Buying a T1 Connection

For those of you thinking about buying your own high- speed internet connection and hosting e-mail, Web pages, custom applications, Domain Name Service (DNS), a firewall, and everything but the kitchen sink yourself, this column is for you. It’s been a yearlong process for Scott Consulting Corp., but we’re finally there. Here is what we bought and a few consumer tips we learned along the way.

Starting with telecom, we can’t afford $15,000 per month for T3 speeds yet, so we bought a dedicated point-to- point T1 connection from our office in Minnesota to the Chicago point of presence of a nationwide backbone Internet service provider (ISP). We chose this connection because we want to eventually provide Internet service and host Web pages for a few customers, and we will need dedicated bandwidth to do so. Our provider runs a 600-MBps nationwide backbone and is rapidly building more bandwidth.

The cost is confusing, but worth wading into the details. The base price is $2,700 per month, but the vendor ran a $500-per-month promotion. Further, the vendor offers discounts for long-term contracts: 25 percent for 5 years. So the total vendor price was $1,650 per month.

However, our local telco, U S West, gets into the act because everyone depends on the local telco monopoly to move bits from a central office to the customer site. The customer pays dearly for this last mile, called a local loop charge. List price is roughly $650 per month; U S West doesn’t really give prices, so this is kind of a guess. But we were granted some sort of rate concession I still don’t fully understand, leaving a total U S West price of about $550 per month. So the total monthly cost is roughly $2,100.

Instead of a nationwide backbone ISP, we could have used a local ISP. This would have cost less money, but we would pay a price in performance. Most local ISPs in Minnesota connect to a bigger ISP, which then runs multiple point-to-point connections to Internet backbone providers in Chicago. For an end user, this means any backbone traffic is three hops away. Another problem is that the more local ISP customers there are, the worse our performance is, because all these customers eventually funnel to the same backbone connection. If the upstream connections are swamped, then bandwidth from us to the local ISP is meaningless.

Another little-discussed problem connecting with a local ISP: Most ISPs control a cache of IP addresses, and they loan subsets of these addresses to their customers. It is very difficult for an end-user customer to get IP addresses directly from InterNIC, the domain name registration authority. This means, if a customer switches ISPs, it loses its old IP addresses and must set up a whole new batch from the new ISP. The disruption may not be a big deal for an organization with only a few systems, but it could be devastating to more complex enterprises. Our new T1 connection went live in early April, replacing our original 56-KBps connection to our old ISP. After assigning new IP addresses to all our systems, we were out of touch for nearly 2 weeks while the name serving authorities across the Internet updated themselves.

Name serving is an art form. We are a consulting company, supposedly skilled with this stuff, so we need to do our own. Ted slaved for several days setting it up. Our primary DNS machine, BIGMAMA, is a Pentium 60 with 80 MB of memory and 3 GB of hard drive space. It is also our e-mail, Web and proxy server host. BIGMAMA performs admirably, especially given its age and power. Our backup DNS machine, ANTIQUE, is a grossly underconfigured 486/66 PC with 16-MB of memory running Windows NT 4 and DNS. ANTIQUE works fine for its intended single-use purpose.

Firewall considerations are also important. We use Microsoft Proxy Server right now, mostly because we already have the right to use it. We want to eventually change to a real firewall product. Proxy Server disguises our internal network from the outside Internet. This works well for our small network, sometimes too well. It will create problems in bigger networks because some operations need to happen outside the Proxy Server. For example, we have problems from our internal systems connecting to Web pages that require authentication. This means we can’t order books from Amazon.com, and in a touching irony, it is impossible to file Microsoft’s electronic Solution Provider renewal from a system protected by Microsoft’s Proxy Server.

All in all, setting up a high-speed Internet connection is a hassle. But the fast downloads and uploads we now enjoy and the learning we gained made the process worthwhile for us. Drop me an e-mail and we can swap stories.

Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.