If you’ve been watching the Olympics online, you’ve got one company to thank for the quality of your stream.
It isn’t NBC or your cable provider. It’s a company based out of Massachusetts with a funny-sounding name that few outside of tech have heard of: Akamai — which is Hawaiian for “intelligent,” in case you were wondering.
In essence, what it does is simple: it makes everything you do on the Internet faster by putting content onto servers that are physically closer to the people accessing it. The company operates what’s known as a content delivery network, and Akamai’s is the largest in the world, serving up as much as 30% of all Web traffic (PDF).
While the basic concept is easy to grasp, pulling it off at Akamai’s scale requires a huge number of servers and clever engineering to provide optimum experiences.
Akamai CEO Tom Leighton told Business Insider that the company operates more than 150,000 servers globally to ensure that content is delivered as quickly as possible.
Together, these servers act as a “virtual Internet” sitting on top of the real one. Akamai’s customers keep copies of content they want to be served up fast — video and music content, a site’s homepage, or anything else, really — and when you try to go to the site to access it, Akamai’s platform routes you to the copy hosted on the server closest to you.
If that sounds like a task that can be commoditized, you’re right. Leighton readily admits that the CDN industry is a crowded one — it just isn’t that hard to set up a server close to areas with heavy populations of Internet users.
Yet Akamai still manages to dominate its niche. Apple has been a customer since 1999, when it first partnered with the company to boost QuickTime performance. Hulu also uses Akamai to speed up its streaming video, as do the BBC, the Chinese Central Television website, and the White House.
And video isn’t the only thing it serves up: gaming giants Sony and Nintendo are both customers, as are startups like Airbnb, retailers like Best Buy, and even the United States Department of Defence.
To give you an idea of the extent to which Akamai is crushing its competition, its most recent earnings report (PDF) shows that it brought in $US1.58 billion in revenues last year — more than half of the estimated $US2.36 billion brought in by the entire CDN market last year.
While Akamai has been getting a lot of coverage in the Apple-focused tech press recently thanks to this report that Apple will begin to expand its CDN infrastructure for use by consumers, Leighton told Business Insider that he believes the two will continue to be “strong partners in the years to come.”
As it turns out, this isn’t the first time an Akamai customer has decided to try its hand at rolling out its own CDN infrastructure. With the slightest smirk, Leighton told us: “It can take a take a few years for them to realise it, but many find that doing this is harder than it looks.”