glick


You Can't Get There from Here - Part II

(Originally Published in April, 1997)

Many of my customers and clients have called me in the past few months, complaining that they are having difficulty connecting to the Internet. To better understand why such problems exist, you must first understand the process that allows your computer to connect to the Internet.

But before delving into the mechanism behind the process of connecting, I must first emphasize that this column applies only to those of you that have already been connecting to the network successfully. If you are having problems connecting for the first time with your system, it is more likely that the difficulty exists with your own system and not any part of the Internet.

First time users must assure that their modem's address, com port and interrupt are correct (or that their "plug and play" is working properly), and often a special (and unique) initialization string must be sent to the modem when you first start your communications application (or start dialing). If you can hear your modem dial the phone when you try to connect to the Internet, the first of these three (interrupt, com port and modem address) are indeed correct, but the third (initialization string) may still need adjustment, even with "plug and play" modems (we like to call it "plug and pray" in the industry).

In addition, if you are a Windows 95 user, the 32 bit setup for your modem borders on the arcane, involving such things as a TCP protocol, a network client and a "dial up adapter" (which is really just a fancy term for a modem), as well as IP addresses and terminal windows. If none of this means anything to you, and you have never been able to connect successfully to the Internet, then it's time to seek the aid of a savvy user or consultant.

So, this column is for those of you who have already successfully connected to the Internet numerous times with your system. In other words, this column is offered as an explanation for why there are problems connecting when they have nothing to do with your own setup.

Let's look at the process that takes place when you attempt to start an Internet session. Your modem dials your local service provider, and for many of you this is WVSOM. Once your modem connects in Lewisburg, it must connect to a server, often distant, possibly even out-of-state. For WVNET users, this server is up in Morgantown at WVU.

Even at this point, you are technically not "on the Internet", because that is the job of the server in Morgantown, and it is accomplished through an even larger service provider. Every time you access a page somewhere on the web, which can physically reside on a server literally anywhere in the world, the "packets" of information are sent through an often convoluted series of servers until they reach the server in Morgantown and, finally, your computer.

Traveling across just the U.S., a packet of computer data may pass through more than a dozen servers before it arrives at your server, and it is actually quite amazing that the process works at all. In fact, the server to server link is probably one of the more dependable parts of the whole system, although at times it can be awfully slow.

For those of you interested in knowing more about the route that your data travels, your communications utility (Trumpet for Windows 3.1 users) has many trace functions, and there is probably shareware and reference material on the Internet to help you decode this information.

If you've been able to previously connect to the Internet successfully and can rule out any other problems with your own system, your only option when you do experience connection problems may be diligence and persistence.

Let's consider some of the various problems that occur so we can lay the blame in the proper place. If you are using Trumpet for your communications application, you have an easy opportunity to observe the process of connecting to the net. Windows 95 makes it slightly more difficult to observe the process of making your connection, and hence, the subject of a separate column.

If you've read my previous columns, you should be starting an Internet session by opening Trumpet. The default Windows 3.1 WVNET installation allows you to click directly on the Netscape icon, and this browser program opens Trumpet (unseen in the background) for you. But this method of connecting does not permit you to see the process taking place.

Even if you have been conditioned to use this "automatic log on" procedure, you can still open Trumpet to begin your Internet session. In Trumpet, simply click on DIALLER, then LOGIN, and providing your system is working properly, you will see a series of modem commands. ATZ resets the modem, then there is a longer command displayed (usually one with ampersands), which is your modem's initialization string, then you'll see the modem's dial command (it begins with ATDT), at which point the modem will start dialing.

The sounds that two high speed modems make when connecting usually surprises most people when they hear them for the first time. Frequent users become accustomed to these almost "other worldly" sounds and can tell when their modem (or the one at the other end) is having problems, whether or not these problems are severe enough to prevent connecting.

If your modem successfully connects to your local service provider's modem, you usually see the word CONNECT displayed in your Trumpet window. At this point, the first part of the process of connecting has been successfully completed. Given the long distances and rugged nature of most of the local terrain, problems can often develop within the telephone connections between your modem and your local provider's modem, but you won't see a connect message if these problems are severe enough to keep you off the net.

Such telephone connection problems affect rural customers more often, but can also develop right in town. Pick up the telephone on your modem line, and if you can't make a clean voice connection, call your local phone company and ask them to check the line. Telephone line problems are usually accompanied by unusual sounds from your modem as it is trying to connect, but these sounds could also be due to defective equipment, that is, either your modem or the one at the other end.

At this point, I am impelled to mention Al Akers at WVSOM. He is the man in the background that local WVNET users depend upon for their first step in making a connection. Al (and his assistant Sherry Holliday) do a remarkable job maintaining our local "gateway" onto the net.

WVNET users in the area probably number close to a thousand at the writing of this column, and Al has always been quick to respond as user's needs increased. To be sure, there are certain times (after school, and even worse, after supper) when everybody is trying to log on, but our local WVNET gateway has never experienced the problems of many other service providers with constant busy signals, and WVSOM has always been quick to add hardware before the situation became unacceptable.

It's not easy to maintain dozens and dozens of separate dial up modems, especially if their problems are intermittent, so occasionally you might hit one that just rings and rings or has real difficulty "handshaking" with your modem. But sooner or later, Al will find the offending component and replace it. He really cares about making certain that WVNET users have the easiest time possible making their physical connection to the Internet. As a fellow WVNET user, I can say that we couldn't be in better hands.

Fortunately, because they have so many modems at WVSOM, a bad modem or two is generally not a problem, and you'll connect quite easily after one or two retries, which should usually be initiated automatically by your login script. It's after the modem is connected that most of my users seem to be having problems lately.

Once connected, the server must respond by passing your user name and password "prompts" to you. Your login script supplies the answers to these prompts automatically. The next step is for the server to supply you with an IP (Internet Protocol) address for the current session. This happens once your login script completes. The very last thing that you should see in your Trumpet window before you proceed to browse or check mail is "My IP = ", followed by the string of numbers that represents this address.

Lately, many users (including myself), have been experiencing problems at either of these two steps, and I suspect that it relates to the WVNET server at WVU being overburdened.

Let's face it, the Internet is growing at a steeply exponential rate, so things are bound to get worse before they get better. In the next two or three years, the Internet is expected to grow a thousand fold. Many insiders warn of an impending "crash" of the Internet, because the infrastructure is barely expected to keep up with demand, and I intend to cover this topic in a later column.

We can all do our part by being less piggish when it comes to our Internet time. Read and compose your e-mail offline. There is really no greater waste of "Internet" bandwidth than doing this online, and I took the trouble to write two columns to help Eudora users do their e-mail this way. If you missed those two columns, they have now found a home on the Web, and you can read more about this at the end of this column.

So, by now you are bound to be wondering about how you should handle difficulties with the WVNET server. First, don't blame Al at WVSOM. If he can't get you into the WVNET server, or the WVNET server can't get you onto the net, it's not Al's fault. Once you see the CONNECT message in Trumpet (or Windows 95 reports a connection), Al has done all he can do for you.

You can call WVNET in Morgantown (or whoever your main Internet Service Provider is) and complain, but if you plan to be a pest and do this often, keep in mind that this may likely have the effect of increasing the rates as much as it has the effect of motivating your provider to build up their infrastructure.

As I said previously, I prefer persistence and diligence. However, Windows 3.1 users should keep in mind the fact that once the local connection is accomplished, but the server fails to supply the prompts or IP address, the login script aborts, and you're stuck connected with nowhere to go. In order to reattempt to connect, you must click on DIALLER, then BYE. You must then wait for you modem to disconnect, then redial by clicking on DIALLER then LOGIN again.

Problems with server to server communications are indicated when certain sites make it to your screen quickly while others don't, and this is also a subject that I hope to cover in a future column (errant URL's were covered in a previous column).

One final note : the people at WVNET in Morgantown have been known to have problems from time to time with their billing. If there is a payment problem with your account, rather than give you a message when you try to log on, the system will stop after the user name and password prompts and fail to pass an IP address, making it look exactly as if there is a problem with the server.

WVNET has gotten better at sending e-mail messages to warn of the inactivation of an account, so pay attention to such a message if you receive one, even if you think that your bill should already be paid (especially by a credit card).

Now as promised, I have a URL for you, and this one happens to be my very own! Anybody can now have a Web site, making the Internet the greatest experiment in expression in the history of human civilization. Please feel free to visit my own personal "soapbox" at...

http://www.almostheaven.net/

On my site you will find tips for budding Webmasters, favorite sites and some of my own personal views about the Internet. You will also find previous columns I have written for this paper, but the placement of new columns will be intentionally delayed in deference to my good friend, the editor of this paper, so subscribe to the Daily News (if you don't already) to be able to read these columns as soon as they are written.

I must apologize here for the infrequent nature of these columns as a demanding schedule limits the time I have to pen them. But if enough people tell me that they really find them useful, it may serve to motivate me to crank them out more often.

I hope that your visit to my site will be both entertaining and educational. You can send me an e-mail with your thoughts right from a link there. However, when you go to visit my site, be patient if necessary. At certain times, the server is a little slow. The space was given to me for free by a good friend and fellow webmaster, and "beggars can't be choosers".


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