Wolfgang Nagele (Middle East) - Net Performance Prohibits Lack of Peering

With no clear logistical approach and regular political tumult, the Middle East suffers from a slow, unstable IT infrastructure. Wolf Nagele, infrastrcuture manager at RIPE, argues that incentivised peering could improve the region.

If you've ever visited the Middle East, chances are you will have noticed Internet access is slower than you might be used to at home.

Cultural and national differences in the region have led to a lack of agreement on how to exchange traffic between networks (an arrangement known as peering), which localises traffic and improves network performance. As a result, large service providers in the region typically route traffic through London and Amsterdam (to name a couple of hotspots). This has a negative impact on all involved.

Routing over large distances may only add milliseconds to response times; but milliseconds add up in reality. For example, routing traffic from Dubai to London, which is a distance of 5,600km, actually travels at least 9,000km via cable (and that's if we assume the most direct route). This can add 30, 50 or even 100 milliseconds, dependent on other technical factors, to response time. At first glance these are small numbers but as part of a repeated process, an extra half second is added when loading a web page. When browsing for any length of time, the downsides for users are clear.

Lack of localised traffic also has a number of political ramifications. The Internet is a very important part of modern communication infrastructures; if a country is reliant on external factors it can feel the fallout from problems out of its control. In 2008, Internet and telephone communications between the Middle East and Europe were disrupted after three submarine cables in the Mediterranean Sea, which carried 75% of traffic between the Middle East and America, were damaged. Qatar, Djibouti and the United Arab Emirates were among the worst affected places, with approximately 70% of Internet services disrupted. A ship's anchor was rumoured to have damaged the submarine cables and without fall-back plans, many regions in the Middle East were disrupted.

The fact that many countries in the Middle East do not have an Internet exchange infrastructure in place is a problem. However, even where infrastructure is in place it is not always utilised. The RIPE NCC operates k.root-servers.net, one of 13 Internet root name servers, and has deployed instances in Doha, Qatar and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. However, engineers at the large providers continue to focus only on their major up-streams which go to Western Europe and India. The reasons why are not completely clear and could be due to a simple lack of knowledge about the infrastructure or misconfiguration; but regardless, the problems remain.

On occasion, large providers have been known to connect directly within their own country, but there are high barriers for them to do this. Those barriers are even higher when they want to connect across borders. Other organisations, including some of the world's biggest content providers, are not routing traffic directly at all within the Middle East. The payoff isn't big enough to justify the cost of entry for doing so, and providers instead choose to deliver content from London and accept the clear downsides of increased response time.

This is not a problem that will solve itself. One way to tackle the issue might be to incentivise peering in the region. Similar legislation has been passed before and could be used to discourage the passing of traffic through Western Europe in favour of making use of the infrastructure that is in place locally. ISPs would be able to offer an improved user experience and avoid allowing the integrity of the region's Internet to be put at risk by dependency on external factors. Any developments will be watched closely by those involved in the infrastructure of the Internet.

By Wolfgang Nagele, global information infrastructure manager, The RIPE NCC