Saturday, May 24, 2003

Bandwidth Future Shock and Akamai
Susan Smith Nash

I recently had an opportunity to attend a presentation by Akamai at a major university which is grudgingly facing the twin beasts of Bandwidth Hogs and Budget Cut Ghouls.

You may not be familiar with Akamai directly, but there is no doubt that you use Akamai's services. Akamai (means "cool" in Hawaiian) was started in 1999 as an project to place web content on servers throughout the world. The result is peak-shaving & load-sharing to manage traffic. The algorithms and basic philosophy remind me of the peak-shaving programs used by electricity providers to deal with high high demand periods. Although Akamai seems to be all about storage, it's not. It's all about traffic management, band-width-smoothing, and positioning content close to patterns of end-users so data goes through fewer intermediaries. I first found out about Akamai when I was watching on-demand news clips provided by

Akamai houses content on its servers. In the early phases, the content tended to be streaming media, and thus the news websites were early adopters. Later, Akamai was able to host applications servers.

Most recently, Akamai has been working with universities as the face new challenges with their computing systems.

The university in question, like probably every university in existence at this point in time, outgrew its Internet and intranet capacity about three years ago. This is not a popular reality. When the question comes up, the countering question invariably comes up -- "But didn't we raise our technology fees three years ago? Isn't that ENOUGH???"

Of course it's not. The demand for bandwidth-hogging giant applications has risen, and it's not just due to the old Napster-specter of file-sharing programs such as Kazaa, or music & video-on-demand programs such as and netflix.

At the same time, endowment fund portfolio values have collapsed with the stock market, and state and federal grants, allocations, and matching funds are drying up. Faculty and staff positions are not being filled, employees are faced with furloughs and pay cuts, while institution-financed health and retirement plans careen into the red. There is not enough money to service the existing needs, much less invest in adding additional services or infrastructure.

As everyone knows, server space is cheap, and it's not a big deal to house archived content on someone else's server. The issue is one of traffic, and bandwidth hogs.

Nevertheless, the need for the bandwidth-hogging services is expanding. Providing these services is not an option. It is a necessity.

What makes an application a bandwidth hog?

-a- Pages loaded with simultaneous applications that quantum-leap traffic. For example, student portal pages that pull in customized content -- "my weather," "my headlines," "my interest rates," "my commodities futures prices," "my celebrity scandal" content are amazing. They can send out 10 commands simultaneously, every time the page is "pinged."

-b- Parasite programs. These are the bane of the internet! Imagine a lurker program that is almost impossible to uninstall, that generates pop-ups and send commands to link to other sites, whenever a web-surfer hits a site that triggers the commands.

-c- E-mail programs with highly variable user trends (semester-based, enrollment based) -- with lots of attachments and embedded html and xml

-d- Encrypted, packetized data sent in "bursts" (often associated with SSL (secure) servers)

Big Bandwidth Hogs:

Online registration

Student portal programs

Integrated applications -- registrar, courseware, bursar

Interactive catalogues and curriculum / advisor checkers


Web content

So, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes not, the university has morphed into a vast patchwork quilt of outsourced components. It's not just content that's outsourced on other servers, it's also the various applications that tie into the main flows of information.

This makes an Akamai solution very difficult because it requires a certain amount of integration of applications. The pieces of the patchwork quilt must be stitched together by the same entity, and they must lie on the same bed for one to see any appreciable improvement in performance. Thus, Akamai would need to work with all the application providers. This could be time-consuming and costly.

We're now returning to the Budget Cut Ghouls. I think we need to stop looking at them as monsters, and see them as opportunities. For what? you ask. To have my still-beating heart ripped from my chest cavity? Well, if that's what you want ... (!) It's not necessary, though.

Akamai and other Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are business opportunities in the making. All you have to do is to find your product.

Unfortunately, Akamai does not take this route when making their presentations. Instead, they take the traditional sales approach, which is to focus on the product, the benefits, the cost. In the meeting I attended, no one dared articulate the big, unspoken question: "How can we buy this solution when we don't have the money?"

I kept hoping that Akamai would point out that every university is potentially an e-business tycoon. Every university possesses content and/or services that people are hungry to sign up for, if the price is right and the delivery is smooth. Akamai should show every university how to set up a business center that will cover its costs and serve as a cash cow for the money-losers.

Potential University Cash Cow E-business Facilitated by Akamai-type CDNs

These could ALL be fee-for-service products, paid via paypal or billpoint -- all online.

-1- Football games, clips, sports shows, coach interviews, recruiting tapes, etc. Market to alums and booster clubs. Create competition for ESPN.

-2- University pharmacy club. Online pharmaceutical sales for registered members (alums, etc.) Save on the high cost of prescription medicines with this co-op approach.

-3- University weight loss clinic. Weigh, get diet plans, measure fat, develop a yoga, pilates, weight and exercise program in the privacy of your own home. Download advanced yoga-pilates hybrid moves and stretches. Download customized chill-out tunes for yoga and meditation.

-4- University Job Placement. Why not ramp up this highly popular service and let it join the generation? In a down economy, this will boom.

-5- Sorority calendars. Virtual sorority carwashes. Imagine the potential. Profit-share with the sororities. Not quite "girls gone wild" -- make sure the women wash and wax only the coolest possible cars.

-6- Reservations and bookings online. Dorms? University hotels? University apartments? Let students tour online, make reservations, and order value-added service and items.

Okay. That's just a start. I think that the mood of the meeting I attended would have been a bit more upbeat if Akamai had shown us the way to create a cash cow to feed the hogs and the ghouls.