OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

Summary: Akamai's servers and Apple's datacenters are being hammered for OS X Lion downloads. But going forward, is it the right content distribution network for Apple?

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Akamai's servers and Apple's datacenters are being hammered for OS X Lion downloads. But going forward, is it the right content distribution network for Apple? Click on the photo to enlarge.

This morning, I awoke to the news that OS X Lion had been released and was available on the Mac App Store. Without even my first cup of coffee in hand, I clicked on the "Download" button.

What did I get? "This action cannot be completed at this time."

Over the next hour and a half, from 8am to 9:30am, I clicked, and I clicked, and I clicked. Same message. No Lion. Get in line.

I had wondered how Apple was going to handle large downloads from their App Store infrastructure on launch day. Were they going to do it centralized, all from their new billion-dollar datacenter in North Carolina, or would they use a content distribution network? And if they did use a CDN, were they going to build their own, or outsource it?

Well, I found out pretty quickly. They outsourced it, to Akamai. The header graphic in this article is the proof in the pudding.

Once the transaction was able to be kicked off, the download itself from Akamai happened pretty quickly. From my Optimum Online Ultra connection here in Northern NJ, I was able to download the DMG file/installer in about half an hour.

Now, Akamai's system architecture is a known quantity. We've covered this before, when we talked about how the 2008 Olympics live video feeds from MSN was serviced by one of Akamai's competitors, Limelight.

The two then duked it out on the blog over whose content distribution methodology is better.

Unlike Akamai, which uses DNS and datacenter replication as the foundation for its systems architecture, Limelight uses the edge of ISP networks via dedicated fiber connection to cache content, from its globally replicated datacenters, so that the "Hop" to your download is extremely short, eliminating latency and potentially throttling bottlenecks. In some cases, the content is actually co-located at the ISP.

Effectively, with LimeLight, you aren't even going over the public Internet to do a download. You're using a private network.

Akamai, which is also used by companies such as Microsoft to deliver large downloads for services such as MSDN, uses front-end load balancers which through the magic of DNS CNAMES and A-Records points to a single IP.

Akamai's IP load balancing algorithm then redirects your download to a datacenter that is supposed to be the fastest connection for you.

Also Read: Big Files, Fast Internet? Lion Download Speeds (ZDNet Networking)

When the re-direct occurs, the stuff is supposed to just work. But if it breaks at the redirect or the transaction kicking it off doesn't occur, all that DNS magic isn't particularly useful.

I suspect that this morning, when I couldn't get the App Store transaction to kick off for about an hour and a half, there were probably too many sessions hitting the Akamai load balancers at once, so there was no "slot" available. It either broke at the Apple datacenter side, or at the Akamai load-balancing side. Any way you want to slice it, the system got overwhelmed.

Clearly, Apple is going to become very dependent on cloud services in the future, as iCloud is launched with iOS 5 and a huge amount of content starts to get synchronized across millions and millions of devices.

Is a distributed, front-end IP load-balanced methodology such as Akamai's the best way to approach and to scale this, or is an "edge network" ISP-peering type architecture such as LimeLight's more appropriate?

Back in October of 2010 I wrote about how Apple might spend its $50 billion in cash. One of those suggestions was to buy or build out a CDN.

Given the heavy load which I expect Apple's App Store and iTunes Service to take over the coming months and years as Cloud becomes the prevalent form of content distribution for the company, I think Apple needs to very seriously look at how data should be distributed to the customer.

Personally, I think the ISP peering "Short hop" type of infrastructure with some intelligence occurring at the device level is probably a better systems architecture than Akamai's, but not all of these issues can be solved at the CDN itself.

All I know is something broke this morning -- either Apple's $1B datacenter and transaction processing back-end wasn't up to handling the sheer volume of requests, or Akamai's front-end choked.

Neither of which is going to fly when iCloud actually goes online, which is going to make Lion downloads look like child's play.

Are Apple's datacenters and Akamai really up to the task of delivering iCloud? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Software, Apple, Operating Systems

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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28 comments
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  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    i don't know about you but down here in the bay area in florida i got 4.5MB/S on my download for Lion it was done in 10 minutes :)
    Viper589
    • I average 2MB/sec and it took about 25 minutes

      @Knix96

      Simple and flawless. This was at about 8:00 MST.
      Bruizer
    • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

      @Knix96
      Isn't the download size over 4Gb's,your speed and time equates to a download of 2.7Gb's,am I missing some thing?
      morrig
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    I dunno.. I clicked to buy and download this morning and it downloaded the whole thing in an hour... no problems. Maybe you were just lucky :-)
    doh123
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    I do think this illustrates the potential for problems. I'm not happy about this at all - call me old-fashioned but give me my own install disk or drive, please. Downloading it assumes that everyone will have internet access when they need to do this or they're shit out of luck. Also, what about all the people with bandwidth caps?
    Violet Blue
    • Flash with OS X Lion will be available in August -- no need for Interent,

      @violetblue: ... and no need for DVDs.
      DDERSSS
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    I'm surprised there is no optional "backup disc", which most won't use but some can.

    That's how Microsoft let you download Office 2010 with it's home use program. You can completely ignore the ISO and wait for the DVD if you want.
    bradavon
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    All fine and dandy for those living in Amerika, land of excess and unlimited data bandwidth. For those of us in the rest of the world with data caps, this is a non-starter. I'm not going to waste almost half a month's data cap on one download and then sit at dialup speed for the rest of the month. Where's my DVD?????
    apteryx05
    • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

      @apteryx05

      Dam that monthly cap would kill me :P but thanks to Verizon Fios for their unlimited connection :D
      Viper589
    • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

      @apteryx05 . Are you serious. I downloaded lion in an hour from Bangkok? Thailand. This is the future of distribution so get used to it. When iPhone first came out I heard many rant about on screen keyboard ...do you heard them anymore. How about floppy in pc ?
      dotroy@...
  • My download went without a hitch, Jason.

    Must be something in the New Jersey water disrupting the Lion download in your location. Bad luck.
    kenosha77a
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    simple and fast. Took about 20 mins to download and 30 to install. No issues whatsoever...
    ElgatoNL
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    Why are you making assumptions of what caused your download failure without facts supporting that? Use wireshark and talk facts before blaming a company or the other.
    jagar_unix
    • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

      @jagar_unix You did see what tool I used in that screenshot, no?

      I did wireshark the entire thing. But if it broke at Apple's transaction and Akamai integration layer, BEFORE it kicks it off to Akamai using the App Store application, there's no way Wireshark would detect it.
      jperlow
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    [i]What did I get? ?This action cannot be completed at this time.?[/i]

    Well, ya know since Apple fans are used to waiting in lines on opening day... I figure this should be no big deal.
    Badgered
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    The outcome can actually be worse. I attempted two downloads of Mac OS X Lion, neither of which were successful. Unfortunately, Snow Leopard is convinced the process completed. I could not resume either download nor could I start a new download. I had to open a support case with Apple, and I'm not very optimistic about the problem being resolved anytime soon.
    cvcgrad
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    I don't think the author actually understands how Akamai works at all. Akamai is at the edge, in ISP co-los. I suspect your ISP being the problem more than Akamai. Limelight doesn't scale as well for non-video traffic.
    ncted
  • No it's not the magic of DNS records and CNAMEs

    It's BGP anycasting. Look it up.

    -M
    betelgeuse68
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    I don't think Apple should spend the money to gear up for introduction-day download traffic. Waiting at home at your computer sure beats standing in line outside an Apple store or waiting for FedEx to deliver the disks.
    thorntondw
  • RE: OS X Lion Awakens: Can Akamai handle downloads for Apple's Cloud?

    Unfortunately Apple think that the rest of the world is as advanced as the Cupertino campus. Not even in rural areas people have a decent download speed. Sure, they can go to an Apple Store, waiting in line and download it over there were they used to walk in and get the OS in seconds. But what to think about all those people in developing countries who do not have Credit Cards and where gift coupons are not sold. They have just one option. A rip off. Especially given the fact that the credit card processor that Apple is using is not even accepting most of the debit cards issued by banks. The advantage that Apple thinks to create may become a very big obstacle for customers now and in the near future. Just sell a damn thumb drive in a apple authorized store too, what is the problem?
    rhon@...