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Akamai sets sights on applications

The company, which specializes in accelerating content delivery, announces a new strategy that aims to speed the delivery of online applications too.

Content acceleration company Akamai Technologies today announced a new strategy to speed the delivery of online applications too.

It took just a year for Akamai to go from installing its first system to becoming a $21 billion company, but now it wants to go further. As previously reported, the high-flying Cambridge, Mass., firm unveiled services to hurry the transmission of Web applications--including such things as targeted advertising and e-commerce transactions--in addition to ordinary content.

"This will do for applications what [our first service] did for content," said George Kurian, Akamai's vice president for product management and strategy. "This represents the next big step forward for the company."

The new service, called EdgeAdvantage, will allow companies to build more sophisticated Web sites for supporting e-commerce transaction processing and other applications, the company said. Akamai is banking on the service to be popular among smaller companies that lack sufficient resources and technology personnel to support complex Web applications themselves.

Akamai's existing FreeFlow service, which delivers Web content, has already been adopted by more than 100 Web businesses, the company said.

The move into applications is natural, if potentially complicated, say analysts.

Akamai--pronounced "ACK-uh-my," a Hawaiian word that means clever or cool--is one of a handful of companies that have come to prominence in recent months by offering innovative shortcuts around Internet bottlenecks. Its initial public offering of stock was one of the top five performers ever, and its success inspired a renewed push from competitors like Sandpiper Networks and Edgix.

The company stepped into the limelight largely by putting computer servers in the networks of Internet service providers around the world, and then offering space in those servers for sale to content companies like Yahoo or CNN.

That in itself wasn't a new idea. Most big Web companies already had multiple copies of their pages scattered around the world before Akamai came along. But where even a company the size of Yahoo had only a few dozen, Akamai put hundreds of servers in place--its network now numbers 1,700 servers in 100 different networks--and situated them physically closer to the end user. The scale dramatically boosted the strategy's effectiveness.

Whether it works for applications remains to be seen. Content caching is a relatively easy business, in which copies of unchanging Web graphics or text can simply be distributed to many different places on the Web, noted Internet Research Group vice president Peter Christy.

By contrast, several analysts said applications such as targeted advertisements, e-commerce transactions or profiling Web visitors require a more complicated interaction between visitors and company databases. Making matters more complicated, companies likely will be loath to allow some data--such as credit card transactions--to be stored on remote systems.

That may begin to change the way sites are created, Christy observed. "What I expect is that people designing Web sites will do it so individual functions distribute [to different locations] as easily as possible," the analyst said.

If the bugs are smoothed out, the service could help ratchet the Web's speed limit up a few notches, as behind-the-scenes functions on sites like Amazon or Yahoo take place on servers closer to individual users.

"This is not going to be easy to implement," said Sujata Ramnarayan, a Dataquest industry analyst. "But I think this is the right direction for them to be going."

Akamai says EdgeAdvantage will launch sometime in the first half of next year.

EdgeAdvantage will be based on a new proposed Internet standard protocol, called Internet Content Adaptation Protocol (ICAP), that enables communications between "edge" devices such as Web site caches on one end, and Internet content delivery services and application servers on the other. Akamai said the protocol has been endorsed by more than 35 companies, which plan to present a draft early next year to the Internet Engineering Task Force, an Internet technology standards body.