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INEX and Me

Declan Comerford

Hubs and stubs

It is important for any major provider of network-based services to have access to locations where network connectivity is aggregated. In simple terms we want to be close to, and avail of, the best connections possible.

I managed a small Microsoft data centre in Dublin in the early 2000s. I moved into a regional role in 2003 with overall responsibility for the MSN data centre facilities in EMEA. Microsoft set up its first internet-facing data centre in Ireland at around the same time.

Back then, and for many years after, Ireland was considered a stub on the European network, compared with the major hubs in locations like the UK, France, Germany and Holland. Network connectivity was a constant concern among companies that were looking for fast connections to the major markets in Europe. It was very important that we build a network infrastructure that would bring the major providers to Ireland and provide us with access to larger bandwidth. But the Irish government agencies just could not understand the network connectivity issue.

Microsoft’s networking teams knew about all the major internet exchanges through their involvement in RIPE. We connected to multiple providers through various exchanges. So it was essential that we should support the local exchange in Ireland. INEX began to accept members that were not ISPs in 2004 and we applied to join. That was how Microsoft became the first digital content provider to start peering through INEX. In 2005 I was elected to the board of the exchange and remained a member for seven years.

It took time for us to realise what levels of traffic would be seen, but the INEX team ensured that the right infrastructure was in place to support the growth patterns of its members. Looking back, the growth would appear to have happened in major spurts. But I expect that much of this was planned well in advance through open communication with all members.

INEX has achieved everything it set out to do, delivering growth and payback ahead of expectations. This brought benefits to all its members through access to more traffic and providers, while the increased membership has driven down costs, year on year.

It has been my personal ambition for years to establish Ireland as more of a communications hub. This effort has evolved slowly and is still developing. We are still a stub on the network.

Bandwidth requirements will continue to increase as more and more users connect to cloud-based services for both business and personal use. The Irish government needs to understand that it will take more than just having major data centres hosted in Ireland to continue to win in this arena. It’s all about connectivity and latency.

Joe McDonnell

The day that switching started

When INEX issued its request for proposals for an internet exchange point in September 1996, the business looked modestly profitable and very prestigious to our data services division at Cara.

The company was not involved in delivering internet services in its own right, but we had facilities management experience. Over the preceding years our division had housed and managed a diverse range of computer systems for travel, medical and other businesses, as well as hosting the regional processing centre in Ireland for the Society for World Interbank Financial Telecommunications. Cara already had all of the infrastructure for the service that INEX required.

David Little had been general manager of Cara Datacomm, the division of the company that distributed and sold routers, switches and other communications equipment. I was the operations manager for data services. David and I negotiated with INEX and agreed the terms and conditions of the contract. I became the prime contact for implementing and delivering the service thereafter.

The INEX wish list was for dedicated space in a secure air-conditioned environment with restricted access, an uninterruptible power supply with a backup generator and a fire protection system. Cara already had all of this in situ. Our data services operations centre was manned on a 16 hour, five day roster with out of hours support procedures in place.

INEX took space in a secure computer room with an isolated single phase power supply and access to a telecom distribution frame for connectivity. We installed a standard six foot Racal Milgo communications cabinet, complete with the required digital patching and switching equipment and power outlets. The individual internet service providers installed, configured and tested their own routers and associated equipment.

Our primary contact for the exchange was Mike Norris, an absolute gentleman, from HEAnet. We also got to know technicians from the various ISPs, who came to the computer room to install equipment and for trouble-shooting. Everyone involved was totally focussed on getting the project up and running on time and without any hiccups.

The exchange went live on 22 April 1997, but it was a fairly low key affair. I recall a lot of anxiety, but everything went according to plan. Mike Norris, David Little and I were all present, along with other INEX members, Cara’s data services manager Jim Houston, shift supervisors Brendan Berry and Larry Gittens, and senior operator Gary Murphy. There was certainly no big formal launch or party for the event.

We did not run into any serious teething troubles – just occasional configuration issues and communication glitches. The INEX expectation was for 100% uptime and system availability. Except for some issues with telecom lines, and one general ESB outage, I can’t remember any significant problems.

Cara ran the facility until 2001, when INEX moved it into Data Electronics.

In hindsight, the simplicity of the whole idea of the internet exchange was impressive. So were the very competent and intellectual personnel behind it. This project marked the advent of the cool, relaxed, laid back and extremely intelligent communications technician and the emergence of a new breed of highly educated and technically proficient internet professionals.

John Clancy

In the beginning

Born out of an ambition to grow the internet market in Ireland, Indigo far outstripped the other non-academic internet services of its time in terms of investment. We spent the equivalent of around €1.3 million on its computer room alone, built a 20-agent customer service desk and publicized the service through an extensive media campaign, including television advertising. We worked on the project for about a year prior to its launch in 1995. My job was to manage the service rollout.

Ireland’s connectivity infrastructure at that time was largely based on copper circuits and controlled through the market monopoly of Telecom Eireann. International bandwidth was capacity-limited and the charges represented a huge fixed cost overhead every month. Broadband technologies like ADSL were not yet available. ISDN was relatively new and expensive. Most customers were still using dial-up modems. Netscape was the dominant web browser. Microsoft was just starting to penetrate the market with Internet Explorer. And PCs were slow and expensive.

In addition, ISP business models were still based on monthly charges. Indigo, indeed, was the first in Ireland to offer a free service to its customers.

The ISP pioneers of those days had considerable challenges to face in building viable and sustainable businesses. We examined every opportunity for cost saving, technology innovation, and attracting and retaining customers.

One such opportunity was to stop routing intra-Ireland internet traffic over international lines. Emails between users who lived just a few doors from each other were travelling outwards on our very expensive international bandwidth circuits, only to return to Ireland on the same circuits. Customers who browsed Irish-hosted websites were likewise consuming our international bandwidth to do so – a needless waste of bandwidth. We in Indigo, and our industry colleagues in other ISPs, might be able to reduce our connectivity costs and at the same time improve latency time for our customers if we could route all the traffic from one Irish ISP to another through a locally-based exchange.

With this in mind, Indigo, EUnet Ireland and Internet Ireland formed a working group to examine the technical and commercial feasibility of establishing what became known as the Internet Neutral Exchange or INEX. Cormac Callanan, David Mee and George Hellis were among the participants. Our first meetings were tentative and approached with some suspicion and trepidation on the part of all participants, because we were direct competitors. But we quickly realized that we had common ground for technical, and later commercial, discussion and cooperation. And we realized that the opportunity for a
faster and more cost-efficient internet infrastructure was within our grasp.

I suggested that we needed to formalize a framework for conducting the business of the working group and, in early 1996, I took responsibility to draft the first rules and constitution of the exchange. My focus in this task was not on the operational aspects of internet exchanges from a technology perspective – few others existed at the time – but on how our group could discuss and resolve issues, and on how voting power would work. I used my background in general business to draft the documents. The rules and constitution were approved in June 1996 and the company was incorporated in September of that year.

The group asked me to become the first chairman of INEX, but I respectfully declined. By then, I had resigned from Indigo and decided to leave the internet industry.

Nobody on that working group could foresee the much more sophisticated cooperative models that followed. But I believe that we, as Ireland’s original internet pioneers, can all look with pride at how INEX and the internet market in Ireland have subsequently developed.

Kevin McCarthy

Finance for the INEX upgrade

I was IDA Ireland’s telecomms manager from 2002 to 2006. Our team focused on a growing and vibrant cluster of internet-related businesses, which was mainly based in Dublin. It also engaged in setting the agenda for technical infrastructure development. Connectivity out of Ireland was a key issue.

In March 2002 Forfás published a review of government policy on broadband investment. The objective of this review was to determine the key policy changes required to improve telecommunications for businesses. It noted that the range of internet peering opportunities in Ireland was limited. The status of the internet exchange was also brought to the IDA’s attention by some of its international services clients.

IDA engaged Dublin-based consulting firm Magnum Opus to help study the need for improved internet traffic facilities. We examined a number of scenarios and decided that an upgraded and expanded INEX could achieve the status of an international internetn exchange.

Taking a creative approach, and making innovative use of industrial development legislation, IDA approved a substantial loan facility for the exchange in September 2004. This loan would support significant front end capital and operational expenditure to fund the INEX upgrade. The terms included a one-year moratorium on repayments to allow breathing space after these investments.

The result was a success. Barry Rhodes and his small team met their targets and key performance indicators ahead of schedule. Not all of the loan was drawn down and repayment in full was made ahead of time.

Using its network of overseas offices, the IDA continued to assist promoting the exchange. We worked closely with Eileen Gallagher to attract new members. In time INEX became one of the fastest growing exchanges in Europe.

I was very proud to be associated with this success story for IDA and INEX.

Marcus O'Doherty

How streaming media went mainstream

Barry Rhodes and I met for coffee one day in the RTÉ canteen. It was 2005, and INEX was by then established as an essential part of the internet infrastructure in Ireland. RTÉ was starting to develop broadband streaming services which were attracting an increasing online viewership. These were still relatively early days for video streaming – services like Netflix hadn’t been launched back then. RTÉ was looking for a robust and efficient means of delivering a growing range of services to its online audience. INEX was seeking to attract content providers on to the platform. So our interests seemed well matched. Barry and I agreed to keep in touch.

RTÉ joined INEX as an associate member initially. I was struck by the collaborative nature of the member meetings, and how the members were open to sharing information. RTÉ went on to become a full member and started peering traffic on the INEX platform in 2006. This allowed it to deliver a whole range of new programming online, including mid-week Champions League games. When Taoiseach Bertie Ahern delivered the keynote address at the INEX 10th anniversary event in September that year I reminded him that, if he watched his favourite team playing that evening, it would be streamed over the INEX platform. I don’t know if he got to see the game, but we knew from the streaming figures that plenty of other people viewed it. Audiences for live streaming events were growing rapidly at that time, as a result of increasing broadband penetration, and the growing range of TV and radio content available.

The live streaming of the budget speeches from the Dáil later that year is another event I remember. This was back in the day when people tuned into budgets expecting to hear good news – different times. The good news for INEX in 2006 was the record volume of traffic recorded on its platform. It was well in excess of 1 Gigabit – a notable milestone back then. I remember the excitement in the INEX community when those traffic figures were published. It was also an early sign of the profound impact the internet would have on media viewing in the following years.

The INEX platform was a key enabler for the development of RTÉ’s online programming, as it provided a high capacity, low latency, and cost efficient means of delivering content directly to the audience. Jonathan Lundberg and John Moylan were instrumental in designing and building RTÉ’s streaming media platforms at that time. Nick Hilliard at INEX made a very valuable contribution to the project along the way.

RTÉ went on to launch a broad range of innovative services, such as RTÉ Player and RTÉ News Now, and to stream high profile events including elections, World Cups and Olympic Games, to an increasingly large online audience. The breath of content and technical quality continue to improve year after year. Streaming media services are now mainstream and, for many people, their preferred way to watch television.

The INEX platform also continues to grow and prosper, and is recognised as a cornerstone of the digital economy in Ireland. INEX as an organisation embodies the spirit of net neutrality, and continues to demonstrate the gains that can be achieved through cooperation and collaborative thinking.

Maurice Mortell

Always a great reference for us

Data Electronics was originally an IT outsourcing business with field service locations nationwide. I joined the company in 1992 and held positions in finance and sales before I was appointed CEO in 2001.

Our facilities management services expanded significantly in the 1990s, thanks to international clients such as Bloomberg, CompuServe and SITA. We took on some private investment in 2000 and purchased a site in Ballycoolin with a view to growing the data centre part of our business. I travelled to London and Amsterdam to understand how early data centre providers in other countries had built up a critical mass of connectivity and customers. I wanted to see what was driving their growth. When INEX issued its request for proposals in May 2000 I had already seen how LINX and AMS-CIX operated.

Data Electronics provided support services for Esat and Galileo in the Fenian Street building where INEX was located. I managed to get a look at the cabinet and saw a much smaller set-up than I was expecting. That was due to my ignorance of the INEX structure in Ireland at the time.

We opened our colocation and managed services facility in Ballycoolin in early 2001, signed a contract with INEX and the exchange moved in. At that time we had a strategic partnership with Keytech, a British IT support company, for monitoring the service. The idea was that we could manage the infrastructure 24/7 on behalf of the exchange.

Alex French, Nick Hilliard, Alan Judge and Mike Norris became our key INEX contacts. We learned from them about the purpose of the exchange and how it was structured. Inside Data Electronics Shay Walsh helped me with customer relationships, while Jason Kehoe and Daniel Tinkiel worked on the technical side.

2002 was a difficult period for everyone in the industry. There was a lot of volatility in the market and an opportunity arose for Data Electronics to buy Inflow’s premises in Kilcarbery. We transferred INEX there at our expense and we mothballed the Ballycoolin site.

Initially I thought the INEX contract was going to drive huge demand for connectivity, interconnectivity and colocation. But the exchange was still restricted to internet service providers and that constrained its growth potential. Over time, however, INEX established a more open policy to attracting new members and proved very important to Ireland’s success as a hosting location.

The benefits that we hoped to get from the exchange came through eventually. And it was always a great reference for us to have when speaking to prospective clients.

In 2011 Data Electronics found itself at a new crossroads. We needed investment funds again and the existing board was starting to tire. Telecity Group, which ran data centres in the key European connectivity hubs, stepped in and acquired the business. Large scale investment followed. Ironically this has now enabled us to create a new INEX point-of- presence in Ballycoolin – fourteen years after we took out the first one.