Getting the most from your host

Shopping for an ISP is like buying car. The best models are probably out of your range, but the next level down puts you in...

Shopping for an ISP is like buying car. The best models are probably out of your range, but the next level down puts you in danger of making an even more expensive mistake. Beware the dodgy dealers selling secondhand bandwidth, writes Nick Booth

With so many companies rushing to get their businesses online you could be forgiven for thinking that Internet service has finally come of age. It hasn't.

The service available from Internet service providers is as inconsistent and unregulated as the early days of the mobile phone industry. Companies are getting away with practices that the regulators have yet to devise policies on. Meanwhile, even the most vigilant ISP customers are failing to draw up service contracts that will cover their needs because they aren't really too sure what they need in the first place.

Even the very few businesses that host their own Web services aren't immune to the problems of monitoring performance levels. An e-business system typically involves the bolting together of a traditional computing platform, that carries out the processing of orders on the back end, with a Web front. Since there are so many different components that comprise the whole Web commerce network, with no obvious delineation between the systems and no consistent flow of information, it's difficult to quantify performance levels. How often do end users complain that their IT system is running slow, only to be told that its performance looks fine to the IT department. With the Internet, definitions of performance are even more nebulous.

Very few organisations have the resources, or the inclination, to host their own Web services. It's incredibly difficult to predict the amount of traffic your business will generate, which means companies risk buying up huge amounts of bandwidth, server capacity and processing power and not needing it. Or worse, being under-prepared and finding their systems grinding to halt. in the UK, and the Victoria's Secret Web store in the US have both ground to a halt during the last year after ad campaigns have generated more demand than their respective systems could cope with.

The problem with outsourcing is that you have to satisfy yourself, or your board of directors, that the company you contract for your Internet services will provide the same levels of services you would strive for yourself. "Before you get that warm feeling that a provider is efficient, the board will ask you how you know this ISP is going to be fast enough, will run 24 hours a day and will fix all your problems within 24 hours," says Dave Cuthbertson, a director of the Network Outsourcing Association. The problem is, the guarantees given to you may not be worth the envelope they are written on the back of.

There are ISPs out there that are selling, for example, 2Mbyte links into the Internet backbone. All very well, but they will have sold this link to dozens of other customers too, which waters down the service somewhat. In his other guise as managing director of Kenson Network Engineering, which monitors the performance of companies using the Internet, Cuthbertson has exposed ISPs that sell "fast" links to the Internet backbone that are anything but. "One ISP had sold this 2Mbyte link to the Internet, 38 times over. That would have been bad enough but, since they didn't have any means of monitoring the situation accurately, they had no way of defining the problem," he says.

Eventually, the ISP's clients approached Kenson to provide the monitoring tools, which meant they could identify the level of service more accurately, and took their business away from the ISP when they discovered the truth about their service. They didn't have any redress, however, because they hadn't defined the service they wanted tightly enough in a service contract. And they couldn't do that because they didn't really know how to define it, he explains. Meanwhile, "there are lots of ISPs out there selling bandwidth they haven't got," says Cuthbertson.

One of the problems is that companies outsource the hosting of their e-business site without having sight of the system. This can led to bogus claims that can't be contested. The host can tell them that, such is demand for their Web site, the client should really pay for an upgrade to a higher level of service. Charged at an accordingly higher rate of course. "It's like a garage saying you need work done on your car, without you having the time to get a second opinion," says Cuthbertson.

Any customer of a hosted service should demand that they have complete visibility of their service, he explains. You should demand access to the ISP or host's management and reporting tools, which will tell you how everything from much disk space you have to how many hits you are getting on your site. Professional ISPs have an understanding of these criteria, but since nobody asks for them they don't bother to provide them. Why commit themselves to a cost that no-one's asking for? At the moment, says Cuthbertson, there are very few suppliers prepared to offer the levels of service his company would demand.

It took Paul Murray, technical director of Fernhart New Media, six months to find an ISP he was happy with. His company is a Web agency that puts high-profile brand names like Virgin Radio on to the Web and, according to Murray, there are not many companies that fulfill the requirements at the moment. "The first thing you should be aware of is how far down the food chain they are," says Murray.

Unless you have a business that's aimed only at UK buyers, you shouldn't consider a host outside of the Top Tier of ISPs - those companies with their own infrastructure - advises Murray. Everyone else is selling secondhand bandwidth. Only Tier 1 ISPs, like Planet Online, Demon, INS, UUnet and PSINet can guarantee sufficient high-speed links because they have complete control over their networks. Having said that, Tier 2 ISPs do have their uses. Their services will be cheaper and the fact that they buy their bandwidth from Demon or INS won't matter too much to businesses whose customers are local.

If you are in a UK market, beware any ISP that doesn't belong to LINX (London Internet Exchange). Every one of the members of this club will have good peering arrangements with the 99 other affiliates. Companies outside of this arrangement will not, which means the connection is likely to be slow, making the response times of your Web business to customer enquiries dangerously sluggish. If your commerce is between business and consumers, in which customers will be arriving from any number of ISPs, this is much harder to plan for.

Another "attraction" that Murray warns against is the option for "burstability". This is where an ISP will offer a client, say, a 256k link with the option of being able to handle 2Mbytes of traffic in exceptional circumstances. "If they offer that to everyone how can they be sure they can cope? They're gambling that people won't need it because it's technically impossible to offer," he says.

Co-location is an important consideration if you are building an e-business that needs to be integrated with your back-end system. This is where an ISP will host a server on its premises, that is dedicated entirely to one client. The advantages of this approach are that the client can guarantee the processing resources they need. It also gives them licence to run programmes that the ISP would prohibit if the e-business application was sharing computer hardware with that of other clients.

Any application that makes demands of an NT Service - such as the Internet Service API Dynamic Link Library (ISAPI.DLL), which has the ability to slow your server right down, would not be tolerated on a shared platform.

The problem with co-location is that the support aspect varies. Some ISPs will do no more for your server than re-boot it if there's trouble, while others have technicians on stand-by. A new breed of player is moving into the co-location service, however. These tend to be developers, like Mitech, which develop e-business systems for clients and are now looking to manage the systems as well. "There's nothing wrong with ISPs if you have a traditional static Web site, but an e-business will want to constantly make changes," says Mitech managing director Eric Thickett. "If you have an online shopping portal, suppliers will constantly want to change their stock lists. You may find the business grows exponentially, which means that the system requirements are greater. The ISPs aren't geared to cater for that."

The rapid growth in e-commerce is spawning new models and players for Web hosting all the time, and it's not a good idea to commit to anything with the market is this state of flux, advises Paul Murray. Never sign a contract for more than a year with an ISP because, however temptingly low its rates for a three-year contract seem to be now, they will seem ridiculously high in 18 months' time as bandwidth increasingly commoditises. Capacity planning is another value that Murray says businesses should insist on quizzing ISPs about.

Even service level agreement contracts are questionable. "I keep coming across companies who've had these service level agreements with ISPs that offer them 99.999% reliability," says Phil Tee, who founded RiverSoft to provide management for the Internet economy.

"They say they know they get this service because they get a report every month. But guess who writes the report; the supplier." Riversoft studies have shown that the levels of service from ISPs fall way below that expected of computer hardware. On average ISPs in the UK offer 98.7% availability, according to Riversoft studies, which adds up to minutes of downtime every day.

It seems that going to the ISP market is a high-risk activity, with a lot of dodgy ISPs selling secondhand bandwidth. If only, like the equally perilous car market and property markets, there were the IT industry equivalents of the AA and the independent surveyors, who could verify the robustness of the commodity being sold. Until then, it remains a lottery.

Facts to consider when outsourcing your site.

  • Pages should be downloadable within five seconds. This is also a design issue, but the host should tell you if pages have been too fussily designed.

  • New Web pages should be produced and on the site in three days.

  • New Web pages should be registered with search engines on the same day they are nominated.

  • Links to other Web sites should be checked by the ISP/host every two weeks.

  • A report on the Web space must be provided every month.

  • Service performance and availability figures should be reported on a monthly basis.

  • The number of hits on particular pages should be reported.

  • Don't be tempted by cheap offers on three-year contracts. That offer won't seem so cheap in a year's time, when the market has moved on.

  • Ask for an independent report verifying performance.

    Pay your money - Take your choice

    There are four broad categories of Internet service provider to consider if you don't want to run your own Web servers - plus the option of co-location.

    Tier 1

    These are spin offs of telcos, and so enjoy global reach. Eg, Uunet, (owned by MCI) Planet Online (Energis),

    Pros: Fastest connections to the Internet. These companies have the clout to dig up the road and lay fibre, or even launch satellites, to strengthen their part of the Internet backbone. Comprehensive range of management services (service reports, hits on site etc)

    Cons: Reassuringly expensive, but tariffs may be cripplingly expensive for start ups.

    Tier 2

    Companies that own networks but operate locally (PSINet, GX Networks, Demon)

    Pros: Tier 2 pricing. Members of London Internet Exchange (LINX), so good peering arrangements with all major UK IPSs.

    Cons: No guarantee on global levels of service in other countries. Could be a drawback if you sell overseas.

    Tier 3

    The smaller ISPs that buy another company's bandwidth and resell it. E.g Atlas, Astra.

    Pros: Cheap. Fits the bill for undemanding applications, like static web sites.

    Cons: No guarantees on service, your bandwidth allocation may be oversold. Unlikely to be in LINX, so second class access to major ISPs. Can be a disaster if used for trading, especially globally.

    Tier 4

    A new category of 'virtual ISP'. These companies resell the bandwidth of companies like Uunet at discounts, and make their profits from the services they add. E.g Mitech.

    Pros: Cheaper than Uunet, whose bandwidth they resell. Can offer service level agreements.

    Cons: Once Uunet's capacity is more heavily subscribed to, it'll be hard to keep offering same levels of service.


    Your own equipment is hosted in an ISP's premises.

    Pros: Allows you to run applications and scripts that would not bbe tolerated on a shared environment. Guarantees you greater control over processing power to drive the system.

    Cons: Involves more support. ISPs will expect you to trouble-shoot the system.

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