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Start-up taps swapping tech to ease Web bottlenecks

An Israeli start-up hopes to improve streaming Web content by taking a page from the playbooks of Napster and Gnutella.

An Israeli start-up hopes to improve streaming Web content by taking a page from the playbooks of Napster and Gnutella.

vTrails has developed a technology that distributes Internet content by replicating it across thousands of personal computers, which in turn dispense it to others in a massive "daisy chain."

vTrails' technology is similar to Napster, Gnutella and other so-called peer-to-peer networking technologies in that it uses a loose collection of desktop PCs to act as servers to distribute content.

vTrails may be among the first to tap into a new trend. Start-ups inspired by the success of Napster may begin morphing the basic peer-to-peer concepts for other uses.

The year-old company is seeking a U.S. patent for its Full Duplex Packet Cascading (FDPC) technology, introduced earlier this week. But the technology is still in the early stages and continues to be tested in the company's labs, executives said.

The technology represents a unique approach to alleviating Net congestion, the company says, a problem that has grown worse as streaming media technologies gain popularity. Many live "Webcasts," including the first Victoria's Secret lingerie fashion show, the John Glenn space launch, and the videotaped deposition of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, have been hugely popular. But the resulting Net congestion has given viewers sluggish performance and, in some cases, no ability to connect to the Webcasts.

Streaming media and Webcasting technology use is expected to grow as more consumers use the Net and as additional uses are developed to easily transmit live audio and video online. But most people will not tolerate poor-quality video, slow connections or other maladies for long.

vTrails believes its technology could alleviate these problems. But analysts are skeptical whether technologies that use the computing power of desktops on a network can be feasible as a business.

"PC desktops are flaky. The idea of connecting to someone else's desktop and dial-up modem and getting a reliable connection doesn't strike me as likely," Jupiter Communications analyst Peter Christy said. "The idea is obviously an interesting one. But anything that depends on using someone else's machine will have a lot of variables."

Dozens of companies are developing technologies and new networks specifically to serve the Webcasting and streaming media markets. For example, iBeam Broadcasting and Cidera are using satellites to broadcast Internet content, while Covad Communications is building a network specifically optimized for video.

Gnutella uses what is known as a "distributed network," in which individual PCs link directly without requiring a central server system. Napster uses a central server to control the distribution of music files.

"Gnutella and Napster apply to just files. We apply to live content," said Laurent Malka, the company's vice president of business development and marketing.

vTrails' technology is comprised of a browser plug-in, to be downloaded on a consumer's desktop PC, and server software. By replicating copies of the Internet content, whether it be video or otherwise on many users' PCs, the traffic hitting the main Web servers is significantly reduced, which can be particularly important during major live Webcasts.

"Our technology replicates the packets so eventually all the users will be served, but the server is only getting one-tenth of the load," vTrails chief technical officer Nezer Zaidenberg said.

vTrails executives said the company has developed algorithms to ensure that high-speed, or "broadband," Internet connections--not dial-up modems--are first in line at the Web server. Those higher-speed connections will in turn serve the ensuing chain of slower connections, they said. "Today's desktop computers are like servers two years ago," Malka said.

Analysts say the need for such an approach in the United States, where dozens of content distribution network companies have developed networks that push content close to consumers, is far lower than elsewhere. As evidence, the list of such companies is a lengthy and growing one that includes: Akamai Technologies, Digital Island, Mirror Image Internet, Aderro, Axient Communications, FastForward Networks, Cidera, Speedera, Edgix, iBeam, EpicRealm and others.

"If it fits it might be in third-world Internet countries such as Israel, Korea and South Africa. It's hard for me to imagine it taking off in the U.S. where there are dozens of content distribution companies building their infrastructure," Christy said.

vTrails' first use of its FDPC technology can be found in Tourbar, a guided Web tour software application the company developed that is similar to WebEx or PlaceWare. But once its internal tests are complete, the company intends to aggressively target the streaming media market by seeking deals to embed its technology in RealPlayer, Windows Media Player and QuickTime, executives said.

Founded in May 1999, vTrails is a small technology start-up in Herzilya, Israel, a hotbed of Internet talent. The company has received funding from TeamDCL.com, an Israeli Net incubator much like CMGI or Idealab.

The company already has signed an agreement with Compaq Computer to develop its technology on Compaq servers.