You get what you pay for—usually. Fortunately, this rule has a few exceptions, and free SQL Server online support is one of them. You probably won't find a vendor that will provide free answers to your technical questions, but you can find many sources of peer support that are surprisingly helpful. The trick is knowing where to look.

The following reader question is typical of many I receive: "I've been trying to solve a SQL Server issue for 5 days. I'm trying to restore a copy of the production database and master file onto a test server but have had no success. I can't get the funding approved to call Microsoft Product Support Services (PSS), so I'm exploring all avenues. Is there a chat room (or something similar) where I could ask a SQL Server question and get a fairly quick response? And does this chat room have any activity over the weekend? I might need to continue to work over the weekend because this restore is supposed to be done by Monday."

I've worked with SQL Server for many years, so I'm familiar with the best places to look when you need answers from peer-support groups. However, many new SQL Server professionals might not be aware of these resources. Here are a couple of my favorites:

  1. SQL Server Magazine's online forums—No discussion of online support would be complete without a mention of the Web forums that SQL Server Magazine hosts. But if you're reading this SQL Server Magazine UPDATE, you're probably already familiar with this excellent resource.
  2. Microsoft newsgroups—This resource is one of my personal favorites; it offers discussion forums for about 20 distinct SQL Server areas. This resource isn't a Web site; you must use a Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) newsreader such as Outlook Express to access the information.

Keep these rules in mind when you use online resources:

  1. Make sure your questions are short and to the point. These groups get a lot of traffic, and questions that rival the length of "War and Peace" tend to get ignored.
  2. Try to research the problem on your own before you post. However, no question is too simple if you've genuinely made an effort to solve it yourself.
  3. Post a repeatable test case whenever possible. People can answer your question faster and more easily if they can recreate the problem. Whenever possible, post the Data Definition Language (DDL) and Data Manipulation Language (DML) statements to create and populate a test data set.
  4. Yes, you can get free answers. But don't expect massive architectural-design advice. Online resources are well suited for questions that have reasonably short and well-defined answers, but they won't supply blueprints for designing your system.
  5. Escalate mission-critical problems that require immediate help to Microsoft PSS or your primary support vendor.

You probably learned the most important rules a long time ago: Be nice, and say thank you. People don't get paid to answer questions on these forums. They post replies because they enjoy helping other people learn the technology. Many forum regulars are leading industry experts, and you'd normally pay thousands of dollars for their advice. So say thanks when someone gives you a hand.