How ISPA pioneered Internet Exchanges in South Africa

The Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA), which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, has played a major role in the establishment of a sound exchange base for South African internet service providers (ISPs).

Hans van de Groenendaal caught up with chairperson, Graham Beneke, to discuss how ISPA has influenced the landscape, which, at the inception of the internet, was dominated by “big brother” Telkom.

There were two main reasons why ISPA was formed, to provide competition to Telkom and to establish independent internet exchange points.

At the time Telkom didn’t sell any internet services. ISPs were buying international links from Telkom, but not the internet — they had to contract with a separate foreign telco at a remote landing point and buy transit to get to the internet.

Any communication between two ISPs went all the way overseas and back to South Africa, which was expensive given the very high communication link rates at the time”, said Beneke.

In 1988 a group of students at Rhodes University, led by Mike Lawrie, started work on the establishment of the internet in South Africa.

They created a sustainable link to the internet between the university and the home of Randy Bush in Portland Oregon, USA.

The email link used the Fidonet mailing system as a transport mechanism to exchange email between the control data cyber computer at Rhodes University and a Fidonet gateway run by Bush, which in turn had a gateway into the internet.

To the amazement of many sceptics the system worked very well and proved to be sustainable.

The first commercial ISP, Internet Africa, was established in 1993.

Post-graduate students formed the internet action development team (AIDAT), compiling information on ISPs and identifying shared network issues. The first domain was registered in 1992.

AIDAT’s role was to facilitate the migration of admin away from Lawrie to UniForum SA (now ZACR) because the rate of growth of commercial domains was a problem for Lawrie.

This transfer occurred in 1995. ISPs were however reluctant to take on the administrative burden but with internet exchange issue not going away nine ISPs formed ISPA.

This saw the establishment of the ISPA Johannesburg Internet Exchange (JINX). Although it was housed in the same building as Internet Solutions (IS) in Rosebank it was not part of the company, but was managed by ISPA.

We managed the facility on a volunteer basis but we ultimately realised that we were not into the business of hosting and looking after generators and air-conditioners and decided to go out with a request for proposal (RFP) to find a company to host the exchange in their data centre.

IS won the bid and took over the hosting of the Johannesburg Internet Exchange. That may be why some people think that JINX is part of IS, it is not.

I must say that many of the ISPA volunteers who were working at IS gave up their free time to manage JINX. Today the three exchange points, JINX, DINX (Durban and CINX (Cape Town) are owned and managed by ISPA and have remained independent.

As ISPA we also had to learn some hard lessons. It is not practical after a contract period to go out to tender and appoint another hosting company because their bid was economically better.

We learned that the hard way in Cape Town when we accepted another bid, but then no one wanted to move to the new site as the costs far outweighed the benefits.

This led to the demise of CINX but fortunately we were able to restart it some years later.

We have since changed our policy and decided to follow a growth path, which is seen in European countries, to create other sites in the same geographical area and interconnect them.

ISPA has formed a separate division called INX-ZA to manage the internet exchange with its own committee but responsible to the ISPA main committee with Beneke chairing both the ISPA and the INX-ZA committees.

Durban has become the first South African city to get a multi-site internet exchange point. “We announced this recently”, Beneke said.

This has been achieved following a public private partnership between INX-ZA and Ethekwini Municipality.

By contributing resources from its Ethekwini Fibre Metro project, the City of Durban has been able to work towards its socio-economic goals to promote the local economy.

Having multiple site internet exchanges lowers the operating costs for local internet service providers based in Durban, and increases the quality of the experience for Durban users, especially when accessing websites hosted locally.

With the support of the Ethekwini Metro and IS, we have been able to extend DINX to a second location, in Umhlanga. ISPs connecting to DINX also get immediate access to resilient core internet infrastructure services, like the domain name services hosted at the current DINX location, which means that users on their networks are less likely to experience downtime if the global domain name system comes under attack.

“We currently operate the only community-run, public internet exchanges in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

The Johannesburg exchange point is the oldest internet exchange on the continent, and has provided uninterrupted services to users since December 1996. Plans are underway to extend multisite capabilities to JINX and CINX,” Beneke said.

ISPA is a perfect example that if people work together, great things can be achieved.

Beneke’s full-time occupation is as a technical specialist at eNetworks, a divison of Datacentrix.

Source: EngineerIT

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How ISPA pioneered Internet Exchanges in South Africa