On Internet Exchange Points and Local Peering in the Time of COVID-19

One lesson that the COVID-19 pandemic has already taught us is the importance of getting engaged and responding quickly in the face of the unexpected. And while it’s not clear exactly what impact working from home while sheltering in place will have on our networks over the long haul, we do know that network traffic is on the rise, particularly in the areas of content streaming, videoconferencing, and data sharing. Our society is dependent upon the Internet as never before, relying upon it to deliver K-20 education, outpatient medical care via telehealth, access to public services, and remote work capability for massive levels of telecommuters.

Collaboration is the watchword right now, and that certainly applies to bolstering the capacity and efficiency of our networks. One form of collaboration that can create more efficient and cost-effective network connectivity and throughput involves the use of an Internet Exchange Point (IXP) and takes the form of local peering. 

An IXP is a physical infrastructure through which Internet service providers (ISPs), content delivery networks (CDNs), backbones, mobile networks, and broadband ISPs exchange Internet traffic. IXPs enable local peering, which creates, in essence, a local network of networks and reduces the amount of an ISP’s traffic that must be delivered via its upstream transit providers. And because traffic between local peers generally travels free, this can also help to reduce the average per-bit delivery cost while increasing efficiency and network resiliency. IXPs can enhance network efficiency by:

  • Keeping local traffic local: This reduces latency, router hops, and “jitter” (variability in delay), which means less to go wrong. This is critical for video conferencing and voice-over-IP (VoIP).
  • Improving network robustness: Having more places for network providers to exchange traffic in the region allows for more alternative paths even if one path is down.  Removing the need for traffic to traverse “long-haul fiber paths” between cities decreases the chances of disruption.
  • Reducing Internet bandwidth needs via local content peering and allowing networks to exchange data directly without paying third parties, helping to reduce costs for such elements as over-the-top video, regional ISPs, and other similar activity.
  • Facilitating the cloud on-ramp: This most recent use case is one in which providers such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others ramp up cloud capabilities, providing a significant benefit to Oregon companies and public entities by allowing them to exchange traffic directly with the cloud provider.

Oregon is home to several IXPs, which provide equipment and services that boost Internet connectivity for ISPs and high-volume networks in the region. The Northwest Access Exchange (NWAX) originated in part through the efforts of OHSU and Portland State University—two of Link Oregon’s founding entities—and became an independent non-profit exchange in 2014. In an effort to stay ahead of need, NWAX recently announced a number of significant upgrades to its switching infrastructure to make sure NWAX is ready to handle the demands that the COVID-19 crisis is putting on local networks–particularly those that support education, research, healthcare and other public services. Most of the upgrades were in the works prior to COVID-19, with much of the new equipment already ordered and on site when it hit, according to NWAX Vice-President Eric Rosenberry. “Right now, we are running at full steam trying to bolster capacity,” noted Rosenberry. He cites a trifecta of challenges as motivating a shorter timeline for improvements:  COVID-19 activities driving up usage, new members coming online and driving more traffic, and existing members upgrading equipment and pushing more traffic across the IXP.  Rosenberry expressed his gratitude to colleagues for their speedy work in his March 30th email to NWAX’s community (which includes Link Oregon), ending with “Thank you all for your continued support of NWAX!  It is this great community that is going to get us through this current crisis!” 

Similarly, the Eugene-based Willamette Internet Exchange (WIX), is an IXP operated by the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG), in partnership with the City of Eugene and the federal Economic Development Administration and with assistance from the Technology Association of Oregon. WIX comprises a physical interconnection facility (known as the Willamette Interconnection Facility)—a carrier-neutral presence (‘hotel’) where networks, ISPs, agencies, and content providers can lease cabinet space and co-locate with other entities and expand their reach by tapping into critical fiber infrastructure in our region—and an emerging local peering point, Thewix.net. According to Jacob Callister, principal planner for the Lane Council of Governments, increasing interest by ISPs to connect to local structures and to PDX and San Jose hubs has pushed the WIX to capacity. In response, the LCOG is expanding the WIX facilities as well as upgrading its electrical capacity, including adding two higher-capacity generators to enhance resilience and reliability.

Link Oregon recognizes and applauds the value that IXPs contribute to network robustness and resilience. We would like to see more of them emerge across our state and even support the regions where the network extends into neighboring states. The Southern Oregon Access Exchange (SOAX) in Medford, Oregon, for instance, interconnects with the Jefferson State Internet Peering Exchange (JSAX) in Redding in northern California.  

We are pleased to work with and through these organizations. They are crucial partners in Link Oregon’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, by allowing us to deliver better, more efficient connectivity to our communities at a time when, more than ever, we all want and need to stay connected. Let us know if you have questions or ideas on how to better serve you or others in the community. 

And above all #stayhealthy, #staysafe.   

Steve Corbató