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Infrastructure and Community Development 13 April 2021

Finally! Local Traffic Remained Local

During a recent broadcast of an Italian Series A Championship football match, something extraordinary was happening behind the scenes. Local Internet traffic remained local. Cristiano Zanforlin, Chief Commercial Officer of Milan Internet Exchange (MIX), Flavio Luciani, Chief Technology Officer of Consorzio Namex, and Luca Cicchelli, Interconnection Manager of Consorzio TOP-IX, explain how Italian IXPs helped make that happen.

Saturday, March 6th 2021.

The football match in the Italian Serie A Championship between Juventus and Lazio is broadcast on television both via satellite and the Internet, as it is common these days.

What happened to Internet traffic while this event was taking place?

Namex (Roma Internet Exchange point, Italy) saw its all-time traffic peak, as shown in the graph below:

Networking experts know traffic at Internet exchange points (IXPs) is constantly growing due to increased usage, traffic patterns, and the amount of bandwidth needed for common services. We have recently been seeing more cases where there are traffic peaks related to short events involving a large number of users, which we can classify in two categories: live events (generally sports events) or the release of new software packages (either games or software updates).

Why then is it so important to understand what happened on March 6th?

Thanks to a series of overlapping factors, we achieved the important goal of keeping local traffic local:

  • Prime time: 20:30 on a Saturday (global traffic multiplier);
  • A game involving Juventus (a global traffic multiplier, since Juventus has a big fan base);
  • A game involving Lazio (a local traffic multiplier, as their fans are concentrated in the area of the city of Rome);
  • A Content Provider peering at the IXP (the match was for the most part broadcast via streaming).

Another example of how traffic directly reflects everyday life situations that have a large user following is one we are observing. Distance learning has started again for many children in the majority of Italian regions. The graph below represents the traffic exchanged at MIX by a content provider connected to dozens of access providers. You can clearly see the pattern of three hours of lessons in the morning, separated by two breaks. We can see a similar pattern at TOP-IX, where the same network shows behaviour compatible with what is identified as distance learning in the Piedmont area.

Constant observation of these events helps IXPs understand national traffic trends, which is fundamental to evaluating which initiatives to engage in with respect to optimizing Internet services, independent of the content or access provider.

In-Depth Analysis

Internet exchange points (IXPs) are a key element of the Internet ecosystem. High quality, affordable, and fast Internet access is more important than ever. From this point of view, IXPs play a fundamental role in an ever-growing and increasingly heterogeneous environment where services require improved capacity and speed, and where end users need the network to deliver this.

What are IXPs and what benefits do they offer?

The Internet is a large ecosystem composed of many thousands of networks that can be grouped into different subcategories, each with a specific role and set of activities. On one side we have organizations distributing content on the network, the so-called content providers, and on the other side we have organizations providing access to this content, the access providers.

In order for content to be distributed, the Access Provider and Content Provider type networks must interconnect with each other, which can happen directly or via other networks. An Access Provider needs to know the right “route” to reach the part of the Internet where content is required by their users, and conversely this content must be accessed by the users of the same Access Provider.

There’s an increasing misconception that these technologies are more abstract than they actually are because of use of terminology such as “cloud” or “virtual,” even though interconnections are all physical. This means that in a data center somewhere in the world, there’s a fiber – or more generally a cable – that connects two devices belonging to two different networks. Data (the IP packets) takes unidirectional paths to achieve the exchange between the source of content and user, transiting a series of intermediate networks and often crossing a greater distance than actually physically required (i.e., “as the crow flies”) due to cable paths and routing decisions. This means that content requested by a user of a small local ISP may have to take a long route from source to destination, which means delays in obtaining the data (latency) and a higher chance of slow data transfer because of congested nodes along the path.

The Internet has long been built around the concept of central nodes where different networks can easily connect, which have evolved into the present day IXPs. IXPs are places where Access and Content Providers come together in the same data center, and the result is that they can directly connect without the involvement of intermediate networks. The paths that data have to take are therefore often much shorter. This reduces latency, allows bandwidth to be increased more easily and cheaply, and generally improves performance and therefore the user experience.

The main goal of an Internet exchange Point is therefore that of facilitating interconnection, but most of all making the Internet more efficient and faster, especially for those services requiring high performance and low latency. Nowadays, streaming services, online gaming platforms and real-time applications are all exploiting IXP interconnections in order to be as close as possible to the end users in the Access Providers. This is a fundamental building block for an increasingly more efficient Internet.

Keeping services as close as possible to their users contributes to making the Internet a more secure ecosystem. In order to reach a given destination, the traffic flows of a given operator could transit through other operators in different countries or even different continents, whereas establishing peering (traffic exchange) relationships at an IXP enhances the security and privacy of data transiting between the operators as they have direct control of the networks over which it is transmitted. This way, there is a much lower risk that traffic could be intercepted and analyzed (most of the time for not very ethical reasons).This security aspect is particularly important if you think, for example, about critical services, such as public administration or home banking.

In Italy, the three major IXPs are MIX in Milan, Consorzio Namex in Rome and Consorzio TOP-IX in Torino, with presences in distributed data centers in their respective metropolitan area and region. Participation in these three exchange points is very heterogeneous: it includes the big content providers (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitch), big international carriers, national access operators (Fastweb,TIM,Tiscali, Vodafone, and Wind), and medium-to-small local ISPs.

There is also another particular type of operator that is present at the three major Italian IXPs, the Content Delivery Networks (CDNs). These are globally distributed platforms that help services without their own underlying infrastructure minimize latency by reducing the physical distance between the services and the users.

Even though the main activity of the IXPs is to manage, upgrade and maintain the technological infrastructure that allows the exchange of information between network operators, the greatest challenge is to generate a critical mass of participants. On one hand they try to help the small and medium local operators extend their networks to reach the data centers where the IXP is located, and on the other attract as many of the Content Providers as possible in order to allow local distribution of traffic.

There are hundreds of participants nowadays at MIX, Namex, and TOP-IX, and there has been a continual growth of interconnected operators. This diversifies the type of services available and brings advantages to a heterogeneous and diversified ecosystem, thereby greatly benefiting the growth of the Internet in Italy and the nearby countries.

This article was originally published in Italian by TOP-IX, MIX, and Namex.

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Image by Sandro Schuh via Unsplash

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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