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Akamai aims to end Web waits

A start-up's bid to end periodic but intense traffic congestion has attracted the interest of some of the industry's biggest companies.

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A start-up's bid to end the Web's "Star Wars effect"--the phenomenon of periodic but intense traffic congestion--has attracted the interest of some of the industry's biggest companies.

Akamai, a firm with roots in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's math department, says it can help untangle massive traffic jams by keeping people off the Internet at large. Having opened its doors to commercial use just two and half months ago, the company has already persuaded major clients like Yahoo, CNN, and Disney's Go Network to host their content on its system.

Underlying the company's growth are fears that big Web events, such as this year's release of the Star Wars movie trailers or last summer's e-publication of the Starr Report, are leading to overloaded and sometimes unreachable sites, prompting concern that Web architecture can't keep up with surges in use.

Despite its youth, the company is confident enough to offer potential customers a bold guarantee: Content will be available 100 percent of the time, and will be delivered faster than the customer's own Web site can do the job, or that day's services are free.

The trick to this Pony Express of the Web content world is Akamai's network of servers, hosted by the biggest ISPs on the planet. With dedicated housing, the company can host content from customers like Yahoo at each of 20 points around the world.

This allows a user to go to a site close to his or her own computer in accessing bandwidth-heavy content, such as advertisements, graphics, or photographs. For Yahoo, for example, Akamai hosts the navigation bar that stretches across the top of the page, and 90 percent of the company's advertisements, said David Goodtree, the company's vice president of marketing.

By structuring its network this way--and using technology developed at MIT to manage the traffic--the company can keep its customers' bandwidth-hogging Web site elements from having to cross between ISP networks, where much of the Net's worst slowdowns take place. "We're posting content to the edges of the Internet, so it hops over all the busy hotspots on the Internet itself," Goodtree said.

The system will improve as the company installs servers in more ISP networks around the world, he said. "At some point in the future we will be within miles--single digit miles--of most of the world's population," Goodtree added.

Currently, the company has 600 servers in 20 networks around the world, with the capacity to serve 11 gigabits per second (GBPs), he said.

Analysts say the company is using an idea essentially similar to the caching technology of companies like Inktomi, but targeting the content companies instead of ISPs.

Inktomi and other caching companies allow ISPs to create copies of popular Web sites close to home, so their subscribers can quickly get to these copies instead of venturing out into the Web's slowdowns. Such systems are used heavily by big networks like America Online and Excite@Home.

By contrast, Akamai sells its services directly to the content companies themselves, keeping quickly changing content and advertisements more up to date do than most traditional caching systems.

"The idea that you want to make replicas of content out on the edge of the Internet is a good one," said Peter Christy, a principal of technology consulting firm Collaborative Research. "Accessing a local copy of a Web site is always better than a distant one."

Several other older companies are doing similar things with slightly different technology, Christy noted. A California company called Sandpiper has a similar model of distributing servers around the edges of the Web, while other companies are beaming updated content via satellite to servers inside ISP or cable networks.

But Akamai has been able to put its name quickly on the map with major customers, a sign that bodes well for the company's future, Christy said. "It's already a very interesting customer list," he said.

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