What hardware do you need to run an ISP? Much less than you used to. In the old days, people would call your systems using a modem, log in and use your computers to access the net. Now, people use their own computers to hook up directly to the net via a PPP account, so they put a fairly light load on your systems.
So you don't need the fire-breathing hardware you did in the past. And, curiously, what used to be fire-breathing equipment is now mainstream. So you could literally buy a cheap PC from Frys or CompUSA and have a fine ISP server - with a few caveats we'll cover below.
I now have experience with quite a few Internet server platforms, including Linux, SGI Irix, SunOS and, sadly, Windows NT. I'm going to give my impressions of these systems from my own personal use. For comments from others, at least for now, see the old FAQ's chapter on hardware
If I were starting up an ISP today, this is the only platform I would consider, unless I was going for a really huge, high-stakes operation. Linux has come of age in the last few years, and has improved out of all recognition from when I last studied it.
The most obvious Linux advantage is cost. Buy a PC - the Linux box I presently have is a $ 699 HP Pavillion 6350, which is lightning fast and works great, with two unfortunate caveats we'll get to later. Install Linux on it from a CD ROM, priced from $ 6 to $ 50. Presto! You now have a fast, fully-functioning system.
However, that's not why I recommend Linux. The real secret behind Linux' popularity is that the support is far superior to any of the commercial Unix systems. I have run SGI Irix systems for one and a half years. For the first year, we had a very expensive service contract, and I could call up a technician, who was technically responsible for solving my problem. Sadly, he had about a 50% rate in helping me out, and we wound up dropping the service contracts because they were just too pricey.
Whenever I've had trouble with my Linux system, though, I just go up on the web to www.linux.org and look through the FAQs and HOWTOs. Someone, somewhere has had my problem before, and very often they've written something about it. When that fails, I visit DejaNews. A few keyword searches later, and I'm set.
I've had problems roughly comparable to my Irix ones on Linux, and it's been easy to find solutions to all of them. Because of this, I'm a convert.
I don't have enough experience with my new Linux system to comment on stability, but there are people who have had their systems running for years without a crash. When I used Linux in 1994, I found that my system crashed about once a week due to hard disk problems; however, Linux has matured a great deal since then, and that was probably the fault of my system setup, not Linux.
The best bottom-line recommenation I can give is, if you don't want any trouble, buy a system from a Linux reseller like VA Research. They'll configure the system for you and make sure all the components are the best for working with Linux.
So what kind of troubles have I had with my stock PC? Almost all of them were related to X-Windows, the graphical interface. While servers don't generally need graphical interfaces, most Unix users I know like to have an X-Windows system with a few Xterms lying around for work.
The problem was that the HP Pavillion (i) uses a non-standard graphics card, and (ii) doesn't have enough VRAM to support 24-bit colour. Both problems were tough to solve, but I eventually figured them out. (Sadly, the lack of VRAM is a permanent problem; it's not expandable and nothing can fix it :-( ). Of course if you don't want to use a graphical interface on your system, you'd do fine with a cheap unit like the Pavillion. It's certainly been awesomely fast, even under X. I'll post occasional updates on its reliability, so email me if you want to know the scoop.
BSDI is a variant of BSD Unix that includes a source code distribution and also features an extremely loyal user base. Basically, when the folks at Sun abandoned SunOS (4) for Solaris (also called SunOS 5, just to confuse us), they left out many folks who had gotten used to BSD Unix and didn't want to switch. BSDI, which runs on Intel hardware, is an excellent choice for any users who cut their teeth on BSD, or want the somewhat simpler configuration system they offer, combined with extensive vendor support.
The main downside is that the license can get expensive - it is now $ 995 per system or $ 2,995 for a source license. BSDI users generally wouldn't go a step without the source license and recommend it highly.
Essentially, BSDI is like FreeBSD plus a support contract from a reputable firm that's been in business for ages. You could also think of it as a compromise between Linux (no vendor support) and the much more expensive Sun hardware, which comes with excellent vendor support but high priced hardware as well.
According to BSDI's Kurt Raymond:
One reason that a number of customers pick BSDI over Linux is because of BSDI's alacrity in dealing with security issues. Customers rest assured that any security holes are dealt with proactively, and they are alerted to patches often before the CERT advisory hits the wire. Check out this statement from CERT (the security advisory council) that gives general guidelines on choosing an operating system from a stability/security standpoint.FreeBSD
FreeBSD is basically the same concept as Linux, but it hasn't exploded in popularity in the same way. However, you might prefer it if you're used to a Sun running SunOS, since it uses the same basic BSD-style interface.
Sun hardware has an excellent reputation. I had a Sun clone system that ran like a top - it would only go down when the power did. It was running old SunOS, which sadly is not Year 2000 compatible, so unfortunately it has a limited lifespan. I took it out of service only a couple of months ago, when it crashed and wouldn't come back up. But it had had quite an honorable service life: It lasted as my primary server from 1994-1998. I'm not sure if it's dead yet; I'll have to check it one of these days - but it's probably too slow for the heftier demands of today's servers. (Update: I booted it up and gave it a try; the system's running fine and the circa 1994 hardware has continued to function without a blip).
Unfortunately, Solaris, the successor operating system to SunOS, has a worse reputation. This is mainly because loyal SunOS customers hated the various changes, including a much more complex set of boot scripts. However, Solaris on Sun hardware is undeniably an excellent system that's served many people well.
For applications where reliability, vendor support and third-party software are most important, I'd continue to recommend Sun over Linux. But the price difference is steep, and the quality difference has dramatically decreased in recent years.
The main advantage of Irix is what seduced me into using it: It has the slickest user interface in the business, far superior to anything the other Unix vendors put out. The machines are beautiful, and the screen displays are beautiful. If you love aesthetics, you have to love SGI.
Unfortunately, I found reliability of the platform to be less than stellar. In one and a half years of light use, our Origin 200 server has never had a problem. But our two O2 systems, which have had more use, have both been flaky. This may have in part been due to poor power within the building, but the PCs here, which have also received heavy use, have continued to work.
In addition, SGI support has had a great deal of difficulty helping me with my problems, and the number of SGI users inhabiting the newsgroups ensures a much smaller knowledge base than Linux. I've had several problems with my SGI systems that I simply have not been able to solve. For example, I discovered that I could not create a user by just adding her or him to the /etc/passwd file. When I asked support, they threw up their hands and just told me to use the graphical tools. Also, I had a routing problem that was preventing people from "seeing" my machines from outside the network. SGI support was unable to help; I finally found the solution by accident when I was poking through their documentation.
With annual service contracts costing more than a new PC, it's hard to recommend Irix at this time. But I make this comment with sadness, because I've really loved using the machines. I hope SGI will come back, but with their new emphasis on Windows NT systems, I fear that I will never buy another one.
I'm really including this platform mainly because of Phillip Greenspun's experiences with it. He's run Solaris, HP and NT and finds HP by far the more reliable Unix system around.
The main disadvantage of HP/UX is that it's fairly non-standard and may be difficult to get some software to run on it. But if you can bear with that, HP hardware is the best.
(It is largely on that recommendation that I decided to buy a HP PC!).
For an ISP server, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to use Windows NT. It's far less reliable than Unix, is much slower on equivalent hardware, and, well, doesn't have any particular advantages to recommend it.
In particular, you should note that using NT to control a terminal server through Remote Access Service (RAS) requires individual client licenses that make use, simply, cost-prohibitive.
That should put an end to the story.
Unfortunately, many of your clients may be pressuring you to us a NT web server. The reason is that there are lots of nice thick books on how to create web applications using NT, and so there are plenty of people diving in. From the ISP's point of view, this is a terrible idea; these servers are highly unreliable, and putting complex database applications on them makes them even less so.
Freelink, the ISP I'm associated with, now has several NT servers. (Naturally, I fought tooth and nail against getting them, but they came anyway). The record of these servers has amply confirmed my own personal prejudices: Many is the time when I'm called here when I'm the only person in the office and asked to reboot one of them.
If you are developing your own web applications, I strongly urge you to consider development under Unix. mySQL is a free SQL server that uses the same basic language as Microsoft SQL Server. You can use Perl, the free interpreted language, to write CGI programs that access mySQL. It's all easy and fun, if you know anything about programming at all. For some details, visit Web Tools Review and check out the article I've linked to.
There are quite a few tools for making an Apple Macintosh a web or mail server, and they've been getting better in recent years.
The Mac world will get a major boost with MacOS X, which should combine the depth of Unix with the ease of use of MacOS. I now own a Mac, and I can say that it's a much more elegant, fun to use interface than Windows, so I look forward to seeing the new OS; it may surprise us all and become a mainstream ISP platform in a few years.
Here are a few Mac ISP resources from Tim O'Neill:
Digital Forest Mac
Mac ISP Resources
Disk space, networking & memory
It used to be that big disks cost big money, and that you had to have a really expensive computer to run an ISP.
Nowadays, the mainstream in disk space is around 8-10GB - amounts that looked like sheer fantasy when I first started writing this FAQ.
I ran a free email service that scaled up to over 5,000 users, using about 5GB of disk space. So if you're looking at a small ISP on a tiny budget, you could buy a 16GB disk for $ 400 at Fry's Electronics and be fine for a long time.
Often, your router brand is determined by your upstream provider; you buy the unit pre-configured by them. That's how it worked for us, and that's probably how it will work for you.
That said, just about everyone loves Cisco routers. Although Cisco configuration can be horribly confusing, they are also well-supported on the Inet-Access mailing list.
I barely realize my Cisco router exists - because it always works.
Our own installation is on a direct Ethernet (see the Hookup section for details), so I have never had a need for a CSU/DSU. I've heard Kentrox are good, and I've also heard that most brands, even cheap ones, work fine.
Modems & Terminal Servers
The new 56k modems are really a watershed in the world of the ISP. For the first time, it has become almost mandatory for ISPs to buy expensive integrated "access servers", combining modems and terminal servers in a single convenient but expensive box.
If you don't, you're looking at sticking with slow speeds, a maximum of 33.6kbps. Obviously, that is not competitive. Even LA Freenet has made the investment and gone to the new systems.
There are several competing access sever products.
The general net consensus is that Livingston is the brand to watch: It offers higher-quality products with far superior support than the competition. They make the now-legendary PortMaster 3 and 4. Although they are now owned by Lucent (a division of AT&T), this doesn't seem to have affected their reputation.
Ascend is a pioneer in this business - they had a definite head start in this market. However, the consensus seems to be that they have squandered the lead, primarily through buggy software and troublesome support.
Cisco makes access servers, but they are quite pricey and it's hard to find decent information on them. A couple of Inet-Access users have replaced their Ciscos with PM3s and 4s.
If you intend to run an ISP based on modems, possibly in a "lowest possible cost" model, you'll probably want to look at USR Sportsters as pretty much the only modems that can compete. But beware; they are not meant for continuous use and will fail unless you take significant steps to make sure they stay cool.
You'll save a lot of agony by using a terminal server (such as a Livingston PortMaster) instead of a multi-port serial card. Serial cards tend to be very taxing of your computing resources, unless you dedicate a box specifically to serial connections.
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