The Utility and Pain of Internet Peering

In the early 1990s TWICS, a commercial bulletin board service provider in Tokyo, jumped on the Internet. Access was very poor based on modern Internet speeds, however at the time 128kbps over frame relay (provided by Sprint international) was unique, and in fact represented the first truly commercial Internet access point in Japan.

The good old boys of the Japanese academic community were appalled, and did everything in their power to intimidate TWICS into disconnecting their connection, to the point of sending envelopes filled with razor blades to TWICS staff and the late Roger Boisvert (*), who through Intercon International KK acted as their project manager. The traditional academic community did not believe anybody outside of the academic community should ever have the right to access the Internet, and were determined to never let that happen in Japan.

Since the beginning, the Internet has been a dichotomy of those who wish to control or profit from the Internet, and those who envision potential and future of the Internet. Internet “peering” originally came about when academic networks needed to interconnect their own “Internets” to allow interchange of traffic and information between separately operated and managed networks. In the Internet academic “stone age” of the NSFNet, peering was a normal and required method of participating in the community. But,… if you were planning to send any level of public or commercial traffic through the network you would violate the NSFNET’s “acceptable use policy/AUP” preventing use of publically-funded networks for non-academic or government use.

Commercial internet Exchange Points such as the CIX, and eventually the NSF supported network access points/NAPs popped up to accommodate the growing interest in public access and commercial Internet. Face it, if you went through university or the military with access to the Internet or Milnet, and then jumped into the commercial world, it would be pretty difficult to give up the obvious power of interconnected networks bringing you close to nearly every point on the globe.

The Tier 1 Subsidy

To help privatize the untenable growth of the NSFNet (due to “utility” academic network access), the US Government helped pump up American telecom carriers such as Sprint, AT&T, and MCI by handing out contracts to take over control and management of the world’s largest Internet networks, which included the NSFNet and the NSF’s international Connection Managers bringing the international community into the NSFNet backbone.

This allowed Sprint, AT&T, and MCI to gain visibility into the entire Internet community of the day, as well as take advantage of their own national fiber/transmission networks to continue building up the NSFNet community on long term contracts. With that infrastructure in place, those networks were clear leaders in the development of large commercial internet networks. The Tier 1 Internet provider community is born.

Interconnection and Peering in the Rest of the World

In the Internet world Tier1 networks are required (today…), as they “see” and connect with all other available routes to individual networks and content providers scattered around the world. Millions and millions of them. The Tier 1 networks are also generally facility-based network providers (they own and operate metro and long distance fiber optic infrastructure) which in addition to offering a global directory for users and content to find each other, but also allows traffic to transit their network on a global or continental scale.

Thus a web hosting company based in San Diego can eventually provide content to a user located in Jakarta, with a larger network maintaining the Internet “directory” and long distance transmission capacity to make the connection either directly or with another interconnected network located in the “distant end” country.

Of course, if you are a content provider, local internet access provider, regional network, or global second tier network, this makes you somewhat dependant on one or more “Tier 1s” to make the connection. That, as in all supply/demand relationships, may get expensive depending on the nature of your business relationship with the “transit” network provider.

Thus, content providers and smaller networks (something less than a Tier 1 network) try to find places to interconnect that will allow them to “peer” with other networks and content providers, and wherever possible avoid the expense of relying on a larger network to make the connection. Internet “Peering.”

Peering Defined (Wikipedia)

Peering is a voluntary interconnection of administratively separate Internet
networks for the purpose of exchanging traffic between the customers of each network. The pure definition of peering is settlement-free or “sender keeps all,” meaning that neither party pays the other for the exchanged traffic; instead, each derives revenue from its own customers. Marketing and commercial pressures have led to the word peering routinely being used when there is some settlement involved, even though that is not the accurate technical use of the word. The phrase “settlement-free peering” is sometimes used to reflect this reality and unambiguously describe the pure cost-free peering situation.

That is a very “friendly” definition of peering. In reality, peering has become a very complicated process, with a constant struggle between the need to increase efficiency and performance on networks, to gaining business advantage over competition.

Bill Norton, long time Internet personality and evangelist has a new web site called “DR Peering,” which is dedicated to helping Internet engineers and managers sift through the maze of relationships and complications surrounding Internet peering. Not only the business of peering, but also in many cases the psychology of peering.

Peering Realities

In a perfect world peering allows networks to interconnect, reducing the number of transit “hops” along the route from points “A” to “B,” where either side may represent users, networks, applications, content, telephony, or anything else that can be chopped up into packets, 1s and 0s, and sent over a network, giving those end points the best possible performance.

Dr Peering provides an “Intro to Peering 101~204,” reference materials, blogs, and even advice columns on the topic of peering. Bill helps “newbies” understand the best ways to peer, the finances and business of peering, and the difficulties newbies will encounter on the route to a better environment for their customers.

And once you have navigated the peering scene, you realize we are back to the world of who wants to control, and who wants to provide vision. While on one level peering is determined by which vendor provides the best booze and most exciting party at a NANOG “Beer and Gear” or after party, there is another level you have to deal with as the Tier 1s, Tier 1 “wanna-be networks,” and global content providers jockey for dominance in their defined environment.

At that point it becomes a game, where personalities often take precedence over business requirements, and the ultimate loser will be the end user.

Another reality. Large networks would like to eliminate smaller networks wherever possible, as well as control content within their networks. Understandable, it is a natural business objective to gain advantage in your market and increase profits by rubbing out your competition. In the Internet world that means a small access network, or content provider, will budget their cost of global “eyeball or content” access based on the availability of peering within their community.

The greater the peering opportunity, the greater the potential of reducing operational expenses. Less peering, more power to the larger Tier 1 or regional networks, and eventually the law of supply and demand will result in the big networks increasing their pricing, diluting the supply of peers, and increasing operational expenses. Today transit pricing for small networks and content providers is on a downswing, but only because competition is fierce in the network and peering community supported by exchanges such as PAIX, LINX, AMS-IX, Equinix, DE-CIX, and Any2.

At the most basic level, eyeballs (users) need content, and content has no value without users. As the Internet becomes an essential component of everybody on the planet’s life, and in fact becomes (as the US Government has stated) a “basic right of every citizen,” then the existing struggle for internet control and dominance among individual players becomes a hindrance or roadblock in the development of network access and compute/storage capacity as a utility.

The large networks want to act as a value-added service, rather than a basic utility, forcing network-enabled content into a tiered, premium, or controlled commodity. Thus the network neutrality debates and controversy surrounding freedom of access to applications and content.

This Does Not Help the Right to Broadband and Content

There are analogies provided for just about everything. Carr builds a great analogy between cloud computing and the electrical grid in his book the “Big Switch.” The Internet itself is often referred to as the “Information Highway.” The marriage of cloud computing and broadband access can be referred to as the “4th Utility.”

Internet protocols and technologies have become, and will continue to be reinforced as a part of the future every person on our planet will engage over the next generations. This is the time we should be laying serious infrastructure pipe, and not worrying about whose content should be preferred, settlements between networks, and who gives the best beer head at a NANOG party.

At this point in the global development of Internet infrastructure, much of the debate surrounding peering – paid or unpaid, amounts to noise. It is simply retarding the development of global Internet infrastructure, and may eventually prevent the velocity of innovation in all things Internet the world craves to bring us into a new generation of many-to-many and individual communications.

The Road Ahead

All is not lost. There are visionaries such as Hunter Newby aggressively pushing development of infrastructure to “address America’s need to eliminate obstacles for broadband access, wireless backhaul and lower latency through new, next generation long haul dark fiber construction with sound principles and an open access philosophy.”

Oddly, as a lifelong “anti-establishment” evangelist, I tend to think we need better controls by government over the future of Internet and Internet vision. Not by the extreme right wing nuts who want to ensure the Internet is monitored, regulated, and restricted to those who meet their niche religions or political cults, but rather on the level of pushing an agenda to build infrastructure as a utility with sufficient capacity to meet all future needs.

The government should subsidize research and development, and push deployment of infrastructure much as the Interstate Highway System and electrical and water utilities. You will have to pay for the utility, but you will – as a user – not be held hostage to the utility. And have competition on utility access.

In the Internet world, we will only meet our objectives if peering is made a necessary requirement, and is a planned utility at each potential geographic or logical interconnection point. In some countries such as Mongolia, an ISP must connect to the Mongolia Internet Exchange as a requirement of receiving an ISP license. Why? Mongolia needs both high performance access to the global Internet – as well as high performance access to national resources. It makes a lot of sense. Why give an American, Chinese, or Singaporean money to send an email from one Mongolian user to another Mongolian user (while in the same country)? Peering is an essential component of a healthy Internet.

The same applies to Los Angeles, Chicago, Omaha, or any other location where there is proximity between the content and user, or user and user. And peering as close to the end users as technically possible supports all the performance and economic benefits needed to support a schoolhouse in Baudette (Minn), without placing an undue financial burden on the local access provider based on predatory network or peering policies mandated by regional or Tier 1 networks.

We’ve come a long way, but are still taking baby steps in the evolution of the Internet. Let’s move ahead with a passion and vision.

(*)  Roger Boisvert was a friend for many years, both during my tensure as  US Air Force officer and telecom manager with Sprint based in Tokyo (I met him while he was still with McKinsey and a leader in the Tokyo PC User’s Group), and afterwards through different companies, groups, functions, and conferences in Japan and the US.  Roger was murdered in Los Angeles nine years ago, and is a true loss to the internet community, not only in Japan but throughout the world.

About johnsavageau
Another telecom junkie who has been bouncing around the international communications community for most of the past 35 years.

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