Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Seven Questions for Tom Leighton, Chief Scientist of Akamai

You probably don’t think much about it, but there’s a pretty good chance that in the course of doing your routine business on the Internet every day, you’re also doing business with Akamai, though it’s probably invisible to you when it happens.

If you watch a lot of video, or regularly visit pretty much any popular Web site, chances are good that what you’re getting is coming from Akamai, at least some of the time. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company specializes in helping companies deliver their Web content, whatever it maybe, to consumers without having to spend quite to so much on expensive Internet infrastructure.

Helping large companies deliver all that stuff has, in more recent years, led to a second line of business around protecting sites from the numerous and constantly changing hacker attacks. The result is that Akamai has emerged as something of a silent guardian of the Internet itself. AllThingsD recently talked with Akamai’s chief scientist Tom Leighton about that.

AllThingsD: So I think some people are familiar with some of what Akamai does, but not all of it, so take it from the top, if you would. What do you see as Akamai’s primary mission?

Leighton: Our mission is to make the Internet work the way you’d want it to for business. We want it to be really fast, really reliable, really secure, really scalable and really efficient. And we do that as a service, and the way we do that is with a platform of more than 100,000 of our servers located in more than 1,000 places around the world. But they’re also inside more than 1,100 different networks. And the platform is extended with software that lives on tens of millions of client machines to help with the delivery of software and the playing of video and the fast delivery of business applications.

I realize I have some download-manager software of yours on my own machine. It wouldn’t have occurred to me think much about, but it sounds like, from what you’re saying, that it’s pretty widely used.

Most people have Akamai software on board their own PCs for all kinds of things. If you watch video online, there’s a pretty good chance the player came from us, or at least the tool sets came from us. If you download software online, there’s a pretty good chance that the download manager came from us. If you buy something online, there’s a good chance that you’re using software from us that helps you get your stuff faster and more reliably.

Now, when you say you have machines on other networks, are those enterprise networks at corporations or with service providers?

Today, primarily, our server platform lives in other people’s networks, data centers, points of presence, where they connect into the Internet. We’re in thousands of locations around the world. We don’t operate like an Internet Service Provider in the way that you would normally think about it. But we sit inside 1,100 networks, and we built our own virtual Internet on top of it. So we do our own global routing, our own communication protocols, our own application-layer protocols, to enhance the overall experience that anyone would have in using our customers’ applications. Going forward, I think you’ll see us expand into customers’ hybrid networks and into enterprise networks to deliver the same value proposition there.

Now, as we’ve talked before, one thing that surprised me is that you’re also strong in the security business. Can you tell me more about that, and how you see it evolving?

We do have some additional benefits because of our scale. We are the largest consumer of bandwidth on the Internet, and in some networks, we’re the majority of their bandwidth. By delivering that bandwidth from the edge, we take a lot of the load off the customers’ core infrastructure, which is what allows the Internet to grow into scale. But we defend a lot of the major Web sites against attacks. In the case of a denial-of-service attack, we’ll provide the customer with the volume needed to defend against the attack. In the case of more nefarious attacks, where people are trying to sneak in and change content or trying to take control of the site somehow, we’ll filter out those attacks before they get anywhere near the data center, using our new KONA security solution.

So, then, what’s your largest line of business as a percentage of revenue?

Broadly speaking, the biggest and fastest area of the company is broadly construed as cloud services. This would include things like application acceleration and also our KONA security services. The next biggest chunk is our origional business in content delivery. That’s the delivery of video, software files and static objects on pages.

Your title is chief scientist, and that makes you the guy who’s in charge of looking ahead at what’s shaping the Internet over the next several years. What important trends are you seeing?

There’s several trends we’re looking at. The basic one is that more content is moving online, and I think everyone gets that. What surprises people is that most content is consumed through traditional channels, most commerce is done through traditional channels. That’s all going to change, and everything is going to move to the Internet. Access to the Internet is changing from the desktop to mobile devices. Mobile access is exploding, and in some parts of the world, the first access to the Internet will be through mobile devices like phones. Mobile provides a lot of challenges and opportunities to reach lots of people. I also think we’re seeing a blending of private networks and the public Internet. You see this first through cloud computing, and then ultimately we view it becoming a hybrid network. Branch offices will have a need to run applications on the corporate network behind the firewall, and they’ll need to reach their SAAS applications that are coming through the cloud, and to reach their customers and partners via the public Internet. And these will all become blended.

It occurs to me that given your scale and the types of things you do, you must have to sort through and analyze an awful lot of data. To me, it sounds like a very big example of a big-data kind of problem. How do you handle it?

It’s enormous. It’s bigger by far than the normal things that people mean when they talk about “big data.” We process it in a variety of ways, using a set of in-house tools, and many of them have to be in real time. We direct it to different consumers of the data. We direct information to each of our thousands of customers, and we share data with our network partners. Some of it we publish every quarter in the State of the Internet report. So how we use it runs from one extreme, which is in real time, to another, which is to publish it once a quarter.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik