Content delivery nets branch out

Network World (U.S.), a business-to-business trading exchange and catalogue site for mobile phones and accessories, was looking to expand its online presence. The company, owned by Global Business Link AB in Gothenburg, Sweden, wanted to outsource its e-commerce efforts, everything from software downloads and security to transaction processing and hosting.

It finally settled on a provider that might come as a surprise to some network executives: content delivery network (CDN) specialist Mirror Image Internet Inc.

“We were looking for an all-inclusive outsourced e-commerce solution that could manage the back end of storefront transactions and hosting,” says Martin Eriksson, founder of GBL.

Those aren’t requirements that typically would send a company in search of a CDN vendor, but along with the rest of the market, Mirror Image is enhancing its services to provide more than simple static content delivery. Earlier this year, the vendor introduced RapidBuy, an offering that combines the e-commerce services Mirror Image acquired through Buyonet with its traditional content delivery capabilities. While Eriksson wouldn’t say what other companies he looked at, the new service puts Mirror Image into competition with companies such as Digital River that provide comprehensive e-commerce services.

“I wasn’t that familiar with the benefits that CDNs could bring, but now that I’ve been exposed to what Mirror Image can offer, I’m an advocate of the importance of fast content delivery,” Eriksson says. “The coupling of CDN technology and an easy-to-implement e-commerce storefront allows us to quickly expand and grow our catalogue site without sacrificing the quality of our online transactions.”

It’s the kind of thinking CDN companies are hopeful they’ll hear more of as they turn overlay networks originally designed to simply deliver static content into vehicles for improving the performance of all sorts of online initiatives.

“It’s amazing how many people I talk to who think of Akamai as just caching static content at the edge of the network,” says Bobby Blumofe, vice-president of strategy at Akamai. “We’ve had a whole bunch of capabilities that go beyond caching static content for quite a while.”

And other CDN providers are following suit. Business customers can expect CDN companies to beef up security, add support for application processing, link into behind-the-firewall acceleration systems and boost storage capabilities at the edge. Observers say those services would help drive enterprise network business to CDN vendors that have faced tough times since the dot-com implosion that stripped them of their primary customer base.

Akamai continues to be saddled with debt and has yet to post a profit, but revenue has been improving.

At the same time, Speedera, which offers more basic services at lower prices than Akamai, announced last year it had become operating-income positive and was debt free. Cable & Wireless says its CDN business, which it acquired from Digital Island in 2001, also has become profitable.

“But there’s no magic feather,” says Greg Howard, principal analyst and founder of the HTRC Group. “There are services these CDNs can offer, and they’re beginning to.”

Already this year the handful of CDN companies left in the market are offering a number of new services. The point is that the same technology that made the Internet friendlier for static Web site content can do the same for more critical business content and applications, analysts say.

For example, Mirror Image has its e-commerce offering and recently unveiled a dynamic content service. Speedera introduced a new security service to let Web site administrators control who can upload content to the CDN; and Akamai, in partnership with IBM, rolled out its first service to support application processing at the edge.

More services are coming. Mirror Image talks about supporting digital-rights management and live video. Speedera says better monitoring and reporting services will be offered to make it easier to track who’s accessing content and from where, and also plans to boost its storage capabilities with an intelligent storage management service. Akamai says it will continue to focus on pushing Web applications out to its distributed network.

C&W, meanwhile, is taking advantage of its depth as a network and hosting provider and is making a multimillion-dollar investment to expand the capacity of its CDN as traffic on that network increases, thanks in large part to the tight integration with C&W’s other offerings.

That integration is what attracted Major League Baseball to C&W’s CDN services, says Joe Choti,’s CTO.

“It’s nice that I can ride in a (C&W) data centre, and then out the back door of that data centre I get right on the (C&W) CDN,” he says. “When there are issues, I’ve got one point of contact I can call.”

One point of contact was also important for GBL’s Eriksson.

“It becomes costly when you have to outsource different technical components of the storefront to different vendors,” Eriksson says.

The bottom line for both Choti and Eriksson, though, was that the CDN provider could handle spikes in traffic, eliminating the need to have idle hardware and bandwidth standing by in case of spikes in traffic. It’s what CDNs have been all about from the beginning.