All is not well on the Internet. Delays, disruptions, and missing messages can make life miserable for millions who work and play there. Traffic is growing about 100% a year. And coming soon is a tsunami called electronic commerce, in which companies replace paper transactions with electronic messages. By 2002, Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., expects E-commerce to balloon into a $327 billion phenomenon.
To get ready, network service providers are scrambling to install new optic fiber and powerful network traffic cops called "routers." But even router king Cisco Systems Inc. admits these won't do the trick. "No utility in history ever had to keep up with growth rates like the Internet's," says Cisco Vice-President Christine Hemrick. "We can't plan for six months where to dig up cable, or how to roll from one huge operating system to another."
So Cisco, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and a host of network startups are turning to quick fixes that speed up Internet traffic--and don't cost a fortune. Some of the companies are testing large-scale "caches." These are giant repositories of Web pages that Internet service providers (ISPs) can scatter across the country so Web surfers don't all mob the same sites (table). Another technology, called "load balancing," was demonstrated by IBM at the Atlanta Olympics. It relies on smart software to divvy up tasks among a cluster of computers so they can respond more efficiently.
The new schemes blur the lines between computing, networking, and telecom companies. All three camps, for example, want to create the equivalent of Info Highway toll roads. Companies or individuals could then contract with ISPs to pay higher prices for guaranteed, delay-free service. Ultimately, says Erik K. Grimmelmann, AT&T'S vice-president for network and access, "you'll see multiple grades of service all across the Internet."
Most of these ideas have been around and even deployed on a small scale. Individual PCs, for example, store information from Web pages, such as graphic images, in small "caches" on their hard drives so the information doesn't have to be downloaded every time. Caches on local-area networks (LANs) are also common.
In September, however, Cisco announced a more ambitious approach. Called Web Cache, Cisco's product combines up to 32 processors, or "engines," which together can store 25 million Web pages at a single site on a network. In October, Net startup Inktomi Corp. in San Mateo, Calif., took another big leap. Working with Sun, it announced a huge network cache called Traffic Server that can store upward of a trillion bytes of data--enough to house vast regions of the Net. The product drew intense interest from Japan's Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp., whose customers complain of long delays when cruising sites in the U.S. With Traffic Server, Japanese Web surfers could browse far and wide, without ever leaving Japan's shores, says Akihiro Takagi, executive manager of NTT's multimedia business.
FOR POWER USERS. Right now, Inktomi is the cache leader. But industry experts say it's only a matter of time before Cisco, 3Com, and computer giants such as Sun and IBM try to wrest this type of business away. Already, these giants are testing new traffic-management tools on private corporate networks. If the new approaches speed things up on smaller LANs, then they can probably be scaled up for the public Internet.
One software product Sun has developed lets a company's systems administrator allocate more bandwidth on the LAN to groups of executives who need the most room. Segregating some power users also frees up bandwidth for everyone else. On LANs, as on the Net, "preventing congestion is better than coping with it afterwards," says Robert D. Bressler, vice-president and chief scientist at Sun's networking group.
IBM's Tivoli Systems also wants to move its corporate products onto the Internet. It has developed programs that monitor traffic and schedule heavy tasks, such as upgrading software on all the PCs, when traffic is light. "Our customers don't want to wait for fiber and routers to `solve' the Internet bandwidth problem," says Tivoli CEO Franklin H. Moss. With tools like these, they may not have to.