Ditch Legacy Ports for USB

by Bob Seidel

* On the continuing saga of the new Time Warner cable box software, I had a chat with one of the local service people the other day about it. I listed a number of the problems or issues that I had, and he did recognize some of them and say that they were known problems and that TW was working on fixing them. Sounds good, so far - let's see how long it takes to get them fixed.

* A client called with a problem on Friday: Their network security system was run by a PC that interfaced to a custom box provided by the security system company. They had a failure in the connection and the company said it was a PC problem as they tested their box with their own notebook PC and it was OK.

The problem was that the box used the old style serial port to interface to the PC. Since almost all the serial ports use circuitry directly on the motherboard that indicated that they had experienced a motherboard failure. The first question to be asked was whether the failure was in fact limited to the serial port circuitry or perhaps was more extensive. The PC seemed to be running OK, but at this point there was some doubt in my mind. A power supply failure could possibly also have caused the serial port problem, but that is of a lower probability.

So now, what to do? You can still get serial port plug-in cards from the various Internet parts suppliers, but there are some issues with doing that. Primary among them is the fact that those cards might not present an identical hardware interface to the system - i.e. the port addresses and interrupt level (IRQ) might be different. I have run across this issue before in the past. The problem is that there is a lot of older software out there that is programmed to write directly to the serial port hardware, rather than use the Windows serial port support. Older software may then not recognize the new hardware.

But the real issue is the fact that the security software used a serial port at all. The change to using USB for most external devices is just about complete, to the extent that I have not seen a PC with a serial port in a long time. Although you can still get PCs with the other legacy port (a printer parallel port), serial ports have all but disappeared. So the choice of buying a new PC was not open to my client as it would not have the needed serial port.

Which brings us to the root problem: The security hardware needs to be upgraded to a USB based system. I asked my client to check back with his security company to explore that upgrade; even if more expensive than a serial port card (and my time to install the card and work with any software problems), it is the much better long range solution. With a USB based system, they could use any PC in an emergency, whereas even if I put a serial port card in the old PC they still would not be able to attach it to a different PC easily.

But the moral of the story here is that you can't get stuck in the past. Many times I have seen individual users or companies use older hardware or software that they literally depend on day to day. If you don't keep up on hardware updates or software changes, an emergency may be much harder to recover from. This is especially true of Microsoft Vista. There is still a lot of older software that doesn't work with Vista; I would suspect specialized software such as the software for this security system to be especially vulnerable as they don't update that type of software frequently.

So keep your eyes open to change and make sure you are ready if you have a hardware failure.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport - Oak Island area. You can visit his Website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at bsc@bobseidel.com. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.)