At TechColumbus, an incubator in Columbus, Ohio, tenants are startup companies, and the facility provides everything they need -- Internet connections included. 'Our model is that we're a one-stop shop,' explains Steven Clark, vice president of incubation services. 'We want to take the service provider complexity out of starting a business.'

Whether incubator or not, a growing number of facilities or outsourced IT firms are offering their own version of one-stop shopping that includes Internet access -- in effect, sharing one supply of bandwidth among several tenants or customers. Such an arrangement can indeed reduce the complexity of running a business, and might provide greater flexibility as well. But it doesn't mean you can just plug in to the Internet and let someone else worry about security and dependability -- you're still responsible for keeping your own network safe.

Here's how to make sure things keep running smoothly:

  1. Ask questions about network performance. 'Ask for performance statistics for the facility's network,' Clark advises. 'Find out what kind of quality assurance they have, and what redundancies are in place.' For instance, some facilities aggregate bandwidth from more than one provider so that in case one experiences a problem, tenants won't completely lose their connections.
  2. Provide your own security. You should have your own router and firewall to protect your network from any viruses or intrusions that may try to come in through the Internet connection. The best setup, experts agree, is a virtual local area network (VLAN) which in effect creates a network completely separated from those of the facility and other tenants. Not only does this prevent outsiders from seeing confidential information, it also protects your network if another tenant, or the facility itself, is infected with a virus.
  3. Make sure others can't hog bandwidth. Even with a VLAN, there's one scenario where you're still vulnerable if one of your neighbors gets attacked: If the malicious software starts using lots of bandwidth, for instance to send out spam, it can create an overload that will affect your connection. 'A common problem is where there's an SMTP [simple mail transfer protocol] server handling a company's e-mail, and a virus program sets it up to serve spam. That can slow things down to where other companies are feeling the pain,' says Todd Barrett, director of sales, Security & Networking Division, CPU Sales & Service, Inc. There may also be cases where another tenant is simply using large amounts of bandwidth, even without a virus attack. To make sure this isn't a problem, check that the facility is using a firewall that controls and monitors each tenant's usage. 'We started out with a shared pool of bandwidth,' Clark says. 'Then we had one tenant using 60 to 70 percent of it. They were downloading DVDs or something. Now we can isolate utilization so that doesn't happen.'
  4. Ask if you can have more when you need it. On the other hand, if you legitimately need the occasional 'burst' of extra bandwidth, the facility may be able to provide it. 'Let's say you're a catalog company,' Clark says. 'Ninety-five percent of the time you only need a meg of bandwidth, but every now and then you send out a promotional mailing or got mentioned in a magazine, and suddenly there's a spike of traffic to your site.' Find out if the facility can accommodate such short-term increases, and what the costs will be.
  5. Consider adding a backup. The facility should have redundancies to make sure the Internet is always available. But if your company, like most, would be crippled by an outage, consider adding some redundancy of your own. 'You can bring in an inexpensive DSL line for $120 a month or less,' Barrett says. 'That way, if the T1 line the facility is using goes out, you can switch to the less expensive one.' It may not offer the same connection quality, but at least you'll still be online.