Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 195

This is Episode 195 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Ben Venable, Project Manager of Montgomery's Cyber Connection, joins the show to discuss Alabama's first Carrier Neutral Location. Listen to this episode here.


Ben Venable: A company in Birmingham that was looking to revamp their network completely and they now decided to move completely their IT organization to Montgomery just to have a presence at the Internet exchange.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to Episode 195 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.

Lisa Gonzalez: Montgomery, Alabama is home to a significant D.O.D. presence. When the city and the D.O.D. found the area was lacking the infrastructure needed for both economic development and military purposes, it was time to take action. In February the city announced that it would be partnering to develop Alabama's First Carrier Neutral Location or CNL. A CNL is a space owned and maintained by a neutral party where Internet service providers can connect to each other. Not long ago the community of Steamboat Springs, Colorado embarked on a similar project. This week Chris learns about Montgomery's project from Ben Venable, project manager of Montgomery's Cyber Connection. He explains how and why the project came about as well as the long and short term plans the city has for its Internet exchange.

Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast! I'm Chris Mitchell. And today I'm speaking with Ben Venable. Project manager for the Montgomery Cyber Connection in Montgomery, Alabama. Welcome to the show.

Ben Venable: Good afternoon. Thank you for having me.

Chris Mitchell: So let's start off with just a brief description for people that haven't been there. How big is Montgomery? What kind of city is it?

Ben Venable: Well, Montgomery is the capital city for the state of Alabama. And we have about 205,000 residents here currently. We are a city that is kind of stuck between Birmingham and Georgia. Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia. And so we have to stay on our toes for opportunities and it is quite a nice place to be because we have a large air force presence here. D.O.D. ... Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Air Force Base ... along with being the capitol city and then the city of Montgomery itself having such a great and long history ... It is a place where a lot of things happen. So that's the way I look at it.

Chris Mitchell: We're going to be talking today in terms of how you have helped the city create an Internet Exchange Point. The first one in Alabama. But before we get there, I'd like to get a sense of where you even entertained this idea. What problems did you identify that even needed to be fixed?

Ben Venable: A lot of it was infrastructure. Montgomery has AT&T that has been our largest communications provider since 1900 and they have had a presence in Montgomery and had built out basically what was adequate for them to serve the area as it stands now. But in order for us to grow into the high-tech market and to support the things that are going on at Maxwell Air Force Base and at the Gunter Annex where a large DISA presence is, we have 1 of 3 main DISA data centers on Gunter that's here within the city. And DISA is the Defense Information Systems Agency. They are the backbone for the D.O.D.. They traverse air force, army, navy, and other D.O.D. agencies. So we're really lucky to have them here in the city. But the main thing was really infrastructure and to be honest with you ... It was the vision of General Steven Kwast. Who was the Commander of Air University located at Maxwell. And General Kwast wanted to bring ... Or has brought a Cyber College. Which is a D.O.D. sanction cyber institution as part of Air University. But part of General Kwast vision was to provide a way for his students to collaborate with other university students that were also working on cyber research. And so the common I guess beginnings of this, is the fact that Akamai has a long relationship with the air force and General Kwast wanted a commercially available mirror of the Akamai servers that are on Gunter and serving the air force network. So from there ... And Akamai being content delivery it just kind of naturally flowed into creating the Internet exchange. Because not only will Akamai not only be able to serve the military partners on a commercial network, they would also be able to serve the rest of the citizens of the city of Montgomery and now the rest of the state of Alabama, as it has turned out. And honestly, being able to serve the rest of Alabama wasn't really on our radar at the beginning but it certainly has become that now. So it's kind of grown on its own, to perfectly honest about that.

Chris Mitchell: Not unlike the Internet itself. Akamai is an interesting company for people who may not be familiar ... You know, if I have a massive company that needed to file downloads to people all over the world I would probably just give that to Akamai and they would do that for me. I would pay them to do that on a contract. That's content delivery, as you noted. One of the things I guess I'm interested in, is knowing that this is in part motivated by you know military thinkers. I don't think people are aware of how the Internet works because there's this popular mythology that the Internet is this robust spider web. In that nuclear weapons were to strike the United States, the grid would stay up. But you don't have any place where you have Internet exchanges in Alabama previously. You're going out of state to do interconnection. Is that right?

Ben Venable: That is correct. We are between Dallas and Atlanta. So the majority of ... Let's say for instance commercial Internet right now is primarily served by WOW Networks and Charter Communications. So those two entities would pull their content out of either the Atlanta exchange or the one in Dallas. So we're traversing a large number of miles just for our ... Just the city of Montgomery and the surrounding area. And it's the same with Huntsville, Alabama and Birmingham, Alabama as well. And you're correct about our having one place where everything goes through. And I think the common denominator in all this is a building in downtown Atlanta, 56 Marietta St. where all the communications in the southeast go through at some point or other. And if something were to happen to that area of Atlanta then we'd be out of telephone, and cell phone service, and Internet for awhile. And that's one of the opportunities we have now by putting an Internet exchange in Montgomery is we become, if you will, the _____ point for Atlanta, Georgia.

Chris Mitchell: For people who maybe didn't catch it, we did a few shows back an interview with Andrew Blum, wrote a book called "Tubes" and he talked about the role of Internet exchange points. I don't plan on spending a lot of time going over that. But can you briefly tell us what the city did and what the expected impact will be?

Ben Venable: We started ... the first plan or the original plan was to connect via dark fiber Maxwell Air Force Base and Gunter Air Force Base to a facility downtown that was built by the Retirement Systems of Alabama. Now the Retirement Systems of Alabama is an agency of the state of Alabama that is responsible for all the retirement for teachers and justices, public state employees and they take some of that money that they are kinda of guarding for retirement and they invest it. And one of the buildings they were building in downtown Montgomery back in 2012, they had the foresight in putting a data center in. And that data center was the center point for the exchange to exist because the Internet service providers that are in Montgomery are already in that building. But the main thing was in trying to connect Gunter and Maxwell with a place to house Akamai, which would naturally go into RM Data Center ... We were reading the agreement that Akamai had sent for the city to sign, which had a lot of their standard things in there, we had to ... The city has to provide rack space for the Akamai server, we have provide power, and we have to provide some transit back-end Internet so Akamai can manage the servers and fill the content. But in reading the agreement as it stood, the only entity that would get the benefit of Akamai to be on the network was whoever we were contracting with for the transit. And it didn't make any sense if the city was paying for rack space and power and transit Internet and the citizens wouldn't get anything out of it. So the only way to really to provide that was to put and Internet exchange in so that Akamai is a participant in the exchange and then any network with an ASN that wanted to come in and join the exchange would appear within other networks and get the benefit of Akamai content. So now that's just grown too because now we're looking at other content delivery networks. Such as Netflix, Google, Microsoft in particular because the state being here just a couple of blocks of where I'm talking to you from now is such a large user of Microsoft products. So that's just an added ... Value add for the state here, as well. So that really is how it happened was just having Akamai available to everybody else. Rather than just the one entity providing the transit to. In researching the Internet exchange, we founded a think tank. A group out in California called Packet Clearing House but that's what they do. They set exchanges up. In talking to them, they offered to send us the switch that we are now using to create the exchange. One of their things was we didn't want to over-invest. 1 gig, 10 gig, and a number of 40 gig ports and as your exchange grows then at some point you may want to upgrade to a switch that can handle a 100 gig and that's where we kind of want to go 2,3,5 years down the road. But right now 10 gigs is great!

Chris Mitchell: Having the data center already ... I'm curious, what are the costs involved in being able to facilitate more parties coming in a being able to interconnect.

Ben Venable: The only major cost would really be the rack space, which is $900 a month for a standard APC rack in the data center and the power is running us about 9 cents a kilowatt hour. Akamai has been working with us on some of the transit piece for that and they have been very helpful in some of the things that other exchanges do. And since Akamai is in almost every other exchange in the world they're pretty good at knowing what other exchanges are doing so they've been helping us a little bit with the transit part of it. The main expense really has been the rack space and the power. The switch itself is acting as the Internet exchange is in the Meet Me Room of the data center so that is all being provided free of charge. The RSA folks are paying the power and the rack space to be there, which is exactly where it's suppose to be. So one of the things we wanted to do was set this up correctly and I think we're seeing the fruits of that now.

Chris Mitchell: In one of the articles that I saw it sounded like the direct cost to the city ... In terms of one time costs, is around $200,000. Mostly for consulting type fees. How did that break down?

Ben Venable: Well that was just in trying to help us get it set up. Most of the Internet service providers that we talked had provided just assistance here and there. That $200,000 was a expense that the city and Montgomery County as a separate entity helped to handle. That was just to create more of a fund, if you will, for these other things to paid out of. $900 for the rack fee. Also we had a deal back while we were trying to get this off the ground ... WOW Networks, ComuniCommunications out in Greenville, Alabama and Troy Cable Vision out of Troy, Alabama being the first 3 entities to join the exchange we gave them first 6 months free on their port fees and we waived their connection costs. So that $200,000 was just the first pool of money that had been put up to pay some of these start up expenses and once we get into a environment where we're able to move the exchange itself into a non-profit, which is what they've done with the Seattle Internet exchange ... We're definitely looking at the direction and at that point it will truly be a neutral Internet exchange in the spirit of the other Internet exchanges also being neutral.

Chris Mitchell: One of the things that we've seen is that there's been a threat from some companies that have been taking over Internet exchanges. By making it a non-profit does that ensure it's independence for a long time?

Ben Venable: That is certainly the hope. Internet exchange is typically run by the Internet organizations or ISPs that are connected to it. So it's kind of self-perpetuating or gather to pay the expenses for the exchange or at some point pay the funds to purchase an upgrade of equipment when the time comes. That's where we are heading with that being a non-profit. And yes, it is in the spirit of keeping it neutral and independent.

Chris Mitchell: Well I think it's pretty amazing when you consider a $200,000 investment cost ... Some small ongoing costs. When you look at some of the expectations ... Public officials were saying that they think the economic impact will be huge. There's an expectation that it could be as large as some of the automotive billion dollar investments in factories.

Ben Venable: That is true. And with the air force particularly being a partner in this and General Kwast's vision in doing the cyber research collaboration here in Montgomery has certainly driven the need for what we call a future's laboratory to allow the actual collaboration of the university students to take place. So what that brings to the table is if you have cyber research going on in the state of Alabama, particularly in the city of Montgomery, then that's where people are going to want to locate their companies that are doing cyber research or are involved in the cyber defense industry, in general. Plus there is a significant amount of what our CIO, Lula Lochi, likes to call "Millennials" in town that are entrepreneurs. They are writing applications or apps for all kinds of things. They are involved in the entrepreneurial environment that's here. So the exchange has added to that excitement. Particularly as it's been dubbed the younger generation that's been dubbed with doing these things ... With the Internet ... It just opens the door to all kinds of things. I just told a story just yesterday about a company in Birmingham that was looking to revamp their IT network completely. Now they are looking to moving their IT network over to Montgomery just to have a presence at the Internet exchange. It's not going to happen immediately and we knew it was going to be a slow process but it's actually happening quicker than I thought. It is a great opportunity that really just kind of fell together. All the pieces just kind of fell together and has been a great ride for me because I've enjoyed being on the ground floor.

Chris Mitchell: Well tell me if I'm oversimplifying, but the Internet exchange ... If another person in another city, another organization, wanted to do something like this in their community you basically need a secure facility, you need air conditioning, you need ideally the ability to withstand a tornado ... Those sorts of things. What else would you need?

Ben Venable: I explain it like this. There are some cities that you go to and there are some cities you go through. If you look at Atlanta being a large city, you have to go through Atlanta to get somewhere else. If I'm driving to Washington D.C. from Montgomery I'd probably have to go through Atlanta. You're gonna have to have places where your networks are coming together. It's going to have to be large enough of an entity or city where you're going to have more than one Internet service provider. And you're gonna have to have not just the data center itself but you're gonna have to have someone that knows how to set the switch up. The switch for every Internet exchange and maintain it. Just other little nuances that go in of having a data center and having a switch to do interconnections. You got to have people that want to interconnect. Putting the hardware and the equipment in is easy but getting people to actually use it for what it's intended ... That's the challenge.

Chris Mitchell: Well I absolutely agree and I think that's typically the warning I give local governments. Is when we talk about this sort of thing is to say "This is not a build it and they will come. This is a find partners ahead of time and before you build it." Yeah, one of the things I saw was ... And that I saw interesting was the local ISPs. You mentioned Troy and WOW. There's an article in the Montgomery Advertiser that quoted the network architecture James Ashton saying it cost him tens of thousands of dollars to hold his traffic all around the country. This exchange is going to be terrific for them and it's going to allow them to offer better services. He says that everyone sees it as neutral so everyone's willing to connect to it. Nobody's not going to connect. He said there's no downside to a local Internet exchange. But in my experience it's more the smaller and localize peas in content companies, certainly. But I was just out in Seattle and we were talking about the exchange there and how Comcast still refuses to peer. They want to do their own thing for the most part. Have you seen that kind of dynamic where it's more the local guys that are more interested in peering?

Ben Venable: James Ashton ... First of all ... I'd like to thank him for his help and advice with WOW. Certainly if it wasn't for him and his expertise none of this really would have come to the forefront. Thank you for mentioning him, James is a great guy, but I don't know about Comcast. I'm not familiar with Comcast as a customer because Comcast is not in Montgomery, but these other networks it has been a challenge to get them to see the benefits of doing it. A lot of times they ... What we're doing now works, we don't want to change it. The bigger guys though, particularly in Montgomery, they are having to haul all of the data from here or to Atlanta or Dallas when they could be doing the interconnections here. And I think when you get a number, and I don't know what the critical mass number is but hypothetically if you have all 200,000 customer ... People in Montgomery that were all pulling Netflix at the same time and it would all be served out of Atlanta that's just not going to work very well. So I don't know what Comcast was thinking on that. But the other networks that we've talked to ... Like James said, if you're getting your content here locally and you're able to exchange traffic or do your peering here locally and you're not having to pay to haul it to Atlanta and then haul it back from Atlanta, because you got to remember you're paying for the round trip. Then he's right, there is no downside to it. I guess it really just stands at each individual network and how they're configured and setup, to be honest with you.

Chris Mitchell: And this is where I'd like to come back and bring the military back into it because I think when your life ... You're focused on the military you have a different set of concerns. You're thinking more of edge cases that could be terrible. And big companies ... You know, you're AT&T. You're Comcast types. They have an interest in centralizing their things to keep their costs low. They already have networks all over the country. Whereas, when you're in the military you're really thinking we need resilience. We need the ability to keep operations up no matter what happens. That's seems to be the motivation of your air force bases. I think that's what you need in order to be having the cyber command or the cyber institutes there. Am I reading that right?

Ben Venable: You're reading that exactly right. But you got to remember the air force as part of the D.O.D. they have their own .nil network. So this will be their participation in the cyber research and their participation in the Internet exchange and their leverage is what actually got Akamai interested in coming to Montgomery. I'll be perfectly honest with you, if Akamai would not have said " I will put my equipment in Montgomery" then none of this would have come to past. So we really want to thank Akamai for taking a risk at the advice of, the request of General Kwast and the air force to be present in Montgomery for this to happen. And the air force has had to bear some costs. They had to purchase a commercial network completely separate from the .nil side in order for it to happen out in their universities. So their commercial Internet is being provided by WOW, which is one of the reason WOW is interested in making this a success and have been instrumental and a partner with this the whole time. So you are right. The air force has been a driving factor but the network that they're using to make this happen is completely separate from the .nil side that happens internally to the D.O.D..

Chris Mitchell: Okay. Well, I'm just excited because this is one of those things that people just aren't aware of how important it is to make sure we have these Internet exchange points and the more the merrier. So, thank you for telling us more about how you got yours up and congratulations on setting up the first one in Alabama.

Ben Venable: Hey, well thank you. I have enjoyed being a part of it and I certainly am excited to see where this is going. The partnerships that we are now forging state-wide, I feel will help us address some of our infrastructure issues. If you have any other questions, feel free to let me know. The website for the Internet exchange is!

Chris Mitchell: Terrific!

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris and Ben Venable, project manager for Cyber Connection. Montgomery, Alabama's New Carrier Neutral location. As Ben mentioned in the interview, you can learn more about the project at Send us your ideas for the show. Email us at Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets You can also follow muninetworks stories on Twitter Thank you Kathleen Martin for the song, "Player vs. Player". License through Creative Commons Thank You for listening to Episode 195 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast