Finding technical info on the Web

As you may recall from last month's Crosstalk column, there's plenty of news on the Internet, but locating the specific news that you need is not that simple. The same applies to locating technical and business information, which I will discuss this month

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As you may recall from last month's Crosstalk column, there's plenty of news on the Internet, but locating the specific news that you need is not that simple. The same applies to locating technical and business information, which I will discuss this month. I distinguish this kind of information from current news by defining it as anything you need to find out that isn't likely to appear in a press release.

The logical place to turn for this kind of information is a search engine, so a good first step would be to locate one or more effective search engines. Yahoo! lists about a dozen of the more popular search engines, followed by about 150 others, so there are plenty to choose from.

I tested the dozen most popular on a single cabling-industry term, "MT-RJ," and found the results to be not very useful. The number of hits ranged from nine to more than 380,000, with about one-third of the engines listing the most likely hits but not specifying a total number of follow-up hits-perhaps on the theory that if the engine told me how many hits I was going to have to wade through, I'd give up on the spot and try another, more reasonable search method.

Refined, specific searches

The hits are listed in ranked order, with the search engine sometimes giving the probability that the match will be of interest to you. As the probability decreases, you may move from hits describing small-form-factor fiber-optic connectors to comic book serial numbers. Some of the search engines suggest search refinements to help you try to narrow the field, such as "MT-RJ connector" or "MT-RJ transceiver." (If you'd like to try the same experiment, the Internet addresses of the search engines I tried are listed at the end of this article.)

If search engines are a hit-or-miss proposition, so to speak, what about more focused cabling-industry resources? I break the field down into the following categories:

  • Cabling on the Web-Informational sites covering the cabling industry, including Web-zines and other non-print-related Web sites.
  • Companies-Web sites of manufacturers and distributors to which I return frequently.
  • Magazines-Web sites of the major telecommunications, data-communications, and cabling magazines that I find useful.
  • Newswatch-Computing and communications information nets that I monitor.
  • Organizations-Web sites of professional associations, non-profit organizations, government agencies, industry alliances, and other enterprises that are not strictly definable as for-profit operations.

Non-print-related Web sites, such as Wiring.com (www.wiring.com) and the VerticalNet (www.verticalnet.com) community of cabling and fiber-optic Web sites, have made a run at print-related sites over the last few years. In my view, they have failed to achieve their goals, mainly because they have been understaffed and have been manned with people unfamiliar with the industries involved.

They can, however, be used to supplement the information found on more comprehensive Web sites. Just be careful when using these sites that they have not fallen victim to the dotcom shakeout. If a Web site is no longer being updated regularly, or if promised plans for expansion are not occurring on schedule, the Web site may not be maintained, or it may be maintained at a minimal level only.

Because business-to-business publications have been able to support adequate editorial staffs, and because of the extensive backlog of reportage and analysis that can be archived on their Web sites, these enterprises remain the major informational sources serving the cabling industry. There are two in the U.S.-Cabling Installation & Maintenance (www.cable-install.com) and Cabling Business (www.cablingbusiness.com)-with two more originating in Canada-Cabling Systems (www.cablingsystems.com) and Structured Cabling (www.cablemag.com).

The best of these have taken a page from the dotcoms' book, and are updating their Web sites at least weekly with news stories and other topical information, as well as providing the ongoing monthly coverage that brought them success in the first place.

Some of the larger-circulation networking and communications publishers have also started technical news networks that are worth keeping an eye on. Among the ones I check daily are: CMPnet News, CNET News and ZDnet News.

These news networks, along with some print and non-print publications, sometimes offer weekly and even daily e-mail newsletters. You can rapidly lengthen your daily e-mail review with these newsletters, however, and I have often found their content to be so thin that they are not worth reading.

The best place to get specific product and company information is, undoubtedly, the Web site of the manufacturer making the product, or perhaps a distributor who carries it. This only works, however, if you know the product and manufacturer you are looking for. A search engine may help locate a company Web site if you know the product's name, but my experience has been that this can be a scatter-shot and time-consuming approach. The Web site of a large voice-data distributor, such as Graybar (www.graybar.com) or Anixter (www.anixter.com), is more likely to point you in the right direction.

Whether searching by manufacturer or distributor, the task may seem daunting. For instance, I maintain a database of about 125 manufacturer Web site addresses and about 15 major distributor Web sites. I don't consider this database in any way comprehensive for the cabling industry, but it is still far too extensive to check on a daily or even a weekly basis.

A better solution would be a buying guide in which product lines and characteristics are given, vendor by vendor. To my knowledge, there are no such buying guides on the Internet. Some Web sites advertise buying guides, but these are directories of manufacturers who make specific kinds of products and not listings of the products with their characteristics. Be careful in using such directories because they are rarely comprehensive. Your best source of comprehensive product information is probably still the buying guides of print business-to-business trade journals.

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You can also expect vendor sites to show some bias. For instance, if you find a white paper on a vendor site explaining Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) technology, you can bet that the company manufactures a product line in that area. A better choice for unbiased technical, technology, and standards information is the Web site of non-commercial enterprises, such as professional associations, standards bodies, government agencies, and testing labs.

The problem here, as is the case with vendors, is the large number of such organizations. I have a list of organizational Web addresses that runs to more than 250 entries. Also, although you can find good background information on technologies and standards on these sites, they infrequently cover the specific companies or compare the products that you are interested in.

If there is a lesson here, it is that there is no shortcut for doing your homework. Although the Internet may seem like a black hole, sucking up working time that would be better devoted to billable tasks, you will have to spend at least some time identifying the search engines, vendor and organizational Web sites, periodicals and dotcoms that work best for you.

And finally, as a sort of postscript, if there were a single Web site I would recommend you look at (other than ours), it would be the following academic site, called Telecom Resources on the Web, at: http://china.si.umich.edu/telecom/telecom-info.html.

Arlyn S. Powell, Jr.
Associate Publisher/Editor-at-Large
arlynp@pennwell.com

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