TV stations dial in app service

Internet Broadcasting Systems, which operates Web sites for television news stations around the US, has used Akamai Technologies' content delivery network for years to speed the delivery of static and dynamic content and to reduce the load on its origin servers. It also has pushed out streaming video and video on demand to the CDN.

"Things were working well," says Dave Abbott, CTO at IBS in Minneapolis. "But then I was taking a look and realizing, 'Man, the most expensive thing for me to build out is anything that touches my database because Oracle is so darn expensive.' "

So Abbott turned to Akamai again for a solution. Today, IBS is one of the first to use a new service Akamai rolled out in partnership with IBM earlier this year. Called EdgeComputing Powered by WebSphere, the service is Akamai's first foray into delivering true application processing power at the Internet's edge.

Other CDNs are moving into application delivery. Mirror Image, for example, can handle Java application processing in its network of content access points. But the alliance with IBM gives Akamai's service a twist because it extends the WebSphere environment out to the edge of the Internet, Akamai executives say.

The service is built on Akamai's overlay network of more than 15,000 edge servers in more than 1,000 networks and in more than 60 countries. Akamai has integrated WebSphere application servers within the Akamai network to support the execution of Java Server Pages, Java servlets and JavaBeans at the edge of the Internet.

As a result, Akamai and IBM executives say, companies don't have to spend time and money on provisioning extra hardware to handle spikes in demand. With EdgeComputing Powered by WebSphere, customers have access to a WebSphere environment on demand, meaning they have the infrastructure they need when they need it and only pay for what they use, the companies say. The service is available from Akamai and IBM Global Services and is priced based on how many application requests the Akamai network handles.

In addition to getting the WebSphere environment on demand, customers also get the benefit of the Akamai network that was designed to deliver content to end users as quickly as possible.

Abbott says that's just what he was looking for as he dealt with Web site traffic that was increasing about 10 percent every month. The 66 sites he handles also were becoming increasingly interactive with features such as polls, games and quizzes - and the demands on those applications spike when big news breaks.

"TV traditionally has been one of those things you can't talk back to. With a Web site for a television station, all of a sudden this is the first avenue people have to talk back to their TVs and, my God, they talk back to their TVs," Abbott says. "A lot of the polls we do are just fluff, but other things are more pertinent to hard news. In those cases we'll get some pretty big flash crowds."

As the polls became more popular, it was resulting in a drain on IBS' back-end infrastructure, Abbott says. He was using ColdFusion running on an array of Dell servers back-ended by an Oracle database.

Today, the Java-based application has been pushed out to WebSphere at the Internet's edge, letting the bulk of the application processing happen within Akamai's servers.

"So I don't have to maintain as much capacity coming back to [my origin] servers, and I don't have to maintain as much database capacity," Abbott says.

The way the Akamai/WebSphere service works is customers take their Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition-compliant applications and divide them into two tiers, one to run at the edge and one to run at the origin. In IBS' case, there is a small application component that runs at the origin, "but all the logic is really out at the edge," he says.

IBS determines how often the edge servers should check back with origin servers and the database to calculate the latest poll results, Abbott says. While performance hasn't necessarily improved, it hasn't suffered, he says. What's more important is that he hasn't had to add hardware, saving "tens of thousands" of dollars.

"Now I can finally start to feel good about capping my hardware budget and not have to plan for growth in the data center," Abbott says.

While IBS doesn't run WebSphere in-house, using the WebSphere platform at the edge will make it easy to add applications down the road, Abbott says. He says he's looking at pushing other applications - such as quizzes, games and forums - out to the Akamai network.

"With the whole WebSphere communication layer, there is a lot of potential for us to link things a little more closely," he says. "If you look out five or 10 years from now, I really think that we're going to be able to distribute larger chunks of our business logic - our business logic being our content management system - out onto some sort of computing on-demand model and eventually we're going to end up being just a big database."

Abbott says he was somewhat concerned about performance taking a hit with the application processing happening at the edge, but in the month or so that it's been running, things have been going smoothly. All his applications are written in Java today, so moving them to the edge won't be difficult.

"The polling application is my toe in the water. It's one of those things where obviously I wouldn't want to jump all the way to that side of the canoe and have everything roll out on the edge," he says. "But it's like when you first tried Linux. You've got to try it to see what it's about. So far it's a big thumbs up."

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