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A brief glossary of network service provider types

For network novices and experts alike, this glossary of basic terms covers essential keywords related to network services and the various providers that sell them.

To fully understand a network and its functions, sometimes it's best to go back to the basics. An ideal starting point is to look at what network services are and how they are available for purchase.

So, what are network services? Network services are capabilities or applications that run to guarantee a network meets business and performance goals. They encompass various communication methods, network operations, management and monitoring, performance and security services. In a nutshell, they keep networks running behind the scenes.

Network services have adapted consistently over time with changes in networks and networking technology. The services of years ago differ from current services in order to conform to business priorities and necessities. Though some of these building blocks have morphed, the basics of what makes up network services -- and how enterprises purchase them -- have stayed the same.

Enterprises can purchase network services directly from network service providers or through managed service providers, value added resellers and systems integrators -- depending on the type of services and management they require.

The following keywords answer the basic questions of what network services are and who offers them. These essential terms will help establish a foundational vocabulary of network services.

Index: The basics of network services

Network service provider. A network service provider (NSP) is a company that controls, conducts and sells access to its internet backbone infrastructure and other services, such as web hosting and network access points. NSPs do what their name suggests: They provide network services. More than that, though, they build and maintain the fiber optic cables and core routers that make up the internet.

NSPs sell primarily to other service providers that offer different types of services -- such as internet connectivity -- to consumers and businesses. Once a customer connects to the NSP's infrastructure, the network service provider routes traffic and ensures traffic demands are met.

NSPs are essential to modern networking and support wireless carriers, virtual network operators and internet service providers. Some NSP examples include AT&T, CenturyLink, Sprint and Verizon.

Internet service provider. Internet service providers (ISPs) are similar to NSPs, but they offer internet connectivity that is made available using underlying backbone infrastructure from NSPs. ISPs provide businesses or consumers with internet access, web building and virtual hosting services. They can provide equipment to establish points of presence (POPs) on the internet, and they can be local, regional, national or online-based.

Many ISPs own and operate their own backbone infrastructure, so they qualify as both internet and network service providers. These larger ISPs are less reliant on telecom providers to form POPs in their geographic area than smaller ISPs, as they have their own high-speed leased lines. Larger ISPs can also connect with one another through switching centers.

Enterprises can purchase internet connectivity from ISPs in a variety of transport options, including broadband, Ethernet, fiber optics, cable and DSL. Each of these options offers varying levels of bandwidth, speed and availability.

Managed network services. Managed network services are similar to basic network services. Instead of enterprises directly handling the services, however, they outsource the various applications and functions to a managed service provider (MSP), which operates, monitors and maintains the network services remotely.

Managed network services are a way for smaller businesses with limited resources to obtain IT and networking expertise without hiring an entire IT team. For larger businesses, managed services can alleviate their dedicated IT staff of minor interruptions and inconveniences so the staff can work on other projects.

Managed service provider. A managed service provider is a company that remotely manages IT infrastructures and systems. MSPs typically provide services under a subscription model or a service-level agreement. This monthly recurring revenue stream differentiates MSPs from other service provider models, and it could offer a more predictable base of business for organizations.

Typical MSP customers include SMBs, as managed services are a good way for them to gain IT assistance and expertise. However, MSPs face challenges within the changing network industry, including the rise of cloud computing, as MSPs must learn to manage cloud architectures. Another challenge is the overall cost of operations to maintain a balance of affordability for their customers and profit for themselves.

Systems integrator. A systems integrator builds computing systems for clients from hardware, software, networking or storage products, and it can combine these services from different vendors into custom off-the-shelf packages. Systems integrators offer a simplified way for businesses to combine services to meet their goals. The integrators assess business needs, define technology requirements and then provide a plan for the integration of software, hardware and systems.

Enterprises can use systems integrators to get customized architecture for service integrations. For example, with cloud computing, the integrator can combine on-premises IT infrastructures with cloud-based applications. Like other providers, systems integrators have shifted over time to stay relevant with shifting technologies, network services and business needs.

Value-added reseller. A value-added reseller (VAR) resells software, hardware and network products to offer enterprises useful packages beyond the products themselves. In the case of network services, for example, VARs can create an application for a hardware platform and sell the merged result as a turnkey, or fully completed, service. Some larger VARs also offer services such as consulting, design and training. These are often called solution providers, and they sometimes obtain authorization to partner with vendors.

Many VARs have been compared to systems integrators because they can resell products for customized customer integrations. VARs typically deal with SMB customers, however. In the future, many VARs could also transition into MSPs.

Enterprises can work with VARs to get assistance on complex projects and evaluate product options. VARs can also specialize in certain industries, like healthcare or financial. VARs also can act as a single point of contact for vendors and enterprises, minimizing the back-and-forth process of purchasing services.

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