Partnering for Internet success: Bobby Blumofe on Akamai's unique approach

On the Hot Seat
Bobby Blumofe, SVP Network Division, Akamai

Bobby Blumofe, Akamai


It's been an interesting decade for Akamai, the Cambridge, Mass.-based company that has had a hand in the growth of the Internet's capability in handling media and downloads. Bobby Blumofe, senior vice president and general manager of Akamai's Network Division, has been there since the company's beginning in 1999, when he led the performance team and was one of the Akamai network's chief architects.

The Network Division builds the infrastructure needed by Akamai's other product divisions as well as helps keep the Internet on for ISPs (Internet service providers) and telecommunications operators worldwide. The division builds, operates and licenses CDN (content delivery network) infrastructure to network operators, governments and other special use cases.

As we roll into the century's second decade, the Internet now faces as many if not more challenges as it did in 1999. Blumofe spoke with FierceTelecom about Akamai's role in managing Internet traffic, the ongoing transition to IPv6, and how the company is positioning itself to succeed in the online world's shifting sands.

FierceTelecom: Akamai has played a critical role in the growth of the Internet. A lot of dynamic functionality was invented by Akamai. Looking at global Internet traffic, what challenges does Akamai or similar companies face in managing that growth, that traffic?
Bobby Blumofe: The total volume of traffic does grow pretty dramatically year over year. A lot of that has been driven by social media and video in general. The bit rates go up steadily year over year, which means end users are getting a higher and higher quality of experience, and just the overall number of minutes consumed by consumers does go up dramatically. So if you add more and more minutes times a higher and higher bitrate for higher quality, you get a pretty dramatic year over year increase in the quantity of traffic that is being delivered. There's no reason to think that we're anywhere near the end of that; by all accounts we're in fact probably only at the beginning.

It's still the case that the vast majority of media is consumed not over Internet, or certainly not over IP as a delivery mechanism. Most people still watch their media in front of a television connected to cable or satellite or something like that. There is still an incredible amount of growth ahead of us. And keeping up with those volumes is really what Akamai was designed to do from the get-go.

The company was founded based on sound mathematics, sound algorithms that are designed to scale, and we've got 13 years now in the business developing new algorithms, embodying those algorithms in code, and developing systems that allow us to scale to meet that kind of growth, both the growth that we've seen historically and the growth that we think is continuing to come. I do think that's going to be a challenge for a lot of competitors. (It) is not hard to build a small scale CDN (content delivery network). What is hard is to build a CDN that will scale and do that with high reliability. That's what we've been designed to do and that's what we can do, and I think uniquely.

FT: True, CDN has gotten a lot of attention in the past year. Do you see a significant impact with content providers and network service providers trying to work out how content will be delivered as more people pick up online video?
BB: I think all of the ISPs, the networks are wrestling with this issue (of) how to deliver all of that content cost-effectively, and exactly how they participate in that ecosystem. And again, I think they're still in the early days of trying to figure that out. Delivering over the top traffic for an ISP costs a lot of money, and they're trying to figure out ways to lower that cost as well as potentially monetizing that traffic in several ways.

Ultimately, we've tried to build a business model that's very synergistic with the ISPs. Our network is predicated on this idea of being in, say, 1,000 networks, and we expect that number to grow over time. So we want to be at the edge of the Internet, near the end users, in all those ISPs, and to make that work, the business model has to be synergistic with the ISPs. It can't be the case that our business success comes at a cost to the ISPs.

We have a model like that. We put our servers in ISPs, and by doing that, when we deliver more traffic, they save more money, and they deliver a better experience to their end users. In many cases we're not charging them for that, so ... we are looking at ways to take that even farther.

As the ISPs look at ways of monetizing that traffic, a lot of them are looking at CDN technology, recognizing the need to have CDN technology in their own network, and we're looking at ways to help meet that market demand, work with the ISPs, help them with their CDN needs, and provide them a way of lowering the cost for their over the top traffic as well as provide them new ways to monetize that traffic in ways that they haven't historically been able to do, in ways that ultimately depend on that CDN structure. As a leader in that space, I think we're uniquely positioned to help the ISPs in that challenge.

Ultimately, that's good for everybody. In the end, the more the ISPs can manage that traffic and do it in a way that works well for that business and the more they are successful, it means more adoption of Internet, more content, more people using content, and in the end that's good for Akamai. We believe that the ISPs' success means success for us and vice versa.

FT: Let's talk about the growth of broadband in Latin America, which is beginning to take off. For example, Netflix launched in Brazil this month. How will this growth impact traffic in global networks as Latin America comes online and demand for high speed apps grows?
BB: There's a lot of good ISPs down there, and they're also going to have to now deal with these issues that we're facing in Europe, North America and parts of Asia. Those ISPs have to face some of these issues earlier in their evolution. Those Latin American ISPs are going to start seeing their traffic ramp; they're going to see their need for bandwidth internationally ramp; and they're going to need to find ways of managing the cost of that traffic as well as ways of participating in that value chain.

We view Latin America as an opportunity for us; we've had a presence in Latin America for awhile... we're in all the major countries down in Latin America. We have relationships with most of the ISPs down there and a number of partners that we go to market with, so we're pretty excited about the opportunity in Latin America and we feel that we're well positioned to benefit from that, well positioned to help the carriers down there, and well positioned for our own growth as well.

FT: Akamai provided traffic rates for World IPv6 Day back in June. As ISPs and other providers transition into a dual stack infrastructure, how rapidly is IPv6 traffic going to grow?
BB: It has to. It's hard to forecast exactly when; I think anybody historically who has tried to forecast when IPv6 would ramp has almost surely been wrong. Somehow, IPv4 has held on longer than anybody expected it would. But at some point, that transition simply has to occur, and I think everybody is just trying to find the best way to facilitate that transition. We've got a lot of our infrastructure ready for IPv6, and we're in a position to help a lot our customers with that transition; we can deliver traffic to IPv6 end users today and on the back end fetch the content from our customers over v4.

What that means is that our customers, if they need to, can actually reach v6 end users without themselves having done all the work to be v6 ready. Effectively we can be the v6 translation mechanism for them. Obviously, that can help a number of customers, but in the end IPv6 traffic is going to ramp; it's going to ramp quickly--at some point it will hit an inflection point and it'll move fast. Exactly when that inflection point occurs--or maybe we've already hit it, and we're just at the very beginning of it, it's hard to know. But I think it would be unwise to predict otherwise.

FT: Akamai has been in the cloud services space for well over a decade. For enterprises just now looking to transition their Web services to a cloud environment, what advice would you give them as they begin that process?
BB: Outsourcing applications into the cloud is not to be taken lightly; there's a lot of plusses and minuses. In the end it's pretty clear that for most applications the plusses outweigh the minuses. But you have to make sure that you're addressing a lot of these issues that are going to come up. When you're outsourcing in that manner, one issue is that you now go from an environment where your application was hosted right in your building or maybe right in your device, or within your enterprise--now your application is hosted somewhere else, and who knows where that somewhere else is? It could be hundreds or even thousands of miles away; it could be in networks you've never even heard of. And therefore your communication with that application has to traverse networks that you've never even heard of, and you have to consider what that means for security and what that means for performance and reliability.

So a lot of what we're doing is positioning ourselves not so much as a cloud provider ourselves in the sense of the word--we're not doing infrastructure as a service, we're not doing applications as a service--what we are doing is helping those things work well by addressing the Internet component. We ... can still make it so that application performs as if the application was still hosted right within your enterprise, within your building, even right on your local machine. So that's a big factor. And we can also address some of the security issues as well.

We're not trying to be an infrastructure as a service player ourselves, but rather partner with a lot of those players and help their services work well in the Internet environment, which is one of the key value propositions of a cloud application is that it's available across the Internet, which means wherever you are, you can get at it. If you're in the enterprise, you can get it. If you're traveling in the hotel, you can still access it.

FT: Tell me a bit about your recently announced partnership with Riverbed.
BB:  Riverbed ... (has) a presence within enterprise networks that we don't have. We historically deployed our servers all around the Internet at the edges of the Internet, which means we might be at the gateway between an enterprise and the Internet but we're not actually in the enterprise. Riverbed of course has a wonderful presence within the enterprise and with that partnership we're actually going to be embedding Akamai software within those Riverbed devices within the enterprise. So now, as users inside the enterprise are accessing cloud applications, they can get a performance acceleration, a performance level of reliability that would be again just as good as if that application was hosted locally within their building. One way to think of it is we're extending the edge of the Akamai network into the enterprise with this partnership and making these cloud applications work for the enterprise. ...They still get all the benefits of being hosted out in the cloud, but you don't suffer the performance hits you otherwise would suffer. You get the same performance.

A big part of our business now is accelerating applications. I think Akamai made its name early on in terms of downloads and media, and those are still important parts of our business... but more than half of our business now is what we call value added services which include things like application acceleration, cloud acceleration, things like that. That's the fastest growing part of our business. We're continuing to develop partnerships and extend our networks in ways that help us with that story, help us with the acceleration and security components of our value that remain core to our strategy.

Partnering for Internet success: Bobby Blumofe on Akamai's unique approach