As a support professional, you know the benefits of being able to track down information using various newsgroups on the Internet. You can look for people asking the same questions you are and see what kind of answers they received. And, when you ask questions, chances are that you’ll receive a lot of answers. You’ve probably thought about the potential benefits of having an internal, help-desk-oriented newsgroup that you could use to disseminate information and answer questions from the users you support. Of course, if you’re running an Exchange Server, you could easily set up an internal help desk newsgroup via the Public Folders feature. But, what if you’re not running an Exchange Server or don’t want to use a public folder? Are you out of luck? No, SmartNewZ can help

Setting up and managing internal help desk newsgroups is possible using a program called SmartNewZ News Server from Oakley Data Services. This program allows you to set up a news server based on the standard NNTP protocol on any Windows system on your network. Once the internal help desk newsgroups are in place, anyone on the network can read and post messages to the newsgroups using a standard newsreader, such as the one built into Outlook Express.

Getting a copy of SmartNewZ
You can download the SmartNewZ News Server from the Oakley Data Services’ SmartNewZ download Web page. The installation program is available in a Zip file or you can download the executable installation file itself.

Either way, you’ll end up with a fully functional trial version that you can install and use for 30 days, after which the SmartNewZ demo will stop working. If you decide that you want to keep using SmartNewZ, you can purchase the program on the SmartNewZ site via WorldPay. A single copy will cost you about US$31 depending on the exchange rate. When you purchase SmartNewZ, you’ll receive a registration name and key pair from Oakley Data Services that you can then use to register the program via the Enter/View License Details command on the Help menu.

The SmartNewZ News Server program can be run on top of Windows 9x/Me/NT/2000/XP. As you can imagine, this makes it very easy to deploy.

A use for an old computer

Since the SmartNewZ News Server program will run on top of Windows 9x and doesn’t have any unusual hardware requirements, it’s the perfect use for one of those old computers you have sitting in the back room collecting dust.

Setting up the server system
Whether you choose to run the SmartNewZ News Server program on an existing server or on a dedicated server, it’s important to remember that the system running the software must have a static IP address. If it doesn’t, the newsreader software running on other computers on the network won’t be able to consistently find the news server.

If you decide to install and run SmartNewZ News Server program on a dedicated server, you might also want to give the system an appropriate host name. For instance, I assigned my example system a host name of GCS-HelpDesk. That way the users on the network can easily connect to the news server through their newsreader client software using a simple name rather than having to use a specific IP address.

Installing the program
Installing the SmartNewZ News Server program is a snap. Of course, if you downloaded the Zip file, just extract the single installation executable first. Next, double-click on the Smartnewz_setup.exe executable to begin the installation process. When you do, you’ll be prompted to confirm the installation, and you should just click Yes. You’ll then see SmartNewZ News Server Setup Wizard, which takes you through a series of steps that basically prompts you to confirm the installation directory and program menu name.

Run it as a service

If you choose to run the SmartNewZ News Server program on a Windows NT/2K/XP system, you can configure the program to run as a service. This will allow the program to immediately launch on boot-up and to run regardless of whether a user is logged on to the system. To do so, just choose the Install As NT Service command from the Tools menu.

Launching the news server for the first time
Once you have the SmartNewZ News Server program installed, just locate the shortcut on the Start menu and launch the program. The news server will launch in the background and appear as a minimized icon on the notification area of the taskbar. You’ll then see a dialog box alerting you that since this is the first time you’ve run the program, the launcher will attempt to start your local newsreader and access the sample newsgroup. In most cases, the default local newsreader will be Outlook Express, as shown in Figure A. Although I’ll use Outlook Express to illustrate how SmartNewZ works, you can use a local newsreader to access SmartNewZ newsgroups.

Figure A
When you run the SmartNewZ News Server program for the first time, it launches the default newsreader to give you an opportunity to investigate the Example newsgroup.

At this point, you can experiment with the Example newsgroup if you want. When you’re finished, just close Outlook Express. When you do so, Outlook Express will prompt you to subscribe to the Example newsgroup. Just click No.

Once you have the news server configured, you can access its newsgroups locally at anytime right from within the SmartNewZ News Server program. To do so, you’ll use the Start Local NewsReader command on the Tools menu or the button on the toolbar.

Deleting inappropriate posts

If someone posts a message to a newsgroup that is inappropriate or off topic, you can delete that message. To do so, the SmartNewZ News Server program requires that you know the Message-ID of the post, which you can track down by investigating the message’s properties in a newsreader. Once you have the Message-ID, just pull down the Tools menu and select the Delete Messages command.

Setting up help desk newsgroups
Setting up newsgroups with SmartNewZ News Server is a pretty straightforward procedure. Let’s take quick look around to give you an idea of the features that the program provides.

To begin, locate the SmartNewZ News Server shortcut on the Start menu and launch the program, if it’s not already running. Then, double-click the SmartNewZ Server icon in the notification area of the taskbar.

When you see the SmartNewZ News Server’s interface, as shown in Figure B, you’ll see three tabs titled Groups, Options, and Access Controls. By default, the Groups tab is selected.

Figure B
The SmartNewZ News Server’s interface contains three tabs that you use to create newsgroups and configure the news server.

The first thing you’ll want to do is delete the Example group. Since it’s the only group, it’s already selected so just click the Delete Group button. You’ll then see a confirmation dialog box and will need to click OK.

Now, you’re ready to create some newsgroups. Of course, you’ll want to begin with groups that pertain to areas in which the users you support commonly have questions about. For example, suppose that you have recently rolled out a new, companywide database that many users are finding difficult to use. Further suppose that you and you staff also field a lot of questions about e-mail and printing problems.

To begin, pull down the Groups menu and select the Add Group command or just click the New Group button on the toolbar. Either way, you’ll then see the New Group dialog box, shown in Figure C.

Figure C
You’ll use the New Group dialog box to add newsgroups to the news server.

At this point, type an appropriate name for the newsgroup in the Name text box. As you do, keep in mind that while SmartNewZ allows newsgroup names to contain as many as 128 characters, the name can’t contain spaces. However, you can use the underscore character or the conventional period to separate multiple word newsgroup names.

If you want to keep the size of the newsgroup under tight control, you can then set a limit on the size of the message as well as set an expiration time period after which the program will automatically delete messages. The default setting of 0, leaves the size of a message unlimited and allows messages to appear in the newsgroup indefinitely. To continue, click OK.

On the Options tab, you’ll find controls that allow you to specify which server port to use as well as provide an e-mail address for reporting problems with the news server, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
You’ll want to want set up an e-mail address for reporting problems with the news server.

In most situations, you should leave the Server Port Number set to the default value of 119, as that is the number that all newsreaders are set to use. However, you’ll want to specify your e-mail address in the Administrator E-Mail text box. This address will appear in any error message dialog box that may appear to a user, thus providing the user a way to report the problem.

On the Access Controls tab, you’ll see that you can access a configuration dialog box full of options that allow you to control user access to the newsgroups. For example, you can specify that users must have a user account and password to access the news server. You can also target specific newsgroups to specific users through a combination of user accounts and what the SmartNewZ News Server program refers to as Readgroup and Postgroup masks. These masks allow you to limit users to only reading certain newsgroups or only posting to certain newsgroups. By default, all newsgroups are not password-protected and open to everyone for both reading and posting.

Access Controls not really necessary

When setting up a help desk news server, I’ve found that the settings on the Access Controls tab are really unnecessary, so I won’t go into any detail on these settings. However, if you want to learn more about the Access Controls settings, the Help system provides an excellent description.

Configuring a newsreader
Once you have the news server set up, you’ll need to configure the newsreader to access it. Since Outlook Express is the most common newsreader, I’ll use it as an example.

To begin, launch Outlook Express. Then, pull down the Tools menu and click Accounts. When you see the Internet Accounts dialog box, click Add button, and then select News from submenu. Doing so will launch the Internet Connection Wizard. The first two pages will prompt for a name and an e-mail address. On the third page, you’ll be prompted to type in the name of the news server. You can type in the host name of the system running the SmartNewZ News Server program, as shown in Figure E, or you can type in the IP address assigned to that system.

Figure E
You can use either the host name of the system or its IP address to connect to the SmartNewZ News Server.

Once you complete the Internet Connection Wizard, close the Internet Accounts dialog box and you’ll be prompted to download newsgroups from the news server. To continue, click Yes and then use the controls in the Newsgroup Subscriptions dialog box to subscribe to all the newsgroups, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F
You’ll use the Newsgroup Subscriptions dialog box to subscribe to the newsgroups on your help desk news server.

Once you’ve configured Outlook Express, you can immediately begin to investigate your internal help desk newsgroups, as shown in Figure G, just as you would any newsgroups on the Internet.

Figure G
Using Outlook Express to access internal help desk newsgroups is easy.

Creating an Outlook Express Newsreader shortcut

If you want to make it real easy to use Outlook Express as your newsreader, you can create a custom shortcut that instantly launches Outlook Express in a special Newsreader mode. To do so, right click on desktop and select New | Shortcut from the context menu. When the Create Shortcut wizard appears, type the command line:

“C:\Program Files\Outlook Express\msimn.exe” /outnews

Then, name the shortcut Outlook Newsreader.

It really can save time and money
The neat thing about setting up internal help desk newsgroups is that they really encourage peer-to-peer support. Once the newsgroups are up and running, chances are good that you’ll see the more knowledgeable users answering questions from their coworkers. The nice thing about this kind of peer support is that sometimes the folks in the trenches, so to speak, can offer a different perspective on the problem and solution. You and your help desk staff can always fill in the gaps as you see fit.

The overall benefit is a reduction in the volume of calls concerning elementary or previously answered questions coming into the help desk. This can free your staff to focus on more important areas of concern.

However, keep in mind that it’s very important that you and your staff regularly keep an eye on the peer-to-peer support discussions. You don’t want discussions to lead off on wild goose chases or to disseminate inaccurate information. As you can imagine, that could lead to an increase in the volume of calls.