With Pith

Ethan Petuchowski

What Akamai Does

I met someone at a hack night worked for Akamai. He was a cool dude, so I was curious what Akamai does. For whatever reason I ended up reading a paper cited as so:

Nygren, Erik, Ramesh K. Sitaraman, and Jennifer Sun. “The akamai network: a platform for high-performance internet applications.” ACM SIGOPS Operating Systems Review 44.3 (2010): 2–19.

For whatever reason, everything I know about Akamai is from this paper. I’m not in any way afiliated with Akamai, etc., though the paper is basically a badly designed advertising pamphlet for their services. A small number of sentences in this summary may have been lifted directly from that paper. You can consider this whole post a paraphrasing of the paper. The intent of this post is to tell you everything important that I learned from the paper in a form that is way easier to digest than you reading the paper itself. To that end, this document is maybe 2 pages long, and the original is 17. Clearly much of the detail has been removed, but the gist remains. If that appeals to you, welcome aboard! Note that the paper is from 2010, so is probably already out of date.


Akamai invented the Content Delivery Network (CDN) concept in the 1990s, because the raw naive Internet implementation is too slow to conduct a global business. As of 2010, Akamai delivers 15-20% of global Web traffic.

The Interwebs is a dangerous place

For a web app, downtime and high latency is very costly. Customers won’t go to your page unless they can see your content right this second. The Internet itself can provide no reliability or performance gaurantees.

The Internet is composed of 1000s of individual networks, the largest having only 5% of Internet access traffic. It takes 650 networks to get to 90% of all access traffic. The Internet-access pricing structure happens to result in a situation in which connections between networks (“peering points”) are bottlenecks causing packet loss and increased latency.

The protocol ISPs use to exchange rounting information (BGP) is bad and subject to misuse. Internet outages and partitions are regular occurrences. The strict ACK policy for TCP adds enough overhead to make video streaming over TCP impractical. The high proportion of people still using IE6 means any improved algorithms that get implemented have to be backwards compatible with that one silly browser.

Content Delivery Networks

Originally a CDN’s purpose was to cache static site content at the “edge” of the Internet, close to end users, to avoid middle-mile bottlenecks. Now they accelerate entire web apps and provide HD live streaming media. They provide security, logging, diagnostics, reporting, and management tools

A delivery network is a virutal network, i.e. a software layer over the actual Internet, to provide reliability, performance, scalability, and security. It requires no client software or changes to the underlying networks. Akamai’s network is made from tens of thousands of globally deployed servers running sophisticated algorithms to enable faster content delivery.

In Greater Detail

When a user enters a URL into their browser, their DNS routes them to an Akamai DNS, which in turn gives them the IP address of an edge server chosen via machine learning algorithm. The edge server acts as a cache for the origin server, and if it needs new data, it uses an especially reliable and performant transport system (described later on), which is a network of internal nodes who know best how to connect the edge back to the origin.

The transport system connects edge to origin servers with a cache pyramid of clusters. Streaming video is branched out to the edge clusters by intermediate layers of reflectors.

Edge servers communicate to each other via their own chosen path optimization rather than the default one chosen by BGP, and use dynamically optimized TCP parameters. They can also intelligently prefetch and cache content from the origin right before before it is requested by the user.

Akamai’s EdgeComputing product allows you to distribute your web application itself “to the edge”, which is great for content aggregation, product catalogs (dynamic access of static content), data validation, and data input batching. It’s not great for apps relying heavily on transactional databases because they still must communicate with the origin server.