The MGA With An Attitude

This is a mention of some of the do's and don'ts of WEB SERVER SELECTION, and why your Online Service (such as AOL) may not be an Internet Service Provider.

Before all else I must explain (for those who don't know) the difference between an Online Service and an Internet Service Provider. When you get serious about having your own web site on the internet I would advise you to contract for the service with a local Internet Service Provider (hereafter referred to as ISP) rather than with a national Online Service (such as America On Line for instance).

You would like to have a handful of essential services provided to you. A local ISP should be very good at providing these precise services (and possibly other services as well). And I will tell you right off that AOL fails on all counts.

1.) If possible you would like to have a local ISP, meaning that the physical server computer is located close enough to you geographically to be connected with a local phone call from your dial-up modem to their dial-in modem, and that should in turn connect directly to the server computer without requiring any additional link across the internet.

2.) You would like a certain amount of memory space allowed on the server hosting your web site in order to store all of your required data files (web pages, images, etc) on line. This is most commonly 10 megabytes of space (subject to change and negotiable for a price) allocated for your personal use.

3.) You would like at least one unlimited e-mail address to be serviced through this same server computer.

4.) You would like and should demand a "clean" service free from any commercial advertising on your web site, and (2 for 1 here) you should expect the service contractor to keep any and all of your personal information private.

5.) You should expect and demand high quality technical support to be available to you 24 hours a day every day of the year. For this it is not necessarily bad to have to wake someone up in the night with a pager, as long as they always call back immediately.

6.) You should expect and demand an open socket connection to the internet, so that once your server makes the connection you can go anywhere and do anything you want on the internet.

7.) You should expect and demand that your service provider to be using high quality and reliable state of the art hardware to service your account.

Beyond these few items you would need very little else to successfully operate your web site, and to freely access the internet. Once you are plugged into the internet via your local ISP you can do pretty much do anything that anyone else can do on the net. You can use your local dial up connection to access e-mail on another ISP server computer anywhere in the world (but not AOL e-mail). You can upload and download and otherwise manage another web site on another ISP server anywhere in the world (but not on the AOL server). You have free access to roam across the entire world wide web with a web browser of your choice, e-mail package of your choice, FTP software of your choice (file Transfer Protocol), and in general are free to do anything on the net.

And now I will take a little time (as little as possible but still a lot of time) to explain why AOL does not properly provide these services. This I do not (just) because I don't like AOL service, but because I believe that you as a web user (especially when you're footing the bill) should be informed. This may at times sound a lot like preaching or politics, but it is very informative stuff that I had to learn via the school of hard knocks.

1.) Dial up: - AOL uses a single server computer complex located in eastern USA, and (at last report) does not even own the equipment but leases the service from another business entity. You may dial into this system via a local dial-up service which is either provided, or more often contracted for, by AOL. These local dial-up phone numbers may be shared by other on-line services. When your modem connects to the local dial-up service your computer is first quarried for your ID and password, and for the ID of the service to which you want to connect (AOL in this case). The local dial-up service then routes your connection over the internet to connect to the AOL server, and that server then processes your request for connection to your AOL account. If the AOL server should be down at that time (not terribly unusual) you could be disconnected after having spent the cost of the local phone call. Assuming that your connection to the AOL server is successful, all data transmission to follow is routed over the internet between the AOL server and your local dial-up server. As such, all of your data communication is subject to the normal delays caused by routine internet data traffic routing and data link sharing. For all of this you may not notice much difference if you are browsing the web, but for work on your own web site the local data connection will be considerably faster and more trouble free, and you will have a much better chance of connection on the first dial attempt.

2.) Storage space: - AOL is one of the earliest service providers on the net. As such much of the server equipment they have is antiquated either in hardware of in the configuration of the operating system of their server. Years ago when hard drives were smaller and more expensive the traditional space allocation on a web server was 2-MB per account. As such the AOL server operating system has the service logically divided into 2-MB accounts. In order to compete in more modern times AOL claims to provide you with 10-MB of on line space, but in fact the space will be divided as 5 separate 2-MB accounts. This is the reason that they give you up to 5 usernames and 5 e-mail addresses for one contracted account. In order to use most of the space provided you would need to shuffle your files (and web page URLs) among 5 different base web addresses. Each of these 2-MB accounts has some system overhead space requirement of about 1/4-MB. The end result is that your useable on-line storage space is only about 8-3/4-MB, and that is segmented between 5 separate logical smaller storage spaces, making it rather more difficult to manage your files.

3.) E-Mail service: - You can have up to 5 different e-mail accounts with AOL , but each one takes up some space on the server. If you do all of your e-mail activity on one e-mail address, that requires a significant (and maybe unpredictable) amount of storage space exclusively under one of your 2-MB logical accounts. If you get a lot of e-mail messages on a regular basis, this may require you to allocate one entire 2-MB logical account for e-mail message space, at the exclusion of storing any web site files there. It also effectively limits your e-mail message storage space to about 1-3/4-MB. As such, AOL has a tactical space problem with e-mail data and ends up limiting e-mail traffic on any one account to something line 500 messages stored on the server at any one time (incoming and outgoing messages combined). If you should take a short vacation (maybe as little as a long weekend) and let your e-mail pile up to the point where it exceeds this limit, some various things can happen, none of which are desirable. The server may delete some of your older messages, particularly if they are over 30 days old. The server will likely refuse any new incoming messages. Refused messages will result in the generation of a return e-mail message informing the sender of the problem. If you are a member of an e-mail list that automatically forwards all incoming list messages to everyone on the list (including you) this can cause some very serious technical problems, and also possible personal embarrassment and/or inconvenience when a friend or acquaintance receives your bounced e-mail notice. There are other potential e-mail problems here, but I just quit elaborating.

4.) On-line advertising: - Okay, this has long since gone far beyond funny to the point of bordering on criminal. AOL is charging one of the highest monthly fees of any service provider, and at the same time is pushing one of the highest amounts of on-line advertising. This includes animated flying banner ads that pop up incessantly and uncontrollably over your personal web pages whenever visitors come to browse around your web site. If you have an otherwise efficient web site with fast loading web pages, the overhead data transmission required for said advertising functions can far exceed the data requirement for your web pages. As such the operation of your web site is severely hindered, not only by the inconvenience and distraction of the advertising, but also by severely reducing the download speed for your personal web pages. Totally aside from all the unwanted advertising, when you have a slow web site you will have discouraged visitors. There are some on line services that are totally free to the user and will host your web site and e-mail account, and will be pushing far less advertising than you encounter with an AOL account. So why anyone would bother with an AOL account is beyond me. I suppose it may be for lack of being fully informed. Otherwise there are some AOL users that are there because they started their AOL accounts long ago when AOL was actually considered one of the leading services and had no on-line advertising.

5.) Tech support: - I'm a fairly savvy fellow when it comes to handling web problems (at least a little more competent than the average user). As such, when I have encountered the need to call for tech support, the low caliber help they have answering the phones at AOL have absolutely never been able to solve any of my problems on the first try. I have had to call back numerous times, and have been handed off to other support personnel many times, with most calls in fact, and handed over to multiple successive personnel on many occasions. It has been my experience that AOL tech support has almost never been able to answer my question or solve my problem no matter how many people get involved. The final straw was one time when I figure I had worked my way up to perhaps the only technically competent support person available (about 6 hand-offs up the ladder) and was still not finding a solution. I finally got frustrated and declared that all I wanted was an open socket connection to the internet, and I could work it out from there on my own. The response to that was, "I'm sorry sir, but AOL does not provide that service", which leads me directly to the next point.

6.) Open socket connection to the internet: - The lack of this particular service is the overbearing reason why AOL is not an Internet Service Provider, but just another Online Service. AOL does in fact have their own open connection to the internet, but they will not connect you directly to it. When you are logged into AOL via your AOL account, every request for access to the internet, such as using a browser or a search engine, must first pass through the AOL server and be "approved" before net access is allowed. There are many types of net access requests that are not allowed. For instance you cannot use Eudora e-mail software with AOL to reach out over the net and retrieve e-mail from another web server. You cannot use a generic FTP program through AOL to transfer data files to another web server (although you may be able to retrieve remote files with the AOL FTP function). When I tried to use the AOL search engine to look for references to "Flashnet" (an AOL competitor) on the internet, the result was an absolute blank, zero references found. When I do this same search through my local ISP the search engine returns thousands of references to "Flashnet".

The truth here is that AOL provides to you those services which it chooses to provide, and denies your access to the open internet at their discretion. One of their explanations for this (as best I can recall) is that the AOL server computer has two different functional machines for connection to the internet, one to service dial up connections for AOL account members, and one to service data requests coming from the internet. For some reason (that they don't seem to be able to explain in layman's terms) the front door and the back door cannot communicate directly, so there is no possibility of any direct connection to the net for the AOL account members, and also no direct connection to the AOL server data base from the net. End of explanation, I give up, and at that point I canceled my AOL account on the spot. For years AOL has been advertising "Unlimited access to the internet". In fact the only thing unlimited there is the amount of time you are allowed to spend on line chatting with the AOL server and chatting with other AOL members concurrently on line with the AOL server.

7.) State of the art hardware: - I'm really sorry here, but either the AOL equipment is totally antiquated and incapable of performing modern internet service, or AOL has intentionally programmed it to shut out the rest of the world to a large extent. I suspect the answer is a combination of both. In any case the result still comes out the same, and AOL either cannot or will not provide the full service you deserve, and cannot or will not allow its own members full unrestricted access to the internet. Either way the AOL advertising statement "Unlimited access to the internet" has got to be an intentionally fraudulent claim.

In summary, an Online Service provider will be offering you some narrowly defined range of services which they choose to provide, and which may have very little to do with access to the rest of the internet. Stock quotes and airline ticket services are such examples, and AOL is a similar Online Service. An Internet Service Provider on the other hand is in business specifically to provide you with open access to the internet, and other services they provide are incidental and secondary to that primary service. The fact that you can get this service with a local dial-up hardware server is a true bonus. I am very happy to pay $20 per month to my local ISP to get good service on all of the above stated requirements. I further believe the AOL service must be worth less than nothing, because better service is available for free from other providers.


Barney Gaylord

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