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InformationWeek.com December 4, 2000
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Content-Delivery Services
Content-Delivery Networks Ease Web-Site Crunches

Companies such as MuseumCompany.com hope to bolster Web performance for the holiday

By Bob Wallace

More on caching:

  • Internet Week: New Gear Speeds Streams (11/20/00)

  • Internet Week: Software That Delivers Before It's Asked To (11/20/00)

  • Internet Week: Akamai Caches Dynamic Content At Network Edge (11/6/00)

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    W ho says you have to leave work and family behind and travel to attend conferences or seminars? Not Lotus Development Corp., which is using iBeam Broadcasting Corp.'s content-delivery network service to provide on-demand E-learning to a broader audience of customers, developers, and business partners.

    Lotus has found that content stored for later use is a viable alternative to streaming live events. IBeam delivered 147 live streams of the Lotus developers' conference opening session in June. However, the software company found that its provider served up more than 5,000 streams of the event after the conference ended, says Terri Sambrano, Lotus' worldwide content manager. "It's all about serving content to your audience more conveniently, and without risking site problems," Sambrano says.

    Interested parties visit Lotus' Web site and register to receive content from Lotusphere or the company's developers' conferences, choose the session they want, download a viewer client, and begin receiving the audio and video from the nearest iBeam server.

    Sambrano's plans for using iBeam's content-delivery service don't stop there. "We're working to deliver content to our intranet for events such as product launches and updates," Sambrano says, "and are looking at ways to tie in our instant-messaging product so that viewers can 'talk' to the presenter during live events." Lotus has yet to run into any problems with the service, which it used to stream in real time most of its Lotusphere show in Orlando, Fla.

    Although its use of iBeam's content-delivery network is advanced, Lotus is not alone in its use of these services to deliver rich content to broader, even global, markets.

    Content-delivery providers initially offered services to let dot-coms boost Web-site performance by caching processor-and bandwidth-intensive images, graphics, and video clips in massive server networks, with the closest server sending it to the customer.

    "The Internet is ill-suited for conducting business," says Joel Yaffe, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group. "This is why content-distribution services shine, because they distribute content to the edge of the network, avoiding the performance bottlenecks found in the bulk of the Net."

    As a result, the worldwide market for content-delivery and distribution products and services will soar from $374 million by the end of the year to $6 billion in 2004, according to Jupiter Communications.

    Subscribing to content-delivery services and paying for the amount of Web traffic carried per month has proven far more attractive than the previous approach for handling unpredictable demand spikes and bandwidth-intensive content. Many companies find they have neither the time nor expertise for building this type of network infrastructure.

    With Web sites slowed to a crawl or overwhelmed to the point that they were taken offline, a group of content-delivery network service providers, led by market leader Akamai Technologies Inc., rushed to address a growing opportunity. The startup was joined by Adero, AT&T;, Digital Island, iBeam, and Mirror Image Internet.

    Others are popping up each month. And with their initial content caching services becoming similar, many are spending big to offer value-added services such as global traffic management, geographic traffic load balancing, and wireless access. Most are focusing heavily on live or delivery-on-demand streaming-media services.

    Having a content-delivery service up and running for Web-site launches and for peak traffic periods, such as the Christmas shopping season, can mean the difference between a smooth operation and a swamped site that has to be taken offline. No one knows that better than Kent Devereaux, senior VP of product development and editorial at Britannica.com Inc., a heavily promoted Web site that offered free access to its data on its launch in October.

    The company had signed up for Akamai's service but planned to phase it in after the launch. However, after the first few days, the site had survived more than 24 million hits, which slowed it to a crawl and convinced Devereaux to take it offline rather than continue providing poor performance to visitors.

    Kent DevereauxPhoto by David Joel "It would greatly behoove anyone expecting the potential of any kind of burstable traffic to be online with a content-delivery service," Devereaux says. The same holds true for any site expecting wide variations in peak traffic. When the site was relaunched with Akamai's service, it was spreading traffic over three times the number of servers supported by its own systems.

    In addition to using the sprawling Akamai network's size and scale to handle overload conditions, Britannica.com also caches images, audio and video, and graphics on the provider's servers. And it's likely even more content will be cached because the number of visitors viewing the site is shrinking compared with the percentage conducting server resource-intensive searches.

    "At launch, about 50% of visitors just browsed and the rest performed searches. Now over 75% use the site for searches," Devereaux says. Those companies that aren't convinced the Akamai service and those of rivals shoulder such a heavy load, could do what Devereaux did. To perform maintenance on a site server, he briefly disconnected the Akamai service. "We almost instantly saw the load on the servers increased on the order of 10," he says.

    Devereaux, as well as other users and industry experts, caution that even the most extensive capacity planning may leave a new Web site in bad shape. "We had a college version of the site that averaged 2 million to 3 million page views per month upon launch in 1994. We didn't estimate that the new site would receive 10 times as many hits in the first few days," Devereaux says.

    Like many early content-delivery service users, Britannica.com is exploring additional services from its provider. Devereaux has his eyes on an Akamai service that balances hits between multiple far-flung Web sites, which would be a good fit, because the customer has hosted Web sites in Sunnyvale, Calif., and Herndon, Va.

    Until such a traffic-management service became available, companies relied largely on hardware-based load-balancers to perform what their name implies. Britannica.com is not sure if the service will obviate the need for its current load-balancing solution.

    "New cash-challenged Web sites looking to avoid capital expenditures may opt for subscription services rather than forking out tens of thousands of dollars for a load balancer, especially ones based on older and inefficient traffic distribution technologies," says Daniel Briere, founder of telecom consulting firm TeleChoice. "That's part of the huge benefit of going with a service: You don't buy any equipment; you just sign up for a service and are billed only for usage."

    Tom HerrickPhoto by Scott Robinson Tom Herrick, chief technology officer for startup online specialty retailer MuseumCompany.com of Charlottesville, Va., agrees. "No amount of hardware we could buy would give users the high-performance experience they get from our use of Digital Island's geographically dispersed content-delivery system," he says. "We would've needed four times the servers we had. Going with a service provided a $100,000 savings. We didn't want any large up-front capital expenses."

    The site offered 1,200 items on its May 1 launch, but because Digital Island's service didn't support Secure Sockets Layer encryption, MuseumCompany.com couldn't get the full performance benefits of the offering because it couldn't cache sensitive pages, many of which included images.

    The retailer has been testing the provider's security feature and noticed that page downloads sped up, from an average of eight to 10 seconds to roughly two to four seconds, with Digital Island's initial service. Many views are handled in less than a second, Herrick says.

    "SSL was a long time coming, and its absence kept us from serving secure pages because we didn't want our customers' credit-card numbers potentially exposed to prying eyes," Herrick says. There was some concern that not serving secure pages would cost the ambitious startup customers; everything leading up to the purchase would go smoothly, but access to the secure pages for making purchases operated slowly because they weren't cached, Herrick says.

    "The last thing you want is poor performance when the customer is checking out. We didn't want delays to cause customers to give up and go somewhere else," Herrick says. Performing encryption on the site drains the servers resources, he adds.

    Nevertheless, Herrick is pleased with the performance of the Digital Island content-delivery service, claiming pages can be loaded twice as fast as without the offering. He learned of the benefits of such services while employed at another dot-com, which used a delivery service from Sandpiper Networks, which was later swallowed up by Digital Island.

    "When I came to MuseumCompany .com, using a delivery service was not a done deal, but I didn't have to do much convincing to make it one," he says. MuseumCompany.com, which plans to be selling 2,500 items by year's end, intends to continue using Digital Island's content-delivery service with the SSL feature, says Herrick, who adds that using the service to bring in international customers is a big part of the company's future.

    "International commerce is the new frontier for content-delivery services as the networks comprise servers outside the United States and present the potential for dot-coms to enter new and lucrative markets," says Giga's Yaffe. "But it's not pretty right now, and won't be until the services evolve to support things such as transactional capabilities, for starters."

    The top reason E-retailer Bigdeal.com, which sells snowboards and skateboards, started using Adero's base content-delivery service was to set the stage for increased sales outside the United States by speeding the page downloads for international customers, says Joe Dunnigan, president and co-founder of the Phoenix company.

    Bigdeal.com started using the Adero services in 1998 and says it has cut download times for international visitors from an average of 12 seconds to three to four seconds, which has helped the site boost international sales by 5%, all without actively advertising outside the United States. However, because the Adero service doesn't support transactions and the Web site's co-founders are concerned about being defrauded, ordering the hottest snowboard from Austria isn't easy.

    "When we first started, a guy in Bulgaria took us for about a thousand dollars, and we only had about a thousand at the time because we were self-funded," Dunnigan says. "So we couldn't just take credit-card numbers anymore. For someone overseas to buy via credit card, they have to fax us a copy of the card with the signature, and a copy of a photo ID."

    Nonetheless, international sales increased 5% over the years. "It's really a nightmare to ask any customer to do all that to buy something online, but after being defrauded, it's the only way we can maintain a comfort level selling internationally," Dunnigan says. The company couldn't verify the credit cards online and is using a manual system that's inconvenient. "We'd love to participate in any international commerce initiative with Adero," Dunnigan says.

    What would he like to see Adero offer from its network nodes? "We'd like to be able to list a price customers can expect to pay when buying from overseas, including duties and customs fees," Dunnigan says. "And we'd like to give the foreign buyer the option of paying in his or her local currency or via a debit card."

    To be fair to Adero, no international content-delivery service nodes handle transactions and the extras Dunnigan seeks. That means that most aspiring global commerce dot-coms that choose to sell an item must drag the buyer all the way back to the company's main Web site to complete the purchase.

    Subscribing to a content-delivery service was an easy decision for the fledgling and cash-strapped dot-com, which was started by Dunnigan and his college roommate in 1995. "We had no real source of capital for servers and bandwidth and found that the Adero option was affordable for even small businesses," he says.

    But will the content-delivery network marketplace be as alluring 12 to 18 months from now as it was for Dunnigan in 1995? Alex Benik, an analyst with consulting firm the Yankee Group, says it will. "You'll see major network service providers like Qwest, Broadwing, and UUnet build their own content-delivery networks, and you'll see services that actually handle dynamic as well as static content, and services that deliver personalized content to customers for informational or advertising purposes," Benik says.

    His final prediction is the interconnection of different providers' content-delivery networks, an effort already being promoted, giving customers greater geographic reach.

    When evaluating content-delivery networks, getting data and information to the user quickly and efficiently tops the requirements list--if you're primarily interested in broadcasting large amounts of high-bandwidth data. Any of the content-delivery providers will give your Web-site performance a boost by caching processor-and bandwidth-intensive files, and offering co-location services.

    If, on the other had, you're responsible for an E-business application where a large number of secure transactions is the order of the day, you'll need to choose a service that also optimizes the delivery of data that comes back from the end user.

    Photo of Devereaux by David Joel
    Photo of Herrick by Scott Robinson

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