Monday, April 09, 2012

Frontier bursting - the setup of Kenya's Internet Exchange Point - KIXP

Note: This piece is an excerpt from a paper published by Summit Strategies in 2006 which evaluated the impact of KIXP between 2002-2006

Frontier bursting   the local internet space -   the case of Brian Longwe, 2006

One of the things that always puzzled me during the early days of our country’s Internet and while I was network manager for one of our first Internet Service Providers was the incredible delays on delivery of electronic mail to other local providers. After running a number of different diagnostics it became apparent that messages from my network to another local ISPs network – were going out of the country, to Europe, then across the Pacific ocean to the USA, then over to Asia before finding their way to their destination which was in many cases literally across the street!

This was obviously an unacceptable state of affairs and the subject of this inefficient routing of local traffic came up several times in discussions at the East African Internet Association (EAIA) – a group that I was involved in that brought together providers and consumers alike to share knowledge and experiences gained from the information-rich Internet. During these discussions various suggestions were tabled as to how we could deal with this problem, but none of them had the ring of truth to them that gave one the deep certainty that the problem once solved would remain solved.

A couple of years later while doing some research over the Internet one day I came across mention of a networking workshop that I had heard about once or twice on the EAIA mailing list. This was the Internet Society’s networking workshop for developing countries which took place annually in the United States of America. What interested me most was that one of the training tracks they offered dealt with infrastructure and had a section specifically on Internet exchanges. I hastened to submit my application and was elated when I was not only accepted but also granted a waiver on the tuition. I then pleaded with my employers at the time, a Christian non-profit service provider to support me by paying for my airfare and living allowance while taking this course. One experience I will never forget was when I went to get my visa from the US embassy. When the visa officer asked me what I was going to do, I told her that I was going to learn how to run Internet networks better.

She immediately smiled at me and said “If this will help improve the service I get from my current ISP, then you have got to go.”

Little did she know that the knowledge I obtained from this workshop would create the engine and nucleus that drives the Kenyan Internet as we know it today.

While on the course I had the opportunity to meet many of the people who played a key role in designing and operating the Internet as we know it today. What struck me the most was how ordinary and passionate about technology they were. Another thing that surprised was learning that several other Kenyan engineers had benefited from the same training in previous years and it made me wonder why they had never brought their knowledge into our frequent attempts and online discussions. But by far the individual who had the most impact on me was one of our instructors, a consulting engineer for Cisco Systems called Barry Raveendran Greene. Barry taught me the fundamentals of Internet Exchange points drawing from his own experience in setting these up in Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong and a number of other Asian states. In simple terms he emphasized both the technical and social interventions that would be needed to make a successful IXP. By the time we were through the course I felt armed with the knowledge and understanding to finally help deal with our local traffic problem.

Immediately upon arrival back in Nairobi, I started visiting the ISPs one by one, I set up appointments with their managers and in many cases owners and sat with them face to face to explain that now I had it. Now I knew exactly how we could deal with our local traffic. Shortly after these visits the Kenyan ISP association – TESPOK - was established and one of it’s objectives was to set up an Internet exchange point. We had several meetings during which I shared my recently acquired knowledge on the technical approach to set up the exchange. I also contacted Barry Greene to request assistance with our planning. I was overjoyed when he offered to obtain a donation of equipment from Cisco for the core of the IXP so that we wouldn’t have too much of a financial burden to get it going. Barry subsequently came to Kenya and helped us with the hands-on set-up and configuration of the first four ISPs that connected to the KIXP.

There were many other details that went into operationalising the KIXP, I can’t cover all of them here but will highlight how it was named. At first I really wanted to call it KIX but I was informed by Bill Manning of EP.NET – the list of global exchange points that  the name was already being used by the Korean Internet Exchange, I then thought about KENYAIX – but found that too long. Eventually KIXP came to mind and I liked it so much that I pleaded with Bill to allow us to use it and immediately registered KIXP.NET.

It fills me with joy to see that today, this dream that I carried in my heart is not only running very efficiently without my involvement (I handed over the operational responsibility three years ago) but has become the epicentre of Kenya’s internet with such organizations as the Kenya Revenue Authority referring to KIXP as a “strategic resource”. Today KIXP is keeping millions of packets of Kenyan data local and saving hundreds of thousands of shillings which would otherwise have been spent on carrying these packets over international links.


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