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Finding a reliable vendor

You’ll need to choose carefully for hosting, developing, and maintaining your site.

Have you created a Web site but need a place to park it? Are you dissatisfied with your current Internet service provider (ISP)? Or have you finally decided it’s time to hire someone and create your business Web presence? If you’re on the Internet and contemplating a move, or finally deciding to risk the first step, one of the most important problems you’ll face is finding a good, high-quality, low-cost ISP. Here are some things you should consider.

Finding a local ISP

Technically you don’t need to find a local ISP. One of the benefits of the Internet is the way it collapses boundaries, putting you in touch with the world’s customers and vendors. Providing they offer local phone access, you could sign up with a Romanian ISP. Some national and international vendors have much to offer. On the other hand, if you wanted to pay your ISP a personal visit, plane tickets to Bucharest are expensive.

For a variety of reasons it makes sense to sign up with a local provider. Most of us like placing a face with a name and voice, particularly if they’re going to familiarize themselves with our business and become one of our vendors. In the unlikely event that things go wrong, you may want the full impact of a face-to-face meeting. And although many ISP shops keep the guts of their enterprise in a closet, there’s a certain measure of comfort in seeing physical office space, as well as the blinking lights in the closet.

An excellent resource for locating a local ISP can be found on ComputerUser.com. Here you can select an ISP by access speed, area code, and other criteria. More important, you can review the results of your search in a clearly delineated table that identifies the ISP company, setup fee, and monthly fee. This table also enables you to select and compare a variety of ISP features for up to four of the listed companies.

Another resource for locating potential vendors can be found at The List www.thelist.com. The List enables you to search through over 9,500 ISPs by area code, country code, application service providers, and a variety of other criteria.

The right services

Many ISPs will help you do everything from figuring out and registering your domain name to supporting complicated and secure e-commerce transactions. Some only provide rudimentary hosting services. Others specialize in site development, but not hosting. Some of the following considerations should help you figure out what you need and whether or not a proposed ISP provides it.

The right support

If you do any of the site development or maintenance on your own, you’re going to need some kind of site software to manage it. Good examples are Microsoft’s FrontPage and Macromedia’s Dreamweaver. For the more technically minded, Allaire’s Cold Fusion can be used.

Web sites created with any of the preceding tools have server counterparts. The ISP is responsible for installing and maintaining the server software, but you’ll have to find out whether it supports the site-management tool you’ve used to create and maintain your site.

Does the ISP have technical expertise in a given type of software? If you’re using Dreamweaver to manage your site and you’re looking toward your ISP for Dreamweaver support, make sure they know the software and can support it.

In addition to site management software, you’ll also need some kind of e-mail software (Outlook, Eudora, and so forth). If you don’t yet have any, ask the ISP what they recommend and if they know how to set it up and support it. Here again, make sure your ISP supports whatever e-mail application you finally use.

How much access?

Access generally boils down to modem-to-user counts, connectivity speed, and a list of available phone numbers. Some experts believe there should be no more than 10 users per modem. Better yet, optimum performance usually falls around seven or eight users per modem. If the ISP offers access speeds of V.90, 56K (increasingly the standard you should require), that would mean 10 users on a 56K line would be reduced to 5.6Kbps bandwidth during peak times.

Make certain the business offers higher-access speeds (ISDN up to 128K, DSL up to 1M, fractional or full T1 lines, and so forth), or it can tell you when that kind of access will be available. The larger the bandwidth, the more expensive the access. But if your business outgrows the standard lower-speed lines, you’ll want to make sure you can migrate to something bigger and better.

You’ll also want to make sure your provider can be accessed using a local phone number. Most providers give you at least two different phone numbers, including one to use for backup. Others provide 800 numbers (particularly if they’re not local). You want to make sure you’re not dialing long distance to gain access to the service. And you want to make sure that when you call, even at the busiest times of the day, you don’t get a busy signal.

If out-of-town access to the Internet is a potential concern, make sure the provider offers some kind of long-distance access, preferably an 800 number. Today only the larger ISPs offer this kind of access. If your business takes you out of town on a frequent basis, the ability to access your provider from anywhere in the country without dialing long distance is key.

And finally, ask if you can have a demo account and dial in to the service to test it. Perform some specific tests. Dial in during the morning, noon, afternoon, and evening. The busiest time on the Internet is generally early evening. See how your prospective ISP performs at 7 p.m. Visit some sites and see how quickly they load. This kind of practical testing is crucial to making a sound ISP decision.

How much storage?

These days, storage is cheap. As part of the standard monthly subscription cost, most ISPs offer approximately 10MB of storage per site. Usually that kind of space is plenty. Some offer 100MB.

How many e-mail accounts?

If you contract with an ISP to manage or maintain your Web site, it usually comes with at least one e-mail account. Often you can request up to five e-mail accounts at little or no extra cost. Since you’ll definitely need at least one e-mail account, make sure the ISP provides it.

How much money?

Almost all ISPs offer a variety of pricing plans. Some involve hourly rates, but an increasing number have fixed rates for unlimited usage. An approximate cost for an ISP hosting your business site should be anywhere from $10 to $25 a month. That price should include unlimited Internet access, e-mail support and at least 10MB to 100MB of storage space. But it pays to shop around.

Of course, if you’re contemplating having the ISP perform other services (registering domain names, providing setup support, assisting in design, and so forth) make sure you know what they charge for these services. Registering a domain name is a simple process; most ISPs will charge little or nothing to do it. If an ISP wants to charge you $100 to register a domain name, look elsewhere for your provider.

The right references

Finally, make sure you talk with some of the ISP’s existing clients. Contact some of the ISP’s customers and ask them about technical support, downtime, local access speeds, availability of ISP employees, what kind of support they provide in times of crisis, and whether or not someone’s available 24/7. It may be that your business does not require 24/7 support. If so, evaluate customer responses accordingly. Conversely, if you plan on rigging your site for e-commerce, you’d better make certain someone’s available to respond to customers when your site fails to accept their credit cards.

If the preceding jargon is too technical, consider researching the issue on the Internet. An excellent resource for understanding more about bandwidth, access, and other connection issues is Boardwatch www.boardwatch.com. Here you’ll find plenty of information on both the connection part of the Internet and individual ISPs. This site maintains detailed information on the infrastructure and services of the vast majority of ISPs.

ISPs come in all shapes, sizes, and types. You need one to get online. Evaluate your needs carefully. Research your providers with one eye on your current needs and one eye on the future. Assiduous consideration of both your site and your proposed provider should ensure a successful Web experience.

Cary Griffith builds Web sites for small-to-midsized businesses.

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