Internet Exchange Points are now considered to be an integral part of the Internet infrastructure worldwide. In very simple terms they are layer 2 switches that are used to route traffic that can be kept local instead of sending that traffic to the nearest major Internet node (usually located in Europe) and back. None of the countries of the Middle East contain enough globally-connected major Internet infrastructure so basically, all Internet traffic generated and terminated in the same country has to be routed through Europe. With well-implemented Internet Exchange Points, local Internet traffic stays local. Examples of local Internet traffic are financial transactions with your bank through online banking, requesting copies of your birth record from an e-government service, or any interaction with locally-hosted content.
Internet Exchange Points have three main benefits: lower latency, better cost efficiency, and control-of-traffic-sovereignty.
In the day and age of instant gratification and communications through social media and videos, latency, or the time it takes to fetch a web page, needs to be minimal and under 10ms as per industry standard (every 100km causes 1ms delay). In order to optimize the user experience, content providers have built their own global networks and spread their servers across the planet in an attempt to be as close as possible to the final users. Anyone and everyone who wants to provide content on the Internet today either has its own global network (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, etc.) or gets that service from Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) such as Akamai, Cloudflare, etc. By placing the content near the Internet Exchange Point and routing it through the IXP facility, IXP are major contributors to reducing latency.
With the advent of 5G and the Internet of Things (IOT), having IXPs contribute to reducing latency is even more crucial. You need your cloud-computing services to be as close to your self-driving vehicle as possible. The more responsive your car is, the safer it will be.
Cost efficiency is a a direct benefit of using an IXP. For example, it uses less international bandwidth, which is still very expensive in Arab countries. The average cost of international bandwidth in North America and Europe is less than 1USD per Mbps. In the Arab world, it starts at 10USD per Mbps. Often in our countries, the price of international bandwidth and/or fiber local loop is simply incapable of keeping up with user demand.
Now about sovereignty. At a basic level, sovereignty is redundancy. Sovereignty means being self-sufficient as much as possible. A good example is the earthquake that hit Haiti few years ago. The undersea cable connecting Haiti to the Internet was broken and Haiti became disconnected from the world. Luckily, Haiti had an Internet Exchange Point and the island was able to operate much needed local services, such as government-operated emergency response, radio link, etc. Additionally, if major international content providers were available at the IXP, Haiti could still have access to outdated but somehow relevant data.
Many Arab governments require their data to remain within their national geographical borders. In practice, this data routes itself routinely out of the region and back due to a lack of viable IXPs in the region. All would benefit from enacting their sovereignty by developing sustainable IXPs in their countries. Let’s apply sovereignty instead of talking about it.
One main misconception about IXPs is that they are a point of congregation for telecom operators only. In fact, successful IXPs are the ones that allow content providers and telecom operators to come together. Any network that has many users (such as universities, large banks, municipalities, e-government services, etc.) or that has content (newspapers, television stations, etc.) should peer at the IXP.
Another misconception is that local content is not available. It is true that the region consumes mainly international content, but building IXPs and enabling the appropriate environment to let them thrive contributes in its turn to the development and usage of local content.
The Internet Society has been helping to build IXPs across the world in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. We bring best practices and lessons learned from around the world and customize the learnings to the case at hand in each country. Every country is different and the main stakeholders are different. We bring international experts who have built IXPs around the world to transfer their knowledge in technology, community building, and IXP governance.
So where one can learn more about IXPs? By attending the Middle East Network Operators Group (MENOG), IXP stakeholders can share their experience and learn from each other. Like the Internet, IXPs also are evolving – and there is no substitute for meeting other network operators and staying up to date on the latest developments. MENOG 19 will take place in Beirut this year, from 31 March – 4 April, and all are welcome to participate by registering here: https://www.menog.org/meetings/menog-19/