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While Akamai focuses on speeding movement through the first three tiers of the Internet, others focus on the fourth tier-or last mile. California-based Fireclick, for instance, speeds up the connection between the ISP and the end user by preloading web content for the user so it shows up on the user’s screen faster than if the user had to wait for an individually chosen connection. The theory behind the technology is that if an end user has a slow modem, all the content acceleration will not improve the download time. Therefore, all efforts to speed up content downloading in the other three tiers within the server, networks and ISP are futile.
Fireclick’s strategy is to stay one step ahead of the user: “What we figured out is this technology called predictive caching,” says Steve O’Brien, vice president of marketing. “We’re using the cache in the end user’s browser to preload what we think the user will download next.” Using predictive algorithm models, which the company builds by keeping statistics on web page requests, Fireclick’s products understand what a user will likely download next, then store it in advance in the user’s own browser cache. It takes about a week to build a predictive model. This way the end user experiences a faster connection regardless of the bandwidth connection, says O’Brien.
An artful approach
Art.com, which relies on heavy graphics to sell posters and other artwork online and also is an Akamai user, adopted Fireclick’s service after testing it during the holiday shopping season, says Dennis Sage, director of development at Art.com. For example, if a customer is looking at Picasso prints, the Fireclick service will already be downloading the next series of Picassos for the user to easily access. Sage also says Fireclick has improved the search function. While the customer is viewing the first part of the search results, Fireclick is storing the rest in the browser cache. “Visitors may do a search that comes up with 75 items that span 10 to 20 pages and they want to view those pages quickly to find what they want to buy,” Sage says. At the end of the day, the technology is helping Art.com improve its sales numbers. “It’s made a huge difference,” Sage says. “We are seeing a 10% increase in our conversion rates. It doesn’t take a big boost to get the product to pay for itself.”
Another emerging player in the fourth tier/last mile segment of content acceleration is RichFX, whose technology compresses graphic files using proprietary algorithm software. “The difference between what we do and what other content acceleration vendors like Akamai do is that they make the pipes bigger and we compress the liquid that flows through them,” says John Mellor, vice president of product management at RichFX. Several high-end retailers are using RichFX’s technology to display more detailed web content, including Neiman Marcus, Coach and Museum Shop.
Neiman Marcus uses RichFX to sell Manolo Blahnik shoes online. These expensive shoes are famous for their artistic designs. Presenting them accurately and in great detail online is an important selling point. “We use algorithms based on 3-D graphics to compress the files to serve the lowest common denominator--an end user with a dial-up modem,” says Mellor. The software allows a consumer without highly sophisticated technology to view the item in three dimensions and to quickly pan to inspect different angles or styles of the product. “This gives online retailers the power to show their merchandise to the consumer almost the same way they can in a real store, by allowing them to quickly inspect the grain on a leather purse or see the intricate details of a shoe design. And this is easily viewed from a 56.6k modem,” says Mellor.
While retailers have mostly opted for different approaches to accelerating content, many are beginning to realize they may need to enlist more than one solution to improve download time. Sage says using different types of acceleration technology is paramount for online retailers to remain competitive. “To keep up with everyone else you need a toolkit that covers a broad range of things. Having services like Akamai and Fireclick is part of that,” he says. “You’re going to see more of these technologies if online retailers are to remain viable.”
The four tiers and the vendors
While the Internet world waits for the widespread introduction of increased bandwidth via T1, DSL and cable modems, choosing a technology for content acceleration remains a challenge because there are so many approaches to improving web site performance.
Vendors focus on what they call the four tiers of the Internet. Their approaches fix different areas, from how web information gets to the network to bottlenecks among the servers to making files easier for the consumer to download. The four tiers are:
- Tier 1: the server side of the Internet, where
information from a web site connects to the net;
- Tier 2: the network part of the Internet, through
which information is sent and received;
- Tier 3: the so-called “edge servers” from where
web information is distributed to independent
service providers and
- Tier 4: the consumer side, which entails how
consumers receive information on their own
Few vendors in content acceleration work alone. They acknowledge that content can be speeded up in all areas. And because the Internet is by its own nature extensive and complex, there is potentially a market for improvements at every turn.
A few vendors provide acceleration services in more than one of the four tiers. Companies like Exodus, which hosts company web sites and handles the technical infrastructures on which they operate, work to make the pipe through which information travels bigger. They use cache technologies in tiers 1, 2, and 3 to accelerate content on the server side where information comes onto the net, network accelerators to move information across the Net faster and edge accelerators to distribute content to users through their ISPs. Exodus has three different products that a client can use all together or individually, which address Tiers 1, 2 and 3. Akamai also provides acceleration in tiers 1, 2 and 3 and has a partnership with Fireclick to provide tier 4 support. Exodus, which supports 4,500 clients, did not disclose the number of retailers who actually use its content acceleration services.