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How to ensure your business never loses its net connection

Posted on 14 Nov 2011 at 09:39

Steve Cassidy reveals why businesses can't afford to rely on a single ISP for their internet connectivity

I always get into a bit of a state when clients that I’ve fired get in touch again. It’s a slightly strained atmosphere, since I don’t expect these people want to re-experience the outbreak of temper that typically preceded such a firing, and this means that if they’re calling me again they must be in pretty desperate straits. If they start the call with “Steve! Mate! How are you?” then I know it has to be really bad.

In this case, there had been some kind of problem with the internet connection, the kind of problem that doesn’t just go away after a reboot. They weren’t merely offline, but totally disconnected – their ISP had actively decided to remove service from them. Secretly, while listening to their panicky entreaties pouring out of my phone, I was wondering whether the reason I’d fired them had popped up again during their dealings with the ISP. Once an ISP has fallen out with you, your life can become surprisingly difficult, whether you’re a business or a home user.

Once an ISP has fallen out with you, your life can become surprisingly difficult, whether you’re a business or a home user

As usual, it isn’t any highfalutin or head-banging technical complexity concerning the broadband link that causes the trouble, but the boring, everyday contractual and legal stuff. There are only so many pairs of telephone wires coming into your property from the telephone exchange, and once an ISP with whom you’re (to be polite) in dispute has bought access to your space, via an intermediary such as BT Openreach, the bottom line is that it’s by no means simple to reclaim ownership of that copper pair once an ISP has provided a service over it.

People running smaller ISPs have muttered darkly to me about procedures within our national major carrier, ones that involve print-outs of Excel spreadsheets and yellow highlighter pens, to get a line reassigned while a dispute is outstanding. If your request happens to be on a sheet of paper that’s lost or turned into a paper aeroplane one day, then you’re basically Donald Ducked.

I couldn’t possibly condone the method used by one of my contacts, faced with this very problem while moving clients into new premises recently vacated by a firm that had gone bust owing their ISP a pile of money. He physically ripped out all the recognisable telephone (and hence, also, broadband) wires from the building, right back to where they disappeared into the tarmac at the back of the car park, and then notified the carrier (almost said BT then, tsk tsk!) that “building works associated with the change of tenant” had wiped away all evidence of any preceding service, so could they please just start a fresh order without any history at all?

From a legally fastidious point of view, this could be construed as criminal damage. On the other hand, it did rather neatly sweep away all bureaucratic objections to a simple job of supply, and was an absolutely perfect fit with the simple and unbending job-ordering system that dominates the life of the typical carrier installations engineer. You can’t very well take this approach, though, if the dispute relates to your ongoing business, and you especially can’t do it if the dispute isn’t your fault.

Forgotten bills

Over the past calendar month, I’ve encountered four connections whose ISP (and this wasn’t all one firm, I hasten to add) had simply forgotten altogether to bill monthly for the connection, then turned up just before one of those big annual anniversary dates (three of the four did it the week after Christmas, expecting to be paid before 31 December), demanding a whole year’s connection charges as a lump sum. For whatever bizarre reason, this practice seems to take place more often with the bigger, fatter, business-grade connections – and at least one of the victims was on the hook for the thick end of £50,000.

As the dispute rolled on into January, when at least a few of the decision makers were back at their desks, this ISP slowly revealed that there was effectively nobody empowered to stop the monster that was their credit control and recovery department from swinging into action.

Fortunately, the possibility that this failure to connect might turn into a show-stopping problem had occurred to the management team sometime in the autumn, since their accounting system had flagged up a rising accrual that wasn’t being disbursed in the usual manner, and so they’d done the only sensible thing when faced with this threat (or any other kind) to their connection – they’d ordered themselves an alternate link and some hardware at least minimally capable of using more than one pipeline to the outside world.

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User comments

Low-End Solution

For the smaller business or home user with an unreliable connection (like me), Draytek's Vigor routers can offer multiple WAN connections and even fall back to 3G if necessary.

By d_marchant on 14 Nov 2011

Two routers

Our retail business uses two Cisco 800 routers, one as primary and one as secondary, each with it's own ADSL (both supplied by BT unfortunately). So if one fails, router or line, the other assumes the default gateway. Works well as long as you know the state of the secondary line. That's where management software is required to regularly test such things. There are companies that provide these services.

By drummerbod on 14 Nov 2011

Low end difference

For most low end businesses the changeover can be managed manually. There is no need for ultra-clever auto failover because the reasons you describe - credit stop or dispute - are not sudden and technical.

3G is not a viable alternative for us because the remote support tunnels can't navigate the proxy (so I'm told ) although it would keep our email running.

Cable is not an option because we're on an industrial estate and Virgin don't see the density of demand - or demand for anything other than broadband to make it worth laying cable. So we can't switch media. And £700 a month for a leased line is a big jump from ADSL.

The last time we lost internet it was due to a JCB which would have affected all ADSL ISPs equally.

We just have to rely on Zen not to lose the plot and so far we are very happy.

By CLCKMSS on 15 Nov 2011

Draytek 2830

Triple WAN router...
It doesn't load balance terribly well IME, but it does fail over just fine.

You can get a PAYG 3G dongle from Three and then top it up when needed for an outage (keep your documentation up to date) - test it on the day you buy it, and pretty much fire and forget other than that.

In the case of a prolonged outage I have a 3G SIM with a static IP address that I use as my "day to day" travelling access device that I swap out as required.

They are pretty much unmatched IMHO.

By gingerinc on 27 Dec 2011

Oh and Virgin Internet

I did a few enquiries for clients in the last year...
They don't really seemed to be geared up for business internet connection other than for offices that are in residential areas...

Let alone the fee's...

And for those that are outside the coverage - tough - Virgin told me they aren't expanding their infrastructure / provision any further.

So if you can't get it, you won't get it... Fullstop.

Unless you want a few hundred £ a month EFM or leased line...

By gingerinc on 27 Dec 2011

Spill the beans

Perhaps some more details on models you have found good in this respect would be useful and save some of us at the sharp end a lot of wasted work.
Even an up to date product comparison review would be nice, a quick search on firewall reveals there has not been much recently in the way of reviews and certainly not tested for wan failover.

By dave1g on 6 Apr 2012

Spill the beans

Perhaps some more details on models you have found good in this respect would be useful and save some of us at the sharp end a lot of wasted work.
Even an up to date product comparison review would be nice, a quick search on firewall reveals there has not been much recently in the way of reviews and certainly not tested for wan failover.

By dave1g on 7 Apr 2012

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Steve Cassidy

Steve Cassidy

Steve is a networks expert and a contributing editor to PC Pro for more years than he cares to remember. He mixes network technologies, particularly wide-area communications and thin-client computing, with human resources consultancy.

Read more More by Steve Cassidy

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