John Souter: Linx is a co-operative, owned by its customers,
and that keeps the operation focused. All profit is re-invested in
As the London Olympic Games ramped up internet traffic in offices and homes around the world from the end of July, one man was crossing his fingers and hoping everything was going well.
Only weeks before the opening ceremony John Souter, the CEO of Linx, the London Internet Exchange, completed a huge upgrade of the organisation’s infrastructure, which links telecoms operators, content distributors and internet service providers worldwide.
Linx selected Juniper Networks to supply the new switches for its network, in a planned move to increase its capacity to meet demands from the continuing growth of digital content, both from the fixed and the mobile internet.
And early indications were that London was going to be the most internet-connected Olympics so far. The BBC, the UK’s public broadcaster, carried 24 simultaneous video channels — showing every Olympics competition live — and reported 29 million total requests for video content from the sports area of its website in the first week of the games.
The sports site saw an increase of 80% in the number of daily unique browsers, said the broadcaster. The site had a peak of eight million UK viewers and 10.4 million from the rest of the world in the first few days.
Others reported similar increases. US broadcaster NBC recorded 744 million page views of its Olympics coverage in the first week. Workers in Los Angeles city hall were watching so much sport on the office network that the city’s CTO had to ask them to stop, according to rival US broadcaster ABC News.
The deployment at Linx went live in May 2012, only two months before the opening ceremony, though it had been planned for months before. Once the new system was running, “we declared an engineering freeze during the games”, says Souter. “We didn’t want to touch the network.”
Juniper’s kit is at the heart of a system used by over 400 networks, including service providers and content owners, from 50 countries. The increase in capacity is needed because one high-definition television stream runs at 25 megabits a second — and Linx has installed enough kit to carry eight terabits a second. The system is able to forward 2,500 hours of original TV broadcast coverage in less than a minute.
Linx connects members from A to Z, including AboveNet — now part of Zayo — to Zen Internet, an ISP based in the suburbs of Manchester in northern England. But the members also include significant international operators such as AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom and NTT as well as content-focused companies such as the BBC, Google and video distribution specialist Akamai.
Focused on members
As an exchange owned by its members, Linx is unusual in the internet world, but not completely unique. “We’re a co-operative,” says Souter. Its owners are its customers “and that keeps Linx focused”. All profit is re-invested in the operation, “and we made a handsome profit last year”, and its status means it is “a tax-free zone” as far as the UK government’s tax collecting authorities are concerned.
The organisation was founded in 1994, in the primeval days of the internet, “and we were a co-operative from the beginning”.
The driver was to provide a way for ISPs of all sizes to connect with one another without an intervening billing system. “If you were organising the world’s connectivity and all of it was on a meter it would never have happened,” says Souter.
One alternative in the early days would have been to rely on the small number of tier-one ISPs — which have their own peer-to-peer connections. “All the networks at the top tier peer with each other.” But such a hierarchy “would be massively complicated”, he says, and new services such as voice over IP would never have developed because of the complexity.
All members connect directly to Linx and the Juniper-powered network exchanges traffic, “strictly the packets destined for each other”, says Souter: in other words, traffic is not routed via other ISPs. The fact that so many ISPs all come into the same point means that “you can do latency-centred applications like VoIP”, he says.
The big tier-one networks connect to Linx, and the smaller ISPs use it to get their services via a metered pipe. “Most members tend to connect to two [of the tier-one companies], but they don’t buy full service from both as that would double their cost.”
Connecting to the powerful networks is essential because they provide connectivity to the services people want — but if one of them is having a bad day, it’s advisable to have a back-up connection to one of the others.
And Linx enables the key content providers to deliver their services to customers of the small ISPs. “If we hadn’t existed Akamai would have had to invent us,” smiles Souter. The exchange means “that eggs are spread across many baskets”.
Linx is using the new Juniper equipment for the first time ever in internet exchanges. Telindus installed it for Linx in the exchange’s 10 points of presence across London, all running on Juniper’s Junos operating system.
There was a bit of a hiccup at the end of May, the company’s first significant outage for 15 months, after Linx engineers misconfigured a few member ports. The problem was not connected with the Juniper installations, Linx made clear.
The equipment provides “10 gigabit ports in a box”, he says, with the capacity to grow to 40G and 100G when necessary. The Juniper systems replace kit from Brocade “which will be redeployed as edge routers”. He’s convinced of the strength of the new approach: “One of the core routers can literally melt and the network will route around it and it will not affect capacity. I’ve a very positive feeling about Juniper — they see us as a flagship project.”
Membership of Linx is still growing strongly, says Souter, who has been CEO of Linx since March 2001 and joined the board of directors 11 months later. There were 200 in the middle of 2006 and “we have 415 now and we’ve had 42 applications so far in 2012. We had 49 in the whole of 2011.”
The organisation has members from most parts of the world, including 20 from Russia. “The only continent without members is South America.”
It has launched a new exchange — with a separate membership list — in Manchester, in the north of England, and is “looking at Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we have a bunch of discussions” about internet islands, “so they’re not all backhauling to London”.
Linx was set up in the 1990s because it made sense for ISPs in a rapidly growing market. ISPs in those days tended to swap traffic in the US. “We were started to stop everything going via the US,” says Souter.
But despite the success of Linx, the idea of internet exchanges has not taken off in many other parts of the world, he admits. “There was an initial exchange in the US but it didn’t work well.”
Others survive. In the north-western US, the Seattle Internet Exchange was set up in April 1997 as a private interconnection between two ISPs. In March 2012 the aggregate traffic passed 110 gigabits a second for the first time. It now has 156 members, including AT&T, Amazon, Facebook, Yahoo and Zayo. Toronto’s TorIX reached 79 gigabits a second in May 2012, but most days traffic peaks at 60-70 gigs.
“But the biggest exchanges are all in Europe,” says Souter, citing cities such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Moscow, “one of the biggest but not as aggregated [as Linx]”. When Souter took over at Linx there was a Japanese equivalent that was about the same size. “Now Linx is double the size of the Japanese exchange, but Japan is an island and much of Japanese traffic stays on the island.” GTB
More from GTB
GTB presents Innovation Awards 2012 13 Jun 2012
A primer in the new world of ethernet exchanges 28 Feb 2011
IP exchanges become the interoperability hub 28 Feb 2011
Rival exchanges set up for carrier ethernet 12 Dec 2010
Video exchanges offer chance for telepresence 12 Dec 2010