Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

What to expect from an ISP - Uptime

May 1998

By Mike Gould

"Honey, I can’t get to my email."

Investigating my wife’s computer, I find the dreaded "server not found" error message. A quick call to the ISP reveals, yup, "Uh, the email server crashed, we’re working on it, should be back up in a couple of hours, sorry about that."

What’s a concerned emailer to do? Reassuring Salli that it wasn’t her fault, and telling her that all would be well Real Soon Now (a technical term for indeterminate time to gratification), I gave her the explanation we computer types have been giving to non-computer types for years: "Stuff Breaks"

Why Bad Things Happen to Good ISPs
A little background: as you remember from previous installments, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) maintains a big computer (big as in powerful - it is usually a box no larger than a foot locker sitting on end, and in many cases may be not much larger than the computer on your desk) called a server; a server provides one or more services such as email, web hosting, etc., and when Something Bad happens to the server, it goes down and the services cease. Something Bad can be a hardware problem (a harddisk goes south), a software problem (a rarely-surfacing bug in the program running the service), a traffic problem (all 2,498 users decide to send email the same instant), a router problem (a box that connects the ISP to the Internet is "hosed"), or any other ailment that can strike man, beast, or machinery. It may not even be your ISP’s fault; the problem may be at a router farther upstream, i.e., on the cabled backbone that forms the spinal cord of the Internet.

When Something Bad happens at an ISP, sirens go off, red lights flash, and technicians are whipped into a mousing frenzy as they hunt down and fix the problem. (Or so I suspect, never actually having been at ground zero during a Something Bad "incident" at an ISP. Actually, I was once in a server room under my command when a drive died; it emitted a hideous screech that haunts me to this day.) A bad harddrive is replaced and refilled from backup tapes, modems are reset, software is debugged, and peace is restored. Email is rarely lost; a notice is sent to the sender that the designated email "Post Office" can’t be found, the sender re-sends later, and all is well (albeit inconvenienced).

Why Stuff Doesn’t Break Often
Or, if the ISP is really really good, and really really big, and has really really great engineers, a big switch is automagically yanked and a fully-armed backup system smoothly takes over and no one is the wiser, save the engineer who gets a polite email informing him that server A went down, server B took over, and please come and fix server A.

This brings us to Uptime: the percentage of time your ISP is on the wire and functioning, available to serve you. Various ISPs have better luck (or skill, or resources, or mojo or a combination of all the above) at maintaining uptime that others. Some ISPs will have a chart somewhere on their website that will show you how successful they are in keeping you connected. Often there is a relationship between what an ISP charges and the amount of uptime you can expect; massively redundant systems are expensive to buy, maintain, and staff. As with most of reality, you get what you pay for; but how much do you need?

Your Connectivity Needs
There are ISPs in the Ann Arbor area that charge between $12.50 and $100 (and up) for monthly service; the more expensive ones usually have better uptime than the cheaper ones. But consider: is email a life and death matter for your company? If you can live without email for 3 or 4 hours occasionally, a low-cost ISP may work just fine. On the other hand, if you have an extensive commerce-based web site that provides a good portion of your business income, you may need a more bullet-proof solution. Ditto if you rely on email for your extended network of offices around the country. (Ditto if you have an impatient spouse.)

Who Ya Gonna Call?
So how do you find the right ISP for you? A few suggestions:

• Look in the Yellow Pages under "Internet" (Washtenaw County is awash in ISPs, web designers, and the like).

• Look at the ads in this magazine.

• Ask your connected friends what they think of their ISP; ask about cost, uptime, general satisfaction, etc.

• Check out the various local ISP’s websites; this can be a challenge if you’re not yet online, but maybe a friend has a connected computer you can use (or you can use the public library computers). Once you are at the website, look for uptime indicators; the sites with better uptime are usually eager to demonstrate it.

• Call the ISP and find out the level of help the ISP will provide to get you connected: do they have a software package they provide, are you provided with a technical help phone number, is it staffed during the hours you are likely to need help? A good test is to call the help line and see if you get a recording.

Next month: Netiquette - Email tips for the online businessperson.

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