Akamai: Business Case
Most Web users have never heard of the company Akamai*, but that doesn't mean they don't appreciate what the firm does. Akamai's vast network of Intel® Architecture-based caching Web servers enable leading Web sites like CNN* and GO Network* to serve up tens of millions of page views every day, without overwhelming central servers or choking Internet pipelines.
When the inspiration for Akamai emerged in 1995, it came straight from the top. Tim Berners-Lee, widely recognized as the "inventor" of the Internet, had a conversation with Akamai Co-Founder and Chief Scientist Tom Leighton about how the fast-growing public network seemed doomed to choke on its own success. The concern: That traffic jams would develop on wide backbone pipes and servers as millions upon millions of clients hammer directly on these limited resources.
That conversation was enough to put Leighton to work. As head of the Algorithms Group in the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Leighton knew a thing or two about predicting and managing network traffic. Within weeks, he and MIT graduate student Daniel Lewinlater to become the second co-founder and chief technology officer of Akamaibegan work.
The challenge was clear, says Akamai Vice President of Strategy and Corporate Development Jonathan Seelig, "How could you decentralize the Internet infrastructure so that what Tim Berners-Lee called the 'hot spot problem' would go away."
Five years later, the solution developed by Leighton, Lewin, and their team of MIT scientists has emerged to change the workings of the Internet. Akamai today runs a worldwide deployment of more than 4,000 Intel Architecture-based servers installed at ISPs, network providers, and telco facilities in 45 countries and on 160 different networks. Their mission: to intelligently store and serve frequently accessed data to end users so that the amount of traffic moving over the backbone and home servers is reduced.
From Concept to Commerce
Since its founding in 1998, Akamai has emerged as the leader in the industry it helped create. Leading Web sites such as CNN Interactive*, Yahoo!*, GO Network* and WashingtonPost.com* all employ Akamai's services in order to boost responsiveness and ensure uptime. To date, Akamai has a customer list of 1,000 leading Web properties representing all industries, including financial services, retail, e-Commerce, entertainment, software distribution and publishing.
The benefit for Akamai customers is clear: quicker end-user response times and vastly reduced bandwidth consumption on back-end servers. Customers whose Web sites arein the company's parlance"Akamaized" provide content 2-10 times faster than non-Akamaized content. At the same time, these sites experience much lower bandwidth utilizations, lowering operating costs and relieving congestion.
Behind these benefits are sophisticated algorithms that route HTTP requests to specific Akamai servers. These algorithms go far beyond simply sending requests to the "closest" Akamai server. Rather, they keep tabs on network traffic and congestion, server utilization, and other patterns to determine which bits get sent where for optimal performance.
Of course, it takes more than a good idea and some elegant algorithms to launch a business. The young Akamai had to convince network providers to let the company put its servers on their networks.
"It's sort of a 'chicken and egg' business. You have to have servers on different networks in order to attract content providers. And you have to have content on your servers in order to get network providers to let your servers on their networks," Seelig explains. "We went right at the biggest content providers in the world. They were the ones who realized that the Internet was not going to scale to the capabilities they needed. We got there at just the right time when they realized they had a problem."
The results for end users are there to see: When the stock market hiccups or a major news story breaks, Akamai's network of distributed servers help sites like CNN.com weather the load. Rather than having every end user request hit CNN's central servers, locally deployed Akamai servers step in to serve up demanding content, including GIF and JPEG images, media content, and file downloads. Not only are there fewer requests to overwhelm central servers, many requests are now traveling shorter distances over the Internet, relieving congestion on backbone pipes.
At the same time, Akamai faced challenges familiar to all start-up ventureslaunching mature services without burning through budgets and bankrupting future growth. Akamai's technology called for a massively distributed network of remote serversan infrastructure that would cost millions of dollars to build and even more to maintain. Select a platform that lacked manageability or scaling capability, and the company's business model would simply collapse.
"The Intel Architecture has given us ideal price/performance, and the ability to put tens of servers at a node and have them work in sync through our technology," says Seelig. "We can deploy a rack full of Pentium® III processor-based servers to make a very, very powerful infrastructure."
Keep on Deploying
One of the biggest challenges for Akamai is managing rapid growth while staying on top of emerging opportunities. The company employs more than 850 employees in 17 facilities worldwide. Its network of servers has quadrupled from 1,000 to more than 4,000 in the past year alone. And Seelig expects that number to double again in the year to come to more than 10,000 servers.
To ensure that enough servers are on hand, Akamai purchases from multiple sources, maintaining relationships with VA Linux* and IBM*. "It's good business to pepper up our supply with other vendors, to take the edge away from any single vendor if they hit a crunch time," says Damian Johnston, Akamai's director of Network Deployment. "Once a relationship is built, it helps to understand each others' dynamics. Sometimes I call folks up and they answer with a chuckle. 'Gee, Damian's back at it again.'"
With that kind of growth, you'd expect that Akamai would concentrate on simply keeping up. Instead, the company is seeking to broaden its lead by introducing advanced new services. Case in point: Akamai recently completed its acquisition of streaming media delivery firm Intervu*, which provides centralized storage and bandwidth for serving up audio and video content over the Internet.
"Intervu was the category leader in streaming media services. It had more streaming media customers, more streaming media services, and more streaming media bandwidth in use than any other service," says Seelig. "Intervu gives us big core nodes for storing all the hours of streaming media, while the Akamai edge nodes store frequently accessed and optimized content. Combined, we are the biggest pusher of bits out there."
Akamai's Streaming Services delivers the Web's highest performing, most reliable streaming media content, including live events, continuous broadcasts, and on-demand media. The service delivers content by intelligently routing requests across Akamai's large distributed global network to the optimal server for each site visitor. Innovative, fault-tolerant technology evaluates real-time Internet conditions to eliminate problems caused by server overloads and network bottlenecks. By reducing the number of router hops and bypassing Internet congestion, users experience smooth video playback and high-fidelity audio.
Akamai's SteadyStream* technology ensures that only the highest quality media streams reach the audience. For live broadcasts, SteadyStream uses sophisticated error correcting to send multiple copies of streams to the edges of the network where they are recombined into their original quality format.
The company is also underway with its Internet Content Application Protocol (ICAP), which establishes a layer between content providers and the platform they utilize. Akamai is working with other companies to craft ICAP into an open standard that enables application vendors to write to ICAP, eliminating the tangle of proprietary solutions.
Behind these efforts, says Johnston, is a fiercely competitive culture. "It's the Akamai way. We will not settle for second," says Johnston. "We think in three terms: We think in network, we think in customer, and we think in technology."