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CDNs: Fast Route to Main Street

One of the areas of the Internet most replete with techno-babble these days is surely the realm of content delivery networks (CDNs). And although the many companies that call themselves CDNs perform the same basic service — delivering your content to a Web audience, ostensibly with greater reliability and overall quality of service than if it were delivered conventionally over the Internet — their technologies, value-added services, and prices vary widely.

Undoubtedly, the content delivery market has exploded, but projections about its growth span the spectrum. Jupiter Communications says the market for streaming content delivery and distribution is expected to grow to about $6 billion by 2004. International Data Corp., meanwhile, sees it growing to just $1 billion. But even that's a huge jump from 1999, when IDC estimated that content delivery was a $10 million industry.

Overall, the numbers are impressive when you consider that the content delivery market didn't exist five years ago. Larry Gitlin, president of World Streaming Networks and director of broadcast services at InterVU (see correction at bottom of page), says that CDNs sprung up to fill a vacuum created when Internet video started becoming popular. "As soon as that happened," he says, "InterVU was one of the first companies (along with Mark Cuban's Broadcast.com) that thought maybe there was going to be a business here."

Cuban developed a centralized network, with a server farm in Dallas. "It worked OK for radio and audio, but it didn't work very robustly for video," says Gitlin. "Mark made a business out of it — he saw an opportunity, grabbed it, and did very well with it, and ended up selling it to Yahoo!. But the network itself didn't work out the best."

To create a more reliable network, media servers were placed around the edge of the Internet, closer to end-users, resulting in fewer dropouts, less re-buffering and overall higher quality connections. In effect, this was the genesis of the CDN industry. InterVU refined the model, offering streaming services and delivery until its acquisition by Akamai in early 2000. The $2.8 billion acquisition instantly made Akamai the CDN company to beat. When competitor Digital Island merged with Sandpiper, the battle of the two CDN giants began.

But the CDN landscape is now much more complex. A variety of players crowd this field, singing the advantages of satellite delivery and edge caching, and touting their own particular strengths in delivering streaming content. So how do you navigate the maze of offerings, services, and software that these companies throw your way? And what exactly do you get when you sign up for specialized content delivery? The answers to those questions depend on what you stream, to whom, and how much you can spend.

We incorrectly identified Larry Gitlin as co-creator of InterVu. His actual position at InterVu was director of broadcast services. We regret the error.

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