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Becoming an Internet Service Provider

by Rob Kolstad, Berkeley Software Design, Inc.

Becoming an Internet Service Provider is not a mysterious or difficult process. This document outlines the steps necessary.

This is version 0.9.1 of a brand-new document. Every effort has been made to ensure accuracy; no promises are made. Please communicate any errors to the author, kolstad@bsdi.com, +1 719-593-9445.

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Introduction

For a topic that has seen so much hype of late, it is amazing how little is explained about what the Internet is and how one leverages it. This white paper gives a brief explanation of the Internet, services it provides, and how new `Internet Service Providers' start up their operation.

This article is written as an overview. It is not intended to be 100% complete (that would take an entire book!). Finally, it is written from the biased point of view of someone who does not wish to spend tens of thousands of dollars to start such a service. This bias extends to the occasional emphasis on BSDI's products.

The Internet: A Brief Overview

The formal definition of the Internet says ``The Internet is a network that connects thousands of other computer networks''. This does not seem to be particularly helpful in understanding what's really going on.

Computer networks became practical when Ethernet and the Berkeley 4.1 follow-on releases of the Berkeley BSD UNIX system started becoming widely available back in the 1982 timeframe. These `Local Area Networks' (LANs) typically spanned an area smaller than a couple square miles. Some hardware existed to connect these LANs to extend the area slightly, but not on a nation-wide scale.

Prior to and concurrently with the development of these small high speed networks, the ARPA (US government research agency) folks were funding research on the `ARPANet', a lower speed (64,000 bits/second and slower) network that connected a few dozen highly distributed institutions (using a cross-country communications backbone). These were the days when 56,000-64,000 bits/second was an incredibly high speed that was astounding in its transfer capacity.

In the 10-12 years after 1982, local Ethernet (and, later, token ring) networks penetrated the marketplace in large companies and institutions, educational institutions, and, ultimately, smaller organizations. Ethernet hardware can now be had for less than US$50/node.

Users of local networks exploited them by sharing files (much easier than moving floppy disks or tapes from one computer to another), communication (e.g., electronic mail), remote printing (i.e., sharing a printer among several workstations or PCs) and occasionally other features (e.g., remote job execution). These types of communication, of course, are desirable on a larger scale, as well.

While Ethernet was gaining its foothold, another kind of communication evolved in the UNIX world as groups leveraged a program called `UUCP' (``Unix to Unix CoPy'') to share electronic mail and newsgroups (which are discussions forums somewhat similar to bulletin boards) via a loosely organized nation-wide dialup `network' called USENET. Messages were passed from computer to computer with a routing scheme that often required the sender of a message to know the exact path of 10 computers that would process a message before it was delivered to its recipient. This nation-wide network whetted the appetite of the technical community for ever-larger and ever-faster networks. E-mail delivery on USENET could take hours or days, depending on the frequency of telephone dialing at the various sites.

As communications technology costs decreased, computers with LANs proliferated, and the TCP/IP protocol was proven successful, the notion of a nation-wide or world-wide network continued to assert itself in the minds of many.

This network would provide communication 24 hours/day with permanent connections between large numbers of computers. Transferring small packets of information one at a time, communication across large distances required only a fraction of a second, since all the communication lines were always connected. A packet from New York City to San Francisco might pass through eight different `routers' on its way to its destination - but each `hop' requires only a few thousandths of a second, thus effecting a near instantaneous cross-USA connection.

The Internet is the term coined to describe the interconnection network that facilitates communication among all the smaller networks and individual computer systems that connect to it.

With the dramatically increased bandwidth of fiber, decreased digital communication costs, and a number of high-tech firms marketing and selling products, the Internet has taken on a life of its own.

Connecting to the Internet

Interestingly enough, the Internet's connectivity aspects are not centrally organized. For instance, BSDI's headquarters uses one provider who has connection points in certain major cities. The BSDI Colorado Springs office has a direct telephone-company supplied line to Dallas, where BSDI's data joins other firms' data in a sort of information pipeline to a bigger backbone, which ultimately delivers the packets across the world.

This lack of centralization means that the Internet is not organized like an army with a `President' node at the top with `General' nodes directly beneath it. The Internet is more like a hodge-podge of various interconnections that resemble more a crazy game of connect-the-dots than a cleverly designed backbone-with-branches. This is not a criticism! Each node was connected to the Internet in a perfectly rational way - but typically by an organization that had specific goals for its use and its customers' use. These strange connections make more sense when viewed in the light of the USA's communications tariffs that sometimes favor longer hops between states over shorter hops within a state.

Many people wish to connect `directly to the Internet'. This connotes an idea that there's some `backbone' that affords a `direct' connection, similar to the way a water company might run a water main directly down a major street of a town. This is not the way it works, though.

To connect to the

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