Practical Technology

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Get some Backbone

It used to be choosing your Internet backbone provider was a serious, but not backbreaking decision. Things have changed. Now, the wrong choice could put you and your net-dependent customers-which is all of them these days-out of business.

It’s already happening. Last year, VARBusiness‘ readers picked WorldCom as their favorite backbone provider. Today, only a fool wouldn’t be looking for a way to get out of their WorldCom backbone contracts. Even, if you still believed that WorldCom divisions would keep working even as their leaders were shown to be crooks and the company continues its fall to bankruptcy, the wide-spread failures on October 2nd across the WorldCom backbone put some companies off the Internet and lead to wide-spread delays of two seconds and more for even customers. Heck, in just the days since I sent out the first version of this article to readers, a special report has damned Worldcom even more, the SEC is filing more charges, and as of this morning, they’re saying that they’ll have to restate nine (9) billion (BILLION!) dollars of income.

It’s not just the big names. Cable & Wireless, while well known in the UK, is quiet in the US even though it provides many US customers with their backbone connections thanks to buying out Digital Island in 2001, and via their purchase of Exodus, they’re also the company that hosts many American Web sites. What you probably don’t know is that C&W is very likely to be moving entirely out of the North American market. Some customers are already reporting that C&W has left them high and dry.

So it is that today, when you’re thinking about backbone services, you don’t want to just consider price, quality of service and support, you have to look closely at the backbone provider’s overall business health. These days, you need to read the financial pages as well as the technology section before picking a backbone partner.

Which backbone providers should you serve up to your customers? That’s a tricky question, considering all of the options out there. A good place to start is ISP Planet’s Backbone Directory. And these days you must follow up any companies that strike your fancy with a close look at their business news and financial reports. A useful place to start for beginners is Yahoo! Finance.

What to Look for in the Business Side

If you seen any these red flags, it’s time to give long, hard thought about your backbone provider. First, is the company laying off employees? Yes, in these bad times, everyone is doing some of that, but if they’ve gone through several layoff cycles, chances are they’re in deeper trouble than usual. Their stock may have gone up–stock analysts love companies that ‘cut out the fat.” But, the truth of the matter is that many tech. companies, ihncluding the backbone providers are now cutting muscle and bone, not fat. The market may love it, but what it means for you is that there will be fewer employees to keep your lines in order and gvie you support when they do go down. You can also be certain that those who are left will have poor morale and be overworked.

Are the officers of the company selling their stock? If it’s just one or two people, maybe they just want to buy a new house. If it’s three or more or the stock blocks are large, maybe though they’re getting ready to abandon ship.

Is the stock price below $5 a share? It is? Then the company has trouble. Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon these days. If, however, it’s below a dollar a share, then your backbone provider is in a fight for its life. Unless you have an outstanding relationship with the provider, you’ll probably want to find a new one. Has your company been delisted from the major exchanges? Yes? Then drop it. I don’t care if your mom does run it, it has almost no chance of surviving and when it goes down, it may take you with it.

What to Look for in the Technical Side

During the Net’s early days, anyone with a 1.544Mbps T1 or a 45Mbps T3 could call himself a backbone provider. If your customers don’t 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.
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 factors–something as simple as what version of Cisco’s Internetworking Operating System you’re running on your router–can greatly impact effective throughput.

You also should check out a backbone provider’s basic infrastructure–and we’re 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 provider’s 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 Entuity’s 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 there’s a problem upstream should be when the NOC calls to let you know there’s a problem–not when your customers call you to scream about a network headache.

Another factor you should keep in mind is that some providers over-subscribe their backbones. You should ask providers exactly how many others will be sharing your section of backbone and then go with whoever gives you the lowest number if all things are equal.

Of course, savvy ISPs need more than one backbone provider to guarantee network availability. The best you can really expect from a backbone provider is 99.95 percent uptime. That’s 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.

Comparison Shop

If you don’t know your way around the market, choosing a backbone provider can be difficult. Fortunately, you can chew on Internet.com’s ISP-Lists mailing lists. These lists will give you a taste of what people really think about their backbone providers. The ISP-Bandwidth and ISP-Broadband lists are particularly useful for this.

Don’t have time for a list, but still have questions? Then simply search the list archives with the name of the providers you’re considering. Do keep in mind though that people tend to complain more than they praise though. You can always find someone who hates a given provider. The real red alert is when many people over time keep reporting the same problems with the same provider.

You also need to make sure that your provider can keep running even after disaster strikes. That’s a serious concern on the West Coast with major Internet exchanges like MAE West.

Not all disasters are natural ones. For example, you can expect California to see wave after wave of mandatory blackouts if the summer of 2003 proves to be another hot one. Even with the minimum serious power backups–diesel generators with automatic cutovers–you might want to consider including a backbone provider that doesn’t have many of its Internet eggs in California’s fragile basket.

Service Suggestion

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.
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.
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 don’t want the dreaded call: ‘Hi, I’m Jim. I’m your new account rep this week!'”

Paying the Bill

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 BestWeb’s president Andrew Dickey. “Pricing needs to be competitive, but small differences do not matter. All of [our] suppliers have had reasonable contracts–but whenever the billing is complex, we have to check it carefully because I don’t think their accounting departments read the contracts the salespeople negotiate. Getting invoices corrected is difficult [and can turn into] horror stories.”

Indeed, you must keep a close eye on invoices. For example, some resellers have told me that even after C&W cut off their service, they were still getting billed for service. And, I myself have had trouble with DirecWay, which provides satellite Internet services. So, you should always have your accounts payable people go over your backbone bill with a fine-tooth comb.

Take a close look, too, at the provider’s Service Level Agreement (SLA) terms and conditions. What the salesman says and what the SLA says can be two different things. You must do your due diligence research before signing up with any backbone provider. Our point is, however, that you should strongly consider having some sort of independent auditing process in place to verify the performance levels that you’re paying for.

The plain truth is that you should be more concerned with business relationships instead of technology. A partner failing should be your greatest concern today not a hardware failure.

SIDEBAR: Align Your Backbone With the Right Bandwidth

Choosing the right bandwidth to connect to the backbone is a piece of cake–once you know which ingredients you’re looking for.
First, you’ll need to know whether your customers’ traffic is bursty, whether you have a high proportion of end users or you’re a portal (which determines how much traffic will stay in your network), and what type of applications or services you offer (real-time applications like videoconferencing or Voice over IP require special handling).
The options available to connect to the backbone are numerous, confusing and expensive, but we can try to simplify it. It’s important to understand the difference between speeds and technologies. T1 is a speed. OC is a speed. DSL, Frame Relay, ATM, Packet over Sonet and Ethernet are physical-layer technologies. These are often combined. For example, frame relay is often carved out from a T1, which rides on HDSL copper. If you’re not sure what you’re getting, ask and make sure you understand exactly what you’re getting in real world terms.
Perhaps the most common connection at the low end is the trusty T1 line (or a fractional T1, which is a provisioning of only some of a T1’s 24 64-bit channels). A T1 is just the speed, though–the technology is HDSL, the daddy to the widely available ADSL, SDSL, etc. T1 and its big brother, T3 (or DS3), generally run over copper wire.
Also on the low end is frame relay, a shared, packet-switching protocol, which is great for inexpensively connecting branch offices together over long distances, but it’s not really suited for a service provider to connect to the backbone because of the inefficiencies in encapsulating IP within frame relay.
Many users would never notice the difference, but if you’re running a real-time application like a VPN or videoconferencing, you’ll see the inferior quality of service in a hurry.
Stepping up to even higher bandwidth levels comes ATM, with a maximum limit of 622Mbps. Basically, if you have ATM, you should continue with it, but it’s complicated and expensive.
Fiber has become widely available (thus dropping its price), which makes Packet over Sonet (whose speed is defined by Optical Carrier) a more affordable backbone connector. Sonet (synchronous optical network) defines rate and interface connections over a fiber-optic line.
Fiber loops are indeed loops. THis means that if a line is cut, the traffic is automatically routed along another path. It also has fewer problems with interference, making it an excellent transport medium over long distances

Unfortunately, the bottom has fallen out of the Fiber market. Global Crossing, once a name that meant the future of the Internet, now struggles to survive. Still, you can get great deals on Fiber. Cogent Communications, now owners of venerable PSINet, for example, sells 100Mbps OC48 connections for a jaw-dropping $1000 a month. Of course, it’s only available in currently 21 metro areas, but still it’s amazing.

While Cogent can do some of this by using a simplified optical system that doesn’t use pricey ATM, you have to tread carefully anytime something that sounds to good to be true. The history of Internet connectivity is littered with ISPs and Competitive Local Exchange Carriers (CLEC)s that had connectivity offers that were too cheap to be true-or more to the point, profitable enough to keep them in business and you in Internet connectivity.

Last, but not least, is Gigabit and 10-Gigabit Ethernet. While not widely available yet, Ethernet is running on a majority of LANs, which makes it easy to connect to an Ethernet interface on the backbone. The problem is that there’s a distance limitation to Ethernet, which usually requires co-location of the routers and switches. Still, I think that these technologies will eventually play a major role in metro area network backbones. Considering the economy, though, eventually might well be 2004 or 5.

Rev the Net

Bandwidth Designation
155.52Mbps OC-3
466.56Mbps OC-9
622.08Mbps OC-12
933.12Mbps OC-18
1.244Gpbs OC-24
1.866Gbps OC-36
2.488Gbps OC-48
4.976Gbps OC-96
10Gbps OC-192
13.21Gbps OC-255

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