The shelves are stacked with Internet backbone providers. Here's how to grab a few winners.
Designing the perfect Internet backbone service is like shopping for dinner: One bad ingredient can ruin the entire meal.Which backbone providers should you serve up to your customers? Thats a tricky question, considering all of the options out. Youll have to carefully measure variables like price, technical support, reliability and scalability before you make an official recommendation. A good place to start is Boardwatchs list of backbone providers (www.ispworld.com/isp/bb/Backbone_Profiles.htm).
Read the Labels During the Nets early days, anyone with a 1.544Mbps T1 or a 45Mbps T3 could call himself a backbone provider. If your customers dont plan to run real-time programs, such as videoconferencing, traditional options like frame-relay over a T1 or T3 should work just fine.
But with the rise of broadband and multimedia applications, a backbone provider needs at least a 155.52Mbps OC-3 to be taken seriously. They also must have peering agreements with neighboring backbone providers so that Internet traffic can quickly reach its destination without any detours.
If speed is your main concern, you should place an order with Cable & Wireless, Global Center, IDT, Savvis or ServInit. According to independent tests (www.ispworld.com/isp/Performance_Test. htm) run by Boardwatch and Keynote Systems, these backbone providers consistently provided the fastest throughput times. On the downside, Williams Communications (www.wilcom.com) turned in results that were orders of magnitude worse than the front-runners.
Clearly, not all T1s are created equal. Traffic congestion and network overhead ensure that no matter how fast a connection is supposed to go, it will never actually reach that speed. Many other factorssomething as simple as what version of Ciscos Internetworking Operating System youre running on your routercan greatly impact effective throughput.
You also should check out a backbone providers basic infrastructureand were not referring to copper or fiber optics. All too often, too much attention is paid to the network infrastructure of routers, switches and network connections, without any attention spent on the providers other basics.
For instance, a typical network operations center (NOC) used to have a half-dozen hard-core technicians living off Jolt Cola and cold pizza. But what your customers really need are backbone providers with several 24 x 7 NOCs. Each NOC should have automated trouble-ticket tracking and a top network-monitoring program, like Entuitys Eye of the Storm, constantly running.
The real proof of the pudding, though, is how proactive the NOC is. With the best providers, the first sign that theres a problem upstream should be when the NOC calls to let you know theres a problemnot when your customers call you to scream about a network headache.
Of course, savvy ISPs need more than one backbone provider to guarantee network availability. According to many of the ISP engineers weve spoken to, the best you can really expect from a backbone provider is 99.95 percent uptime. Thats a long way from the 99.9999 percent uptime that the harshest service-level agreements (SLA) require. The only way to achieve that type of availability is to use multiple providers.
Andy Dickey, president of BestWeb, a midsize metropolitan ISP in New York, concurs with that approach. "We choose our backbone providers based on where our customers traffic wants to go with the fewest hops," he says.
BestWeb currently has five providersa T3 with UUNet, T1 with Sprint, T3 with Global Center, T3 with Genuity, and T3 with Goodnetbut the company is not reluctant to add or delete a backbone provider any time. For example, BestWeb likely will increase the Sprint connection to a T3 and may eliminate one of the other connections.
Comparison Shop If you dont know your way around the market, choosing a backbone provider can be difficult. Fortunately, you can chew on Internet.coms ISP-Lists mailing lists (isp-lists.isp-planet.com). The lists will give you a taste of what other companies really think about their backbone providers. The ISP-Bandwidth and ISP-Broadband lists are particularly useful.
Dont have time for a list, but still have questions? Then simply search the archives. While this can be difficult to do well, when you do glean information from the archives, we think it will fill our appetite for useful knowledge about a given provider.
You also need to make sure that your provider can keep running even after disaster strikes. Thats a serious concern on the West Coast with major Internet exchanges like MAE West.
Theres little you can do about where backbone providers place their sites, but you can investigate their backup plans. With California suffering wave after wave of mandatory blackouts, this isnt just a good idea, its a business necessity. Even with the minimum serious power backupsdiesel generators with automatic cutoversyou might want to consider including a backbone provider, like Qwest, that doesnt have so many of its Internet eggs in Californias fragile basket.
Service Suggestion Ever been to a restaurant where the food was great, but you wanted to strangle the waiter because of poor service? Join the crowd. Backbone providers can be the same way.
Installation delays, poor technical support, and incompetent help-desk personnel can ignite heartburn. Again, the best way to avoid problems in the first place is to read ISP-specific mailing lists.
Ken McLeod, CEO of CSG Wireless, puts it well. He looks for direct, person-to-person communication with his backbone providers. "Not an automated e-mail reply system, not a fax blast about pending orders, but a real human being who understands the network, can place and follow through on orders, and communicates delays. And, most important, I dont want the dreaded call: Hi, Im Jim. Im your new account rep this week!" For his money, Global Crossing is the best of the backbone providers.
Paying the Bill Cost, as always, is a big issue. But its not the be-all and end-all. Joe Rinehart, a data and IP technical specialist at AT&T, says price is one of the bigger factors in the smaller tier-three ISP marketplace. But you get what you pay for.
You also need to look closely at your shopping bill. "From a business standpoint, we want short-term, one-year contracts because we need the ability to add or delete [providers] as necessary," says BestWebs Dickey. "Pricing needs to be competitive, but small differences do not matter. All of [our] suppliers have had reasonable contractsbut whenever the billing is complex, we have to check it carefully because I dont think their accounting departments read the contracts the salespeople negotiate. Getting invoices corrected is difficult [and can turn into] horror stories."
Take a close look, too, at the providers SLA terms and conditions. We grabbed a copy of Genuitys Capacity Agreement (www.genuity.com/services/transport/index.htm) and read, with great interest, just exactly what the company is striving to provide in terms of network availability (less than 99.99 percent), cell latency and peak-to-peak cell delay variation. There are lots of performance parameters here, with revenue penalties for the backbone provider if they arent met. As you might expect, these conditions are located toward the end of the 17-page document. Our point is, however, that you should strongly consider having some sort of independent auditing process in place to verify the performance levels that youre paying for.
You also need to make sure that your backbone provider is financially sound. In these uncertain times, backbone providers can disappear into bankruptcy, leaving you holding the bag. For example, NorthPoint Communications, a major CLEC and DSL provider, started halting service on March 29, due to lack of funds, leaving its customers starving for bandwidth. PSINet also is in financial hot water, with its stock frozen at 19 cents.
These days, you need to read the financial pages as well as the technology section before picking a backbone partner.
Dont Go Without a List Working with backbone providers can be bittersweet. No matter what your business is, one way or another part of it will run on the Internet and that means you need to be aware of backbone issues. Its a good idea to think about these issues and talk to your ISP about its relationship with the backbone provider. After all, the Internet is a smorgasbord we all sit down to, and the more we know about it, the better able well be to pick out the perfect ingredients for our needsand those of our customers.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is editor at large for Ziff Davis Enterprise. Prior to becoming a technology journalist, Vaughan-Nichols worked at NASA and the Department of Defense on numerous major technological projects. Since then, he's focused on covering the technology and business issues that make a real difference to the people in the industry.