Data Center Networking 101: NAPs, Exchanges, and Interconnection

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      Sometimes it seems like servers, racks, cooling units, and power supplies get all the attention in the data center. With blinking lights and loud whirring, plus the size and prominence in the white space, makes it easy to focus on the compute and supporting infrastructure aspects of data center design.

      But networking is an extremely vital component—one that is rarely overlooked by data center technicians themselves, because without it all that computing power can’t communicate with anything else, man or machine.

      Today we’re looking at two basic concepts of data center connectivity: Network Access Points and interconnection. These concepts underlie the ability of data centers to offer connections to multiple fiber suppliers, other service providers, and international internet traffic.

      What is a Network Access Point or Internet Exchange?

      A Network Access Point, or NAP, is a now-deprecated term referring to facilities where internet providers peer with each other to share traffic. There were only four NAPs in the entire United States which have now morphed into Internet Exchanges as the web grew from its early stages in University labs to a commercial commodity.

      Modern internet exchange points (IXPs) are physical points where ISPs share traffic between autonomous networks. By sharing this infrastructure, ISPs are able to lower the cost of delivery to end users, while also increasing redundancy and speed. Because traffic is not slowed down via additional third-party networks, complete with their own components, each of which affects the traffic, the direct connection can reduce cost and bandwidth use. It also means smaller (but also large scale) companies can take advantage of existing network infrastructure, owned by another enterprise, without having to build out a superfluous network in that market.

      An IXP uses ethernet network switches with speeds from 10 Mbps in smaller facilities to up to 100 Gbps at large interconnections like Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Peering agreements guarantee the providers do not bill each other as traffic passes between different companies’ infrastructure; the only cost is the cost of tenancy within the exchange itself.

      What is interconnection?

      In data center terms, a carrier-neutral data center allows interconnections, much like an internet exchange, between different ISPs or IT service providers within the facility. Interconnection within the data center means you, as a customer, can choose which fiber provider you prefer, or else take advantage of a blend of connectivity, which simply allows your traffic to pass through the most efficient path at any time regardless of the ISP.

      If you do specify a provider, with a network-neutral data center, you can switch providers and not need to move your equipment out of the facility.

      Interconnection refers to the “pipes” linking all parts of the data center and separate facilities as well. With an interconnected data center provider, you can move virtual infrastructure resources between geographically disparate locations.

      By cross-connecting your server racks to a data center meet-me-room, you can access various ISPs or private networks and link data center environments across the country or the world.