Since its founding in 1999, Akamai Technologies Inc. has turned the Internet's biggest problem - its sluggishness - into the basis for a lucrative business model. By setting up the premier content-delivery network to speed Web pages to computers worldwide, the company has created the next best thing to universal broadband connections - and generated $90 million in annual revenues in the process.
Now a band of rivals headed by software maker Inktomi Corp. (INKT) have joined forces to challenge Akamai's supremacy in content delivery. But the new group, called the Content Bridge Alliance, has stumbled out of the starting gates. Worse, it's dogged by suspicions that it's just a front to sell more Inktomi products.
At stake is a market projected to be worth several billion dollars in the next two years. Akamai controls about three-quarters of the market for content-delivery, selling subscription services to content providers. Inktomi, meanwhile, is the top maker of caching software, which is used by networking companies and Internet service providers to store frequently requested Web pages locally and enable faster download times. Content Bridge's goal is to allow ISPs such as America Online Inc. and hosting companies such as Exodus Communications Inc. to exchange Web content seamlessly between their networks - a process known as peering.
Such technology alliances sound formidable, but in practice they're hard to pull off. In the late 1990s Apple Computer Inc., IBM Corp. (IBM) and Motorola Inc. (MOT) formed the PowerPC Alliance to put a dent in Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) 's dominance in the desktop software market. That move failed because of problems at Apple and because Microsoft devotees were loath to switch to different software.
Content Bridge faces similar obstacles. After six months, the group has been slow to launch and sign up members. The Content Bridge Alliance also faces a competing group - called the Content Alliance, confusingly enough - announced by Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) just days after Content Bridge debuted.
What's more, the group is trying to gain traction in a year when Akamai and Inktomi both could take revenue hits, as their customers either cut back their infrastructure spending or go out of business altogether.
Peter Galvin, an Inktomi exec who heads the Alliance, waves off the suggestion that Content Bridge is fatally flawed - but he tacitly acknowledges that the group was formed in part to boost Inktomi's bottom line. "Part of our motivation is to ... help our customers leverage their investment in Inktomi products," Galvin says.
The son of a Navy pilot, Galvin bounced around the world before his parents settled in Aspen, Colo. That peripatetic background has come in handy in his travels as an apostle for Content Bridge. During a six-month European stint last year for Inktomi, Galvin met with companies such as Nextra, the Net service subsidiary of Norwegian telco Telenor, to recruit them as Content Bridge members. These days Galvin spends much of his time on the road, spreading the Content Bridge gospel at conferences and trade shows, such as ISPCon in London in early February.
Founded in 1996 by a professor and a grad student at the University of California at Berkeley, Inktomi was named for a mythical Plains Indian spider, befitting its original Web-crawler technology. The company moved into caching software in 1997.
Though Inktomi was first in both developing caching technology and devising an exotic name, Akamai - also the brainchild of academics, this time from MIT - has lived up to its name ("cool" or "clever" in Hawaiian) since its founding in 1999. Having built its own worldwide network, Akamai was quick to sign up prominent investors, including Apple, Cisco and Microsoft, and marquee customers such as AOL, CNN and Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) .
Creating a content- delivery network the Akamai way - by adding servers "box by box" - isn't cheap, and Inktomi is banking on the fact that allying existing networks via peering is a more cost-effective way to expand. Content Bridge members share a percentage of subscription fees on internetwork traffic, meaning that each added member increases revenue for all the other members.
Inktomi officials decline to specify how much members get for their involvement, but Jonathan Crane, president and CEO of Alliance member company Adero, says network companies will earn about 30 cents for every dollar in revenue the Alliance pulls in.
Nevertheless, since its launch the Alliance has already lost one member - networking firm NetRail, which pulled out following recent changes to the group's structure. Inktomi took over the billing and revenue distribution operations for the Alliance, a move that put the company at the center not only of the products used by members, but also of the revenue-sharing system. According to NetRail VP of marketing Joe Orlando, Inktomi is also asking members to pay more upfront money than before. Galvin denies that charge.
Probably the steepest hurdle facing Content Bridge is attracting enough partners to create a network as far-reaching as Akamai's, which boasts 8,000 servers in 54 countries, compared with the 12 countries that Content Bridge spans. With a competing group headed by tech giant Cisco looming, and with widespread skepticism about Inktomi's motives in forming Content Bridge, potential members are waiting to see how the Alliance unfolds before signing up.
"Content Bridge, from the very outset, has been very Inktomi-centric and was essentially a vehicle for Inktomi to try and leverage the networks of its customers," says Gordon Smith, VP of marketing for content-delivery company Speedera. "But the biggest players in the business, and the most successful players, are not in fact using Inktomi products."