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An AMS-IX Story
Chief Technical Officer (CTO)
January 12, 2021
All good things must come to an end. Henk Steenman, our CTO and one of the founding fathers of AMS-IX, retired on January 1st, 2021. Henk has worked in the IX and peering community for decades. How does he look back on his time with AMS-IX?
“Before I started working at AMS-IX, I switched jobs regularly. Every four to five years, always taking on different roles and responsibilities. For me, working in the same place for a long time was definitely not normal. Which brings me to why I joined AMS-IX in the first place…
I first came into contact with AMS-IX when I was working at SARA in the early 90s. SARA hosted an interconnection hub for scientific networks on behalf of SURFnet. This was connected to a similar node at Nikhef, to which a number of commercial networks were already linked. The exchange, in its earliest phase, already played a very important role in the functioning of the Internet.
After I left SARA, I became linked to the exchange again when I began working for AT&T. As part of an Internet architecture expertise centre, I was aware of the value an exchange could bring to the company and the community. Therefore, I became actively involved in securing management and technical stability for the platform. I took part in the foundation of the association and served as a board member for two terms, from 1997 till 2001. I think not-for-profit organisations that serve a community or communal goal are very important to the industry. This may even be one of the reasons why I dedicated the greater part of my career to AMS-IX.
After my second term (and an interval of a few months) Job Witteman, at that time CEO of the newly formed AMS-IX, asked me to become CTO of AMS-IX. Technical management of the platform had been handed over to the company and they needed someone to oversee those activities. I said “yes” to the job, and some of my best AT&T colleagues – Steven Bakker, Ariën Vijn and Romeo Zwart- came along with me.
If you were to ask me what the high point of my career was, I think these first few years as CTO at AMS-IX would qualify. We were a fantastic, high-performing team of excellent engineers. And we had a monumental mission: to stabilize the exchange, which saw traffic growth of 300 per cent each year. We had to put in long hours to get everything working and had to work with the latest technology available, which always comes with problems. We needed to be very pragmatic and not be afraid to make our hands dirty. It was a very demanding job and I loved it. You do your best work when you are under pressure.
I have a nice anecdote about that time, which I recall vividly. We had just upgraded the exchange with the latest switches from Foundry - the vendor capable of delivering switches with the highest throughput at that time. However, we experienced numerous problems. Outages would occur all the time and we had to repeatedly contact the Foundry engineers to flag and fix problems. At a certain point, when we had just worked for more than 24 hours on end, one of the Foundry representatives told us that their CEO was in Paris that week and we had the opportunity to speak to him about our experiences with their product. Although I was exhausted, I did not want to miss this chance. So, I went home to take a shower, flew to Paris, interrupted his dinner and explained to him which role AMS-IX plays in the Internet and shared our experiences with his product. It was greatly appreciated. From that day on, we always had full priority and commitment from Foundry to fix any problems we might have.
At that time, we also experimented with new technologies a great deal and this resulted in many innovations, such as the use of photonic cross connects or MPLS. In a way, we had to. We couldn’t keep working 24 hours on end forever, automating and experimenting was simply the best way forward. In those days we also started the practice of full transparency. We told the community about every problem we encountered and how we fixed it - and this was greatly appreciated.
The job did not stay this way. At a certain point in time, traffic growth was less high and the pressure on the tech team was relieved to some extent. My role changed; I started to represent AMS-IX to the outside world. I visited RIPE meetings, industry events, vendors and customers. Mainly in the Netherlands at first, but later also abroad. I also started to teach about interconnection at that time. In the press, but also at universities such as the UvA (University of Amsterdam), the University of Twente and the Eindhoven University of Technology.
AMS-IX also became involved in serving the Internet community in standardisation initiatives. AMS-IX became active in the IETF, and helped very significantly with the development of the 100GE standard in the IEEE. And we still do, this time for example through our work for IX-API.
I also enjoyed this second period of my AMS-IX career very much, especially the interacting with different cultures. Working abroad, you meet a lot of different people, which gives you totally new perspectives on other countries. The AMS-IX ventures in Kenya, for example, were a big adventure for me and I greatly appreciate the relationships I built with our partners there.
And now I’m retiring. Looking back at what has been achieved, I think we mainly showed the success of public peering. AMS-IX, from its early beginnings, has always played a pivotal role in the functioning of the Internet, but in those early days Internet itself did not play the role in society that it has right now. Society basically cannot function without Internet. It is interesting to consider the question what we would have done to fight COVID if we didn’t have Internet and many people could not have worked from home.
AMS-IX grew with the Internet, making public peering a commodity. Today, many organisations offer a form of peering. You could argue that the role of the exchange is diminishing. On the other hand, however, I think the general idea behind public peering - direct interconnection is always better and more cost-effective than interconnection via an IP transit middleman - will endure.
Last, I would like to thank everyone who has ever worked at AMS-IX. You made AMS-IX what it is today.”