Assessing an ISP?General Considerations

This section enumerates general criteria that are useful for evaluating candidate ISPs. The following section deals with issues that pertain specifically to MySQL. As you approach a new ISP, determine the answers to these questions:

  • How easy is it to get information?

  • What are the costs?

  • What kind of client access software does the ISP provide?

  • What kind of initial assistance do you receive from the ISP?

  • What are the ISP's customer connectivity options?

  • Does the provider have good upstream connectivity and bandwidth?

  • What kind of technical support does the ISP provide?

  • Are there quotas? If so, what are they?

  • What kind of hardware does the ISP use?

  • How do they handle privacy and security issues?

  • What kind of reputation do they have?

  • How long has the provider been in business?

  • What are their plans for growth?

Let's consider each of these questions in more detail.

  • How easy is it to get information? When you call to inquire about the services an ISP provides, does anyone answer? If you have difficulty getting through, maybe it's an operation run by someone out of a garage during the evening. If you reach an answering machine, does the ISP return your call? If you send email, do you receive a prompt reply?

    Do customer service representatives have the answers to your questions? If not, do they find someone within their organization who does, or do they try to convince you that the issues you're raising are unimportant? ("Oh, sure, we can handle that?don't worry.") If you can't get answers to questions before they have your money, how will they treat you after they do?

    Does the ISP staff communicate with you in terms you understand? If their only language is marketing drivel, you may be in contact with an outfit that's long on selling themselves and short on hard technical knowledge. On the other hand, if they overpower you with jargon, you might be dealing with a bunch of geeks that have their technical know-how down pat but who can't communicate well with "normal people."

    Visit the provider's Web site. Is it clear, informative, and easy to understand? Putting together a good home page is much easier than managing a well-run service. If they can't do the easier thing well, do you suppose they'll do the harder one any better?

  • What are the costs? This can vary considerably because it depends on so many factors. Is there an initial signup/setup fee in addition to the usual monthly fee? Is the monthly fee fixed or sliding? What does the fee include? Do you get unlimited connect time, or is there some hourly limit? If you exceed the limit, what happens? Do they simply refuse connections (which is inconvenient, but you incur no extra fee)? Or is there a surcharge on top of your normal monthly rate? If there is a charge, does it include disk space?

    For dialup connections, the ISP presumably has a local number for use within the calling area. But if you live in a rural area, make sure that ISP access doesn't involve a toll call.

    Does the ISP provide an 800 number that you can use when you're away from home for checking your email and accessing the Web? If you travel with a laptop and require Internet access as you travel, you'll probably be better served by a national ISP rather than a local one. If an 800 number is available, is it free? (Some are not.)

    ISPs often include a modest amount of disk space in the basic fee (a few megabytes) with an option to purchase a larger allocation as needed. Get specific information about disk charges if you expect your database to be large or if you plan on hosting a Web site (particularly if it will be graphics heavy).

    If you establish a Web presence on the ISP's host, how does the ISP charge for bandwidth when people access your Web pages or download files? Some ISPs impose a quota and shut you off until the next time period begins if you exceed the limit. Others may include a sliding fee based on download volume in your bill. Still others may reclassify you as a commercial customer (probably at a higher rate). Find out what your options are.

    Is technical support free or is there a charge? If it's free, is that only for a limited time, such as your first 30 days? If there is a charge, do you pay a flat rate or a per-incident rate? Can you pay an extra fee to get premium support with a guaranteed short response time?

    If you are presented with a fee prepayment plan, evaluate it with an eye to the history and reputation of the company. Prepayment options are sometimes used by startups as a means of raising operating capital, but such ISPs are also the most likely to fold, and if they do, your prepaid fees are likely to be unrecoverable.

    Do you have to sign a long-term contract (a year or more)? If you're uncertain about an ISP's capabilities, you want to be able to back out after a month or two. It might be easy to get signed up; how easy is it to get out if you decide you don't like them? Can you get back the unused portion of your contract?

    Perhaps you can get a free or low-cost trial account that will allow you to assess the ISP's technical competence and support services. Keep in mind that such an account typically will include limitations on your activities. For example, disk space constraints will limit the size of any trial database you may create.

  • What kind of client access software does the ISP provide? Do they support your platform? Some ISPs may specify that they support only certain systems. This is less likely than it used to be, but it still happens. If the ISP does support only a single platform, it's likely to be Windows. That doesn't help you if you're running UNIX or Mac OS.

    Does the ISP provide an email client and Web browser? If so, are you required to use them, or can you use others if you prefer?

  • What kind of initial assistance do you receive from the ISP? Do they offer help in getting you connected and getting your account working? Is there a fee for this service (which is likely if you have complex requirements)?

  • What are the ISP's customer connectivity options? If you'll be connecting by modem, you don't want to get a busy signal when you try to reach the service provider. You can ask candidate providers what their customer/modem ratio is, but that depends on customer activity. Residential customers who connect briefly to check email don't tie up the modem pool as much as commercial customers who camp out on a connection all day to conduct business. It's better to ask how often you'll get a busy signal, particularly at the time of day you typically expect to be connecting.

    You can test this for yourself before signing up. Dial the ISP's number on a regular phone and listen for a modem screeching on the other end. Perform this test several times on different days. How often do you get a busy signal or no answer? Assess modem availability against your activities. If you're a business, you want to be sure you can connect whenever you want. For personal purposes, you may not mind the occasional busy signal.

    To avoid the hassles of dialup, you may prefer to get an always-on connection, such as that provided by a cable modem or DSL line. These are also much faster than dialup. Does the ISP offer these higher-speed options? Note that cable or DSL connections typically require some sort of high-speed modem or router. Does the ISP provide it, or are you expected to? You may have fewer installation problems if the ISP provides the equipment. If you expect to be moving large amounts of traffic between your site and the ISP, you might even want to set up a dedicated line. Will the ISP help you with that?

    If you get a line that is always up, you may have the option of supporting incoming connections to your own machine, and thus of hosting your own Web site if you feel comfortable doing that. But for that to work, other people need to be able to find you reliably and to make connections to your servers. Many ISPs provide dynamic rather than static IP addresses by default and may filter your incoming traffic. A static IP is almost a necessity if you want to support incoming connections because it's difficult for people to reach you when your address changes periodically. You'll also need to verify that incoming connections to the ports used by your servers won't be blocked. It's not uncommon for ISPs to filter traffic to SMTP, HTTP, and FTP ports, for example. (Usually, the purpose of this is precisely to prevent customers from setting up servers and hogging bandwidth.) Some providers offer the option of a static IP with no filtering, but you can expect to pay more; ISPs know that customers who require that type of connection tend to generate more traffic.

  • Does the provider have good upstream connectivity and bandwidth? How close is the provider to the Internet backbone? Are they directly connected, or do they go through another provider to get there? Do they have redundant connections in case of connection outage?

    How big is the "pipe" between the ISP and the backbone? The type of connection determines its bandwidth?that is, the maximum amount of traffic the ISP can handle between the backbone and its own installation. High-bandwidth trunks like OC3, T-3, or T-1 lines provide fast connections. If the provider's link to the Internet is made through some lower-bandwidth connection, that's a bottleneck and transmission rates will suffer. For example, an ISP that is attempting to host dozens of Web sites through a DSL line won't provide much throughput to any given client.

    Evaluate the amount of bandwidth with regard to the size of the customer base served by the ISP. Ask how much traffic they're actually moving over their connection?how much of their capacity is used? If you're sharing a connection to the backbone with many other active users, the bandwidth that is available to you decreases. If the ISP hosts your Web site, a saturated link slows down people attempting to connect, with the result that your site appears to be unresponsive.

  • What kind of technical support does the ISP provide? Is it available at all times or only during normal business hours? You may plan to connect only during the day, but if you don't, will someone be there to answer your questions? What about weekends? Do they provide both phone and email access to technical support staff? You want phone support because you can't send email if you can't log on. But you want email, too, so that you can mail technical information or program output to the support staff to avoid trying to describe it over the phone. Do they promise a response within a certain amount of time? (The problem may not necessarily be resolved within that time, but requests at least should be acknowledged promptly so that you know they're working on them.)

    Is there online help? Is it clear and to the point or confusing and vague? Can you navigate it easily to find the information you need? Is it searchable?

    You can assess technical support availability for yourself the same way you test the dialup access numbers?call them. You might feel foolish doing this before you have an account with the ISP, but it can be instructive to find out whether you get put in a phone queue and for how long. Also, ask how many technical support personnel there are or what the customer-to-technician ratio is.

  • Are there quotas? If so, what are they? Are there quotas for disk space or processing time? Are there time constraints on scripts executed by the Web server? It's not unreasonable for the ISP to put some limits on customer activities to prevent monopolization of resources shared by other customers, but you want to know what those limits are. If you approach quota limits, what happens? Does the ISP notify you so that you can modify your usage, or do they silently start applying a surcharge when you go over limit that you find out about only when you get your next bill?

    Does the provider place a limit on the size of email messages? If you routinely send or receive large attachments, make sure that the provider's limit is high enough to allow your messages to pass through without truncation.

  • What kind of hardware does the ISP use? It's possible to run basic Internet services on an old 386-class PC, but it won't be suitable for large numbers of users, to say nothing of trying to run more computationally intensive services, such as MySQL. MySQL doesn't hog system resources the same way large database systems do, but you still want an ISP that runs hardware with some muscle. What kinds of load can the system handle comfortably?

    Where is the server located? In someone's garage or basement? A provider located in a commercial district is likely to have an easier time getting the phone company to run additional trunk lines as capacity demands increase.

    How does the ISP deal with equipment failure? Is there a recovery plan in place, or are you just knocked offline until the equipment is repaired or replaced? What is their actual uptime percentage over the past several months? What accounts for the downtime incidents? Do they perform file system backups. If so, how often, or does the ISP consider that your responsibility?

    Are there expected downtimes (for scheduled maintenance or backups, for example)? Does the ISP inform customers when those will be? If you run a Web server, you probably prefer that it be available 24 hours a day.

  • How do they handle privacy and security issues? Do they have a policy regarding privacy of your files? What measures do they take to prevent your account from being compromised?

  • What kind of reputation do they have? What other customers do they have, and how well are those customers satisfied? Word of mouth can be useful; ask around to see if your acquaintances are familiar with candidate ISPs. You can ask the ISP for references, but they probably will refer you to people who are satisfied with their service. It might be informative to ask for opinions on the MySQL mailing list as well, where you're more likely to hear from people willing to relate experiences with an ISP?both good and bad.

  • How long has the provider been in business? The ISP industry has a phenomenal number of failed or short-lived startups because it's easy to get started and difficult to do well. A provider with some longevity is more likely to be around in the not-so-near future and be able to help you for the long term.

  • What are their plans for growth? How big are they? You probably don't want to use a tiny new startup, but the biggest services aren't necessarily better. Smaller companies can be more in touch with the needs of their customers.

    How fast are they growing? How many customers do they have now? A month ago? A year ago? You might want to go with a company that's prospering, but growth puts pressure on resources for bandwidth, customer access, and technical support. What is their policy for dealing with increased load?

Don't Have Unreasonable Expectations of an ISP

You won't get unlimited access, unlimited disk space, and unlimited tech support for $20 a month. Are you willing to pay for good service and support? You want something for your money, but ISPs expect to be reasonably compensated for the services they provide, too.