The MSDN Time Machine

It's hard enough finding solutions to current technical problems on the web - even with to help; but how do you go about solving problems with legacy software or legacy applications? Knowledge base entries and articles relating to past versions of MFC, SQL server and VB6 are tough to isolate (except, of course, when you're looking for results relating to a new technology at which point all that older content magically jumps to the top of the search results).

Unfortunately, this is a problem with no easy solution. The major search engines are search engines - not historical references. Google, for example, allows you to exclude older results (pages not updated within a period of 3 months, 6 months or a year), but if you want pages from several years back, you're out of luck.

The Internet Archives ( is nice, but its search capability is slow and limited, and is really designed to search URLs - not the content of the pages (though hopefully that will evolve at some point). Worse, sites with dynamic content (such as MSDN) are useless as static archives - the essential functionality of the pages is missing.

Fortunately, most developers have a potential resource that can help considerably with this issue. It all depends on how much of a packrat you are.

I Wanna Go Back In Time

I've had an MSDN library subscription for... well, ever since they existed. And for all those years, MSDN has been shipping me every quarter or so the MSDN library - complete with technical specifications and knowledge base for the latest in Microsoft developer tools.

And being a packrat, I didn't throw them out. No, I don't have warehouses of every CD/DVD they ever sent - I tossed duplicates, minor releases, betas & release candidates, and many of the non English CDs. But I do have most, if not all, of the library CDs. I expect that many organizations have similar archives.

What makes these archives practical now is, of course, virtualization technology. Pick a year, install an older OS on a new Virtual PC image, and install the MSDN library. Within a relatively short time (you'll be surprised how quickly those old OS's install on today's hardware, even in a VPC), you'll have snapshot in time. A single 500GB drive can easily hold enough images to provide quarterly snapshots of the library - enough to drill down to almost any language or product version you are likely to need to support.

About | Privacy Policy | Contact Us | Copyright ©2010 (c) by Dan appleman