Why Does Scotland Need a Broadband Internet Exchange? #peeringweek

Almost a year ago exactly, an ambition I’ve had for a very long time came true.  It’s not a personal ambition (not exactly on my bucket list), but it’s an ambition I wanted the local Scottish Internet and broadband community to achieve.

After years of failed attempts, talking amongst ourselves in the community and generally making very little progress, on the 27th of March 2013, LINX held a meeting in Edinburgh to discuss the possibility of having an Internet Exchange in Scotland.  It was at that meeting that the community agreed to ask LINX to build what would become IXScotland.

One might wonder why Scotland needs an Internet Exchange of its own?  There are a couple of thriving ones in London (LINX & LONAP), and another couple in the north of England (IXManchester & IXLeeds) – surely that’s enough for the UK?  From a technical perspective you might be right, the tangible things that a network operator (such as myself) might gain from an Internet Exchange are:

  •  Better latency to neighbouring networks
  •  Improved resilience to neighbouring networks
  •  Reduced bandwidth bottlenecks on other peering and transit points
  •  Lower transit costs

So with IXScotland, what have we gained?  Believe it or not, technically we have gained quite a lot:  latency is reduced – I can now ping my neighbouring networks with a round-trip of under a millisecond, rather than the 20-30 milliseconds minimum we used to get.  Resilience is improved – customers who take access circuits from us, and hosting from a neighbouring network (for example) now have resilient direct routes to their apps/servers.  I’d like to extend the list to a reduction on bandwidth and transit costs elsewhere, however IXScotland is in its infancy and still carries a miserable amount of traffic!

But there’s more to an Internet Exchange than its technical advantages.  On the face of it, the benefits are to the network operators themselves and their customers by extension.  The presence of an Internet Exchange seems to have a knock-on effect in galvanising the community, which builds economic advantages to its locale.  At the event mentioned above, John from LINX did a video interview for the Scottish Government, and he neatly summed up one of the intangible benefits with an example:

“Imagine the case of a local entrepreneur who has invented some clever idea.  At the moment, the temptation is to go to London to realise that.  So although we can’t write this down in pounds on a piece of paper, the value to Scotland of those entrepreneurs staying local, realising their dreams and ideas locally, and then the corresponding boost to the Scottish economy is just fantastic.”

While you might think that it would be an extreme case for a business to have to go elsewhere to realise its goals, it’s not as far fetched as you would expect.  I’m not suggesting that a business should have to actually physically operate its staff from another location to succeed. Despite there not being an IXP in Scotland (until very recently), the tech industry is booming at a rate like never before and Scotland has a higher percentage of SMEs than any other part of the UK.  So this imaginary start-up is more than likely to stay in Scotland, but how much of their supply chain is coming from outside the country?

What the presence of an Regional Internet Exchange does is builds a local networking community, which in turn helps their businesses thrive.  Those businesses are offering the sort of connectivity, telecoms, hosting and other IT services that our imaginary start-up will be consuming and without these businesses thriving locally, those services would be offered by someone else further afield.  The knock on effect is that the Scottish economy loses out on business that is on its doorstep.

With the vote for Scottish Independence on the agenda later this year, the relevance of this issue is greater than it’s ever been.  Should Scotland vote yes for Independence (for the record I’m personally in the ‘no’ camp), the integrity of the Scottish economy will be hugely important.  However this issue goes further than just us tartan wearing, bagpipe wielding, whisky drinking folk up here.  The same thing goes for every community big or small.  Before LINX existed in any significant capacity the entire UK Internet industry was piling cash into the coffers of large American and international telcos, because the only way to get a good connection to the Internet was to buy a big pipe to the US.  These days that business (and traffic) largely stays within the UK.

This isn’t a new concept either. People have been building communities around major infrastructure since civilisation began.  In fact, Scotland’s biggest economic growth came about after the Union and Clyde canals were built in the 1800s.  The impact of the canals being built was that over 90% of Scottish population and business during the 1900s were in the cities, towns and villages surrounding the canals.  Internet exchanges have the same net effect; the general population will surround major infrastructure, building communities, businesses and the economy around it.

Internet Exchanges galvanise the community, often a community that you didn’t know existed.  The positive ramifications go further than businesses of us propeller-heads who ‘run’ the Internet; they are subtle, intangible and take time to develop – but they can be massive.

If you’re interested to hear more, watch the quick session I did at UKNOF25 which summarises the meeting held last March:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqD5zdJbpjM&w=560&h=315]

And if you’re keen on watching the highlights in more detail, here are some select bits to look at:

Other Peering Week posts:

Other Peering Week posts on trefor.net include:
UK internet history – The Early Days of LONAP by Raza Rizvi
INEX’s IXP Manager – Tools to help manage an Internet Exchange by Barry O’Donovan
Regional Peering in the UK by James Blessing
Co-operation makes internet exchanges future proof by Pauline Hartsuiker
Experience of launching an IXP in North America by Ben Hedges

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2 Comments

  1. Very good Charlie, it’s good news indeed. I agree, the more stuff we can keep local the lower the costs for the country as a whole, and the more people will use it. Unfortunately like the canals of the past the internet doesn’t extend everywhere. Unlike building millions of little canals throughout the land, all that needs doing is a little tiny fibre burying in plastic pipe. Not a major engineering job like a road, railway or canal, but a simple pipe. This would bring futureproof connectivity to every area where people live and work.
    Instead they are trying to use old phone lines. Until they realise that copper can’t deliver on long line lengths and replace it with fibre then the majority of the land mass will be on the wrong side of the digital divide, and this has a knock on effect on other users. Bring on the fibre. Moral and Optic. Could the brains behind IXScotland turn their attention to the obsolete infrastructure feeding it now? Until connectivity is ubiquitous we’ll never become a truly digital nation.

  2. As I pointed out in my own writings the past few months, it’s as far from Gretna to Thurso as it is from London to Gretna. Most folk forget that.

    IX Scotland can make a big difference, today when last mile speeds are as slow (and latency as high) as it can be in some areas, and in the future when folk manage to realise the goals Chris drives for.

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