RIPE Atlas is being used by many researchers and network operators worldwide, and you might have seen it mentioned in numerous blog posts or other publications. But what is RIPE Atlas and how can you benefit from it?
What is RIPE Atlas?
RIPE Atlas is a global network of probes that actively measure Internet connectivity and reachability, providing an unprecedented understanding of the state of the Internet in real time. Since its start in 2010, we’ve distributed thousands of these little probes all over the globe. People are generally very excited to participate in this project, not only because it helps improve our understanding of the Internet as a whole for the benefit of everyone, but also because there are a lot of personal benefits for those hosting probes in their networks.
How do the probes work?
You might recognise the current probe version as a wireless router, and that’s indeed what it is when we buy it off the shelf. However, we then add our own firmware to it and connect it to a hierarchical control and data collection service, which we also built and maintain. We make the probe source code publicly available because we want everyone to have the opportunity to contribute to RIPE Atlas at the core level.
Once the probe is connected to your network, it constantly performs a set of built-in measurements: ping, traceroute, SSL, DNS queries to the root name servers, and limited HTTP measurements. It does not look at traffic or content. The RIPE NCC collects data produced by all these probes and provides Internet maps, tools and visualisations based on the aggregated results. The data is also made available to anybody who wants to study the health of the Internet.
What does RIPE Atlas do for you?
In addition to the built-in measurements, anyone who hosts a probe earns credits they can use on their own customised measurements to gain valuable information about the reachability of their own (or their ISP’s) network.
You can generally see which destinations you can reach from your network and via which paths. But with the help of RIPE Atlas, you can also do the reverse and check the reachability of your network from a distributed network of vantage points around the world.
There are thousands of active probes in the RIPE Atlas network, and it is continually growing.
Even if don’t host a probe yourself (or there are already enough in your region), everyone can access the data made available by other RIPE Atlas users. You can browse the measurements towards your country or ASN, for example, or towards a hostname of interest. There are various user interfaces available, including maps, a searchable, web-based interface, an API and various other ready-to-use tools and visualisations.
Some of the general use cases for RIPE Atlas include the ability to:
- Continuously monitor network reachability from thousands of vantage points around the globe
- Investigate and troubleshoot network issues with quick, flexible connectivity checks
- Create alarms using RIPE Atlas status checks, which work with your own monitoring tools
- Check the responsiveness of DNS infrastructure, such as root name servers
- Test IPv6 connectivity
RIPE Atlas users are continually finding more and more use cases that help them in their research or their day-to-day operations.
One example is the recent “IXP Country Jedi” tool my colleague Emile Aben built based on RIPE Atlas. Kurtis Lindqvist described it nicely in his latest post on the ISOC blog. We are currently on a tour to various IXP meetings and they are very keen to see the data for their country. This tool can also help network operators find the best peering partners or IXP. Below is an example showing the paths taken between RIPE Atlas probes in France.
You can also measure the situation in a country before and after an IXP has been installed in order to assess the difference it makes. See, for instance, this study done by Roderick Fanou and others: On the Diversity of Interdomain Routing in Africa.
Others use RIPE Atlas to determine where to install a new DNS server. This study by Hugo Salgado for LACTLD provides a nice example of this particular use case: Visualisation of a New Node in LACTLD Anycast Service.
Wikipedia also used RIPE Atlas to analyse latency to its servers and improve performance for users around the world.
A huge array of research results and use cases are also published on RIPE Labs.
Help us expand the network
The quality of the data collected by RIPE Atlas improves as more and more probes are connected to the network. In some countries it is difficult or even impossible to get a good picture of the state of the Internet because there are only very few probes collecting data. If you are interested in measurements like the ones mentioned above, or any other measurements specific to your country or your network, please consider hosting a probe. Applying only takes a few minutes and we will send it to you for free.
The probes are USB powered and experience shows that an IPv4-only probe uses approximately 4 Kb/s, while an IPv4+IPv6 probe uses approximately 6 kb/s. The exact bandwidth used depends a on the number of measurements you let your probe perform, but you can also set bandwidth limits on your probe.
Security and privacy
Now, you might be thinking, “Why would I want to plug a foreign device into my network?” or “How do I know it is not snooping on my traffic?”. The probe does not listen to your local, private traffic. It only talks to the RIPE NCC’s central RIPE Atlas infrastructure and executes active measurement commands towards the public Internet. You can also put the probe behind a firewall, as long as that firewall does not prevent the probe from talking to the outside world.
RIPE Atlas probes also work behind a NAT, which means you don’t have to provide a public IP address for the probe. You can find more information about security and privacy questions related to RIPE Atlas here. You can also look at the source code.
The RIPE NCC maintains the infrastructure and collects the measurement results, but all the resulting data is public and many researchers analyse this data to further understand and improve the functioning of the Internet.
We develop RIPE Atlas in cooperation with our users and the wider Internet community. We are always asking for feedback about what features and functionality would be of most use to our users, and regularly publish articles on RIPE Labs about the latest updates and developments, or even ideas we want to test before we start development.
RIPE Atlas around the world
The RIPE Atlas network could not be such a success without the help of many volunteers worldwide, including the thousands of probe hosts. We also have ambassadors who put a lot of energy into helping us distribute probes at conferences around the world.
We also have many other partners around the globe, including three of the other Regional Internet Registries, who are a great help in expanding RIPE Atlas in their respective regions. APNIC, LACNIC and AFRINIC all kindly sponsor RIPE Atlas. In addition, APNIC distributes probes during their training courses and uses RIPE Atlas for their own research projects; LACNIC gives workshops and presentations based on RIPE Atlas data at various LACNIC-related meetings; and AFRINIC provides additional information on the AFRINIC website.
If you are a member of one of these RIRs, you can also contact them if you are interested in hosting a RIPE Atlas probe. We’re also planning special benefits for those members, so stay tuned.
The RIPE Atlas network is made up of people interested in using real-time data to understand the performance of the Internet. We hope you'll consider joining us and help us build RIPE Atlas into the largest Internet measurement network ever created, whether you host a probe, download RIPE Atlas data, or simple help us spread the word. We’d also love to hear about interesting use cases or research ideas you may have, so please get in touch. Find out more about the project and the different ways you can get involved at https://atlas.ripe.net.
About the RIPE NCC
The RIPE NCC is one of five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) that support the global operation of the Internet. The RIPE NCC is an independent, not-for-profit organisation responsible for distributing and administering Internet number resources for more than 13,000 members in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Central Asia. We support the global Internet community by providing data, expertise and a neutral platform for the exchange of ideas.