Explaining the Web

The Way the Web Works & the Role of Internet Exchanges

Boosting benefits of global networking and helping your data get around

All those claims made by budding IT firms back in the seventies and eighties have turned out to be true... Invest in a computer and your productivity, efficiency and scope of possibilities will grow enormously. In the eighties and nineties, we were told that if we joined several computers into a network, those advantages would grow exponentially. This led to the growth of early Wide- and Local Area Networks. In the nineties, we were told something that universities and governments around the world had already discovered... If you manage to hook up several of those networks, the possibilities are endless. The resulting uptake of the Internet in every area of business, education, society and daily life turned out to be a truly unique phenomenon in the history of humankind…

There’s one thing that needs to be taken into account, however: all those networks have to play by the same rules in order for us to reap their full potential... The Internet is a network of networks, based on a set of rules: the Internet Protocol (IP). As long as everyone sticks to those rules, we can simply keep adding devices and continue to innovate. Currently, there are around 45,000 unique IP networks, and together these form the world wide web. Each network performs functions in the area of content, end-users access, transport, storage, website hosting and applications. 

Putting the pieces together
The messages you send over the Internet don’t travel as a single big block - they are divided into tiny data packets, which take different paths. Kind of like a fleet of cars taking multiple routes, depending on where the roads are least congested... To get data from point A to point B, three different options are available to networks. 

The simplest option is making a direct connection between one network and another. When an email is sent, for example, the sender’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) connects directly to the receiver’s ISP and relays the message. This works well within a single country, but if a wider geography needs to be covered, the data will have to pass through multiple networks. As a result, a second option arises: parties need to buy connectivity from transit providers, allowing their data to reach and return from a particular destination. 

Option three simplifies this: both networks link to an Internet Exchange, where the data packet is transferred. A direct connection between sender and receiver is not necessary. The exchange might link a local ISP to a major carrier, such as an international telecom provider, which delivers the data package as closely to its final destination as possible. The receiver’s ISP picks it up from that point. 

Internet Exchange Points: what do they do?
Internet Exchanges, such as AMS-IX (Amsterdam Internet Exchange), are physical locations where networks come together to interconnect and directly exchange traffic. This is called ‘peering’ and it makes the Internet more affordable and faster for everyone. Each network connected to AMS-IX may peer with any other connected network, although there is no obligation to do so. It depends on the peering policy of every connected party. Peering is mostly done without any money changing hands. It is based on mutual benefits for both parties involved. 

An exchange operator, such as AMS-IX, only provides data transport within its own metropolitan area. This means that AMS-IX in Amsterdam doesn’t link directly to its locations in Hong Kong, Curaçao, Mombasa and New York. Its customers take care of this themselves. AMS-IX resellers can link to exchanges by providing ports wherever they have a network available. End users don’t connect directly to Internet Exchanges. Instead, they rely on the services of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or telecom companies to do that for them. 

Large Internet Exchanges fulfill a national as well as an international role. AMS-IX is a prime example of this. At this exchange almost all large Dutch networks, and most of the smaller ones, exchange traffic. However, close to 80% of the connected networks originate from Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, Asia and even Africa. 

In short....
By peering at an Internet Exchange, parties can decrease network costs, improve network performance, become more autonomous and make their network more redundant. Improving network performance is done by accessing many networks directly at the exchange, instead of making several network 'hops' through other parties.