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CDNs are not just for content anymore

Born to speed static images across the Internet, they are becoming integral to e-business.

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Content-delivery network service providers hit the scene about two and half years ago with much fanfare, offering a revolutionary way to move content across the Internet. But since then, these vendors - including market leader Akamai - have traveled a bumpy road as they watched their dot-com customer base erode.

Don't be fooled, though. Content-delivery technology is here to stay, with vendors, analysts and users predicting it will play an important role as organizations become more Web-enabled.

"In the coming year, companies will have to grapple with how they're going forward with Internet applications," says Peter Christy, co-founder of NetsEdge Research Group. "So they'll also start grappling with how do you apply the same kind of technology that made CDNs work to help make complex enterprise applications work."

CDNs aren't just for content anymore. The underlying problem that led to the development of CDNs - bottlenecks on the Internet - remain. That means a similar solution will be needed to create a smooth platform for the transmission of applications over the Internet. It's just that the basic CDN technology will become smarter and more complex.

Expect CDNs to offer more support for XML caching, as well as Java processing at the edge. CDNs will also have to support Web services protocols such as Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI). Other, more intelligent services will have to be integrated into thousands of edge servers, including authentication, access rights and the sending of content as determined by a user's location, called geotargeting.

Smarter services are already emerging. Digital Island and Akamai last month each unveiled technology to better support business transactions. Their focus, and that of other CDNs such as Speedera and Mirror Image, is to prove that they can offer reliability and scalability for important enterprise applications, beyond the static-image delivery with which they started.

CDN evolution

CDN technology originally was designed to improve the performance of Web sites by pushing graphics and embedded images out to a network of edge caching servers, thus speeding transmission times by delivering that content from the server geographically closest to the end user. However, as enterprise use of the Internet increased, demands increased.

Companies realized they could save money by putting more of their Web sites on a CDN, getting increased reliability and scalability without expensive hardware.

Security software vendor McAfee.com uses Akamai to provide quick software downloads to its customers and has cut costs dramatically. McAfee CIO Doug Cavit wouldn't be specific about the savings, but says he ditched about five dozen servers at collocation facilities and runs about 60% of his traffic off the Akamai network.

While McAfee uses Akamai's FreeFlow service, which pushes static content to the edge, other companies wanted to move out dynamic content, such as frequently changing sports scores or stock quotes. As a result, dynamic, content-delivery services, such as Akamai's EdgeSuite, emerged.

What the future holds

Looking forward, companies will want more than support for dynamic content. Cavit expects Akamai to handle application and transaction processing, user authentication and other services, so that he can offer McAfee's services from the edge.

"In a lot of ways, we haven't explored all that CDNs can provide and do," Cavit says. "One of the things I'm interested in that I'm working with CDNs on is the concept of delivering [Microsoft] .Net services from the edge. So instead of delivering graphics, pages and GIFs, and things like that, you can take and operate a Web service as an edge-delivered service. You don't have to run it out of a single data center."

CDNs appear to be destined to act as the enabling technology for Web services, small pieces of application code that can communicate with each other over the Internet. C.J. Stumpf, CTO at Digital Island, says CDNs will morph into distributing computing networks that will be essential to the smooth operation of Web services from vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, Sun and BEA.

"We're seeing a paradigm shift," Stumpf says, noting that companies no longer are content with static Web sites. Content is now used as a driver to make sales. "So you're moving from driving informational brochureware to driving viable business transactions."

As CDNs take on more complex responsibilities, they will have to give companies peace of mind. Expect to see enhanced security features, better storage capabilities, and monitoring tools that let businesses track how their Web sites are performing even as most processing happens out at the edge of the Internet.

These service providers will also make it easier for private CDNs on enterprise WANs to hook into their public networks. Akamai plans to offer its technology as a managed service behind corporate firewalls. The company may even license its technology for use in private enterprise CDNs, says Kieran Taylor, director of product management at Akamai.

"The next logical step is to bring Akamai servers inside the firewall and enable the creation of an enterprise CDN," Taylor says. "Be it a company with a number of regional offices or a large company with a lot of international locations, they're all coming to Akamai and are very interested in a platform that enables them to have secure and reliable communications across the Internet. And that's our bread and butter."

Douglas Parrish, CTO at Walt Disney Internet Group, which owns ABCnews.com, ESPN.com and ABC.com, says public CDNs will remain vital in determining how new forms of content are delivered. As broadband and high-speed connections into the home become more prevalent, he says his Web sites will be able to offer more kinds of content.

"And our desire is to get those things the user community needs and wants in front of them as fast as possible," Parrish says.

CDNs will continue to deliver basic content, but will evolve into more complex delivery platforms. Already, they are the platform that is making streaming media work. Telecom companies have recognized the importance of CDN technology and are getting in on the action with companies such as AT&T and Qwest already offering content-delivery services.

While CDN technology is evolving, the CDN name may not be around much longer.

"It may very likely disappear and be replaced by terms that better capture the idea of distributed edge services," says Gordon Smith, a vice president at Speedera. "There's still a tendency to look at CDNs in the simplistic sense - that CDNs are used to do caching.

"We already know they do vastly more."

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Contact Senior Writer Jennifer Mears

Other recent articles by Mears

Tech Update: CDN switching adds flexibility
Wide-area load balancers with content-delivery network switching technology let companies use public CDN services to extend global availability and content distribution.


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