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Introducing Broadband ISP Cloud Agents

By Angelique Medina
| | 12 min read


The delivery of every website and web application relies on a set of dependencies that include Internet providers, DNS and, increasingly, CDNs and other 3rd party services. Failure or degraded performance of any of these services can dramatically impact application delivery. Proactive, continuous monitoring of network and service dependencies is critical to ensuring users of a website or Internet-facing application have a high-quality digital experience.

ThousandEyes provides deep network visibility from nearly 250 Cloud Agents from 152 cities distributed across the globe. These Cloud Agents perform "outside-in" monitoring to simulate the application delivery experience of distributed users. With today's announcement, ThousandEyes is now offering Cloud Agents connected directly to some of the largest US broadband Internet service providers.

Broadband ISPs vs. Transit Providers

There are two main types of Internet service providers — transit providers and broadband ISPs. Transit providers, such as Level 3 and Cogent, form the backbone of the Internet. Broadband ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are last mile providers, in that they deliver Internet all the way to consumers.

Up until December 2017, these providers were classified differently by the US Federal Communications Commission — broadband as a utility, transit providers as communications services — and they were subject to different regulations. As a utility, broadband ISPs were considered an essential service that couldn’t be arbitrarily limited. This protection known as net neutrality is set to end in April 2018.

From a commercial usage standpoint, the difference between these providers is similar to the difference between wholesalers and retailers. Transit providers offer paid and unpaid transit to other service providers, and also sell bandwidth to enterprises. Enterprises require far more bandwidth than a typical consumer or SMB and for this reason, may find peering with one or more transit provider to be the most cost-effective way to connect their networks to the outside world. Broadband providers are more akin to retailers, in that they offer Internet service tailored to consumer and SMB users, whose requirements are more modest.

Why Broadband ISP Visibility?

Consumers and small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) increasingly rely on Internet-facing applications and services to perform many fundamental tasks of their everyday lives. Traditional services, including banking, tax preparation, and healthcare record systems are now heavily consumed over the Internet. Usage of newer offerings like multiplayer gaming and “gig-economy” apps is increasing. Internet users overall have come to expect a high level of performance from the sites that they visit, with the bar often being set by “free” applications such as Facebook and Google. As far back as 2009, Akamai found that two seconds was the maximum threshold for acceptable page load times for consumers, with longer delays yielding negative user response.

Average consumers typically aren’t aware of the complexities underlying application architecture and Internet transit. They equate the end-user experience with the brand or the service. They won’t understand or care that an application provider may not always be responsible for a poor experience. At the end of the day, as an application provider, you own the user experience.

So how do you manage user experience over networks you don’t own or control? The key is visibility, without which dealing with the variables of networks you don’t control is simply impossible. With visibility from the vantage point of broadband ISPs, operations teams supporting consumer and SMB-facing websites and applications can gain detailed insight into customer experience and underlying network and service dependencies that can impact that experience. They can also get alerted to major ISP-specific issues, and save significant troubleshooting time during outages.

What are Broadband ISP Cloud Agents?

ThousandEyes broadband ISP Cloud Agents are directly connected to major US broadband ISPs, including AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Cox Communications and Verizon. ThousandEyes users can now run active monitoring tests from broadband ISP Cloud Agents in the following US cities:

  • Ashburn, VA
  • Chicago, IL
  • Dallas, TX
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • San Jose, CA
  • Seattle, WA

Compare Performance Across Multiple Broadband ISPs

Let’s look at an ISP comparison in action.

In Figure 1 below, you can see a network path visualization of connectivity from Chicago, IL and Ashburn, VA through Comcast, Cox Communications and CenturyLink to www.airbnb.com. Airbnb is a popular consumer website that, like many heavily trafficked sites, relies on CDNs to accelerate the delivery of its content. We can also see that Airbnb is using both Akamai and Fastly as its CDNs.

Broadband ISP Path Visualization with Fastly and Akamai
Figure 1: Path Visualization shows hop-by-hop visibility across three broadband ISPs from Ashburn, VA and Chicago, IL.

The path originating from Comcast in Ashburn, VA is routed to an Akamai CDN, but a few minutes later, traffic from this same Cloud Agent is routed to a Fastly CDN (see Figure 2). A few minutes later, the traffic from that Cloud Agent reverted to Akamai.

It’s not uncommon for a company to use multiple CDNs, particularly to optimize performance by region; however, it’s unusual to see changes within a region, especially within a short period of time.

Broadband ISP Path Visualization with Fastly
Figure 2: Traffic from a Cloud Agent in Ashburn, VA on the Comcast network is routed to a Fastly CDN.

A DNS trace from the Ashburn, VA Cloud Agent reveals that Airbnb is using Cedexis to load balance traffic across its CDNs.

Broadband ISP DNS trace
Figure 3: DNS trace to Airbnb from a Cloud Agent located in Ashburn, VA on the Comcast network.

While it’s not clear why the load balancer has redirected traffic from one CDN to the other in this case, what’s key is that this detailed level of visibility is available to businesses to fully understand how traffic delivery varies between ISPs and how network dependencies (CDNs, etc.) can change over time.

With ThousandEyes you can see distinct network path and dependency differences across different broadband ISPs. You can also see performance differences over time. Below is a Dashboard view showing availability and response times across Comcast, Cox and CenturyLink.

Broadband ISP dashboard response time comparison
Figure 4: Dashboard comparing performance across three broadband ISPs.

This depth of insight enables you to identify and fix issues faster. Ultimately, your ability to rapidly respond with rich context to consumer or SMB customer issues means faster Mean Time to Repair, lower operations costs, improved experience, avoiding SLA payouts, and higher brand loyalty.

To learn more, request a demo or start a free trial. You can also register to attend our Understanding Consumer Digital Experience webinar on March 20th.

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