A news server is a machine that stores all of the messages for the newsgroups that it carries. It communicates with other news servers to send and receive new messages - a process known a propagation. The reason why the newsgroups provide fast and reliable information is because most news servers today are commercially run operations. The companies that run news servers, such as Giganews or Astraweb, have large server farms with enormous storage and bandwidth capacity. Unlike P2P or BitTorrent, bandwidth issues and sluggish download speeds are an infrequent issue.
There's a price to pay for this reliability as access to the newsgroups costs money. This wasn't always the case. In the past, many ISPs provided free and good quality newsgroup access. Most ISPs have since abandoned this practice, which we'll discuss in a bit. As a result, if you want to experience the full gala of information available, you'll have to subscribe to a premium news server. Currently, prices range from free all the way to $30 per month. While most fall in the $17 dollars a month range, there are four key characteristics to keep an eye on when choosing a news server: Retention, Connections, Completion, and Security. Let's break it all down.
Maintaining all of the messages on the server that contain files (encoded into thousands of lines of text each) takes up a tremendous amount of space. This leads us to a term you should get to understand: retention. Retention refers to the amount of time a post remains on a news server before its deleted.
In years past, the retention period wasn't very long, perhaps a few weeks to a month. Additionally, the retention was set independently for different newsgroups. A popular newsgroup with frequent posts would have a shorter retention period than a less popular newsgroup with few posts. As the cost of hardware and server capacity dwindled, most news servers now have a blanket retention policy for all the newsgroups they carry; if the retention is 500 days in one newsgroup, chances are it will be the same for the rest of the newsgroups the news server carries.
Fortunately for the newsgroup community, the premium news server industry is highly competitive - both in price and retention. Lately, the trend is to provide well in excess of 500 days and is creeping ever closer to 600. In five years you may read this guide and say, "Ha, 500 days? It's like 5,000 days now!".
Connections are another critical feature and refer to the amount of simultaneous processes that can take place between a news server and a news reader. The more processes that can take place, at least to a point, the faster and more efficient your download will be.
Let's say you're downloading a large archive made up of thousands of text messages (articles). If there was only one connection between you and the news server, you couldn't sustain a full speed download because the connection resets every time an article finishes. Since articles are small files, an otherwise fast download is constantly interrupted as one article download stops and a new one begins. One article may briefly max out your connection, but once that article is through, there's a brief wait until the next article begins. In that period of time, you're not downloading which slows the entire process.
Adding multiple connections solves this problem. With more than one connection, we can overlap the delay with additional download processes. That mitigates the wait and maximizes our download speed.
The trend lately is for news server companies to provide 50 or even 60 connections. For most US broadband users, there's very little benefit since more people maximize their transfer speeds with between 5 and 10 connections.
Completion is another term that you should get to know. When it comes to choosing a news server, you'll want to know its completion rate. The completion rate is a percentage based on how many messages there are for a file and how many the server actually receives. In plain English, it is the percentage of how many files actually are complete and available for download.
A file may have 100 or more text messages that make all the data for the file, if any of these messages are missing then the file must wait to either get the missing data from a repost or through the use of PAR/PAR2 files. The higher the completion rate (for example 95%) the more messages are getting through and the fewer files are not available due to missing parts.
This is crucial, as any seasoned newsgroup user knows the enormous difference between a listing that is destroyed by missing parts and a quality server that has almost perfect completion, making the experience so much better.
Secure Socket Layer encryption, or SSL, is another feature that has become popular. To ease the concerns of users, newsgroup providers started providing 128 bit and 256 bit encryption for both uploaders and downloaders.
This is the same kind of protection that is used when you pay your bills or perform online banking. While this option is especially significant for uploaders, it helps protect downloaders as well - but to an extent.
SSL encryption helps conceal the contents of the data stream between the news server and the end user, but a determined ISP can still sniff out and detect Usenet traffic. While the content of your data stream is kept secure, eventually ISPs can figure out the unique signature of a protocol and throttle the end user's bandwidth.
However, this hasn't been a concern in the newsgroup community just yet and the full benefit of SSL encryption in the Usenet environment remains unknown.
Choosing a News Server
Choice 1: Use a Premium Usenet Server Provider.
There are many reasons for deciding to use a news server that you have to pay to access. You may have an ISP that doesn't have a news server. Your ISP may have a news server, but it isn't worth much because it's slow, or has a low completion rate, or doesn't carry the binary newsgroups. You may have a relatively decent news server and want a cheap news server that you can access that can fill in the missing files from your normal news server.
Whatever your reason, these servers can be GREAT to awful. Usually in this market, as most, you get what you pay for. And most times you can get what you need at a reasonable price. When you sign up for a premium news server, you will receive three important pieces of information that must be entered into your news reader: 1)
the name of the server(s), 2)
your unique user name, and 3)
your unique password.
Choice 2: Use The News Server Maintained By Your ISP.
Unforunately, most ISPs are no longer a good source of Usenet access. In the past, most ISPs like AOL, Verizon, Comcast, and so on, all maintained their own news servers. Like any news server, customers of these ISPs could post and retrieve messages. These news servers would periodically exchange their latest information (propagate) with other news servers, and that's how people generally communicated in Usenet. Best of all, access to these servers was included in the overall subscription price. Unfortunately for the newsgroup community, this convenient relationship didn't last.
Throughout most of the newsgroup's history, file-sharing over the newsgroups wasn't a terrible concern for ISPs, especially prior to the year 2000. Before this time, files were small and digital distribution wasn't crippling the industry. Then things changed. Files became larger and so did their burden on ISPs. The binary newsgroups soon became the focus of cost cutting and political attack.
In February of 2004, Verizon announced that eight (8) large binary newsgroups would be removed from the ISP's news server because of mounting bandwidth consumption. Things only got worse from there. In June of 2008, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched a massive campaign against the binary newsgroups, forcing many ISPs to restrict or remove customer's access to their news servers. This action had major national implications. Major ISP providers such as Comcast, RoadRunner, Verizon, and Sprint all restricted or eliminated access to their news servers. According to Cuomo, this was all done in the name of protecting children and removing exploitative pictures. The reality was simply a migration to premium news servers, and the end of convenient Usenet discussion for customers.
The next page of this guide has a listing of premium usenet server providers.