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Akamai frees up your Web site

Distributed servers can prevent clogged sites.

Today's breaking news
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Cambridge, Mass. - When the "father of the Web" speaks, people listen.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) math professor Tom Leighton did, and now he's chief scientist at Akamai Technologies, an ambitious start-up that promises to make Web sites respond quickly, no matter how many hits they get.

Three years ago, Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee mentioned to Leighton that somebody should figure out how to distribute Web content on the Internet so it is always available with minimal delay. Leighton, whose MIT office is down the hall from Berners-Lee's, worked on the problem with his technical team and then founded Akamai last year to commercialize the technology.

Akamai, which is located at spartan offices across the street from MIT and backed by $8 million in venture funding, calls its debut service FreeFlow.

FreeFlow delivers customers' Web pages via Akamai's global network of distributed Web servers, which currently number 300. Leighton claims FreeFlow prevents Web sites from melting down under a barrage of simultaneous requests for content, such as the Starr Report. In fact, CNN says it plans to use FreeFlow for just that reason.

The Akamai network determines where hits are coming from and shifts copies of the pages being sought to Akamai servers nearest the source of the demand. When demand drops, the network cuts back on the number of servers delivering that content. Customers don't have to add hardware or change their Internet access to use the service.

With faster response times, Akamai customers will be able to post more complex pages because they will not have to worry about users getting frustrated while they wait for downloads, according to Paul Sagan, Akamai's chief operating officer. Sagan brings a wealth of Web business expertise to the firm, having been responsible for Time, Inc.'s online activities, including its Pathfinder Web site.

When simply stated, FreeFlow sounds like a caching or mirroring service, but Leighton says the offering is different. Akamai's server network constantly monitors Internet performance and shifting demand for content, and responds by redistributing content accordingly, he says.

That is done using server software based on a blend of four families of algorithms: randomized, online, flow and consistent hashing. The software runs on each server, distributing intelligence around the network so adjustments are made without intervention from a central site, according to Leighton. If one server goes down, he says, others become aware and pick up the slack.

In contrast, mirroring and caching are more or less static technologies that can provide content from multiple sites, but not necessarily closer to end users requesting content. Spikes in demand can still overwhelm cached and mirrored sites.

When Akamai starts beta tests of its service this quarter, it will be several months behind Sandpiper Networks, its chief rival in the specialized field. Sandpiper also focuses on Web publishers and companies interested in transacting business over the Web.

Akamai's servers are actually installed at ISP and carrier points of presence, including those at Exodus Communications, Inc. Akamai has simulated peak demand for the Starr Report and run it over the network for weeks without encountering trouble, Leighton claims.

While FreeFlow deals with surges in demand, it also can make downloads faster, because its network of servers is closer to more users than a single server could be. As a rule, Akamai delivers content so it has to make as few router hops as possible. However, if the least-hop path is congested, FreeFlow may serve over a longer route that happens to be faster at that time.

With FreeFlow, customers also get to monitor, in real time, where hits are coming from and which URLs are being requested.

All a customer has to do to use FreeFlow is install software that tags the Web pages the customer wants Akamai's service to handle. This lets customers choose which pages to turn over to FreeFlow and which ones to handle directly from their own servers. This is valuable to e-commerce sites where customers might want to freely distribute information about products but keep actual transactions behind a corporate firewall, Sagan says.

Akamai uses off-the-shelf Intel-powered servers running a customized version of Linux. The cost of one of its servers is less than the $25,000 a typical Web server would cost, Leighton says. Akamai declined to give further details.

Akamai has not set its pricing, which will be based on use and how much content customers want FreeFlow to handle. Sagan says the price will be roughly comparable to what it would cost to buy extra Internet access bandwidth to speed up a Web site.

The company is accepting beta users now.

Akamai: (617) 250-3000

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