Internet, the slime magnet
by Philip Greenspun for the
Web Tools Review
Note that this document has to some extent been superseded by
the servers chapter from
my Web book.
"Did you hear about the IBM salesman's wife who was still a virgin
after 20 years? That's right. Every night, he sat on the edge of the
bed and told her how great it was going to be."
-- Bud Keyes, Babcock & Wilcox executive, upon hearing my promise to add
the features he requested to my computer-aided mechanical engineering
Hot markets pull rats out of the woodwork. Internet is the hottest
thing going right now. Most of the would-be users are naive and
aren't aware that there are companies, e.g., BBN, with over 20 years of
experience in doing things right. That means that the playing field
is more or less level for all suppliers, regardless of competence or
You should assume that your Internet service provider (ISP) will do the
- not have a competent TCP/IP network administrator (such persons
are scarce and too expensive for the no-capitalization companies that
enter the ISP business). Instead, a kid fresh out of college will be
leafing through the Cisco router manual while your connection is down.
- sell 50 companies T1 service and then funnel them all into, say,
theMCI backbone through one T1 line. This means $100,000 in revenue
and only $2,000 in expenses, i.e., the fast buck that these shady ISPs
want, but it means 64Kbit service for you if you are lucky.
- provide name service for your domain off two machines in the same
subnet (violates InterNIC policy but saves them a few pennies a year
so they do it). If the single T1 line to your ISP is down and someone
asks for www.yourcompany.com, the error message will say
"yourcompany.com doesn't exist" rather than "yourcompany.com is
unreachable right now".
The primary skill of the second-tier ISP is snowing management in
Corporate America. The big lies that they preach are
Vendors such as ANS won't come to
your company and kiss your boss's ass. They won't tell you how the
future is so bright you'll need to wear sunglasses. They give you a
wire and promise that if you can talk to it, you can talk to the
Internet, 99+% of the time. They don't promise to solve all of your
- You won't need your own network administrator if you work with us.
- We'll take care of you.
- We'll log and monitor your access.
- You can have a Unix box and a firewall and we'll administer it
expertly and diligently for you.
It might be nice if someone could in fact do more than the reputable
guys promise to do, but in fact almost nobody can.
Vendors who won't fuck you
(or at least not very hard)
If you are considering using any other ISP, insist on talking to at
least five customers in your area. If any of them have had more than
10 minutes of unscheduled downtime in the preceding three months,
forget the ISP. Do a
People who are good because they come from ARPAnet
- While your local ISP startup founder was running a three card monte
game in his kindergarten, BBN was
working with MIT to build the ARPAnet. Because ARPAnet connected
computers running operating systems predating Unix, its services were
more reliable than Internet (even though hardware at the time was
incredibly flaky). MIT won't sell you a network connection, but BBN
will and even if they have to hire a bunch of mediocre people as they
expand, at least their standards were set in a day when everything was
expected to work. [OK, maybe not; several BBN customers wrote me
recently to say how badly they've been screwed by BBN. BBN also
demonstrated their deep understanding of the Web by gratuitously
reshuffling their filenames so that my links into their site returned
"file not found" errors.]
- ANS used to operate the NSF
Backbone for the Feds, who had personal experience with ARPAnet and
transmitted those expectations and culture to the ANS people.
People who are good because they come from telephony
- Yes, the phone company sucks, but at least they think that 99.9%
uptime isn't quite good enough. This heritage makes MCI and Sprint safe
People who might be OK despite the fact that they come from Unix
- Nothing touched by Unix was ever very reliable and USENET was no
exception. If mail and news got there "most of the time," that met
the expectations of the systems builders. Heir to this sorry
tradition is AlterNet,
somewhat cheaper and allegedly not always so much worse than the
traceroute from a remote location
on the Internet. With a sleazy provider, you'll note that it takes
just a few milliseconds to get from, say, Stanford to the New York
point-of-presence for the primary carrier, e.g., MCI. Packets that
have to go through that final T1 to the ISP will take another 50, 100,
or even 400 milliseconds. If you can't understand this paragraph or
don't know how to run
traceroute, then you are in no
position to evaluate an ISP.
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-- Mark J. Welch, March 7, 1997