The 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in August 2021, just as many people were starting their day. Over the course of several days, the quake and its aftershocks devastated the country, leaving more than 300 people dead, injuring hundreds more, and leveling homes, schools, and churches. But Haiti’s Internet exchange point managed to stay online, keeping the Internet running at a time when it was needed the most.
Internet resilience in the face of natural disasters has been a major driving force for Haiti’s Internet exchange point. Established in 2009 as one of the Caribbean’s first Internet exchange points (IXPs), it’s experienced steady growth over the years, with membership increasing from five to a dozen, including four of the country’s five Internet service providers (ISPs) and Haiti’s domain name registry, NIC.ht. It’s also attracted local domain and route servers, plus five major content delivery networks (CDNs): Akamai, Cloudflare, Google, Facebook, and Netflix. But their equipment had started struggling to keep up with increasing traffic. It threatened to undo years of collaboration and hard work that had made the exchange so successful—leaving behind the people who rely on it.
“Average traffic through Haiti’s IXP is approximately 4 Gbps,” says Max Larson Henry, board member of the Haitian Association for the Development of Information and Communications Technologies (AHTIC), the nonprofit that manages the local IXP. “But we don’t have a lot of resources for day-to-day or heavier management. As with other small IXPs, as we grow, we are facing more and more challenges to support our operations and day-to-day management.”
To keep thriving, the IXP needed a multi-pronged approach, with the technical community working together.
Henry is also vice president of the Internet Society Haiti Chapter and a founding member of the Latin American and Caribbean Internet Exchange Point Association (LAC-IX), which is supported by the Latin American and Caribbean Network Information Centre (LACNIC).
Thanks to an Internet Society grant, coupled with additional support from LACNIC and Socium, Haiti’s IXP has been able to acquire and deploy additional equipment, along with management software and automation tools.
“The more you can automate, the better,” says Henry. “It reduces the need for human resources and supports the sustainability and robustness of the exchange point… With the collaboration of Internet Society, we also have access to a pool of experts who can provide support if necessary. The acquisition of equipment is important, as is the technical assistance. All told, Internet Society’s contribution is fundamental.”
“A lot of work has been done to make the exchange point more dynamic with this new equipment now in place,” says Jean Nahum Constant, technical manager for the Sustainable Development Network Foundation, which manages NIC.ht. He is also a board member of the Internet Society Haiti Chapter. “The most important thing for us is to have an IXP with good infrastructure so that we can attract more members… To be able to promote the exchange point meaningfully, especially internationally, we need to keep improving it.”
The IXP has also prioritized capacity building, especially with Mutually Agreed Norms for Routing Security (MANRS), with funding provided by the local Internet Society chapter and LACNIC. The goal is to have all IXP members trained and abiding by these norms to improve Internet routing security.
Constant began MANRS training in September 2021 and believes in the importance of building local technical capacities. Henry agrees, adding that transferring skills to young engineers who will carry the IXP forward in the future is key.
Among these young engineers is Louis Junior Bien-Aimé, who has worked on configurations for the IXP since 2018 and took several training sessions on MANRS and Internet security.
Bien-Aimé says training is important, but the IXP’s performance has improved mostly due to the new equipment and the addition of the CDNs. He says latency for those directly connected to the IXP has gone down significantly, from 60-100 milliseconds (ms) to just 3-10 ms.
“I don’t think members exchange all the traffic they can; they’re always on guard,” says Bien-Aimé. “People are reluctant to change. But I think they get a lot of benefits from the exchange point. Having local ISPs use the CDNs is a win-win for everyone.”
Henry says more awareness is also needed of the IXP’s role in ensuring data security and the need to protect it. “The IXP, as a critical Internet infrastructure, has to be protected. We need to ensure its security in our ecosystem and adequately secure our data. We also need a neutral data center as well as an overall coordination of all of this.”
Constant agrees on the need for an update, noting that the country’s telecommunications law dates to 1978, so it doesn’t meet the requirements of our modern times.
Henry points out that the Central Bank has its own data center that it connects to through its ISP, and that banks are connected with that data center through the IXP, so it allows financial data to be hosted more securely. But he says more needs to be done to increase local content, as the content of several national organizations is hosted outside of the country, which poses serious challenges in terms of data protection and infrastructure resilience.
The Internet Society Haiti Chapter is hoping to work with the government to promote the benefits of the IXP and the need for legislation. “The state in Haiti needs to see that this is a gold mine that they have yet to exploit,” says Bien-Aimé.
Getting More Resilient
In a country prone to natural disasters, an IXP also increases resilience.
“Having local interconnection is very important, especially during natural disasters because the human instinct is to use social media or the Internet to communicate with family and friends to see if they are OK,” says Henry. With the 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August 2021, some Internet connections went down, but the NIC.ht and IXP members were able to stay connected.
“IXPs can play a key role during natural disasters,” says Shernon Osepa, director of Caribbean affairs and development for the Internet Society. He was in Haiti when the IXP was being developed and Hurricane Gustav destroyed the country’s international link and most telecommunications infrastructure. It was a devastating blow, but because of the IXP, some people were still able to communicate—even to coordinate assistance. “We need to continue focusing on the need to build resilient telecoms and Internet infrastructures, especially in vulnerable environments, such as in the Caribbean, where lives can be spared,” says Osepa.
It’s going to take commitment and collaboration from many in the technical community—from local engineers to policymakers to tech orgs. But Haiti’s IXP shows how it can be done. With funding from the Internet Society and other organizations, it now has additional servers, management software, and automation tools, making the Internet in Haiti more resilient for the people who need it.
Learn what it takes to build and sustain an Internet exchange point.
Image copyright: Reynaldo Mirault