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December 2002

IMAGE bumps SQL Server ISP app offline

Internet Service Provider market opens up for new 3000 application

The database that drives the HP 3000 will be opening up more efficient lanes in the Internet’s traffic patterns soon. An MPE application built by an Internet service provider is running another ISP’s business administration — and it’s displacing a Windows app and the SQL Server database underneath it.

Even as HP is making plans to stop the sale of HP 3000s, Matt Perdue at Hill-Country.Net (210.532.6503, sales@hillcountry.net) is putting the finishing touches on a new MPE-based application for managing the business of Internet Providers. The Amisys consultant and HP 3000 programmer also operates Hill-Country Net, and designed software he plans to market to a customer base of more than 7,000 ISPs in the US.

Perdue’s EZ-Bill/3000 is in service today at Thumb Internet, a Michigan-based ISP serving small communities in the “thumb” region of the eastern part of that state. Administrator Tracy Creguer said the application outperforms the best PC-based application he could find.

SQL Server-based Interbiller, running on Windows, “really did stink,” Creguer said. “It wasn’t user-friendly, and there wasn’t actual research done under live use to design it.” Early this year Creguer met Perdue through a common upstream bandwidth provider which their ISPs share. Creguer learned of the MPE application that Perdue was building for Hill-Country Net.

“He told us he could build this program,” Creguer said. “He’s made the program so flexible, so we can change and edit it, and do anything with our users we need.” Thumb Internet provides live service 24 hours a day, so “every scenario has been hit here. It’s basic and simple, but with all the luxuries of a high-end application.”

Small to midsize ISPs like Thumb Internet number between 2,500 and 3,000 in the US. They offer Internet connectivity to areas where major providers like AOL are only available through a toll phone call, or they undercut costs on connections with rates like $7 a month for unlimited time. “We lose our customers to the big-wigs, but then they come back,” Creguer said.

But this kind of smaller provider has to be much more cost-conscious to offer service in rural areas and at lower rates. Applications under $1,000 to manage small ISP billing and access chores fall short of the functionality of EZ-Bill/3000, according to Creguer. The system e-mails bills automatically to the 1,000 users in Thumb Internet’s customer base, and even cuts off access with an automated script if a bill goes unpaid too long. Radius logs are pulled from the radius logging servers to monitor metered accounts, to control access on arrangements like 40 hours monthly.

“This thing has unlimited database capabilities,” Creguer said, “so we can keep all the passwords and user names in it, along with a database on problems with customers. The other application didn’t hold half as much stuff. We have 10 times the features. And there’s no lag in loading the files, like Windows had.”

Creguer uses EZ-Bill without owning a 3000. He accesses the application through the Internet, and had his SQL Server database converted to IMAGE format. The data resides on a server in San Antonio where Purdue is located, and he manages backups and maintains the database for Thumb Internet. The ASP model gives Purdue an easy way to let the thousands of prospective customers try the application at no risk or cost.

“The plan is to offer ISPs a trial-run of the system before they spend any money,” Perdue said. “The interested ISP can get an account signup and use the system for 30-60 days. If they do not want to spend the money to purchase a 3000 and our software, we will run the app in an ASP model for a monthly fee. If the ISP wants to purchase a 3000 and our software under license, that’s fine too.”

EZ-Bill costs an ISP $400 a month for up to 2,000 using the ASP model, and $100 extra for each additional 1,000 accounts. Small to midsize ISPs host between 500 and 10,000 accounts. “Of course, the system will handle more than 10,000 accounts, because the underlying database is TurboIMAGE,” Perdue added. Given the scalability of IMAGE, “It would be possible to manage easily two to five million accounts,” he said, “all depending on the size of the 3000 box you run.”

The software will also be available for use on HP 3000s, and Perdue isn’t at all daunted about mounting a new application in the waning years of HP’s participation with MPE. The budding emulator projects, which will host MPE applications on Intel-based 3000 clones, will help create a viable business model for Hill-Country.Net.

“I’d like to be able to market the system with a $5,000 emulator/MPE license fee, and $5,000 for the software,” Purdue said. “If it has to run on HP’s [Intel-based] hardware, okay — although that restriction should be able to be removed in the future, in case HP discontinues selling hardware on which the emulator will run.”

ISPs like Thumb Internet can use an application powered by MPE to simplify administration. The most important feature isn’t the platform, but the application’s reliability.

“It’s been astonishing how much easier this has made our life,” Creguer said. “Our billing overhead got cut in half with this. We’re your average Internet provider out there needing simplification in their life. I’m game for any platform that doesn’t crash, die, or cause headaches.”

While Perdue adds the latest set of features to the application, he’s confident that MPE hosted on lower-cost hardware will provide a good opportunity for him. “Hey, I can wait a year for an emulator,” he said. “How much can that HP 3000 laptop cost?”


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