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Caching: New hope for congestion

Companies are suggesting caching as a way to combat logjams on the Internet, but analysts warn it is not a panacea for Net traffic.

It's the caching, stupid.

That, at least, is what more and more companies are suggesting as a way to combat the mounting problem of logjams on the Internet.

In the latest example, Inktomi on Monday will launch "traffic server," which it says is a scalable, high-performance network cache meant for Internet service providers (ISPs) and backbone providers. The company will team up with industry heavyweights such as Sun Microsystems to sell the product.

Inktomi is just the newest entrant into the market. Others include Cisco Systems, Intel, and Novell, and the old software standbys, Microsoft and Netscape. In addition, upstarts such as PeakSoft Corporation offer software that promises to speed delivery of Web sites to users' desktops using caching.

Analysts say caching--storage of Web pages, graphics, and sounds where users can get to it faster--is one of the fastest-growing and most promising segments of the software business. That may refer to the server run by your ISP or even your computer's hard drive.

Why the stampede? Simply put, caching saves time and money, not only for users but also for ISPs and backbone providers. "The closer to the user that you can cache the content, the less of the Internet infrastructure you put between the two. Therefore, it gets delivered faster," said Gene Shklar, vice president of Keynote Systems, which this week released a study contending that the performance of next-generation online communications devices such as 56-kbps, cable, and satellite modems is being limited by the strained capacity of the Net. (See related story)

Some recent examples of caching products besides Inktomi's include:

  • Last month, Intel announced a technology called "quick Web" as a way to reduce the time it takes to download Web pages and increase the speed of Net connections. Some 1,200 customers are expected to join in a market trail this month that includes Sprint, Global Center, and Netcom. Another feature includes a so-called Web-O-Meter, which measures how much speed is gained using the technology.

  • Also last month, Cisco introduced the "cache engine," which is meant to store Web pages locally. The hardware and software box can be combined to offer a "cache farm" that supports up to 500,000 users and stores some 25 million Web pages. "The result is much higher-performance Web access for the end user, with a significant reduction in wide area network traffic volume," the company said.

  • Novell announced a software tool called FastCache last month that also stores the pages locally, essentially acting as a proxy server. The software also updates the content of the pages as necessary and includes cache acceleration features.

    Despite the benefits of caching, many executives and analysts warn it is not a panacea to the problems of Net congestion.

    Just like adding lanes to a freeway, ISPs and backbone providers still need to spend money, running into the billions of dollars collectively, to increase the efficiency of their networks, Shklar noted.

    In addition, caching is controversial among many advertisers, Web site operators, and legal experts, because of the way it stores and duplicates pages.

    For example, ads that remain in an ISP's cache may result in a loss of advertising dollars for a Web site provider, since it can't guarantee a rotated banner.

    As for legal concerns, the duplication of pages may result in copyright infringement or defamation cases. Suppose, for example, that an ISP caches an old, incorrect page that has since been corrected, but its users cannot access it.

    A well-known legal case on the Web centered on that problem. In 1996, Toys-R-Us sued Web site operator "Adults-R-Us" for copyright infringement on the Web. The adult-rated Web site operator agreed to remove the page, but links to the old site, as well as parts of the site itself, still were being cached by ISPs, according to lawyers familiar with the case.

    "It's a thorny problem," said Eric Schlachter, an attorney with Cooley Godward. He predicted that the number of these cases will escalate as caching becomes more common.

    Reporter Ben Heskett contributed to this report.