Ottawa doesn’t have an Internet Exchange Point. Here’s why that’s a problem

Local organizations are seeking a new home for the internet in Ottawa
Ethernet

There’s a hole in the capital’s internet infrastructure and a new organization’s efforts to solve the only-in-Ottawa problem could mean an opportunity for a local business.

The problem revolves around an Internet Exchange Point, or IXP for short. I’ll get into what exactly they are in a moment, but they can be an important piece of a city’s local internet. They help keep local data local, enable lightning-quick transfer speeds and maintain crucial connections in the event of an outage.

Ottawa doesn’t have one, but a new organization is looking to change that.

What are these things exactly?

You can think of Internet Exchange Points as a city’s local connection to the internet, a hub where the networks of networks that comprise the information superhighway meet.

These nodes reside in heavy-duty data centres called carrier hotel facilities that act as hubs for internet traffic to flow in and out through carriers such as Bell or Rogers. It’s a local access point for the internet, which you can imagine offers valuable direct access to the net.

They’re used mainly by these internet service providers, content distributors and other large enterprises to keep data fast and, importantly, local.

“When you build an IXP, it’s the core of the internet. You interconnect different networks together,” says Jacques Latour, chief technical officer of the Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Registration Authority.

(CIRA, if you need a refresher, is the group behind the .ca domain and a number of other internet-related initiatives in Canada.)

Why should I care where my data goes?

When you send an email through your ISP, instead of that information going out to an exchange point in the United States, ISPs can send it through a local IXP and keep that data in Canada, so as not to subject it to U.S. privacy laws.

For ISPs that peer with an IXP, their users can also achieve bigger bandwidths and lower latency (heavier and faster traffic).

They can also protect against internet outages in geographically isolated areas such as Charlottetown where CIRA is currently helping to set up an IXP.

Say, for instance, that the pipe supplying internet to the whole of Prince Edward Island was suddenly interrupted: that exchange point could maintain local connections for crucial users such as government services. Large businesses and universities can also benefit from IXPs this way.

This sounds great. Why don’t we have one?

We used to, kind of. It was called OTTIX, and it launched back in 2001. It moved a few times over its lifespan but kept running into the problem that its facilities were acquired by an ISP – a no-no for operating an IXP.

All IXPs are hosted in vendor-neutral facilities. This ensures that no single internet service provider (and its users) benefits disproportionally from the IXP.

Ottawa no longer has a proper IXP because the former hosting data centre is no longer neutral – Rogers bought it about five years ago.

It appears OTTIX maintained some of its operations for a number of years after the acquisition, but seems to have folded in recent months. Attempts to reach OTTIX representatives for this story were unsuccessful.

The solution, then, is to find a different data-neutral environment to host the IXP.

Won’t anyone please think of the internet?

That’s the goal of the Ottawa-Gatineau Internet Exchange, a group of local stakeholders and service providers looking to establish a new IXP in Ottawa. Invest Ottawa, the Centre of Excellence in Next Generation Networks, TekSavvy Solutions, Storm Internet and CIRA itself are among the representatives on the board of OGIX.

CIRA’s especially interested in getting an IXP set up in Ottawa because it would let the organization move its critical infrastructure – currently set up at Toronto’s IXP – closer to its home base in the capital.

“I can’t wait to do that,” says Latour.

Cool, let me know when they find a location with all the technical requirements.

That’s proven really tough. There are many data centres and co-location facilities in Ottawa, but none have emerged as obvious contenders for an IXP. A fitting location may already be out there, but if it is, OGIX doesn’t know about it yet.

“This is a unique Ottawa challenge."

The winning candidate would need to be carrier-neutral, allow secure, 24/7 access, have high power availability, the ability for dark fibre connections and a permanent enough location to last for the next 100 years.

CIRA has helped groups in more than 10 cities establish their own IXPs in the past few years and has never had as much trouble finding a location as in Ottawa.

“This is a unique Ottawa challenge,” says CIRA’s senior communications director Tanya O’Callaghan, referencing smaller communities such as Moncton that haven’t had this issue.

What can be done?

If a public data centre or co-location facility isn’t available in Ottawa, there might be a business or other organization that could fill the IXP role. While ISPs such as Rogers and Bell would be restricted from operating an IXP, there’s nothing that says a government agency, private business or local university couldn’t do so – and there are plenty of opportunities that come with hosting an IXP.

Say, for example, Shopify wanted to host the exchange point in its data centre. That would give the local e-commerce giant a direct plug to the internet, providing a cheap and efficient path to process terabytes of data.

That kind of capability can foster innovation, Latour says, and whomever steps up to the plate would be the only organization in Ottawa with that power.

“It would be bringing the internet to whoever wants to host it,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll be in a fight with people who say, ‘We want it in our backyard.’”