Lies, damn lies and networks

There are some in this industry with an inclination to exaggerate or lie. ‘Lie’ is a harsh word though so let’s call it ‘marketing fluff’ from here on in! Hopefully, after discussing it readers will be more empowered to appreciate genuine value-added and integrity vs. questionable claims.

A lot of ‘marketing fluff’ tends to centre around the word ‘network’. Now, anyone who has a wireless router at home has a ‘network’ but we don’t think that is the selling point they’re driving at. Instead, we suspect they’re alluding to ‘being a network’, as in being a component part of the ‘inter-network’ a.k.a Internet, or put more loosely: being an ISP.

Of course, we’re not saying that in order to add value one must operate a network. We’ve spent hundreds of thousands of Pounds building ours to where it is today over many years and we’ve only done that because we believe it adds value to the services we offer. However, the reality is that between the mountain-top of sitting on an established well-designed network, and the other mountain-top of operating your own, there is a huge valley of learning and vulnerability to cross. Hopefully nobody would argue that spending a few hundred Pounds on eBay to buy an old router and introducing new single points of failure is actually adding value. On the contrary, it is destroying value.

Many of our customers add value without building their own network, others have to varying extents for differing reasons. Part of our DNA is an expectation that everyone in the supply chain adds genuine value to the end-user rather than merely reselling. Every customer does it differently but we’re confident all do it and we hope with minimum ‘fluff’.

More fundamentally what we are saying is that if somebody claims they add value by operating or in the way they operate a network, that should be an honest claim.

There’s two key types of fluffer to watch out for:

The Blatant Fluffer

They will probably use the word ‘global’ a lot, claim their suppliers to be customers, and of course claim to interconnect with anyone you may have heard of, as a peer because they’re so vast. They’ll have numerous company divisions and drop names with alarming ease. Think Del Boy for the social media age and you get the picture.

Thankfully these guys are easy to spot! You’d reasonably expect someone operating a network to actually use it so a trace-route to their web-site will reveal lots. For example one company claims to be “one of the few companies worldwide to interconnect directly with several of the biggest telecom providers globally” yet operates their own web-site from what is clearly identifiable as a promotional VPS on an ISP in one of the few countries they don’t claim a presence. Usually trace-route is all it takes as if they are operating their own network, not only will they be the last hop, they’ll be a few before too. Take ours for example, you can clearly see a trace to our website traversing routers in the network beforehand.

It is trivial to fluff reverse DNS to make things appear more impressive so instead you might need to examine one or more of their IP addresses more closely:

  • If they do operate a network you’d expect them to be using their own IP address assignments directly from one of the authorities (RIPE, ARIN etc.). We don’t just mean that their ISP has registered their name in the registry because they have more than 4 addresses; we mean they actually have their own direct assignments.
  • You’d also expect those addresses be announced on their own AS number (ASN), an ASN being a number representing a network and ASNs interconnecting with each other to announce blocks of IP addresses (prefixes). You’d expect both the ASN and the prefix to belong to the network.
  • Finally, you can examine which other networks announce the ASN’s prefixes to ascertain exactly which “of the biggest telecom providers globally” they do buy service from!

How might you do this? The easiest tool is at http://stat.ripe.net – take an IP address from your fluffer, perhaps that of their web server, and pop it in here. You’ll get back a treasure trove of useful information to debunk most claims. Significantly you can see which ASN is announcing the prefix and what the prefix is, as well as how that prefix is recorded in the registry. If your fluffer operates the network you’d expect their name to appear here, lots. Try the exercise with us perhaps (our website is 178.22.140.5 or 178.22.143.5 on IPv4)? You’ll see Simwood in pretty much every box. Our credible competitors will be the same. Fluffers will not.

Having established if the ASN is their own or their ISPs you can examine the routing status and get a good idea of which other networks that ASN is connected to. If they do actually operate an ASN and claim to have a relationship with a given carrier, you can see it here.

The Casual Fluffer

These are far harder to pin down! They’ll know enough to have obtained their own IP address assignments, registered an ASN and bought a router. All of the above tests will pass so you can be confident they’ve spent a few thousand Pounds and know somebody that can string it together! They’ve got the badge that says “I’m an ISP” and they’ll be keen to let you know about it! But the Casual Fluffer is somewhat enthusiastic in the way they describe things!

Building a network is an exciting journey we’ve been on ourselves and we’ve helped numerous customers along, but if it is being used a selling point and potentially fluffed then you need to make an assessment of the value it is actually adding. This is harder to do as much is buried in subtleties and acronyms, so you need to make a qualitative judgement.

The point is that having the “I’m an ISP” badge is not a destination, it is a ticket for journey just begun. Having a network is not adding value if that network is not distributed and has single points of failure, is using software routing or small capacity ports to other operators or is using a price-driven upstream provider with a congested network themselves. In this scenario, badge or not, they’re destroying value and you’d be much better off if they were simply co-located on a more established network.

You can read more about our views on this and some questions to ask in the QoS white-paper we published last year but the golden rule here if it sounds fishy it probably is! If they say they’re a member of an Internet Exchange Point (e.g. LINX or AMS-IX) then check the members list. If they claim to have dug up half the country and own dark fibre to your bathroom, you’ll surely have heard of them. If they claim to be in data-centre X then you can see – look up their ASN in http://peeringdb.com. Finally, if they claim what sounds economically implausible or they use an overwhelming amount of acronyms and buzzwords to baffle and impress you, question!

If in any doubt, do speak to us or your ISP and I’m sure between us we can give you the right questions to ask!

In conclusion

We believe in honesty and we believe in every part of a supply chain adding value. Where somebody is claiming to add value that they’re not, this is detrimental to the end-user and blatantly dishonest. We would encourage you to very much question why you would want to do business with a company that started their relationship with you by lying to you.

To be clear, we don’t suggest operating a network is an imperative so we’re not criticising those who don’t. We also have the utmost respect for our friends, peers, and others who genuinely do operate networks. Instead we’re calling out the charlatans who claim to do something they are not, and to have something they do not. We want the market to spot them and make accordingly informed decisions.