Part of the magic of the Internet is in tens of thousands of networks connecting to each other all across the world in an effort to share information more efficiently. Cloudflare is a member of 279 Internet Exchanges (IX for short), but today we want to highlight one such dot on the global Internet map: the Montgomery, Alabama Internet Exchange, called MGMix. Thanks to the hard work of local leaders and the participation of dozens of networks (including Cloudflare), the Internet in Alabama works better today than it did before the IX launched.
Before we talk more about Alabama in particular, let's take a step back to understand the critical role that Internet Exchanges play in our global Internet. In a simple model of exchanging Internet traffic, one person is on their laptop and requests content on a website, uses a video conferencing application, or wants to securely connect to their workplace from home. The person, or “client” in technical terms, is generally using a traditional Internet Service Provider, who they pay to access everything on the Internet. On the other hand, whatever the user is trying to reach – the website, API endpoint, or security service – or “server” in technical terms, is usually on a different network. How the data gets from the client’s network to the server’s network is not something Internet users think much about, but at Cloudflare, we think about it a lot.
One way that a network can reach another network is by paying a 3rd party network to deliver the traffic. This is called “transit” and it’s an appealing option because it’s simple. One “Tier 1” transit provider can reach the entire Internet. Of course, the tradeoff is that convenience comes at a cost – networks pay transit providers based on the quantity of traffic passed over the connection.
At the other end, larger networks often connect directly with what are called Private Network Interconnections (PNI). If one network is consistently sending large volumes of traffic to another network, it will be less expensive to use a PNI than to send the traffic over a transit provider. In this case, the two networks string a fiber cable across the ceiling of a data center where both networks have a presence, from one network’s cage to the other’s.
Right in the Goldilocks zone between transit providers and PNIs are Internet Exchanges. An IX brings networks together in one place, and lets them freely exchange traffic. Sometimes they’re literally called “meeting rooms”. Once a network joins an IX, they might be able to reach hundreds of other networks without incurring 3rd party transit fees. Thriving IX communities are a power-up for the Internet: they reduce the cost of delivering Internet traffic, incentivizing more networks to join, while making the Internet faster through better interconnection.
Montgomery Internet Exchange (MGMix)
Back to Alabama. Unfortunately, Alabama, and the “Deep South” in general, has some of the worst performing Internet in the country. In Alabama, 15% of locations don’t have access to home Internet with download throughput of 25 Mbps and 3 Mbps upload according to the latest FCC data. In Mississippi, it’s 20%. The national average is 7%. In terms of latency, which is how we measure the speed of the Internet, the Deep South is also well above average.
50th percentile TCP Connect Time (ms) to Major Content Delivery Networks
One of the reasons for the poor performance is that requests for content often travel to Atlanta, Dallas, or other Internet hubs even farther away before coming all the way back to the user in Alabama or Mississippi. That’s why an IX in Montgomery is so exciting: if networks can exchange traffic in Montgomery, the data doesn’t need to travel as far, and the Internet will be faster.
A few years ago, local leaders in Montgomery started to build up the Montgomery Internet Exchange (MGMix). With the support of the mayor, and the help of city staff, and a cooperative that included the city, county, state, and a nearby Air Force base, they launched the IX in 2016. Later they formed a technical committee and upgraded to 100 Gbps of capacity.
With a donated switch from Packet Clearing House, MGMix estimated their initial costs at $1,000 per month for data center space and connection to the Internet. At their core, an IX is just a Layer 2 switch where all the networks plug in and advertise their presence to each other. That’s not to say it’s easy. One of the hardest parts is the work to attract networks.
IX’s have a hard chicken-and-egg problem. The first network at an IX doesn’t have anyone to exchange traffic with. Conversely, once there are a lot of networks at an IX, it becomes easy to attract new ones. Additionally, networks like Cloudflare need certain types of networks – transits – to be present. In almost all cases, Cloudflare doesn’t actually host the website or service an Internet user is trying to reach; we protect them, but aren’t the original source. To get content from the original source, we need access to transit networks. The City of Montgomery did the hard work of building up the IX network by network.
MGMix now has a who's-who of the Internet in Alabama as members. Some are ISPs like Charter, Wide Open West, Uniti Fiber, and Troy Cablevision. Some are big institutions like the State of Alabama, Alabama State University, the City of Montgomery. And still others are the providers of content and services, like Cloudflare, Meta, and Akamai.
From Cloudflare’s perspective, it was an easy decision to join MGMix. We followed the development closely, and joined soon after it opened. After all, it means better Internet performance for a group of southern states that have been historically underserved. Now that it's established, it’s essentially maintenance-free. It’s set-it-and-forget-it for better Internet performance.
Below is a chart of our traffic through MGMix over the course of November. We see daily spikes in traffic outbound from Cloudflare to other networks that are members of the IX. Interestingly, the traffic is lower from the 20th of November through the 27th of November which is the week of Thanksgiving in the US. It looks like Internet users in Alabama were enjoying a restful week with their families and not using the Internet (as much as usual).
It has apparently been going so well that MGMix just announced they’re expanding to Auburn, Alabama.
Steven Reed, the current mayor of Montgomery, said of the expansion: “This is a step forward to achieving digital equity across the region, benefiting individuals who live in underserved rural communities. By extending our network fabric to a datacenter in Auburn, the MGMix will improve the efficiency and resiliency of the Internet for the Montgomery area, colleges and businesses along the I-85 corridor, and the entire River Region.”
We couldn’t have said it better. IXs are a critical part of a strong Internet interconnection ecosystem. We’re proud members of the MGMix, and will continue to join IXs globally where we can reach Internet users more efficiently and effectively.