EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 94 - May 04, 2003 - ISSN 1528-6703     3 of 7

The Online Seller's Guide to Troubleshooting Access Problems, Part 1

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I'm sure we've all experienced the disappointment of being unable to access our favorite web site at one time or another. If your livelihood depends on uploading auctions, or inventory to your storefront, the frustration is magnified many times over. Invariably, when eBay, PayPal or one of the popular auction management sites is inaccessible, chat boards are quickly filled with users asking if these sites are down. Sometimes it's the site that's having technical problems, sometimes it's your Internet service provider, and sometimes the issue is in between the two.

But how can your tell where the problem lies - and is there anything that you can do to fix it?

In this multi-part article, I'll explain some basics about how your Internet connection works, and touch on a few simple methods to test your connection when you have trouble gaining access to a site. I'll also list some resources that will allow you to check your connection online, and some great (some free!) programs that will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about connectivity.

Let's start with the common analogy of the Internet as a highway system. There's a reason that people use this example. Both the Internet and highways are a complex mesh of intermingling arteries.

Suppose you're driving from Boston to Ohio to see your grandmother, who lives on 200 Elm Street in Toledo. There are hundreds of ways to get to grandma's house, but you'd like the most direct route, so you would probably jump on Interstate-90 and head west. For the most part, you would have pretty clear sailing, with the exception of areas around the more populated cities. You might run into a bit more traffic during the morning and evening rush hours, and once you've left the Interstate, you won't be able to drive as fast on some of the smaller two-lane roads. Some roads handle more traffic at higher speed while others are local routes with 35mph speed limits.

Similarly, an Internet connection is a series of roads (or hops) from one router to the next. When you are trying to visit a Web site, it also lives at a certain address - just like Grandma. This is known as an Internet Protocol (IP) address. The IP address of a Web site is fixed, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to get to there. The route you take, however, is dictated by your Internet Service Provider and the networks that they connect through.

When you attempt to pull up a page on a Web site, little packets of data travel along the myriad of networks, hubs, routers and cable that make up your connection. You send packets with requests for information from a web site, and the Web site sends back packets, fulfilling your requests. Like a highway, slowdowns and "pile-ups" occasionally occur on the Internet.

The difference is that on a real highway, once you're past the point of congestion, you're quickly back to the speed limit. On the Internet, however, when you hit a slow point along your connection, your access slows down to that speed. Often, there are 10 or more hops involved in accessing one Web page - and if there is a problem or heavy traffic at any one of those points, your access to a Site can not only be slowed, but can be halted altogether.

So how can you tell where the problem is?

Actually, this isn't a very complicated process, and there are some utilities that are inherent in the Windows OS that can help you diagnose a connectivity problem. (Mac users, I know you probably have these utilities as well.)

Learning how to "Ping" and "Traceroute" from your computer are great ways to quantify a problem - there tends to be a lot of finger pointing that goes on between Web hosts and ISPs. They may both admit that there's an issue, but getting them to agree on whose problem it is can be challenging.

There are also some valuable programs and Web sites that are essential if you want do more comprehensive tests. I'll list some of these at the end of this article.

The first step in determining a connectivity problem is to "Ping" a Site. Ping (Packet InterNet Groper) is a utility that sends small data packets to a Web address and checks to see if the data can be received without errors. All versions of Windows come with the Ping utility. (Note that you cannot ping directly to a Web site that sits behind a firewalled web server, so attempts to ping a site like eBay will always be unsuccessful. In the next article, I'll explain more and look at some alternatives.) While connected to the Internet, follow these steps:

1) Click Start

2) Go to Programs>MS-Dos Prompt and open

3) You'll get a window with a similar prompt to the following: C:\WINDOWS>

4) Type: ping (replace "yoursite" with the name of the site you're checking)

This is my own preference for accessing the ping program. (You can also run this through the "Start>Run" box, but the window tends to close after the pinging has completed.) You'll get back information that is similar to this:

Pinging {} with 32 bytes of data:

Reply from bytes=32 time=62ms TTL=53
Reply from bytes=32 time=62ms TTL=53
Reply from bytes=32 time=62ms TTL=53
Reply from bytes=32 time=62ms TTL=53

Ping statistics for
Packets: Sent = 4, Received = 4, Lost = 0 (0% loss),
Approximate round trip times in milli-seconds:
Minimum = 62ms, Maximum = 62ms, Average = 62ms

What this does is send four packets of data to the destination Web address. In my example, the server recognized and received all four packets without any loss, at an average of 62 milliseconds (ms) - an excellent response time. Essentially, there is nothing wrong with this connection. You may get results where the time is much higher. It's all relative - if you have a cable or high-speed connection, 62ms is a pretty common response time. For a dialup connection, 125 or 150ms may be average. The higher the number, the slower your connection is to that site, and the longer it will take to load pages. If you see response times of 300 - 400 or higher, there may be a heavy load somewhere en route to the site.

The second thing you'll notice in the example is that there is 0% loss. That means that 32 bytes were sent, and 32 bytes were received back at your computer. If you sent 32 bytes and 16 bytes were received back, you would be experiencing 50% packet loss. Packet loss can slow down your connection immensely. Every time you request data from a server, and it is not received in its entirety, your computer has to re-send the request for information until it has been completed. This can really be a bandwidth hog, because you are making several requests for data, when only one should suffice.

Sometimes, if a site is unresponsive, you'll get a series of asterisks (***). This means that the site is unresponsive. Essentially - "He's dead, Jim" - or a router along the way is dead, and is not allowing you to complete the route to the site.

If you've determined by "Pinging" the site that the connection is slow, the next step is to do a Traceroute to find out where the problem might be. Traceroute is another utility that comes bundled with Windows, and it will give you a clear view of the path you're taking to reach your destination.

I'll review how to do a traceroute in the next installment of this series on troubleshooting, explain how to report problems, and list resources to help you. There's a discussion of this topic going on in our forums - stop in and give share your favorite tricks or resources for checking a site's availability or your own connectivity I'll include the best ones in the next installment.

The Online Seller's Guide to Troubleshooting Access Problems - Part 2

The Online Seller's Guide to Troubleshooting Access Problems - Part 3

About the author:

David Steiner is President of Steiner Associates LLC, publisher of and the merchant directory. David, a former television producer, handles business development and advertising for EcommerceBytes. You can reach him at

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