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Akamai preps faster network service as rivals lurk

The Web firm is working to maintain its lead in the market for network management with new technology that aims to be a more efficient network "traffic cop."

Akamai Technologies is working to maintain its lead in the market for network management with new technology that aims to be a more efficient network "traffic cop."

Although an incremental step in its overall strategy, the move is significant for Akamai as many other players are beginning to encroach upon its territory. Start-up Speedera Networks last month launched a similar service, and other competitors are now recognizing the growing need to speed Web content along sprawling networks.

Akamai plans to offer technology that effectively "maps" a network to see what paths are the fastest, and then sends a request for a Web site to send information along that clear route. Such a system helps reduce network bottlenecks if a site or hosting center is experiencing heavy traffic, or if a center has been taken offline by an accident or disaster, for example.

Companies such as F5 Networks, Alteon WebSystems, Foundry Networks and Cisco Systems' ArrowPoint Communications build hardware called Web switches that act as "traffic cops" to help network data flow more smoothly. Akamai earlier announced a deal that will see some of its Net-speeding technology used by F5.

Akamai is now looking to offer this network traffic service for a fee to companies that recognize the need for more efficient networks, yet don?t have the technical expertise to maintain or the financial wherewithal to purchase the hardware on their own.

Akamai has been developing the network service, called FirstPoint, in cooperation with leading Web portal Yahoo. The two companies have been working on a beta version since January, Akamai said.

Yahoo co-founder David Filo said that the company decided to work with Akamai since its technology surpassed other options currently on the market. "They do that in a way that we thought was superior to what the competition (does)," Filo said. "We believed they probably have the most accurate picture at any given time of what the state of the Internet is."

Akamai has also tapped Ticketmaster Online for beta testing. For the service, Akamai plans to charge $5,500 for every Web hosting server a Web site maintains, the company said.

Once a favorite with investors on Wall Street, Akamai has watched its shares fall from a high of $345.50 in the past 52 weeks to current levels of $90. However, a recent deal with Excite@Home for streaming media content management helped boost shares. Overall, Akamai stock rose more than 50 percent last week.

The traffic management service will likely serve as a new block in the foundation of the still-young content delivery industry, which has grown significantly since Akamai's entry into the market last year.

Many content management companies, such as Digital Island and iBeam, concentrate on hosting small Web components, such as individual graphics or streaming media presentations, on servers as physically close to the end computer users as possible.

Akamai's technology, in contrast, works by placing thousands of Net content servers in Internet service provider (ISP) networks around the world. When a Web surfer wants a piece of a site that is hosted on this network--such as the graphics on a Yahoo page, for example--the content can usually be downloaded from a machine physically close to the surfer's computer.