Whatever we do is around mobile now: Akamai CEO Tom Leighton

Akamai CEO Tom Leighton on content delivery and Internet trends, and why it makes sense for Akamai to also sharpen its focus on enterprise security


Akamai CEO Tom Leighton. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Akamai CEO Tom Leighton. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Mumbai: Most Internet users would identify Akamai Technologies Inc. with its “State of the Internet” reports. Enterprises, on the other hand, know Akamai for more than just that—as a content delivery network (CDN) services company that helps them access a speedier and smarter Internet, and one that is reliable and secure. Much of what Akamai does is accomplished with the help of sophisticated algorithms, Tom Leighton, its chief executive officer, said in an interview in Mumbai.

A PhD in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Leighton’s work behind co-founding Akamai was based on recognizing that a solution to freeing up Web congestion could be found in applied mathematics and algorithms. A multi-patent holder, Leighton was also the chief scientist at Akamai for 14 years before taking over the helm as CEO in 2012.

In his interview, Leighton spoke about content delivery and Internet trends, and why it makes sense for Akamai to also sharpen its focus on enterprise security. Edited excerpts:

Being the leader in CDN, what are the trends that you are seeing in this space?

Traffic is growing rapidly particularly around video and software. More people are watching video online, the quality levels are improving, and the last mile connectivity in many countries is in good shape. Here (in India), I think it is still a challenge area for the last mile. There is obviously much more use of mobile devices, more transactions over cellular networks which are challenged for capacity and latency, and so that presents particular challenges.

Whatever we do is around mobile now. Over half our transactions are on mobile devices. So, it is mobile first really at this point. We see today more than half our transactions are on mobile devices globally, and security is a huge issue with service attacks and applications layer attacks to steal information or corrupt content or change it on websites. So, the major forces are: security and content online, apps in the cloud, Internet of things (IoT) and a broad swath of devices coming online.

How is your business strategy being shaped by these trends?

We enable video to be online at affordable price points, and we make transactions fast on those devices even in the cellular network scenario. We stop DDoS (distributed denial of service) attacks and application layer attacks, and we are just getting into the business now of improving enterprise networking. When we solve these problems, it makes a huge difference for our customers and that’s how we grow revenue.

In effect, you will be competing directly with security firms...

Yes. The traditional security world was about buying devices and putting them in your enterprise data centre. That world doesn’t work anymore. The scale of DDoS attacks is so large you cannot afford to protect yourself with the data centre. You have to do it in the cloud and that’s where we live. We know how to do things that scale in the cloud and make the performance good. We compete with those folks (security firms) but it is on our turf now (the cloud), which is great for us. Our security business is now over $350 million and growing at over 40% a year. It is our fastest-growing business today.

In your core CDN business, you have competition from the likes of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and a host of other open source CDN firms. How do you differentiate your services?

AWS is a competitor but they focus on computing storage and we don’t do compute in their sense. Besides, Amazon as a company uses us to help deliver videos, accelerate and secure their commerce sites. There is lot of competition out there, dozens of companies and we stay ahead by innovating and offering better performing products at a competitive price point.

We want the Internet to be fast, reliable and secure. We have a strong presence here in India, and we partner with carriers (telecom services providers) across the world including India. It is a deep partnership wherein we place our servers in their networks, and resell our services. In some cases, we sell our technology directly, so they are customers of ours in some cases. We also partner with some companies—IBM and Microsoft (Azure CDN) are examples of such partnerships and we collaborate with some cloud companies as well. CDNs of many carriers are powered by Akamai.

Your company uses a lot of machine learning algorithms to analyse networks. Please tell us a bit about how this helps your business.

We do use pretty sophisticated predictive algorithms in a variety of ways and most recently in trying to figure out what bits you will need on that device even before you click. The goal is to get most of the content on the device so when you click, only a little bit has to come through a tower or a congested network and that makes it easier to render the page much faster. It gives you a faster network, which is important. We also use predictive capabilities to decide what videos to download on your device. We predict when you might be connected by Wi-Fi or a cellular network, and how that can become a good time to pre-position some videos or news and how you may want to view such content even if you are not connected or have a bad connection.

How does Akamai perceive the IoT opportunity?

There is exciting potential as you get billions of devices online. We are working on an interesting project now for cars as they are getting more and more connected. Also, think of the financial services industry, and we have all the micro transactions now with connected devices and so we need to manage all that so that the network is really fast and is affordable. We are well positioned to do this because we do 30 million transactions a second, trillions a day. We log those, report those in real time and we work on various conditions—so we are pretty uniquely positioned to develop IoT capabilities.

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