Mirror Image joins CDN patent fray

Content delivery network specialist Mirror Image Internet Inc. is the latest in the industry to secure a patent covering its core technology, which addresses how content is moved across the Internet to improve speed and performance.

It’s a technology that Mirror Image says other service providers and caching companies are using, which could result in new skirmishes in the content delivery industry that has been mired in legal battles.

Patents are nothing unusual in the technology industry where intellectual property is a key asset. But for the content delivery market, patents have become central to competitive tussles that have left some users wondering if their providers are safe from legal attack.

That has industry observers mulling what will result from the Mirror Image patent, which covers a transparent Web caching architecture the company designed in 1996. The technology involves automatically and transparently caching requested content on specific servers for quicker download to end users, according to Mirror Image.

The patent also addresses cache-aggregation technology, which combines multiple caches into a single entity that not only caches content but handles storage, compute and transaction processes, says Bob Hammond, Mirror Image’s CTO.

“The patent covers two different areas, which are core to our technology and, as it turns out, are core to a lot of other folks’ technology, as well,” Hammond says.

“We’re in the process of poking our heads up and looking around, trying to understand who’s doing what. And that includes hardware manufacturers and ISPs and MSPs, and of course, our competitors,” he says.

Hammond says users can expect announcements from Mirror Image in the next few months that will detail how it plans to exercise its patent and might include everything from cross-licensing to partnerships.

Litigation also could be a possibility, especially considering the litigious history of CDN players and their patents, analysts say.

“Why should (users) care about Mirror Image being awarded a patent? Not sure from a technology standpoint, but if they follow recent trends, I smell a lawsuit,” says Greg Howard, principal analyst and founder of The HTRC Group. “Lawsuits are never good for the IT community.”

Lawsuits have cast a pall over the CDN industry, which saw the wrangling escalate last year with Akamai Technologies Inc. and Cable and Wireless PLC each seeking injunctions against the other’s service, each saying the other’s service infringed on patented technology. Meanwhile, Akamai accused Speedera Networks Inc. not only of patent infringement, but also of hacking into a protected database to access performance information. Speedera denies the charges.

“It’s really uncertain as far as how (Mirror Image’s patent) is going to impact the CDN industry. You need some sort of legal analysis to dig down into how these patents might be a concern for some of the competitors in the market,” says John O’Keefe, senior Internet services analyst at Current Analysis Inc.

O’Keefe says competitors such as Akamai and Speedera don’t use the technology addressed in Mirror Image’s patent and he doubts that it will affect the current leadership in the market. Today, Akamai leads the US$270 million market with nearly 1,000 customers, while Speedera has more than 200 customers, and Mirror Image boasts about 150, according to IDC.

What this patent could do, industry observers say, is boost Mirror Image’s profile in the industry.

“For Mirror Image customers, it’s good to know that their service provider’s core technology is now patented,” O’Keefe says. “The fact that there may be additional stability – financial stability – through additional revenues that may be brought in through licensing is also a good thing.”