Feature: Your Web site's secret weapon

Kenexa, a global provider of talent-hiring and-retention services and software, had a serious customer-satisfaction problem.

"Our Web-based recruiter application worked fine in the [United States], but with each packet taking 200 to 240 milliseconds to get to the Far East and 40 to 100 round trips per Web page, our customers in Japan and China sometimes waited 40 seconds or more to complete a transaction," says Kamal Jain, director of ASP operations. Building a datacenter in Europe or Asia was not an attractive option. "An ASP quickly loses its economies of scale that way."

Instead, Kenexa contracted with Akamai's Web acceleration services, which use a combination of caching, compression, and IP and route optimization to speed Kenexa's dynamic, user-customized content. The result: The time to complete multistep transactions for Asian users has been cut by more than half.

Kenexa's experience reveals the new face of the CDN (content delivery network). During the dot-com boom, CDN providers such as Akamai harnessed their huge network overlay infrastructure to cache and deliver static Web pages to millions of consumers. On today's Web, however, static pages are more the exception than the rule, so CDNs have added compression, traffic shaping, intelligent routing, and network optimization to accelerate everything from software downloads to video streaming, corporate Web applications, b-to-b transactions, and two-way Web 2.0 interactions. "The term 'content delivery network' is really outdated," says Kieran Taylor, Akamai's director of marketing. "Our vision is around accelerating all business online."

Although Akamai is still the 800-pound gorilla in the CDN space, the market has expanded and diversified enough to include a number of other important players, including Limelight Networks, LocalMirror, Mirror Image NaviSite, Netli (recently acquired by Akamai), VitalStream (recently acquired by Internap), and more. Indeed, according to Gartner, the edge hosting market, which consists primarily of CDNs and ADNs (application delivery networks), is on the move, growing in North America by more than a third from 2005 to 2006, from US$353 million to $474 million, and is expected to more than double by 2009.

Media everywhere

A number of trends are driving this resurgence, but perhaps the most striking is the tremendous growth of broadband and the explosion in the use of rich media, not simply by media companies and distributors, but by mainstream corporate and government Web sites and millions of YouTube, MySpace, and other Web 2.0 users. Audio and video are particularly latency sensitive, so they benefit greatly from the reach, caching, and latency slashing techniques offered by CDNs.

For example, when the Anda-Burghardt advertising agency was hired to create a Web site that would bring more tourist dollars to the village of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., art director Jeff Conway immediately thought of streaming video -- lots of it. "We use video streams to target Carmel's celebrity history and pet friendliness." Thanks to acceleration from VitalStream's CDN, what was once a dry, static government Web site is now an extravaganza of smoothly running video streams highlighting performing arts, "girlfriends' getaways," and Carmel's artists' colony. "Everyone is amazed at how quickly it all downloads and how good it looks," Conway says.

In a more serious vein, the American Society of Biomechanical and Molecular Biologists uses NaviSite's CDN to accelerate its live conference broadcasts, continuing-education streams, academic updates, and other downloads.

"Rich media has become mainstream," says Willie Tejada, senior vice president of marketing and business development at Netli. "You'll find Flash and other rich media right off the home pages of companies like SAP and Nokia, who also use it for everything from quarterly training to virtual communications from the CEOs. All these things are helped by CDN technology." Companies have even embraced Web 2.0 rich media, as evidenced by Anheuser-Busch's Bud.tv and by Cadillac.com, both of which solicit "consumer-generated content" in the style of YouTube. And CDNs have adjusted their services to speed uploads in response.

Another important trend is the ongoing consumerization of IT. "A lot of departments are using YouTube to host legitimate training videos," says Robert Whitely, senior analyst, enterprise networking, at Forrester Research.

"IBM owns 20-some-odd islands in Second Life," which is also second home to Circuit City, Sears, Toyota, Dell, and Adidas, among others. In fact, Cisco launched a recent integrated services router on Second Life. "It's a very inexpensive form of viral marketing," Whitely says.

Although rich media and Web 2.0 are sexy -- and are the main focus of such CDN providers as Limelight Networks -- they are not the only CDN drivers. Software downloads and updates are another big trend that depends to a large extent on CDN's reach and scalability for handling peak loads reliably. According to Netli's Tejada, "It's an alternative to building out infrastructure for folks like McAfee, Trend Micro, and Symantec, who have to get updates out to a broad base of users in an explosive fashion when a virus hits." Video downloads and podcasts have also become prevalent in many mainstream companies.

The Air Force Air Combat Command Geospatial Information Office relies on Akamai to add reliability, availability, and speed to its huge satellite imaging and mapping downloads, ranging in size from 1GB to about 25GB each. "The download failure rate on our own servers was in the neighborhood of 10 percent," says Dave Williams, technical analyst, "but using Akamai's CDN, it's less than 0.1 percent and takes 25 minutes to download a 1GB file, as opposed to 2 hours."

Two more drivers, particularly for application delivery networks, are the Webification of corporate applications and business processes combined with outsourcing, offshoring, telecommuting, employee mobility, and datacenter consolidation, all of which increasingly move users farther and farther from their applications and data.

Millipore, a provider of tools and services for university, biotech, and pharmaceutical-company laboratories, would not have been able to get its b-to-b e-commerce application running in Japan without the help of Netli. "We wanted our Japanese distributors to transition from the hundreds of faxes they used for transactions to our e-commerce platform," says Jeffrey O'Halloran, Millipore's director of e-business, "but when we ran a demonstration, it took them longer to go through the checkout process online than it did to send us a fax."

After contracting with Netli's NetLightning service, Millipore saw page load times for the various parts of its application fall from more than 7 seconds to 1 second. Soon more than half of its Japanese distributors were on board.

Airline applications are obvious candidates for application acceleration, as are offshore call centers, financial services portals, SaaS (software as a service) providers, and point-of-sale systems connected to back-end ERP applications. Akamai and Mirror Image are even allowing customers to offload certain middleware application logic such as servlets and Java Server Pages completely from their companies' origin servers to the CDN.

The CDN explosion

For a long time the CDN market could be summed up in one brand: Akamai. The overwhelming leader in the CDN space, Akamai still has the broadest reach and infrastructure by far, with more than 20,000 servers at more than 2,800 sites in more than 70 countries, 660 cities, and 1,000 individual networks.

But the market has expanded and segmented, with a number of companies focusing on Web application delivery. NetLi competed with Akamai in the application delivery space by using its own application-friendly network protocol in place of TCP. Internap also uses a proprietary protocol and does its own intelligent routing. The company's acquisition of VitalStream adds a CDN to the equation, although not with the reach of Akamai (which acquired Netli).

In fact, the importance of reach is a matter of heated debate in the CDN space. "It's a religious debate," says Melanie Posey, IDC research director for telecom markets. "Do you really need to be in every ISP and every geography on earth?"

Forrester's Whiteley agrees: "If your financial services portal is accessed by users in 12 major cities, do you really care that Akamai is in every country?"

Philip Kaplan, CEO of VitalStream, doesn't think so. "Akamai's technology was designed in the mid-'90s when people worried that the backbone itself would become congested, but fiber proliferated, and it never happened," he observes. "We designed our CDN from 2000 to 2002 with the idea that we could optimize the Internet and therefore wouldn't need to be in every hamlet, just close enough that the audience experience would be good."

Akamai counters that wide reach remains essential, because the problem lies in the cloud. "You have to be close to the user, or you simply can't address the issues on the Internet," Taylor says. "The farther the user is from the infrastructure, the worse the experience."

To emphasize his point, Taylor points out Akamai's ability to continue delivering content in the face of the recent earthquake in Taiwan. "Akamai continually builds a real weather map of the Internet in order to route traffic around bottlenecks."

Gartner research director Lydia Leong sums it all up as performance versus cost: "Being as close as possible has performance advantages and cost disadvantages, so the real question is whether you can tolerate slightly more latency for lower cost."

Part of the package

Carriers are also getting into the CDN game -- particularly AT&T, which has offered a CDN for several years as an option with its hosting and networking services and claims that the combination yields a performance advantage over CDNs alone.

"A customer can host themselves, but we like them to be in our hosting centers, so we can better optimize their applications," says Rose Klimovich, vice president of AT&T's Global IP Network Services. "As a carrier, we can also do our own network optimization, and as a tier-one ISP, we have good connectivity to other networks. Optimizing both what's in the hosting centers and on the network is a big advantage."

Other players have started packaging a CDN with other services. Although not a carrier, NaviSite offers a CDN and ADN with nine distribution sites as part of a suite of services, including collocation, dedicated hosting, managed applications, SaaS, and application development, aimed squarely at the needs of midsize businesses. NaviSite goes beyond caching to replicate the customer's entire data source in other locations and has some routing optimization technologies of its own.

CDN vendors are starting to package other value-added services, such as DRM (digital rights management), authentication, external verification, rules- and roles-based access, content management, live event production, and account management, to help customers create, manage, and accelerate their content. Already, major providers are wrapping these services into appealing bundles.

Akamai recently acquired Nine Systems, which offers a suite of solutions aimed at the management, control, and monetization of rich content. VitalStream offers services that insert advertisements into live and on-demand streaming broadcasts to target specific listener demographics, along with ad campaign management features and ad results reporting. And Local Mirror will deliver a full range of event production, broadcasting, and video encoding and conversion services.

Ultimately, CDNs may become commodities rolled into broader service packages. What's clear to an increasing number of IT departments, however, is that building new datacenters in response to availability and latency issues isn't necessarily the best answer.

"If I had the chance to design my systems all over again, Akamai would be a much bigger part of everything," Williams says. "I'd use them to take the place of lots of local storage, Web services, and infrastructure. I might even take some J2EE-compliant applications and just run the whole thing on the edge."

This story, "Feature: Your Web site's secret weapon" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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