Network congestion and shutdowns by major Internet service providers are prompting US users to look for ways to guarantee performance from their providers.
But for a variety of reasons, that isn't easy to do.
"Today, our provider agreement just says, `You send us a large sum of money, and we'll be nice guys and deliver some of your data packets,' " complains Matt Mathis, a network engineering specialist at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.
Mathis says one problem is the lack of standard Internet performance metrics and tools that would let users and providers reliably measure things such as effective bandwidth, uptime, transmission time and packet- delivery reliability. Mathis spoke at the Internet Society's annual meeting here.
He says he hopes emerging measurement tools -- one of which is being developed at the supercomputer centre -- will some day allow him to hold his Internet access provider more accountable.
The service providers aren't likely to be keen on that idea. "Any performance metric you can quote, you'll regret, because eventually somebody will claim you are not meeting it," says Richard Mandelbaum, president of Nysernet, an Internet service provider in Great Neck, New York.
Mandelbaum says none of the major service providers guarantees levels of performance or publishes actual performance statistics. "But they all claim to provide the best service on the Internet," he says.
But as users put critical applications on the Internet, they are beginning to demand assurances. "We would expect to receive contractual performance guarantees with any service networking, telecommunications, Internet or whatever," says Ray Hoving, chairman of the Society for Information Management's National Data Highways Advisory Council.
Users also say they would pay premium prices for premium service, he says. Hoving is also director of corporate information technology services at Air Products and Chemicals in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Major 'net service providers are beginning to heed the call.
By year's end, MCI Communications will offer a premium option as part of its recently announced Concert InternetPlus service.
The option, which was intended for large multinational firms that run critical applications on the Internet, will provide guaranteed bandwidth or pay customers refunds.
Another problem with performance guarantees: A single provider often can't control end-to-end reliability because multiple companies handle the traffic from one user to another. An important exception would be companies that use the Internet for a private intranet between regional offices, says Scott Bradner, a network specialist at Harvard University and co-director of the Internet Engineering Task Force's Operational Requirements Area, which also met here recently.
For enterprise intranets, Bradner advises users to contract with one national service provider, rather than several smaller regional providers. Users should demand service guarantees for traffic that moves among their offices, he says. Like it or not, the major service providers may have to submit to third-party performance audits, Mandelbaum says. He says the Automotive Network Exchange -- a consortium of automobile companies that promotes electronic commerce with suppliers -- seeks ways to certify providers. Suppliers that want to do business with an auto company over the net would be required to use a certified provider to offer high service levels.