This is the first in a three-part series on how the blogging phenomenon has affected IT professionals.
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Blogs have emerged as a powerful medium to spread ideas about everything from politics to religion to entertainment. The problem is, with so many people blogging, there's a lot of white noise out there. But with some Web detective work, recommendations from peers -- and a little luck -- IT professionals can create a list of reliable blogs they can turn to with their toughest technical questions.
Entire blogs are devoted to individual technologies, such as Microsoft's Exchange Server 2003 or SQL Server 2005. And there are blogs dedicated to the latest software
On the plus side, blogs offer administrators a chance to hear how to use a variety of technologies and products from known experts -- and sometimes from product developers themselves.
"Systems administrators are notorious for doing research, so if something is breaking locally, they'll go online to learn how to fix it," said Betsy Aoki, Microsoft community program manager in charge of the blogs.msdn.com site. "It's one more repository of data in which they might find their answer."
Plenty of hidden gems for IT
Many of Microsoft's blogs are on individual technologies. For example, the Exchange Server development team has its own blog to give updates and information on that platform.
"As a reader of blogs, frankly I find them very useful to find information that has been very difficult to find buried in the depths of a Web site," said Neil Hobson, a U.K.-based consultant and Microsoft Exchange most valuable professional (MVP).
For others, however, turning to blogs is a last resort.
"I'll occasionally use blogs when I'm trying to solve a specific problem -- for example, after Googling for a particular Windows error message, but that's about it," said Tina Bird, security architect for InfoExpress Inc., in Mountain View, Calif. "When I'm researching a new exploit or vulnerability, I almost always stick to vendor sites and known research organizations."
When no personality is a good thing
Some find the fusion of technical information and a blogger's personality to be a deterrent.
"I know they are supposed to be the latest and greatest thing, but I am not impressed," said Andy Goodman, a Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) MVP.
"I use Google and Ask Jeeves a lot, and I wish there was a way to say, 'Bring me all the results except blogs,'" Goodman said. "There is also way too much personal information and comments interspersed with the facts, some of which are dubious, as the authors are often anonymous. … Of course, there are good and bad blogs just like everything else. But if I can find the info I need somewhere else, I will do that first."
Tips for finding good IT blogs
For those who do look to blogs for information, Microsoft MVP Susan Bradley offers some advice.
"Blogs, in my view, are more of a 'news flash' resource," she said. "I put 'today's news in SBS world' view in my blog. I will admit to putting in a few personal items, but not all blogs are fluff and, conversely, not all blogs are good blogs."
Bradley recommends finding authors that you want to follow and keeping track of what they publish. "Like in Usenet, you have to find the author you want to follow. Not all are good and some can be ignored," she said. "Blogs are best either in an RSS feed -- or if you happen across a blog Web site with a search box, that helps quite a bit."
A direct pipeline to Microsoft product developers
Another plus for blogs is that reader comments sometimes make it directly to the people who work on products they use, including Microsoft's software.
Lenn Pryor, a Microsoft technical evangelist and, until recently, in charge of the company's developer-focused Channel 9 blog, said that while company blogs are an excellent resource for administrators looking for how-to and technical information, they also allow users an opportunity to give targeted feedback.
"The customer has a chance to influence the thinking, so if you think that Microsoft is going down a good or a bad path with regards to IT pro technologies, you can tell that guy right there," said Pryor, who recently announced his departure from Microsoft after nearly eight years. "It allows IT pro audiences the opportunity to get in on the inside and change our opinions."