Akamai dips into streaming fray

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RealNetworks and Akamai Technologies entered into an expanded alliance this week to speed delivery of streaming media content. Announced at the National Broadcasters Association (NAB) conference in Las Vegas, the alliance is one of several recent moves indicating that sophisticated means are coming online to address issues on Internet traffic bottlenecks. Such bottlenecks, long a part of the commercial Internet, are exacerbated by the advent of streaming media, which is gaining use daily.

According to analyst firm Multimedia Research Group, the number of streaming media Websites climbed to 108,000 in 1999 from 36,000 in 1998. RealNetworks, inventor of RealNetworks and RealPlayer streaming media technology has been a prime mover in streaming data since the Web's early days. The company seems to have settled some long- running technology disputes with Microsoft, which has aggressively pushed its Windows Media Player technology in recent months.

Akamai is a more recent player in the streaming media game. The company arose out of the mid-'90s work of several MIT researchers who set about to develop special algorithms for intelligently routing and replicating content over a large network of distributed servers.

The company now operates the FreeFlow network of over 2,700 Intel-based Linux servers, distributed across the Internet, to speed up static content delivery. The company introduced a FreeFlow Streaming road map just last fall, and it has subsequently bolserted its offerings through a series of purchases. Akamai supports Microsoft's Windows Media Player and Apple's QuickTime, as well as RealNetworks technology. RealNetworks claims that over 85 percent of the streaming media content on webpages today is in RealNetworks formats.

"Akamai remains format-agnostic so content providers can have a choice on the content format they want to use," said Jaime Axelrod, product manager for Akamai in Cambridge, Mass.

At the NAB conference, Akamai also said it will make a $3.5 million investment in Virage, a provider of video indexing and search services. The company announced the availability of Akamai's Traffic Analyzer and Reporter realtime and historical reporting services for quantifying Website performance.

As Akamai busily branches out into streaming agreements, it will find new contenders in the digital content delivery arena. Just this week, Internet company incubator CGMI announced a deal with Novell and Sun -- each is contributing $20 million -- to create CMGion, an Internet operating network. Those players envision an Internet proxy platform stuffed with protocol, directory and caching services. Those services would enable users to receive optimal delivery of not only standard content types but on- demand multimedia as well.

"We look at this as CGMI coming at 'the Web delivery problem' from the hosting side, but it's premature to say what their solution is going to be. We'll continue to work with them," said Akamai's Axelrod. "It's unclear how CGMion is going to come together."

Axelrod is confident that Akamai has a lead. "Akamai has been delivering on our algorithms for some time," she said.

Meanwhile, again at NAB, RealNetworks shared a podium with Sun Microsystems as the latter launched its Sun StorEdge Media Central Streaming Server software. The package is built on the Real Time Streaming Protocol/Real Time Protocol standards heralded by RealNetworks.

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