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Cisco sets off three-way Net-speed struggle

A three-way power struggle is developing underneath the Net's hood, as Cisco Systems, Inktomi and Akamai Technologies jostle for control of the profitable business of speeding Web downloads.

A three-way power struggle is developing underneath the Net's hood, as Cisco Systems, Inktomi and Akamai Technologies jostle for control of the profitable business of speeding Web downloads.

Cisco Systems, the equipment company that already controls much of the Net's infrastructure market, launched an effort today aimed at ushering in an era of "open standards" in the content delivery business. Allowing all the private networks that speed Net downloads to talk to each other would help the entire Internet do its job better, the company says.

But this drive for open standards--which analysts say is geared in large part to support a new product line from the equipment giant--potentially puts Cisco's plans at odds with the business ambitions of the market's other heavyweights. Akamai is the undisputed leader in this market with a proprietary network that it has shown no interest in opening to competitors. Inktomi launched its own coalition of service providers last week with a similar aim of linking formerly competing networks.

That means that behind the various calls for standards in the market is a healthy dose of enlightened self-interest, analysts say. And whoever can best control the rule-making process has a better chance of coming out ahead in the end.

"Cisco and Inktomi are in the market to sell their own equipment," HTRC Group analyst Greg Howard said. "Both alliances promote the selling of their own products."

Content delivery services are largely invisible to Web surfers, as they work behind the scenes to help speed Net content past online bottlenecks that form as crowds cluster around popular content. Most of the companies involved distribute "caches" that store popular content widely around the Web, so that anytime a surfer asks for a Web page, it can be downloaded from a place as physically close as possible.

Analysts estimate that about 60 percent of this market is still controlled by Akamai Technologies, the young company that launched early last year and quickly garnered the business of Yahoo, Lycos, CNN and dozens of other blue-chip Net sites.

Since Akamai jump-started the market, a handful of other firms have sprung up. Most of the big Web-hosting companies offer some version of the service, and several independent firms have opened their doors with slightly different business models.

Sideways competition
The three firms struggling for dominance of the market aren't actually direct competitors. Akamai is a service provider, while Inktomi and Cisco are equipment companies.

But each of the three's desire to shape the landscape on which all them do business has put them in conflict.

The "Content Bridge" alliance formed between Inktomi, America Online, Adero and a half-dozen other companies last week serves as the most ambitious effort to join forces against Akamai. By linking together several proprietary networks, as well as developing the technology to facilitate the links, the alliance hopes to create a broader reach than Akamai has already developed on its own.

But if Cisco's effort to create open standards governing the links between these networks bears fruit, it could undermine the Inktomi-led effort to create--and control--the way these networks communicate.

At the heart of Cisco's strategy is a new family of products--called Content Delivery Networks--that compete directly against Inktomi. The products, available in October, come from in-house development and technology recently acquired when it bought ArrowPoint Communications, SightPath and Tasmania Network Systems.

Cisco's "Content Alliance" includes support by data storage computer maker Network Appliance and half a dozen service providers, including Cable & Wireless, GlobalCenter and PSINet. Cisco's alliance plans to submit proposed standards to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) later this year.

Three service providers--Digital Island, Genuity and Mirror Image Internet--have joined both Inktomi and Cisco's alliance efforts. Mirror Image Internet, which competes against Akamai, uses equipment from both Inktomi and Cisco in its networks.

"We're for open standards, and anything that makes cross-network communication better is good for us," said Martin Alsen, vice president of marketing strategy at Mirror Image. "But it would be easier if they came together under one umbrella."

Analysts say the service providers that are supporting both efforts are simply hedging their bets.

"It's in the service providers' interests to join both," said Howard, the HTRC Group analyst. "In this emerging market, they want to cover as many bases as they can because Inktomi and Cisco have a lot of influence."

Howard said the two competing standards efforts by Inktomi and Cisco could eventually merge, but they will compete initially because each company is trying to sell its own products. But both Howard and Mirror Image's Alsen say merging standards efforts are unlikely because Inktomi and Cisco are competitors.

Inktomi executive vice president Richard Pierce said the Cisco effort did provide some "opportunity to cooperate," but said the company had not yet seen the details of the Cisco proposal. "I see no reason why they couldn't (work together)," he noted.

Cisco executives said they had not been invited to join the Inktomi-led "Content Bridge" Alliance.

"It would seem like a proprietary effort first and a standards-focused group second," said Paul Sanchirico, Cisco's marketing director. "And what we're trying to do is enable a standards effort that will benefit the industry at large."