How Does an ISP Work?

By J.T. Barett

Describes what an Internet Service Provider is, what kind of equipment it keeps in its facilities and the services it offers.

An Internet service provider is an organization that offers website hosting and related services. ISPs act as “data warehouses,” leasing out their large computing capacity to many thousands of website operators, ranging from individuals and mom-and-pop stores to corporations, non-profit groups and government agencies.

Data Center

An ISP keeps thousands of computers in a data center, a secure, air-conditioned facility that may encompass several thousand square feet. The computers are modified versions of typical desktop PCs, stripped down to bare essentials to save energy and space. These machines have no keyboard, mouse or display of their own; the technical support staff controls and monitors them through a shared network. The ISP is responsible for the installation and upkeep of each computer.

Internet Connections

The ISP is connected to one or more high-speed Internet lines called top-tier or backbone connections, necessary to ensure that each of its customers receives fast service. Each of these connections is thousands of times faster than typical home high-speed service. Larger ISPs maintain several connections as insurance; should one line fail, the others keep the ISP and its customers running.

Software

In addition to computers and network connections, ISPs provide Web and email server software options. For example, many ISPs offer a choice between Microsoft Windows and Linux Web servers, which a site operator selects based on her own technical requirements and preferences. ISPs also offer database software such as Microsoft SQL Server or MySQL; databases are essential for organizing and storing information such as sales and inventory records, news stories and forum discussions.

Shared Hosting

It is common for an ISP to divide the resources of a single computer among many customers; this low-cost service, called shared hosting, treats each hosted website as a separate entity with its own files and security passwords. Shared hosting is ideal for websites that see low to moderate amounts of Internet traffic, and which do not need customized software.

Dedicated Hosting

In addition to shared hosting services, most ISPs offer dedicated hosting, in which one computer runs a single website. Although this is a more expensive arrangement, dedicated hosting offers faster response time and can handle more Internet traffic, since the computer isn’t servicing many sites at the same time. It also gives the site owner the freedom to add his own software instead of being restricted to what the ISP provides.

Design and Marketing

Larger ISPs commonly offer graphic design and marketing services. Graphic design determines the style and quality of a site’s appearance; without it, a site can function but may have limited appeal. Marketing exposes a site to more users on the Internet, helping Web-based businesses attract customers. As many site owners don’t have the skills or time necessary for professional graphic design or marketing on their own, ISPs help fill the need.