Putting a site on the Web really isn't that difficult these days - it's the running of a site and the services it offers that demand expertise and a considerable investment in time. For some larger organisations, administering a Web site means setting up a dedicated department, but there are alternatives and you don't need to do it all yourself.
Design, maintaining links, and making sure throughput is level, requires specialist knowledge and expensive equipment. For most, this new media requires a partnership with a specialist company or an Internet Service Provider (ISP). It is an ISP's job to make sure things run smoothly and ensure that anyone who wants to see your site can do so reliably and quickly.
The ISP will also provide you, the client, with data on where traffic on your site is going and advice on how to use that information effectively.
You also need a partner that will make technology decisions for you on issues, such as security, that offer your customers standards you are comfortable with.
PC Week took a look at Demon, Net Benefit and PSI Net, three major ISPs, each with a different business model offering contrasting bonuses to customers.
Demon is one of those companies which has struck a balance between the consumer and the corporate and is able to offer a mix of services that will have kids and MDs alike grinning from ear to ear.
For a start, Demon is huge and well equipped to deal with any eventuality.
For large corporates, Demon offers 64Kb to 2Mb connectivity (see cost per annum box) as well as the usual array of design and other corporate services. Demon has enough capacity to cope and plenty of staff to support you through the first steps.
Unlike Net Benefit and PSI Net, Demon provides dial-up and is one of the UK's largest and best-known access providers. As such, it maintains a high profile as a technology star, keen to ensure its users have access to the latest multimedia facilities such as real audio/video. Most corporates will have no need for these facilities, but as the Web becomes more sophisticated in delivering multimedia, Demon is gaining experience and is well ahead of the competition.
Being a large company with thousands of customers, Demon has a big responsibility when it comes to ensuring money isn't lost or intercepted. As a result the company has taken a stand with the controversial Secure Socket Layer (SSL) which has come under fire because of the US government's position on encryption.
The US government classifies encryption technology as munitions, and places strict controls on their export. SSL implementations within the US are permitted to use 128-bit session keys, but the export-approved version is restricted to 40-bit keys. A brute-force attack on an SSL transaction using 40-bit keys is estimated to require 64MIP-years of processing power; given the rate at which the state-of-the-art is advancing, Demon believes that current SSL-secured transactions will be vulnerable to trivial attacks within months to years. Thus, confidential information that does not change often (such as credit card or bank account details) should not be entrusted to export-approved SSL systems.
For this reason, Demon does not currently support any of the secure servers (WebSTAR and Netscape Commerce Server, for example) that use SSL. It considers the 40-bit key-length that the US government has approved for export in these products to be inadequate for commercial security purposes.
This is an excellent example of a situation where the service provider has taken a stance on an issue it feels could compromise its customers' best interests. In a sensitive area such as this it is imperative that the client is comfortable with its ISP's beliefs.
Net Benefit is something of a new boy on the block and has a completely different business model to both PSI and Demon. For a start, Net Benefit does not provide access to the Internet, dial-up or leased line. The company calls itself an Internet Business Solution provider and as such doesn't get involved in the actual wiring of your site. But that's not to say it can't cope with technical issues relating to the Internet's plumbing.
In most cases Net Benefit offers quick solutions to most issues in an informal and friendly manner.
The philosophy behind Net Benefit is not to act as a do-it-all shop, but as a reliable, stable service that can react to changing situations.
If you want a dial-up service, be it leased line or dial-up, go, for example, to Demon or BT. Net Benefit concentrates on keeping the outgoing traffic flowing through its T1 lines and because it doesn't have to deal with the throughput of thousands of people surfing the Web, it manages to cope rather well.
PSI is the stereotypical corporate partner with all the bandwidth you could ever need and a range of services to suit small and large businesses alike.
The company was one of the first in the UK to go for Frame Relay and as a result can confidently claim to offer one of the fastest dial-up services available. Using the only ATM/Frame Relay system in the country, PSI confidently guarantees a maximum throughput of 30% - giving a guaranteed output of 70% to its customers. This is achieved using Permanent Virtual Circuits (PVCs) which constantly move data packets across the network to ensure optimum performance. There is no dial-up service available to consumers and, according to a company spokesman, "we don't have to worry about bandwidth being used up during school holidays".
The ATM/Frame Relay bundle ensures that hops between routers (which slow down the packets of data on the network) are kept to a minimum, thus keeping your site speedy. PSI also offers an international service with offices across Europe and the US. This means your site can be mirrored seamlessly across the globe ensuring customers all over the world get the same level of service no matter where they are.
The ISP you pick is your partner on the Internet and it is its performance that will provide that lasting first impression. You don't want your customers hanging around waiting for images to download because it hasn't got the capacity to cope with demand.
In this overview, Demon and PSI come out as the two safe bets offering high standards of service and technology across the board.
PSI's Frame Relay setup is state-of-the-art offering the very best in high-bandwidth technology with a guarantee of throughput to match. Being an international company, it also has the edge for corporates who need mirror sites in different parts of the world. For this reason alone, PSI must score bonus points.
Net Benefit wins hands down for the smaller organisation needing a personal touch. Its staff are friendly and informed and are flexible enough to react to customers' demands, even if it means it has to make an investment to cope. It also offers design, server implementation and a friendly informal support facility which is ideal for small to medium sized businesses.
All three ISPs offer an excellent range of services, but are clearly differentiated by their own size, pricing and scope of service.
Roughly speaking: Net Benefit to start you off; Demon if you are already on the Web and committed to high-speed funky designs; and PSI if you need the ultimate in bandwidth and a serious partner to handle your requirements.
Demon Internet: demon.co.uk or 0181 371 1000
Net Benefit: netbenefit.co.uk or 0171 336 6777
PSI Net: www.psi.com or 01223 577577
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