Internet exchange

Montgomery MIX: Alabama bets on high-speed exchange

On Jan. 6, Troy Cable saw latency in its transmissions go from 64 milliseconds to 2 milliseconds when it became the first cable and Internet provider to connect to the new Montgomery Internet Exchange.

The need for speed is a driving force behind the exchange, known as MIX, which went live Jan. 20. MIX is the result of a partnership between the city, county, state, Maxwell/Gunter Air Force Base and the Air Force’s Air University.  It lets residents, government and businesses in Montgomery, Ala., experience faster Internet connections by enabling them to connect via local servers rather than through a data hub hundreds of miles away.

“What we’d like to do is eventually become one of the major exchanges in the Southeast region,” said Joe Greene, vice president for military and governmental affairs at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce. About 88 Internet exchanges exist nationwide, but only four significant ones are in the Southeast, he added.

In fact, MIX could become an alternative to the data hub in Atlanta that currently routes communications, said Ben Venable, project manager for MIX in Montgomery’s IT department.

“At the moment, everything as far as communications in the Southeast goes through one building in downtown Atlanta. If something happened to that, then everybody would be in the dark for a while,” Venable said. “But now Montgomery can be an alternative -- a failover point, if you will.”

An Internet exchange allows Internet service providers (ISPs) and content delivery networks to exchange traffic. The goal is to let the providers exchange transmissions directly, rather than through third-party networks.

For MIX-Alabama, a key ingredient was housing Akamai edge servers at the Dexter Avenue Datacenter built by Retirement Systems of Alabama, a government entity that call itself the “safe keeper of the pensions of thousands of Alabamians.”

“Think of Akamai as the big FedEx of the Internet. We deliver Internet content on behalf of our customers in the most efficient and fastest way possible,” said David Yoon, senior director of the public-sector division at Akamai.

Without the edge servers, ISPs would have to pay for the upstream bandwidth to pull content into the data center. “Now, because it is being locally stored, they don’t have to do that, so they have much better efficiency in running that -- and that translates directly into cost savings,” he said.

Akamai provided the servers for free as part of its business model to promote science, technology, engineering and math efforts and to grow its network of 6,000 customers, Yoon said.

“Akamai agreeing to put a presence in Montgomery drove everything else,” Venable said, adding that the company’s long relationship with the Air Force helped move the effort along.

MIX, which uses a Cisco Nexus-class switch, has the ability to handle 1, 10 or 40 gigabits. “We don’t have the capability at the moment to do 100-gig ports,” Venable said.  That capability is a goal for the future, though, he added.

To join the exchange, ISPs must apply and pay a one-time (per port) connection fee of $500. Connections to the MIX switch fabric cost $350 per month per 1 gigabit port or $500 per month per 10 gigabit port.

For now, the city manages the exchange, but that will change.

“The city and county of Montgomery put up the seed money to get the exchange project off the ground,” Venable said. “In the true spirit of an Internet exchange to remain neutral, we will at some point move that into a nonprofit organization that will have a board made up of members of the participating Internet service providers.”

More than an exchange

MIX is part of a larger initiative called the Montgomery Cyber Connection, which involves partnerships among public, private and academic organizations.  It started when officials at Air University on Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Annex in Montgomery began looking into creating the Cyber College, a school specifically designed to help the Air Force meet cybersecurity strategies in the next decade. The proximity of many resources emerged.

For instance, Maxwell/Gunter is home to a Defense Information Systems Agency prime data center that is one of four Defense Department enterprise computing centers and one of two milCloud-capable data centers in the country. It also houses Program Executive Office for Business Enterprise Systems, which handles application development for business systems for the Air Force, and the 26th Network Operations Squadron, which handles operations defense of the Air Force network worldwide.

We were looking at connecting what Air University was trying to do with its Cyber College to the local “business and education community to look at new ways of doing business,” Greene said.

A decision was made to build a common Defense Department/education/commercial infrastructure that would allow collaboration at very high speeds and use high-capacity fiber lines.

“This common infrastructure then would become kind of a virtual sandbox for cyber research and education [so we could] look at how we do things in different ways and allow people to collaborate in different fashions,” Greene said.

“The strategic partnerships between Air Force Air University, state and national universities, and commercial entities are essential to fostering innovation and transformation of not only the Silicon River Region of Montgomery, but the entire state of Alabama,” added Scott Baker,  Air University's CIO, in an email. “By creating a technology business vertical, we enable immediate expansion of research capabilities in the areas of cyber intelligence, near-term benefits to both commercial and civilian entities -- by bringing business, communication, and entertainment content closer with even faster access possibilities --  and long-term economic growth opportunities for corporations looking to leverage the latest technologies for development or expansion.”

The focus now is on drumming up more partners.

“As the ring of strategic partnerships expands, we believe that the research benefits will compound in ratio, not only for entities like Air University, but for the Department of Defense in general,” Baker said. “Likewise, technology business growth promotes a type of ‘sales pipeline’ for downstream businesses or new partnership developments. The possibilities are literally endless.”

“It’s an ongoing process,” Greene added. “Right now we’ve established a fairly significant starting point, but it’s just a starting point.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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