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Inquiring Minds: Ask a lot of questions before choosing an ISP

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Reliability is key, so the lowest cost provider is not always your best bet. question from im8 What's your name? What's your email address? Who do you work for? Do you you have a technology-related question? Are there Net-related things you don't understand but think you should (and are too embarrassed to ask)? Send them in and watch this space. We're looking for an ISP to host our corporate Web site. What sorts of things should we look for? How do we choose?

Every Internet Service Provider is different. This is a decision that calls for a lot of balancing of features. Price, reliability, flexibility and service are all variables in this equation. Let's go over some of the issues at stake.

WHAT ARE YOUR NEEDS?

Most ISPs have some sort of tiered pricing system, depending on the amount of access you need and what you plan to use the account for. Look at your needs and try and guess where you're going with your Web site.

Will your site take up a lot of room on the server (disk usage)? Does it get a lot of traffic (bandwidth)?

What sorts of extras will you need -- extra e-mail addresses, multiple domains, secure transaction capabilities, RealAudio, etc.?

WHAT IS YOUR BUDGET?

Does the ISP have start-up charges and how many of the features you need are covered in those? What is the basic rate for monthly hosting of your site? Are you going to have to pay for a lot of extra features a la carte, or can you work out a deal with the ISP? What kind of flexibility do they have?

Many ISPs have discounts if you pre-pay annually or quarterly; these can be helpful, especially for Web hosting services since it's not likely you want to switch them very often.

Reliability is key, so the lowest cost provider is not always your best bet. A small difference in your monthly bottom line really doesn't balance out in the end when compared with loss of service.

The time and aggravation involved in any sort of service failure can be tremendous. Moving a Web site to a new host is not easy and can waste a lot of time and effort for both you and your customers. So take some precautions up front.

Your data is important. Ask how often the ISP does backups. How many copies do they keep, and do they keep one off site?

Imagine being told something like, "Well, there was a problem with your server and your data was corrupted. Unfortunately the problem wasn't caught before the backups kicked in for the night, so we wound up backing up your corrupted files and we no longer have a clean copy of your data."

If possible, keep a copy of your site at your office, too. Then if something happens with the ISP (like a breakdown in your relationship) they can't hold your data hostage.

Also, does your ISP guarantee how much time your site will be up? Down time with your Web site, while less of a problem overall than lost data, can still cost you money, lost e-mail and frustration.

Curious how good their customer service is? Choosing an ISP isn't like buying a TV. You'll need to call the customer service/tech support at some point in your relationship.

The best way to find out is to call them up. Ask them these questions, and others. Find out firsthand how helpful they are, how long they will keep you on hold. Send off an e-mail to them as well and see what their turnaround time is.

I've been with ISPs of many different sizes. So far I've had the best luck and overall satisfaction with good-sized local ISPs. Customer service with the large national ISPs can be a nightmare of hourlong hold times and impersonal service. Likewise the really small local ISPs often don't have the staff to provide good service and reliability.

Keep your eyes open and ask a lot of questions upfront because once problems arise, it might be too late for you and your Web site.

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