“Extending Existing Infrastructures”

Dr. F. Thomson Leighton
Dr. F. Thomson Leighton

Which are your main research fields at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science?

Leighton: I have focused my efforts on algorithms, networks, parallel and distributed computing, and discrete mathematics.

Mathematical algorithms are important for example to handle the dynamic routing of content. What are future challenges as Web-based collaboration between companies is growing?

Leighton: The work behind establishing Akamai was based on recognizing that a solution to the dynamic routing of content to free up Web congestion could be found in applied mathematics and algorithms. Akamai has demonstrated this through the creation of the world’s largest distributed computing platform that uses algorithms to dynamically route content and applications across a network of over 13,000 servers.

Several years ago, the Web was seen by many companies mainly as a new way to publish corporate information. As these companies’ Web sites grew, the problem of managing this increasingly dynamic content on their sites grew exponentially. Now, as Web-based collaboration between companies is increasing, there is the natural evolution to deliver more and more applications across the Internet.

The challenges of distributed Web applications are many. Typically, transactions on the Web take place across routes that are infrequently updated, and are out of the control of the website owner, often resulting in the selection of slow or even broken routes. Akamai has developed a technology known as SureRoute that solves this problem by picking intelligent routes on the Internet from a set of good candidate routes. Akamai’s large network presence allows it to use any server as an intermediary between an edge server and the origin. This ability provides Akamai with many potential routes to be used. The system ensures that at any given time, when a user performs a transaction, views dynamic content, or in some other way interacts with the origin site, Akamai channels that communication across a path that will not only be up, but performing well.

Another challenge of Web-based collaboration is being able to deliver content based on standardized protocols. Akamai, together with leaders in the application server and content management system industries, have developed Edge Side Includes, or ESI. Edge Side Includes is a simple markup language used to define Web page fragments for dynamic assembly at the edge. Businesses can design and develop the business logic to form and assemble the pages, using the ESI language within their HTML development environment. Overcoming this challenge of a standardized approach will significantly improve Web-based collaboration.

Why is it important to develop new algorithmic techniques?

Leighton: The ability to deliver always fresh content to all corners of the world in a highly secure, reliable, and real-time fashion is non-trivial. Akamai’s R&D efforts have included the writing of millions of lines of code. More importantly, the R&D team has developed new algorithms for solving some of the world’s largest combinatorial optimization problems. On a typical day, Akamai’s global network is delivering over ten billion objects to hundreds of millions of end users on behalf of our thousands of customers from servers around the world. We are continuing to develop additional algorithmic techniques to always make this process better.

In terms of network platforms for handling Web traffic what major challenges do you see in the areas of infrastructure and technology?

Leighton: The biggest challenge has always been how to distribute content and Web applications in a reliable, secure, and scalable fashion. A centralized model of Internet content serving requires that all user requests and data travel through several networks and, therefore, encounter all types of Internet bottlenecks that occur within the first mile, peering, the backbone, and the last mile. This unacceptable end result can be avoided by replacing centralized content serving with edge delivery, the only effective method to scale the delivery of information and services to end users.

What does this mean for corporations?

Leighton: It is important for corporations to understand the value that they can derive from extending their existing infrastructures across a global platform for content and applications delivery. Airlines, banks, retailers, manufacturers – indeed all companies – are moving business processes on-line and providing more and better information so their constituencies can make decisions easier and faster. The result is a desired competitive advantage. To unleash this competitive advantage, IT organizations are realizing that it’s about three things: Information Movement – creating and moving the most useful, freshest information and applications out to what we call the edge… where their consumer of that information is …. rather than keeping their information “locked up” within the walls of their headquarters or data center; Information Access – or continuous, uninterrupted availability of information to all users anywhere in the world; and Information Velocity – ensuring that the time interval between the information request, and information receipt, meets the needs of the consumer.

Are there any synergies between your work and innovation in software development?

Leighton: Essentially, Akamai develops software that manifests itself as a service through our platform. In that, Akamai has achieved the Holy Grail of Enterprise software vendors, and that is to sell our software as a recurring service. And now, as we have become a significant Enterprise technology supplier, we are making our technology available both as service and as software.

Essentially, Akamai is creating an Edge Processing environment within the Akamai network. We are supporting the development of an entirely new set of applications in Web services, which are either impossible or impractical to operate in a centralized Enterprise environment. And as Web services (both Java and .NET) with SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) start to take hold, Akamai is supporting the Web services vision to abstract a business function behind a web-friendly, cross platform, firewall-traversing interface.

What are your visions for the future of the Internet regarding performance, reliability, and comfort?

Leighton: Akamai’s vision for the future of the Internet is to allow enterprises to extend more of their applications into the network, closer to customers, partners, suppliers, and employees. As enterprises continue to move more and more of their applications outside the firewall, this presents a challenge in terms of providing a consistently good user experience. This new generation of e-business applications (for example enterprise portals, e-CRM, B2B/B2C commerce or sales configuration) utilizes data that resides in various backend systems and is being processed by complex applications, many of which are based on Java and increasingly Microsoft .NET. By adding application server capabilities and support for application and development frameworks, such as Java (J2EE) and Microsoft .NET, Akamai will become a pervasive, distributed, and standards-based high performance deployment platform for enterprise applications, Web services, and Web content of all kinds.

What is your personal motto?

Leighton: Doing the impossible just takes a little more effort.