A few months ago a client called me in a panic. His Internet connectivity was gone, and without it, his business had ground to a halt. It turned out that his ISP, or Internet Service Provider, had gone out of business and left him floundering.
He signed up with a new one, but it took weeks to contact his company's customers with the new e-mail addresses and Web site domain. Network connectivity is essential to small businesses, so this month we talk about how to change ISPs without disrupting your business.
Learning how Internet connectivity services work will prepare you if you ever need to upgrade your service or change providers and how to avoid being left in the lurch.
Connectivity: Size and Cost Matter
Let's start with a brief introduction to the basic workings of Internet connectivity services, which can be broken into two main components, the physical network connection to your office and the connection to network services like e-mail or a Web site.
At the very minimum most businesses no matter how small will have network connectivity. Sometimes this is referred to as Wide Area Network (WAN) connectivity. The network connection lets you physically connect to the Internet to surf the Web, use instant messaging or download e-mail.
A WAN connects a company's computers to the rest of the Internet, much like your phone company connects your phone to the rest of the world. Connectivity to network services depends on your specific network configuration.
Some companies host their own mail server or Web site on their internal network, while others rely on outside hosting providers. If you're using a hosting service for your Web site or your e-mail, then it's located in a protected data center, generally nowhere near your office or network.
So many Internet services and network types may seem confusing but essentially the type of service you get depends on what's available in your area and how much bandwidth you need for your business.
There's a direct relationship between cost and the amount of data you can transmit over a connection (or pipe as it is referred to in the trade). The smallest connection available is a dialup link. Dialup is great on the road because if you can get to a telephone, you have online access.
However, unless you have extremely limited connectivity needs, or you're in a rural area with no other access options, most businesses require the next larger service, broadband.
Broadband service typically comes in two flavors, DSL or cable modem. DSL transmits over your existing phone wires or cable modem, while cable modem transmits over the coaxial cable used by your cable TV service. From a consumer perspective, they offer essentially the same functionality, so let your choice be driven by price and availability.
One advantage DSL has over cable is that most DSL providers let you tailor your upload and download speed to suit your needs. If you have an in-house mail server, you might want to make the connection symmetric that is make the upload and download transfer rates the same.
Typically, network connections are configured with higher downloads speed because most people don't need fast upload speeds, although that can vary depending on the nature of your small business. Either connection type costs on average between $60 and $100 per month. More exotic connectivity such as, wireless, satellite, and higher-speed network connections are also available.
You might be like my poor client, who was forced to switch, but many customers change because they find a better deal or because they need more bandwidth. Over the past few years the cost of Internet connectivity has plummeted, so it pays to shop around for the best price. Many telecommunications carriers now offer attractive combination data and telecommunication packages designed especially for the SMB market. In larger urban areas, you can frequently find good prices from a smaller carrier who specializes in serving small businesses.
Some unlucky people don't have a choice. There are areas of the country that still only have dialup access. If you're located in a rural area, you're pretty much stuck with what's available.
Planning Pays Off
Once you have signed a contract with your new ISP, talk to your provider about how to minimize the amount of time your Web site will be down and inaccessible to your customers. After all, they do this sort of thing all the time and will have a plan to help walk you through the process.
Before you move, you need to document what your current service covers. If you presently get your domain name (the yourbusinessname.com part of your e-mail address) from your soon-to-be-former provider, you will need to remember to transfer that to your new provider.
Many SMBs simply use a third party like Tucows or EasyDNS to take care of domain registrations separately, so they don't have to worry about transferring the ownership. Make sure you or your new provider transfers the domain so that it points to the new IP address.
Here's a checklist of items to help smooth your ISP transition:
- Maintain your old connectivity for a month or so: Doing this means you won't be left hanging without Internet service if something goes wrong during the migration.
- Make the change on a weekend: Or during off hours to minimize the impact on your connectivity. With proper planning, the outage might be as short as a few minutes.
- Change your domain records: If you maintain any externally facing servers from your office network, you will need to update your DNS (Domain Name Service) records. Your new provider can help you with this process.
- Change the MX (Mail eXchange) records: If your provider hosts your e-mail accounts, you need to update the MX records to point to the new IP address. The new vendor will help you with the process, but it will take a couple of days to take effect. To make sure you don't lose any e-mail during the transition period, list the new provider with the highest priority, followed by your old provider.
- Change your router's settings: Let your service provider help you if you're not sure what your new router settings need to be. Most broadband services use DHCP to give you an IP address and other settings automatically when you plug in your router to the network. For a bit more money you can request a fixed IP address, but unless you're computer knowledgeable and hosting your own mail or Web server, it's not worth the extra expense. If you requested a fixed IP address, you need to update your DNS server and gateway information at the same time.
To avoid the mess my client went through when his ISP skipped town, don't let one company provide your domain name, Web site hosting and Internet connection. The smart move is to have a separate company for each piece of the puzzle. That way if something happens, you lose only one service, not all three. If your ISP crashes, your office may lose its Internet connection, but customers will still be able to access your Web site. If your domain host goes out of business, you can transfer the site name to another host, without losing your e-mail addresses. And if your Web site goes down, you'll still have Internet and e-mail access.
Whether you change service providers because you need to upgrade your bandwidth or have found a cheaper rate, make sure that you understand all the components. Changing service providers isn't so difficult if you take the time to plan your move and let the new company help you make the switch as smoothly and transparently as possible.
Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.
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