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(?) What ISPs Do We Use for Linux

From Chris Gianakopoulos

Answered By Dan Wilder, Heather Stern, Thomas Adams, Faber Fedor, John Karns, Ben Okopnik, Mike Orr

(?) Hello gang, I am going to lose my Internet service provider at the end of this year because they are going to disappear.

I am visiting various web pages for ISPs out there, but, I am clueless about how to determine their (the ISPs) interoperability with Linux.

For example, I talked to the support staff at www.excelonline.com, and they said that their ISP service should work with Linux.

I'm not sure what the failure mechanisms are, and I will probably do lots more surfing of the web so that I can find a suitable replacement for my current ISP (provided by www.gateway.net).

About Linux Friendly ISPs... What does friendly mean? Does it mean that standard protocols are used?

(!) [Dan] The short answer is, "almost any ISP works with Linux, but don't count on technical support from most of them."
With most ISPs, you'll have to know how to set up your PPP, dhcp, whatever, yourself. Increasingly, people are going to DSL and cable, and you need to watch out for the ones who want you to put the router or modem inside your box. Some of these are unsupported in Linux. Better to go with a provider who furnishes an external router or modem.
(!) [Mike] An external modem will be more expensive ($200), but is worth it because it's "standard". My Cisco 678 connects to an ordinary Ethernet card, and is configured via telnet or a null-modem cable (minicom/kermit). (Actually, I could never get the telnet mode to work because I couldn't figure out the device's IP address on its configuration network. So I went the minicom way.) The modem is switchable between bridging and routing. The telco said I have to use bridging mode, so I'm directly on the ISP's network. The modem converts from Ethernet to DSL, then to ATM, then back to Ethernet at my ISP. For those that use the telco's own ISP, I hear they use routing mode over PPP.
The telcos/cablecos frequently have promotions where you get a free or discounted modem. And my ISP (oz.net/theriver.com, covering Washington and Colorado) has deals for ex-Covad customers now that Covad is bankrupt: free setup and installation for their portion of the fees and free first and last month. I expect other ISPs have similar deals.
(!) [Ben] By now, it's "you name it, and I've used it." I have not yet run into an ISP to which I couldn't connect (AOL is neither an ISP _nor_ anything that I want to connect to; I'd hate to wash my modem out with soap...) I've gone through, oh, at least a dozen ISPs - in the Bahamas, all over the Caribbean, in Bermuda, and a number of different ones in the States. Come to think of it, better make that around two dozen. :) I've used Ethernet, PCMCIA/serial/ USB modems, both wired and radio, and I'm about to try it via a cell phone. These days, I'm about to drop AT&T, their support policies and quality of service started from egregiously bad and took a sharp downward turn. And the rates. Blechhh.
Anyway - trust me: if it's at all possible, Linux has a way to do it.
(!) [Faber] Basically, yes. TCP/IP is TCP/IP and even Microsoft Exchange supports SMTP and POP. :-)
(!) [Heather] [For connectivity itself] most dialup places that speak MSwin-only use PAP.
(!) [John] Almost all services should work with Linux. Some might be a little more difficult to deal with than others, but most ISP's today use chap / pap and set things up to be compatible with the default MSW client internet connection cfg. I have found wvdial to work in almost all cases. Here in Bogota, virtually all ISP's are using w2k or other MSW platform servers, with no login scripts, which seem to be a thing of the past - which means less fuss for you. I have tried at least three different ones over the past 3 yrs and all have worked. Although sometimes (not too often) I have to try dialing more than once to get a connection due to PAP authentication gotcha's; but I tend to think that it's more an issue of telecommunications complications than anything else.
(!) [Mike] PAP and CHAP authentication are conceptually similar to an ssh login without a password prompt. It does send a login and password, but this is part of the built-in handshaking process rather than something you have to script. To troubleshoot, set PPP to debugging mode and watch the handshake strings and error messages. I haven't used pppd for years, but the most frequent errors I used to get were the one about the line not being 8-bit clean (you have to escape more special characters), or the mysterious "serial line loops back" or whatever, meaning it tries to contact the remote host but reaches itself; I think that means some client/server switch is wrong.
As they say, Microsoft loves industry standards so much that it never saw a protocol it didn't embrace and extend. NT4 had PAP and CHAP, but it was "Microsoft PAP and CHAP". pppd users had to install a patch, which eventually made its way into the standard package. Each version of NT/Win2000/WinXP may introduce similar subtleties.

(?) That's interesting (but not the least bit surprising) - I wasn't aware of that.

Cool -- I partly understand things. I noticed that my new ISP uses PAP. My (soon to be) previous ISP uses CHAP.

(!) [Faber] As Dan pointed out, just about any ISP will suffice, just don't expect any technical support. If you do require technical support, be preparedto switch over to Windows for the duration of the phone call.

(?) That's cool. I can live without the support -- It's more fun figuring things out myself (and with your help -- of course).

(!) [Heather] I have found that either wvdial or xisp or (there's a k toy, is it kisp? kdial? oh well, it was on freshmeat somewhere) work slightly differently, so if one doesn't work for you try the others before even starting to stress out. Jim does dialup. I haven't had to in years, though I can trouble shoot a raw PPP connection if I really have to.
Between freshmeat and the debian packages listing there are so many front-ends trying to make it easy to do dialup, it's hard to just pick one to use ;P

(?) That's true. Sometimes, I feel more comfortable doing it the "hard" way, just so I know how to set up the various ppp scripts. For my FreeBSD machine, I have two alternatives. I can use the pppd (our daemon), or I can use a program called ppp (a user space process). The latter is pretty cool, because, by turning on ip forwarding (with the sysctl command), and passing "-nat" to the ppp program, I get ip masquerading.

(!) [John] An important part of the issue might be to tell them that you're running Linux, and ask if they would have a problem providing answers to you regarding such a platform. If they turn up their nose at you, look elsewhere. I would maybe ask them what platform they are using for their operation, and look for one which is using a *nix / non-MSW platform.
There should be a number of ISP's that (still) fit this category. Another reason I would tend to avoid the MSW people would be that I would assume the *nix people might be a little more savvy technically speaking, as setting up a w2k / or NT box may done with a few mouse clicks - ok maybe several.

(?) Or does it mean that a bunch of advertising stuff does not clog your display window when using, for example, Netscape?

For example, a friend told me that when you use America Online, you need their special browser to interact with them. I thought that all browsers used http over TCP for the communications mechanism.

(!) [Faber] AOL is a proprietary network, with proprietary protocols. IMNSHO, AOL is not an ISP (in terms of a center that whose primary purpose is to let you gain access to the Internet) but a private networks which, coincidentally, you can access the Internet through.

(?) Now I see why this is so. ISPs I sort of understand. AOL, I did not understand (since I do not see their protocols in the textbooks that I read).

As far as email is concerned, I thought that POP and SMTP would be supported by each and every ISP (possibly a misconception on my part).

(!) [Mike] Every regular ISP supports POP. Some may try to steer you toward IMAP instead of POP because it's more "advanced". Of course, if you don't need IMAP's features (which allow complex operations on messages stored on the server, rather than downloading them to your PC and reading them there), POP works just fine.
(!) [Faber] As longas it's not a proprietary network like AOL or Delphi (is that one still around? What about Bix?), then you should be okay. But check with the ISP JIC.

(?) Very cool! I just tried an experiment using a friend's ISP account with the provider that I was interested in (with the friend's permission of course, and we were not simultaneously using the service), and it works! It was just a connectivity experiment -- not one to rob somebody's bandwidth.

So, my goals were to discover if ISPs are somewhat generic in their behaviors (it seemed logical that they should be). Thanks to your responses, and my experiment, I am now confident to proceed.

If a few of you could respond to the question "Which dialup ISP do you use with your Linux system", that would be cool. I'll go ahead and read the HOWTOs and figure out all of that chap-secrets stuff and make it work for my SuSE Linux distribution.

I guess that I am sort of lost because I am not getting the information that I want from the various ISP sites (due to my ignorance of course).

(!) [Dan] You didn't mention where you were.

... Not that this kept most of the Gang from jumping in, nor that the results might not also be useful to you, dear readers ...

(?) How silly of me, Dan. I forgot to mention that I am in the Chicago, IL area. Thanks for the ultra quick reply. I just tried an experiment with www.excelonline.com using my sister-in-law's login using my FreeBSD machine as a router. Therefore this particular ISP works with FreeBSD's ppp user space program. Linux should be free sailing -- I expect.

I gotta log off because the use of her ISP account (with her permission, of course -- she's sitting next to me) was only for experimental purposes.

(!) [John] With a *nix acc't you might want to look for an ISP which offers shell accounts. It's nice to be able to log in and read mail from their server if need be, or place a .forward file to have your mail temporarily forwarded somewhere else if you plan to travel to where there will be a local email account available.
And, there might be more reliability with an ISP using a *nix-based box. :-0
(!) [Mike] Good luck. Most ISPs consider shell accounts a security risk, generator of most of their tech-support calls ("Can you install/upgrade this mailreader/newsreader/ compiler/library?"), and not a marketing priority (because most of their customers wouldn't know what to do with a shell account if it bit them).
(!) [John] No doubt the shell acc'ts are rarer today than a few years ago. I admit that I haven't shopped for an ISP shell acc't for about 3 years; but at that time I did come across a few. Also, my Colorado ISP acc't which I've had since about 1995 is still a shell acc't. They use a kerberos'd DEC ultrix.
(!) [Dan] In the Seattle area, where our offices are located, we have a number of Linux-supportive ISPs, such as blarg.net, eskimo.com, serv.net, zipcon.net, oz.net, speakeasy.net, and others to whom I no doubt do an unjustice by not listing here. Some of these providers have points of presence in other cities.
(!) [Heather] My provider, Idiom.com, offers dialup. It's S.F regional and spreading, but I don't think it's nationwide quite yet. The owner is a big BSD fan so it's all free software under the hood, and an all-digital internal backbone. It may be more expensive than others, but we like getting our DSL from someone we can trust - not like those PacBell bozos...
For Jim and I, Idiom's dialup is mainly a backup for if we are out of town, but it's still handy.
(!) [Thomas] Hello. That is a shame that Gateway are cutting their ties with providing Intenet Access. I know of a few ISP's in the UK that are Linux "friendly":
All offer PPP support allowing you to dial in.

(?) I did find a good ISP. At least the tech support staff answered their phone during a Saturday morning and afternoon. When I asked them if it took 25 minutes to service my phone call because of their heavy service load, they told me that there is only a few people around their on weekends. I suspected something like that. I almost gave up waiting, but, I decided to give them a fair shake (on the belief that they were real busy). It was worth the wait! When I asked them if they knew if their system would play well with Linux, they told me that they would help me if I had any problems. They the fellow said "We're just a bunch of computer geeks hanging around here" (or something like that). I saw their coolness (I'm somewhat of a geek too), and decided to give their site a try. They have a good staff at www.excel.com.

As things went, I had no problems setting things up on my FreeBSD machine (using user-space ppp) and no problems using Linux (using wvdial).

I'm rereading the HOWTO that talks about ip masquerading for Linux, because I do tend to give my FreeBSD machine and Linux machines equal treatment. It's making sense now...

Thanks much to all of you that answered! You all, once again, increased my confidence in this stuff. This is just like engineering -- lots of successes and lots of time me being humbled. There's always something to learn in this protocol world (and Linux world). That's what makes it so much fun.

Chris Gianakopoulos

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Published in issue 71 of Linux Gazette October 2001
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