Belnet, the Belgian research and education network, set up the first interconnection node in Belgium. At that time, the Internet was in its infancy. International connection costs were very high because traffic had to be routed through foreign countries, since the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were international, and then returned to Belgium. "This had a two-fold effect," recalls Pierre Bruyère, longtime director of Belnet. "First of all, it was expensive because the international bandwidth was used even though the traffic remained in Belgium. Moreover, as the costs were very high, the bandwidths were not very large and our international links were saturated for traffic that was purely Belgian."
Hence Belnet's 1995 initiative to set up BNIX, a Belgian Internet interconnection point. Until then, Internet connections had been subject to bilateral agreements: one operator with another. Of course, this was not a problem when there were only three operators, as three lines were sufficient. But with ten operators, hundreds of interconnections would have been required. "It was then that the ISPs of the time turned to Belnet, as a neutral government institution with no commercial objectives and an Internet pioneer in our country, to develop the first BNIX or Belgian National Internet Exchange. The idea came quite naturally and while it was not exactly in line with Belnet's basic mission, there was a benefit both for Belnet and for the company as a whole, since it allowed us to reduce the cost of Internet connections for everyone," says Pierre Bruyère.
In practice, the interconnection between the ISPs was based on relatively simple technology, namely routers installed on Belnet's backbone. "We initially reused an old router that was on our backbone and placed it in one of our rooms to interconnect the first ISPs," recalls Pierre Bruyère. More specifically, it was an old Cisco AGS+ type router with a maximum bandwidth of 20 (!) Mbps. This router had eight gateways, thus limiting the number of participants.
It must be said that at the time, there were few commercial websites, and Google, Facebook and Twitter had not yet seen the light of day. They were mostly informative websites, since much of the web was formed of universities.
While BNIX initially operated on a free basis, with everyone paying for their own connection to BNIX, a business model was gradually developed to make the operation more viable. "The aim was to generate enough money to buy equipment and hire staff so that the BNIX could operate and continue to develop," resumes Pierre Bruyère. He also states that at the beginning there were only six participants, compared to 58 today.
The number of BNIX users grew very quickly and several major players, including Belgacom (now Proximus), became interested in the project. So much so that by 1996, all the gateways were busy and new requests had to be denied pending an upgrade to the 3Com type Ethernet switch with 32 gateways and a bandwidth of 100 Mbit/s per gateway.
From then on, the service offer became more professional, however, "we absolutely wanted to avoid being in a situation where BNIX would only be directed at large customers which, in any case, have significant international capacities and can interconnect at different locations. For smaller players, being on BNIX was a way of getting closer to their user community," Pierre Bruyère continues.
And there is an anecdote related to the events of September 11 in New York. "At the time, we became aware of the event because of the disruptions on the internet. At first, however, we thought it was BNIX that had a problem. It was while investigating the causes of the problem that we realised that it was the connections to the United States that were disrupted. However, it was an American exchange point installed under the towers of the World Trade Center which had fallen, impacting the entire global Internet, and thus also Belgium. Shortly afterwards, when we watched the news, we saw the first images on CNN showing that the World Trade Center towers had sadly been attacked."
In recent years, the exchange points have had to evolve as transit costs have fallen sharply. The reason for being connected to an exchange point in Belgium remains local anchoring, which allows Belgian players to connect with each other and have local access to major international content providers. "The idea is to be as open and accessible as possible for Belgian partners," says Pierre Bruyère.
BNIX is also committed to making its services even more professional. "Unlike 25 years ago, no one today accepts service interruptions lasting several hours," notes Pierre Bruyère. BNIX is therefore aiming for 100% availability. "Of course, we have to keep up with technological developments so that we can provide the best service to users."
What about tomorrow?
BNIX now supports very high data transfer rates and has even experienced a peak of 423 Gbit/s during lockdown. To cope with these flows, BNIX continues to invest heavily in technology and is preparing to further extend its platform as part of a new business model. "Our current platform has been operational since 2016 and still has sufficient capacity, but we are remaining proactive and are moving forward, as we know that data flows will continue to increase in the coming years," concluded Pierre Bruyère.