Co-location helps nurture clueful hobby engineer community

By on 12 Mar 2020

Categories: Community Development Tech matters


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It’s winter 2003, and three network engineers walk into a bar… not an unusual occurrence as most of you can undoubtedly attest. Like previous bar visits, they chatted about work and their shared networking side-interest — a private server located in the data centre of the ISP that they worked for in Amsterdam.

The server was a hobby project they had established and negotiated with their employer months ago, to allow them to host their home servers in a favourable environment; that is to say a place with unlimited bandwidth, proper power redundancy and away from ‘loved ones’ who did not appreciate the noise and heat of an active server.

Like most hobby projects it had outgrown its original purpose and so a plan was formed to rent some rack space to be able to host commercial websites. To do this they would require their own IP addresses and ASNs, which, as luck would have during this winter’s day, became an easier task when a RIPE NCC employee, who also dropped into the bar, explained to them what was required to become a RIPE LIR member.

News of this ‘venture’ started to spread among their tight community following the meeting, with others inquiring if they’d be able to join. Before they knew it, our three network engineers were visiting a notary to create a legal entity and ColoClue was born.

The name ‘ColoClue’ was chosen as a play on co-location — which is what ColoClue offers its members: rack space in a data centre — by and for clueful individuals.

From 3 to 160

It’s been almost 17 years since this famous bar meeting, during which time, ColoClue has expanded its network from one 19″ cabinet to seven — hosted in two different data centres — to accommodate the needs of its 160+ members.

“Many are still drawn to its competitive hosting features while others sign up to be members for the social aspects of the group,” explains RIPE NCC GII Manager and ColoClue President, Paul de Weerd.

“For most members, it is probably a combination of the two; hosting a machine and doing that in a not-for-profit environment where you can talk directly to the people running the network, share knowledge with other members, and meet up with them during our events.”

This has certainly been the case for Paul who was heavily involved in running the network when he joined the association in 2006 — helping to design its IPv6 numbering plan and assisting with the migration, as well as regularly assisting with maintaining and upgrading the network infrastructure — before moving into a board position and getting more involved in its governance and strategy.

“Over the years, the focus has shifted towards knowledge sharing and learning more about the things that are needed to run a server, a network or a small ISP: what better way to learn than by doing?”, says Paul.

“We’re constantly working on automating as much as possible in our network: the configuration of our routers, our monitoring platform, our systems. Big parts of our automation are available as open-source software.

“We also implement strict filtering on our routers (our router config is over 80MB in size), reject RPKI invalid routes and generally try to be at the forefront of developments in BGP and other network and security best current practices.”

Figure 1 — ColoClue network layout (as of Feb 2020).

Practicing what we preach

As mentioned, the network has grown from its early incarnation with connectivity increasing from 300 Mbit/s to 10 Gbit/s.

Users’ machines get 1 Gbit of connectivity and can also use a separate port in the association’s out-of-band management network (access to this network is through a VPN). If users have a need, they can speak BGP with ColoClue routers, for example, to anycast a service between machines in the two locations.

Figure 2 — To meet the growing demand the network has grown from 300 Mbit/s to 10 Gbit/s.

By default, users get one IPv4 and one IPv6 address per machine, but additional addresses can be requested — in the case of IPv6, you get a /48; for IPv4 you need to explain your requirements before addresses are assigned. The association also acts as a sponsoring LIR for several members for their provider independent (PI) space.

To ensure continuity in operations, a paid-for transit provider was contracted, although Paul says they try to avoid using it through traffic engineering to keep costs down.

“After some time, we used our contacts at some Dutch IXPs to get connectivity to Internet exchanges. With our own port at AMS-IX, we quickly began growing our peering network. Many ISPs in The Netherlands have an open peering policy and peer with us without cost.”

People are the most important asset

Social networking is still a big component of ColoClue, which hosts at least three events a year.

Members also have access to an active mailing list and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel where many technical, professional and social topics get discussed, including what hardware to buy and how to do BGP. The channel also posts job openings.

To help new members get involved in discussions, they are provided with a mentor, which they can ask questions of regarding specific ColoClue things.

“ColoClue was set up as a ‘Vereniging’ (an association) because it matched the idea the founders had: members should be able to join to host their own hardware, it should be a non-profit type of organization and the members should have a voice in how the organization is run,” says Paul.

“We have general assembly meetings where the board asks the members for input, but members can also run for a board position, or they can help out in one of our committees.”

Although most members are active, Paul admits the biggest challenge, as it is for any not-for-profit volunteer organization, is “getting the work done”.

“Everybody who is actively involved in ColoClue also has a day job to pay the bills, such as the ones they get from ColoClue,” Paul says with a wry smile. “Next to that, they have a social life, family, friends, and hobbies outside of technology.

“ColoClue doesn’t come first on many occasions. Yet despite all that, we have a very well-run network, many happy members, a host of valued sponsors that help with bandwidth, connectivity, hardware, and venues for our social events. It’s a credit to all our clueful members!”

Interested in knowing how to start a similar ColoClue group in your region? Leave a comment below.

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