Raghu Venkat was at his breaking point in 2010. After he spent months helping to fine-tune the analytics software behind Aster Data Systems, his bosses ordered him to take a two-week vacation and handed him a $1,500 prepaid debit card as a bonus for his hard work. He spent the money on a massive widescreen TV and a couple of video game systems, making his apartment the new home base for co-workers Manav Mital and Hariharan Kolam. Soon, Venkat was obsessed with games like Bioshock. He and his fellow engineers and gaming fans grew frustrated, though, when it took the game consoles what seemed like ages to download new games or update old ones. “You have Netflix (NFLX), and the movie starts streaming right away,” says Mital. “We started thinking about why one thing was instant and why the other one took forever.”
Out of that desire for speedier gaming and online services came the idea for Instart Logic, the Mountain View (Calif.)-based company the trio quit their jobs to found. Instart’s software, which includes a monitoring system implanted in browsers, determines what users tend to look for on a given website and breaks desired Web pages into prioritized chunks. On a site selling shoes, Instart cuts the quality and trims the file sizes of images when first loading a page so pictures, menus, and descriptions on the first screen people see will appear almost instantly. In the background it then fills in the rest of the data. The technology proves particularly useful on mobile devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones, which often rely on slower Internet connections. “Four years ago, this problem didn’t really exist,” says Mital, Instart’s chief executive officer. “But now there are so many mobile devices and more complex websites, and people can’t get to what they want fast enough.”
Some of the biggest names in venture capital, including Andreessen Horowitz and Greylock Partners, have put $26 million into Instart, betting it will shake up the roughly $3 billion global market for so-called content delivery networks, or CDNs. (Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, is an investor in Andreessen Horowitz.) Huge websites such as Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG), and Netflix use these specialized computer systems, run by such companies as Akamai Technologies (AKAM), AT&T (T), Amazon.com (AMZN), and Limelight Networks (LLNW), to fast-track videos, photos, and other bandwidth-intensive parts of their sites to users in high-traffic cities that need a speed boost.
Mital claims Instart can load many websites twice as fast as its CDN competitors, and at a lower price. For a demonstration, he loaded Game of Thrones Ascent, an online social game based on the popular book series. Without Instart’s software, a “loading” bar churned for a few seconds before the action began; with it, the game’s opening screen loaded immediately, including the menu, player, and weapon options. The company has amassed more than a dozen customers, including gaming, consumer Web, and business application sites, since June, when it began selling its service in earnest. “It will be hard for other people to do,” says venture capitalist Gaurav Garg, one of Instart’s angel investors. “It is real wizardry.”
Akamai, the leading CDN company, has recently bought a number of startups to help it handle mobile devices and so-called infinite websites like Quora and Facebook, where users can keep scrolling down and loading more content on the same Web page. M.J. Johnson, Akamai’s director of product marketing, says it takes a company with equipment embedded throughout a network to contend with all the changes facing consumers and companies. “We see that this diversity has been happening for some time and have been investing in the technology to handle it,” he says.
So far Instart remains a tiny player, though some of its early customers have been impressed by the software’s performance. Ian Culling, the chief technology officer at software and services company VersionOne, says he tested similar technology from Akamai and several startups before choosing Instart. VersionOne makes software aimed at software developers and is particularly conscious about its products’ load times. “Developers tend to be the most demanding users and the least tolerant of any lag,” Culling says. While not twice as fast, he says, VersionOne’s Web services have run 40 percent faster with Instart software.
Instart’s founders admit that their software doesn’t really solve the problem that led to their company; video games still take forever to download. But Mital says they no longer have time for games anyway. “We’ve said goodbye to that problem for a while,” he says. “The good thing is Raghu doesn’t play that much anymore. At least, I hope not.”