April 30, 2001, 12:00 AM

What are you gonna do when customers won’t wait 4 seconds? Speed up the delivery

Downloading of content can never be too fast. Here’s how some sites and vendors are speeding up the web-buying experience.

Impatience is the word of the day with online shoppers. Researchers used to say that consumers wouldn’t wait 8 seconds for a page to download before they switched to another site. Today, Internet researchers Keystone and Zona Research, who set that first standard, say it’s more like 4 seconds. “Even with T1 lines, people are impatient and won’t wait for downloads,” says Randy Covill, senior analyst at AMR Research.

Seconds count toward an online retailer’s bottom line because improved web site performance increases sales. The theory is sound: the less a consumer has to wait to download information, the easier it is to shop and make purchases.

For years, prognosticators have foretold the wide consumer acceptance of T1 and DSL lines and cable modems. Once that happens, consumers will be in content heaven-anything they want will appear on their screens in nanoseconds-and they’ll happily buy. But it’s not happening fast enough-and it may be a long time before such high tech connections become part of the mass market. Less than 15% of homes have broadband access, researchers estimate.

And so some vendors have gotten the bright idea of attacking the download problem from the network and server end instead of the consumer technology end. Called “content acceleration,” this approach has the advantage of not having to wait for consumers to do something. Already, some retailers have signed on for content acceleration and experienced positive results, including Tower Records, Art.com, Victoria’s Secret and Neiman Marcus.

What does it mean?

The notion of content acceleration is new enough that everyone has a different definition. The idea can be interpreted a number of ways, depending on where the acceleration takes place. And the notion is nebulous enough that few can get their hands around the entire concept. As a result, no one really has a handle on the market. Several analysts say they have yet to evaluate the vendors in the market because the topic is so vast. “It is confusing, there’s a lot of issues involved with this technology,” Covill says.

With four tiers on the Internet, it is possible to accelerate web content on all levels. Those levels are: the server where information enters the Internet from a web-site host, the network which transports the information, the edge server which distributes the information to ISPs and the user which allows the end user to download the information (see chart and accompanying story). A consensus has not emerged on which level to accelerate, although Akamai Technologies Inc.’s name is becoming slang for content acceleration, as in the “Akamaizing” of content.

In fact, accelerating content at any or all of those points may make sense as retailers try to meet different needs. Victoria’s Secret and Tower Records, for instance, need to reach a global audience and so chose technology that moved the content closer to potential customers via a global network of servers. Art.com needs to allow customers quick access to data-heavy graphic art images, so it chose a technology that anticipates consumers’ next wishes. And Neiman Marcus needs high-quality graphics to show its high-quality goods, so it chose a compression solution. “Retailers considering this technology have to know what they need to have accelerated, whether it’s static or dynamic, rich in graphics or changes on a regular basis,” says Glenn Cruickshank, senior manager in the digital content management practice at KPMG Consulting Inc.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai, which has more than 3,000 clients-including retailers-using its content acceleration technology, addresses the first three of four potential bottlenecks on the Internet. Akamai operates more than 8,000 servers as part of 473 networks in 55 countries. Akamai takes popular material from its clients’ servers and stores it on the servers on its network. With this system, downloaded information resides as close to a user as possible, instead of taking multiple trips from the web origin to the end user. Clients subscribe to the service based on content delivered in megabits per second, typically paying a monthly fee.

Akamai accelerates content by using advanced mathematical routing algorithms to find the fastest route through all three bottleneck areas of the Internet. The system runs checks every two to three seconds in a localized region; every two to ten minutes it produces a map of the Internet. “We can see changes in traffic patterns and route content around it,” says Andrew Lickly, Akamai product marketing manager.

The company also works with other content acceleration specialists such as Cacheflow and Volera to address specific areas on the Internet. Cacheflow, for example, specializes in providing additional hardware for cache space on Internet servers in the first mile, or server side connection, says Lickly. Volera specializes in streaming media and dynamic content caching.

Cutting through traffic

With its three-tiered acceleration approach addressing bottlenecks from the server through network distribution, Akamai was credited with fixing Victoria’s Secret’s infamous web traffic problems. VictoriasSecret.com’s first web cast in 1999 left the web site so busy that millions could not connect to it and ultimately could not make purchases. VictoriasSecret.com did not provide comment, but Akamai says it helped the online lingerie store take 15 million requests to its web site during its second web cast during the Cannes Film Festival in France.

By moving the Victoria’s Secret content to Akamai servers worldwide, the retailer had room on its own server to take more requests and, eventually, make more sales. “We can improve content delivery speed from two to 10 times, which frees up a web site’s resources so their infrastructure can process more people and transactions,” says Lickly.

Akamai also has improved operations for TicketMaster.com as well as Tower Records. Akamai says Tower Records earned a 200% return on its content acceleration investment in the first year. Tower Records experienced immediate sales increase of 6%, cut bandwidth costs by 50%, saved $2 million on data centers and reduced page download time from 8 seconds to less than 2, Akamai says.

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