Operating the Core of the Internet

The one thing which really defines AMS-IX, but remains invisible to most people, is the technical infrastructure. For Henk Steenman, CTO at the AMS-IX Company, the exchange’s value is clear: “At AMS-IX, we work at the very core of the Internet.”

In the early nineties, the Dutch telecom market was being opened up and the basis for what would later become the AMS-IX Internet infrastructure was being laid out at Sara and NIKHEF. The original network was meant to connect two national service providers: NLnet for business and private customers and SURFnet for the academic community. The initiative was well thought out: “Directly linking these two without having a third party in between was the most efficient, least costly solution. Anyone else who wished to hook up to the same infrastructure was free to select either location. Regardless of their choice, they would be provided the same connectivity.”

Erik-Jan Bos of SURFnet mentioned ‘The Amsterdam Internet Exchange (AMS-IX)’ for the first time in an email to all platform participants in 1994. For several years, computer centre Sara managed this platform on behalf of SURFnet. However, as exchange management was not SURFnet’s core business, they proposed to hand over this activity to an external company in 2000. This resulted in the foundation of the AMS-IX Company, with the close involvement of both Henk and Job Witteman.

In the same period, the first expansion came about. “Sara and NIKHEF couldn’t facilitate any more additional service providers, so Telecity (now Telecity AMS2) and Global Switch were added. These locations were the first fully equipped data centres , as opposed to the two computer centres.” Even though AMS-IX is currently present in twelve data centres across the Amsterdam metro area, the original principle still applies: “Wherever customers connect, they have the option to exchange data with all other connected parties.”

Important developments

Going from Ethernet (E) to 100 Gigabit Ethernet (GE) in less than 20 years is a significant technical development at AMS-IX. For the implementation of the 10GE and 100GE ports, Henk and his technical team worked closely with Brocade. “AMS-IX has been actively involved in the product development, in an advisory capacity.”

The deployment of Glimmerglass photonic cross connects in 2003 was another important technical development. These devices function as an automated physical patch panel. “Initially, the photonic cross connects were used to facilitate easy topology changes but eventually they were applied to secure client connections to the platform, making AMS-IX the most reliable exchange of its size.”

In 2009, AMS-IX migrated from a ‘pure’ Ethernet platform to an MPLS/VPLS platform. This made AMS-IX much more scalable and reliable. “Platform scalability remains an ongoing concern for us. We always need the newest, biggest and most powerful equipment suppliers can provide. MPLS technology offered us the solution we needed.” AMS-IX was the world’s first Internet Exchange to deploy this technology on such a large scale. The same applies for 10GE and 100GE customer and backbone connections, SLAs and mobile peering points.

At the beginning of the 21st century, mobile networks were looking for an interconnectivity model similar to the Internet peering model. The GSM Association (GSMA) approached AMS-IX for advice. “After several discussions they introduced GRX, a unique Global GPRS Roaming Exchange, which we implemented on our platform. Later, similar exchanges were added in the US and Singapore. Although the GRX platform doesn’t handle a great deal of traffic, it is vital for connectivity between mobile operators.” Eventually, the GSMA used the GRX model to develop IPX, as mobile networks migrated towards the IP network protocol. Again, AMS-IX was the first to define a service around IPX and offer a dedicated IPX exchange (Inter-IPX) and related carrier-grade SLAs.

Current challenges

Besides platform scalability - presently being driven by customer uptake of high bandwidth ports (100GE) – and growth of traffic volumes and customer base, finding qualified staff is perhaps the biggest challenge for AMS-IX. “About half of our employees are in technical positions. It is very difficult to find qualified technicians in the Netherlands and, as a result, the company consists of 18 different nationalities.”

Due to AMS-IX’s international expansion, the biggest challenge is remotely managing the infrastructure. “Even though the network technology at all our global sites is more or less identical, everything needs to be centrally managed from Amsterdam. However, we obviously can’t physically operate remote equipment, so we do need to involve various partners for certain tasks. As we shift to more offsite control, and the traffic and client base grows, we will need to adapt our organisation further.”

Taking the distributed model to the US

In 2013, AMS-IX exported its neutral and distributed model to the United States, in response to the Open-IX initiative. This initiative, led by major networks such as Google and Akamai, aims to bring the European model of distributed Internet exchanges to the US, in order to reduce interconnection complexity and associated costs. “The very first Internet exchanges in North America were managed by service providers. They offered interconnection, albeit linked to their own services. Over time the model developed into a system where Internet exchanges were managed and operated by data centre providers. This limited the reach of the platforms to these specific operators’ facilities, but on the other hand, it also reduces the need for an active Internet exchange in favour of direct passive connections.”

Major changes

AMS-IX itself has undergone many changes over the past years, many of which were influenced by external developments. “We’ve seen big changes in the kind of customers we service and the type of data traffic we handle. Initially, our customers were Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Now, our client base also includes content providers, web hosting companies, cloud companies and gaming developers. In addition, data traffic once mainly consisted of email, but later the World Wide Web came along and now video is the main source of traffic. Hardly surprising that we always need the very latest technologies.”


Henk Steenman, CTO of AMS-IX