Despite billions of dollars invested in fiber-optic Net connections across the country, the system still breaks down at the points where all of these lines meet--often acting like an over-burdened freeway on-ramp at rush hour.
But a handful of start-ups--such as hub builder Equinix and Web-caching firms Akamai Technologies and Edgix--have come on to the scene with new technology and ideas for eliminating these reoccurring bottlenecks.
"The [existing hubs] are a congested mess," says Jeanne Schaaf, a network analyst with Forrester Research. "People are looking for lots of ways to move traffic on a network more quickly."
The success of these strategies will depend on how many Internet service providers and content companies take advantage of these new services--but the interest from Wall Street and potential customers, analysts say, is high.
Eliminating congestion on the public Net also can translate into dollar signs for these new firms. Investors are throwing money at companies aiming at repairing the Net's weak points, as seen in today's successful Akamai IPO.
Too much traffic, too few exits
One of the Internet's biggest problems is that a huge amount of data traffic traveling along the nation's networks gets squeezed through a small number of transfer points on its way to its final destination, analysts say.
Imagine Qwest Communications International's new high-speed networks as a four-lane freeway. If you drive in a straight line along this freeway, it's a quick commute. But if you have to merge onto another freeway, or fight through rush-hour traffic on a cloverleaf exit, the commute grinds to a halt.
The Internet is suffering similar problems. Even if a user has a high-speed cable modem connected to a fiber-optic network, there are still places along a network where an email message or other information has to travel from one company's network to another. This is where the crunch occurs.
Much of this traffic in the United States is exchanged at one of about nine big hubs, dubbed "Network Access Points." In 1993, the National Science Foundation gave the rights to run these centers to a number of big telephone companies like Sprint, Ameritech, and what is now MCI WorldCom.
With names like "MAE East," "MAE West," or "Big East," these points are the default centers where the private networks connect. ISPs and telephone companies also increasingly make private one-to-one arrangements to link their networks together--a result of network overload.
"It's like if you have 50 or so companies together at a trade show and had them set up a booth together," said Tom Nolle, president of network consulting company CIMI. "Everyone would know that any effort they put in would benefit their competitors, and you'd wind up with a terrible booth."
No more bottlenecks
Firms, savvy to the way the Net is run today, are planning to make subtle changes to the way networks are connected and plan to widen or add to the number of network "exit ramps."
Equinix has garnered the most recent attention, with initial seed funding from Cisco Systems and Microsoft. It is also planning another high-profile round of financing soon.
The company promises to build 35 new network hubs in the next few years, with 12 introduced by the end of 2000. PAIX, another more established private hub-builder owned by AboveNet, is also increasing the number of centers it plans to build.
"The technology put in place for the original exchange points wasn't built to take [today's] load," Jay Adelson said, Equinix's chief technical officer. The carriers that maintain the existing switching points also have more incentive to keep traffic on their own networks, instead of investing in upgrading facilities used by their competitors, Adelson noted.
Yet Equinix has taken a different look at the old connections
The old hub system simply linked ISP networks together, providing a kind of switching station for the content traveling over those networks.
Equinix brings the content companies--and anyone else involved--into the physical walls of a switching station. That means, for example, eBay could hook its servers directly to a partner's search engine server a few feet away, without the actual data transmissions--like search queries--traveling over the Internet at large.
"This means that anybody can come in and outsource any part of their business that they don't want to spend their resources doing themselves," said Al Avery, Equinix's CEO. "And they don't have to go across the Internet's network to reach their partners."
This setup also allows players like Akamai Networks or Edgix to place their Web caching systems next to their customers in these same facilities.
The new model, while largely indistinguishable to the average person downloading a Web page at home, does have the potential to speed up downloads by eliminating congestion and reducing the number of hops between networks.
"These direct interconnections limit the number of hops that traffic goes from start to finish," Forrester's Schaaf says. "That's a good thing."
If companies like Equinix and PAIX are successful in attracting customers, the old network of public hubs may slowly disappear, some say.
The carriers aren't making substantial revenue by operating these centers, and companies like MCI WorldCom and Sprint would prefer to keep traffic on their own networks instead of helping competitors, analysts note.