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Bangkok Post E-Commerce Special
Speeding Up Internet Access|
By Thiravudh Khoman
Recently, Post Database has seen a smattering of news about new high speed internet services, ranging from cable modems to ADSL to satellite to ISDN to leased lines. Invariably these are targeted at corporate users with deep pockets. Given the acknowledged 56kbps limit of analog modems, it seems these high tech alternatives are the only way to go faster.
For individual users or smaller businesses with less buying power, there are a few lower-tech/lower-cost alternatives which can help you improve/optimize your internet access speeds. These aren't the holy grail, mind you, but they can help if you're willing to do a little "homework".
Choosing a Well-Connected ISP
The first and best step is to choose a "well-connected" ISP. When it comes to choosing an ISP, internet virgins will usually either buy "blind", buy "pretty", or buy on the advice of friends. The latter isn't too bad an option really, but since it's difficult to be absolutely objective I'd recommend adding a dash of "science" to your search.
First of all, ask yourself how you plan to use the internet. If your needs are email only, then practically any ISP will do as long as you stick with POP email or webmail that's hosted at your ISP. Why? because you're not really connecting to the internet - you're simply logging into and using the services of your ISP's computer only, even if you're sending email to or receiving email from abroad. If your needs include web browsing but due to language problems you plan to use only Thailand-based sites, then you need to see how well your ISP is connected to the intra-Thailand gateways. Finally, if you want "the works" and want to be able to go anywhere and everywhere, then you'll also need to see how well your ISP is connected to the world. Chances are, most people will either fall into the last category or will have their sights firmly set there.
NECTEC's Thailand Connectivities
To determine how well any ISP is connected, check out NECTEC's "Map of Internet Connectivities in Thailand" at https://www.ntl.nectec.or.th/internet/map/current.htm (figure 1). (By the way, https://www.ntl.nectec.or.th/internet/, two steps back, is also an awfully useful place to visit, although it can be a bit overwhelming.) How do you visit there without an internet connection in the first place? Use the services of a cyber-cafe or just buy any internet package that appeals to you and install it. Consider this the cost of a taxi ride on the internet.
NECTEC's map is updated periodically and I recommend that you acquaint yourself with this rather than poring over the advertising and technical specs that exude from each ISP's website. This page contains it all and saves you from having to wade through graphically-overdosed ISP sites.
On the NECTEC map, the thing that you'll be most interested in are the blue "balloons", these being the commercial ISP's. The pink ovals are the intra-Thailand gateways (Internet Information Research or "IIR" and National Internet Exchange or "NIX"), while the purple oval is the Communication Authority of Thailand's (CAT) international gateway (International Internet Gateway or "IIG"). The grey bar at the bottom are overseas destinations.
Before we look at a few sample ISP's, there a few things to keep in mind: a) my example ISP's aren't intended to highlight any especially good or bad ISP's; they're just ISP's that I have used in the past and therefore have some personal experience with; and b) a bit of computer math: 1024 kilobits = 1 megabit; therefore, a 1mbps line is 8 times faster than a 128kbps line (1024 = 8 x 128).
Let's start with Data Line Thai (DLT - the 3rd blue balloon from the right, upper blue row). Assuming that I was logged into DLT and wanted to load a web page hosted at Internet Thailand (ITSC - 1st blue balloon from the right, lower blue row), I would have to go through a 128kbps link to IIR and then a 10mbps link to ITSC. On the other hand, if I were logged into Asia Infonet (Asianet - 4th blue balloon from the right, lower blue row), I would go through a faster 2mbps link to IIR and then a 10mbps link to ITSC. Theoretically then, Asianet to ITSC is faster than DLT to ITSC.
Now, let's assume that IIR fails for some reason. To get from DLT to ITSC, you would go via a 64kbps link to NIX and then a 512kbps link to ITSC. From Asianet, one would take a 512kpbs jump to NIX and then another 512kbps jump to ITSC. (Note: Up until recently, Asianet had no link to NIX at all, and it was necessary to detour to the U.S. in order to link up with ITSC!)
What about overseas access? in order to access a U.S. web page from DLT, one would take a 192kbps link to IIG and then use part of the total 8.5mbps bandwidth to the U.S. It should be noted that the IIG link is shared by many ISP's and is not dedicated to DLT. Asianet, meanwhile, has two dedicated lines to the U.S. (2mbps and 512kbps), while ITSC has two 8mbps and one 34mb line. Clearly, both Asianet and ITSC beat the pants off DLT when it comes to visiting the U.S.
If NECTEC's map seems unduly complicated to you, think of the links as roadways, the link speeds as the number of lanes on the roadway, and the gateways as intersections. See it now?
While useful, NECTEC's map is only a static/ideal portrayal. As per the roadway analogy, you won't always get from point A to point B quickest by taking the super-highway; sometimes, it's faster to go by the smaller roads. Why? In a word, "congestion". A slower link with few users can sometimes be faster than a "fat pipe" with an overload of users. Also, don't forget that a link works both ways. A link between Thailand and the U.S. doesn't just include Thai users accessing U.S. sites, but also U.S. users (or even people from other countries) accessing Thai sites.
So, how do we measure "real" conditions? If this were a road, we'd install a traffic counter and compute flow rates. With an internet link, what we do is to send a data packet from point A to point B and then measure how long it takes to "echo" back. Fortunately, the Thailand Internet Users Group (TIUG) already has a setup to measure this. Visit https://www.internet.thinet.com/review.htm (figure 2), page down 3 times and click on the link which says "ISPWATCH results within the past 12 hours". Or go straight to a mirror site at: https://www.inet.co.th/cyberclub/nikornv/ISPwatch/.
For the techies out there, what TIUG's test suite does is to start from a fixed point (a major ISP in the U.S. called Digex.Net) and then send a packet to each of the ISP's in Thailand and measuring the round trip times. This is repeated four times, going through each of four main internet exchanges, namely Mae West, Mae East, Sprint and PAIX.
Now, what does this complicated looking table tell us? The number in the first column is the average of the four round trip times (last four columns), and of course, the lower the time, the better. Note: If any of the four roundtrips fail, an arbitrary figure of 2000 milliseconds is assigned. This can really skew the average, so keep this in mind. Of course, any ISP which fails one or more of these tests should be looked at with much suspicion anyway!
The text which follows the ISP name can be a bit confusing, but it's useful to learn the terminology if you're up to it (make sure you have the NECTEC map handy when you're deciphering this). For example (note: ISPWATCH is still referring to "IIR" as "PIE"):
The ISPwatch measurements are run twice a day, and it should be emphasized that these numbers/rankings do - I repeat - do change from time to time due to various reasons (congestion, line upgrades, line failures, etc.). Therefore, avoid relying on a single snapshot of these figures. Rather, take daily samples and average them over a period of time, say at least a week.
Other ISP Considerations
The ISPWATCH figures, while useful, are again not an end-all. There are other important factors one should consider when choosing an ISP:
ISP Caching Proxy Services
Why am I so against proxy-less ISPs (in truth there may be none)? Simply because if you can and do use a proxy server, you can speed up your internet access with little effort and at no cost. Furthermore, you can conserve bandwidth for other users if you can obtain your pages locally - just as they can save bandwidth for you if they were to use a proxy server. International bandwidth being an expensive resource, it should be used optimally and responsibly.
How does one go about setting up this up? Normally, only web browsers (such as Netscape and Internet Explorer) are configured to use proxy servers. If you use Netscape, click "Edit", "Preferences", "Advanced", "Proxies", "Manual configuration", and then "View". You'll be presented with a list of services. Me, I only set up http (web browsing) and ftp (file transfer) to use proxy services. ITSC is my home ISP, and its proxy server, proxy.inet.co.th, is to be found at port 8080 (figure 3).
To setup IE4 to use proxy services, click "View", "Internet Options", "Connection", and then look in the proxy server panel for "Access the Internet Using a Proxy Server". Check mark this. For ITSC, the "Address" field is again filled with "proxy.inet.co.th" and the "Port" field with "8080". IE5 is set up a bit differently: click "Tools", "Internet Options","Connections", choose your ISP/DUN, click "Settings", and check "Use a Proxy Server". For me, I enter "proxy.inet.co.th" into the "Address" field and "8080" into the "Port" field (figure 4) .
After setup, whenever I request a web page, my browser will first check its own cache and then go to proxy.inet.co.th to see if the page is available there. If it is, it will be sent to me and I won't have to snake my way through the internet to the original site, a significant time and bandwidth savings. Web pages which contain frequently changing content (e.g. news sites) will invariably require that parts of its page be retrieved from the original site. However, if someone just checked CNN a few minutes before you, chances are you'll be able to retrieve the page entirely from the proxy's cache.
A few more useful facts about caching proxy servers. a) Data saved on proxy servers don't live there forever - eventually they get flushed out as newer pages are loaded or their useful lives expire. However, frequently accessed pages live there "longer" (or are refreshed more often). b) Not surprisingly, the larger the proxy server, the more data can be cached and the greater likelihood that requested data will be available locally. At last count ITSC's proxy server had about 16gb of disk/cache space. c) As a general rule you can only use the proxy server of the ISP you're dialing into. I wish there were general Thailand caches available at IIR, NIX and/or IIG which any Thailand user could hook into. d) Some web pages are designed to "expire" very quickly and thus don't cache well. Sanook.com, for example, is notorious for this.
Wouldn't it be nice if you could have a caching proxy server right at your PC? Not only wouldn't you have to retrieve a web page from the internet, you wouldn't even have to pull it down from your ISP - you'd simply get it from your own hard disk! Actually you can and in fact already do since both Netscape and Internet Explorer come with their own disk and memory caches.
The problem with Netscape's and IE's caches is that they're not very smart. I'm presently using a Windows program called NetSonic Pro (figure 5) which is an external internet cache program that works with both Netscape and Internet Explorer. By both, I mean Netscape and Internet Explorer share the same cache files. Thus, if I were to call up Thai Airways (which normally takes 45 seconds to load), I could switch to IE, call up Thai Airways, and https://www.thaiair.com would pop up almost instantly. Neat!
Another really nice feature of NetSonic is that web pages which are already saved in cache (this is done automatically) can be re-accessed even if you're no longer connected to the internet. Want to re-read that news article at CNN.com? No problem. As long as you know or have bookmarked the URL, it can be called up from the cache. Even if you don't know the exact URL but remember that you went to https://www.yahoo.com, then to "Full Coverage", then to the news story on U.S. genetically modified crops, the article can be called up from the cache - as long as each of the intervening pages are in the cache as well. For this to work though, you have to configure your browser NEVER to check for new pages.
How long do these pages stay in the cache? As long as the URL isn't overwritten by newer content - forever, or until your cache allocation fills up (I've set aside about 150mb for this). Of course, you won't be getting the latest update of the page, but that's easy enough to obtain - simply dial your ISP and access that page again. By the way, while NetSonic disables both Netscape's and IE's caches, it can and should still be used in tandem with your ISP's proxy server.
Consider the potential cost savings: to absolutely minimize your internet costs, simply logon, pop your email, go to your favourite web pages or ad hoc browse interesting pages without reading them, and then immediately log off. Now, read your email and your web pages at your leisure - they're all there, and the money meter has been turned off. Hell, read them 6 hours or 6 days from now. They're still there!
For the technically inclined with a neatness streak, you'll like the fact that NetSonic's cache combines each site it has cached into a single file. Contrast this with Netscape or IE which download/cache each component of a page (which could conceivably contain one or more HTML files and multiple GIF/JPG/PNG files). Currently, my NetSonic cache directory has 1366 files corresponding to 1366 sites and takes up about 134mb of disk space. In Netscape or IE, these files could conceivably number in the upper thousands.
NetSonic comes in two versions, both downloadable from https://www.web3000.com: a freeware version which has a few features disabled and a commercial version with all the bells and whistles. The main difference between the two (besides a "nag" bar) is the availability of an automatic page updating feature. Normally, when you access a page that already exists in your cache, NetSonic will display the cached page first and then update your screen if it detects that the page has changed. In the Pro version, this updating can be done automatically. In the freeware version, you'll be notified that a change has been detected and that a manual refresh is required (just click the reload button).
NetSonic Pro v2.5 sells for US$ 39.95, but I suggest you hold off on paying that price and use the freeware version for a while first. Why? Because you'll be offered a 25% discount to upgrade to the Pro version after a few days of using the program. Hang on a bit longer, and you'll soon get a bulletin for a special two-day discount of 50% (which is what I paid). Highly recommended.
LAN-Based Caching Proxy Servers
If your business PC is connected to the internet via a local area network - and therefore, through some kind of "router" - you have the option of running your own caching proxy server on your network. If you have a lot of users, this would be a more cost effective solution than buying and installing NetSonic on all of your client machines. Running your own proxy server also means that cached files can be accessed at LAN speeds (10-100 mbps/second) rather than through your internet connection (probably far less than 1 mbps/second).
While I've played with WinGate a bit, I frankly haven't had any hands-on experience with either MS Proxy Server or Squid yet. This explains the shortness and the lack of hands on reports in this section. Nevertheless, both are on my to-do/to-try list for the remainder the year.
My final speed-up suggestion is a bit different from my previous ones because it requires a greater investment, both in terms of hardware and internet usage costs. As such it's probably not suited for everyone, nor is it suitable for all occasions.
What's Multilink PPP anyway? Multilink PPP is a protocol which allows you to bind two or more internet sessions into a single session, combining the bandwidth. It requires the installation of two or more modems (hereafter, I'll just talk about two modems, although more are possible) into a single computer. The two modems must be connected to two separate telephone lines which then dial into a single internet account. Assuming that both of your modems are 56kbps models and your ISP supports Multilink PPP (not all do, by the way), you should now have a connection that is 56kbps x 2 or 112kbps - at least in theory.
I say theoretically, because only the link between you and your ISP is doubled; the remaining links to wherever you want to go are of course still the same. This is like driving from your house to the airport after the soi outside of your house has been widened. Because all of the other roads are unchanged, you'll probably get to the airport faster, but not twice as fast.
However, your costs per unit time will definitely be doubled. That's why I mentioned earlier that this may not be suitable for all applications, all the time. If you're just picking up email, this is gross overkill. Web access, while faster, should still be bottlenecked elsewhere. Also, you have to make sure that your operating system supports Multilink PPP. Windows 98 does, but I don't think the initial version of Windows 95 (Win95a) did. This might be fixable with an updated dial-up networking module though.
Under Windows 98, Multilink PPP isn't too difficult to setup. First of all, you'll need to install two modems and make sure they both work (i.e. they don't cause hardware conflicts and both can dial your ISP). Next, create a dial-up networking connection (DUN) with the first modem. When you're finished, right click the DUN connection and select "Properties". Next, click on the "Multilink" tab and then click the "Use Additional Devices" button. Finally, click "Add" to add the second modem. Make sure the login account is the same as the first modem and that's it (figure 6).
When you dial this DUN connection, the primary modem will dial first and when successfully connected, will follow with the second modem. During my tests, web pages didn't seem to display all that much faster, however, downloads showed a nice increase in speed. Downloading from my ISP, I got a transfer rate of about 8k bytes/sec. Even downloading overseas from the likes of PC Magazine, I got a top transfer rate of about 7k bytes/sec. Both of these are about double my normal rates.
In my opinion, Multilink PPP is useful in the following situations:
Thanks To: Khun Nikorn Viravatandej of One Systems for some proofing help, but more so for his sponsorship and work on TIUG's site.