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Playing the zero-latency game

Zero latency may not be as far away as many think. Jennifer Fonstad explains that start-ups are working at a furious rate to deliver real-time information to the Web.

Many industry experts believe real-time information delivery--so-called zero latency on the Internet--is a holy grail. Did you ever wonder why it takes so long for an image to load or those online airline reservations to come back confirmed? It's easy to blame a Web site, an Internet service provider, or even your computer.

It's probably none of the above, however. And the good news is that latency problems are disappearing faster than many think.

Across the delivery chain--at the enterprise, the network "last mile," and the network backbone--start-ups are working at a furious rate to deliver zero latency. Service companies as well are working on new technologies to help manage information and load across a number of various points across the network.

Real-time information delivery is much more than just making Web pages appear faster. It's about making the Internet more efficient, so new and exciting applications can be made available anytime and anywhere, on demand.

For hosted applications, wired consumer appliances and true interactivity, the delivery of real-time information is critical. Yet with technological innovation, this holy grail of zero latency may be within the industry's reach.

Many innovations are happening at the site level. Web servers can now pull data dynamically from storage located on back-office networks, through SANs (storage area networks) and NAS (network-attached storage) devices.

This is important because in the past, servers often acted as a bottleneck to storage and database access. Companies such as Brocade Communication Systems, with its SAN switches, and Troika Networks with its server-to-server clustering products, are working to redefine site and storage management by allowing Web sites to better address scalability and database latency questions.

For e-commerce sites, companies such as Selectica help simplify the process for product and pricing information on a real-time basis. For companies such as Cisco Systems and Dell Computer, for example, this is essential.

Site applications can also be responsible for slowdowns. Companies such as Ipedo help to speed content management by boosting the performance of applications. The company's Directory Cache takes advantage of XML interfaces to accelerate directory-driven applications. This is critical as sites manage multiple databases and applications, while providing personalization services to its customers. Other products from companies such as CacheFlow and SpiderCache also help speed content to its destination, eliminating bottlenecks and latency from an enterprise's network.

Complementary to site-specific efforts are value-added services that manage traffic across content delivery networks (CDNs).

When it comes to achieving zero latency, it is always better to access hardware points that are closer to the end user, other than those that are half a world away. A number of innovations, beginning with Akamai's mirroring technology and various caching engines, have driven that access point closer and closer to that end user. These services bring commonly accessed information to multiple points across the network, decreasing bottlenecks for popular sites.

More recent innovations, such as those offered by Appstream, enable streaming of information and applications on a predictive basis--almost anticipating how and what users will want to access.

The rise of peer-to-peer networking--highlighted through companies such as music file-swapping service Napster--may prove the most far-reaching in delivering low-latency services.

While in its infancy, these fully distributed networks may one day make the Web much less of a transport vehicle and much more a series of complex indexes that access information located at hundreds of thousands of points across the Web.

In this scenario, you could grab information from your next-door neighbor's PC, even though the neighbor is not aware--he's just another interactive node in a highly distributed, complex network. This will be network communication from edge to edge, managed by a highly intelligent set of algorithms and self-routed packets that bring us encouragingly near zero latency at last.

Perhaps peer-to-peer will ultimately provide some solutions for the last mile too, one of the most difficult points along a network.

The promise of broadband has helped quell some of the concerns surrounding the last mile, or connection from a main network into a consumers' home. Yet many issues remain. It is still a long and tedious upgrade process for many from dial-up to a broadband Internet connection, whether through cable networks or digital subscriber line services. These services give consumers an "always-on" connection, breaking through the many latency problems found in dial-up services.

A number of companies are leading the high-speed network charge. Start-ups such as Broadband Office focus on wiring apartments and other real estate before a tenant moves in to circumvent the installation bottleneck.

Other companies such as Excite@Home for high-speed cable Net service, and Covad Communications for residential DSL, have helped bring broadband services to the consumer audience at large. Slow installation processes and limited coverage areas have hampered the spread of these services, however.

Peer-to-peer, as an edge-to-edge service, may eliminate most of these concerns. Wireless networks too may provide a complementary solution. With 95 million cell phones offering Internet access by 2004, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, we will likely see a mesh of several next-generation networks working together to deliver information on demand.

Finally, consider the significant investment and breakthrough work at the network backbone. These are the main Internet gateways through which most data must travel to reach an end user.

Here the market is rapidly building toward an all-optical network, a mere dream not so long ago. Yet start-ups have feverishly worked to deliver and move the all-optical network into reality. With companies such as Lightwave Microsystems, Brightlink and Ciena building higher levels of network efficiency, backbone points are closer to delivering lower and lower levels of latency and higher levels of performance.

In the meantime, we're still waiting for that streamed video to play without hiccups, or that book purchase to quickly be confirmed. We also shouldn't expect all of the network innovations mentioned to come together at once.

Yet on the horizon, from the all-optical backbone to the fully distributed peer-to-peer network, a zero-latency dream--that holy grail--is within view. We know consumers want information delivered on a real-time basis, and with new, breakthrough ideas applied to the delivery chain, zero latency may not be as far away as many think.