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Users left out in ISP squabble

A feud between two backbone Internet providers means that their customers--perhaps millions--are cut off from communicating with each other.

Politics, Equipment Failure, and Bad Routing: If this were a movie, that could be the title.

But this is a real-world feud between two backbone Internet service providers, and the victims are their customers--perhaps millions of Netizens--who have been cut off from communicating with each other and seeing each other's Web pages for some three weeks.

Depending on who you ask, the issue is either about faulty equipment or political blackmail. Either way, the result is the same: backbone providers CRL and AGIS aren't talking to each other.

In technical terms, the ISPs, which each host a large number of domains, are not exchanging traffic at the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX), a key network access point where providers exchange information.

Because of this, their customers--and those include direct subscribers and other ISPs--have no way to communicate with each other. Some direct and downstream customers of CRL have joked in newsgroup banter that they're pleased with the outage because it means that they're not getting spam sent out by subscribers of AGIS.

Others who are being cut off from each other and from certain sites--such as Zippo, a news service that gets its connectivity from CRL and to which AGIS members have no access--aren't so happy. But chances are that most Netizens probably have no idea what is going on. They just know they're not getting to certain destinations.

The problem began about three weeks ago when CRL turned off the data routes, shutting down the traffic from AGIS, according to both ISPs.

That's where agreement between the two ends. CRL says that AGIS was having an equipment problem at the CIX router, the only place where the two ISPs exchanged routes, according to Philip Burkhart, CRL's vice president of operations. He said the AGIS equipment problem was endangering CRL's router hardware, so CRL pulled the plug.

When that happened, the two providers had no way to communicate with each other because packets--pieces of electronic communications such as email or Web page data--had no way of flowing back and forth.

CRL will keep the routes off "until they call back and tell us they fixed their hardware problem," Burkhart said.

But AGIS says the problem is not equipment-related at all. The AGIS router is just fine, said Harold Willison, network engineer for AGIS. Instead, he accuses CRL of intentionally turning off its router to force the company into making an agreement with CRL that AGIS doesn't want to make.

Willison said CRL turned off the routes in a political maneuver to force AGIS to exchange routes with CRL at other NAPs (in addition to the CIX NAP, which is a free exchange point).

AGIS has refused to peer, or exchange routes, with CRL at NAPs other than the open CIX until CRL meets AGIS's requirements, Willison explained. Before AGIS agrees to peer with another ISP, it wants that ISP to meet certain standards. One of those standards is to have switches at five specific NAPs. Willison said the standards ensure good service.

While CRL has switches at six NAPs other than CIX, it does not have a switch at the Sprint NAP in New Jersey. CRL says it doesn't need to have a switch there because it has one nearby. But AGIS insists that to exchange routes anywhere, CRL has to have switches at all of its required NAPs.

Willison says AGIS has told CRL that the policy is firm and now he says that instead of adding a switch, CRL is trying to force AGIS to peer with them everywhere by cutting off access at CIX.

In a note to AGIS's customers, an AGIS administrator said that CRL's senior engineer stated the move was political and that the CRL's president confirmed that.

"They are trying to force us to change our peering requirements to suit them," Willison said. "If we change, we have to do it for everyone else. We're not going to change our policies for them because they're trying to hold us hostage."

Burkhart acknowledged that the peering situation was political. He said that CRL has as many switches as AGIS, but it doesn't have a switch in one of the places--the New Jersey NAP--required by AGIS.

He added that AGIS has the option of turning on routes at NAPs where they both have switches whenever it wants. But, he insists, the CIX routes were shut down for purely technical reasons.

Meanwhile, customers trying to communicate with each other just might have to resort to the telephone.