Top 10 questions for choosing a network provider

Proactive management, monitoring, securing and reporting of a complex network are difficult things to get right. Investing in managed network services can appear to be the answer, bringing you better network management and enabling you to benefit from a wide range of business benefits including resilient geographical reach, high-quality performance, tight network security and a wide range of hosted voice and data services.

But how do you know whether the network provider you choose will deliver a truly next generation network and help you fully exploit its advantages?

Here are key 10 questions to ask that will help you investigate all the issues.

1. How resilient is your network?

Most network providers will tell you their network is resilient but can they prove it? The key thing to investigate is what failover and "self-healing" options their network includes. You should be looking for a fully meshed infrastructure which provides alternative routes to key points on the network to ensure that if one connection fails, traffic is automatically rerouted via another connection. Find out too how many suppliers underpin the network and if the vendor has a secondary network to take over if the primary network fails.

2. How do you ensure business continuity in event of disaster?

A good network service provider will be able to reroute traffic, even to employees' homes, using a variety of different self-healing and other options in the event of a site-related failure or disaster, ensuring that businesses are still able to trade in the event of a disaster. Ask how they ensure essential services are maintained during short-term incidents such as power failure. Do they have a home-worker/disaster recovery plan? Do they have two or more connected data centres that back each other up?

3. How do I know your network is really secure?

Networks are subject to widely differing but equally disabling attacks from covert cybercrime and denial of service attacks through to old-fashioned vandalism in which the copper and fibre are literally dug out of the ground. Maintaining network security is highly complex and establishing a vendor's real security credibility can be hard. Does their security policy specifically include network protection? Do they comply with industry regulations? Do they have extensive intrusion detection systems and authentication processes? Ask to see their facilities.

4. How do you guarantee network performance?

Higher speeds and higher bandwidth give you higher capacity , in turn enabling you to run more business-critical applications. Along with speed, Quality of Service (QoS) capabilities, contention management and the provider's future plans for resource availability should all be taken into account. Ask how they cope with surges of traffic. Will you have to pay extra to ensure constant internet access? Are they IPv6 ready or at least have plans for it? Will their network support growing user demand?

5. How scalable and flexible is your network?

Your network needs to be scalable and have the ability to absorb and support new technologies without requiring additional infrastructure or incurring added expense. Ask the vendor if their network enables the delivery of multiple business-quality Cloud services such as voice, data backup, Internet, and corporate VPNs to all your sites. Is it an MPLS network (which is particularly scalable)? Will adding new services disrupt your existing services? Can remote and home workers connect to the same core network?

6. What connectivity and integration options does your network support?

You need to check that your provider's SLA includes a commitment to end-to-end management of the network, regardless of who owns the actual pipe. The type of network, its reach and connectivity, and the provider's network management policies are all important criteria. A high density of POPs is also important as the shortened distance between your site(s) and a POP can significantly reduce costs. Check too if the provider offers different access circuit types from high-performance multi-gigabyte fibre optic through to Ethernet, broadband, wireless and leased lines. And, if it's relevant to you, find out if they are JANET-connected and/or accredited for NHS N3 connectivity.

7. Do you have 24/7 automated monitoring and surveillance tools?

A key differentiator between network providers is how proactive they are in detecting and resolving faults and how much they invest in best-of-breed tools for automated detection, management and reporting of incidents. Network providers using powerful tools will often have detected and fixed a fault overnight so the first you know of it is when you see a report in the morning, so check what tools they are using - are they referenced by Gartner, for example. Check what reports you can get, e.g. on network availability and uptime.

8. What "self-service" network management options are available?

To benefit from the IT admin time freed up by using the services of a network provider, you need to be able to liaise with them easily, getting and giving information seamlessly. Is there a portal where you can log and update incident tickets? Are there templates that will automatically create a ticket once you've added details of your current issue? Can you request reports online? Is there a customer knowledgebase you can access?

9. What is your commitment to service delivery and best practice service management?

As with other criteria, look very closely at what service delivery is promised in the provider's SLA. Do their monitoring and incidence management tools operate to ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) guidelines. If you decide to switch to their company, how much notice do you have to give that you're ready to complete the switch over? How much have they invested in their current infrastructure? How long do they state in their SLA that it will take to fix a broken circuit? What's their network roadmap?

10. What level of support do you offer?

To support your own customers properly, you need to establish how the provider thinks of support. Does it have the same priority as its technology and services, or is it a paid for add-on available only during normal office hours? Is support by phone, web and email available 24/7 from an operations centre manned round the clock by experienced support engineers or is it only available from someone on standby at home or in an overseas call centre? Can you visit their support team?