Caching vendors take on last mile

As caching vendors and content delivery networks have focused on improving the Internet’s performance by pushing content to the network’s edge, a group of smaller start-ups has been quietly rolling out technologies designed to boost speed all the way up to the user’s desktop.

Because a majority of U.S. teleworkers and many remote office branches still access the Internet using dial-up connections, businesses can expect other, larger vendors also to start looking at the last-mile problem, analysts say.

Indeed, Inktomi became one of the first such vendors to roll out its own software targeting last-mile content acceleration when it introduced Personal Edge last week.

Last-mile acceleration is something that likely will become increasingly important to businesses that find bandwidth limitations can throw a wrench into application deployments.

ABN Amro Bank NV, a banking group in Amsterdam, was about to trash its Siebel Systems Inc.-based customer relationship management application because of slow delivery to some of its 3,000 employees worldwide, but found a solution with content provider HyperSpace Communications Inc., which uses HTTP compression technology to squeeze more content through smaller pipes.

“Once we put their application on the HyperSpace compression server they were able to make it work,” says Kurt Brock, CTO at HyperSpace.

Another consideration is the experience of Web surfers who access companies’ Web sites, especially e-commerce sites. While CDN providers such as Akamai Technologies Inc. can speed the delivery of content by pushing it to the edge, they can’t address slow connections between ISPs and desktops. That’s where last-mile acceleration comes in., which in association with National Geographic provides an online array of handcrafted art from around the world, uses Akamai to speed the delivery of graphics and images, but found an additional 30 per cent improvement in the end-user experience when it added technology from Fireclick. Fireclick uses idle link times to download content that will likely be asked for next into the end user’s browser cache.

“For what we sell on our Web site it’s all about the images, so the quicker they can pull up images and products the better,” says Charles Hachtmann, CTO at

As for Inktomi, its focus has always been on the core of the network, speeding up the delivery of content from origin servers to the network’s edge. But as the delivery of content to the network’s edge improved, bottlenecks have remained in the last mile despite the emergence of broadband, says Peter Galvin, an Inktomi vice-president “There are technologies like broadband, either cable or DSL, that are coming online, but they’re not coming online as fast as some people would hope and there is still a huge base out there of dial-up or narrowband users,” Galvin says.

As a result, Inktomi sought ways to extend its content delivery capabilities. Other CDN service providers and caching vendors have offered last-mile acceleration, but through partnership arrangements. Akamai and Web acceleration vendors Xcache and SpiderSoftware have partnered with Fireclick.

For the most part, last-mile acceleration has been the domain of start-ups. Others targeting the last mile include BoostWorks, which uses compression technology, and FineGround Networks, which uses compression and other technologies, such as determining what part of a request is new and delivering only that updated content.

Inktomi’s Personal Edge takes an approach similar to FineGround’s, using a combination of compression technology, sending only updated content, and desktop caching. Inktomi says Personal Edge, which is software that sits on Inktomi’s Traffic Server cache, and works in tandem with it, can speed Web page delivery by more than 30 per cent.

That’s good news for dial-up users, who actually have seen a progressive degradation in performance during the last two years, according to Web performance monitoring company Keynote Systems.

“One obvious reason that performance has slowed for dial-up users is Web sites are getting more graphically rich and content heavy,” a Keynote spokeswoman says.

Galvin says Inktomi began looking at the last-mile bottleneck about a year ago.

“As Web sites put more and more content and images on their site, they find they have an efficient way of delivering content to the edge,” Galvin says. “But how do they make it more efficient over these slower, higher-latency connections? We started looking at those connections and how we could improve those connections.”

Neal Goldman, an analyst with The Yankee Group, says Personal Edge is a natural extension to Inktomi’s products. He says companies can expect other vendors to follow Inktomi’s lead. “The last-mile issue isn’t going away anytime soon,” he says.

Personal Edge requires a client agent and Galvin says he expects service providers, such as AOL Time Warner, which already plans to use the software, will pick up on the technology first. It is applicable to corporations, as well, Galvin says, especially for employees on the road who can’t take advantage of corporate broadband connections.

Personal Edge is priced depending on configurations, CPU utilization and total number of clients.