Cisco's Aim: Rule Content Distribution

Playing catch-up with Inktomi, Cisco Systems is mobilizing resources to dominate the content distribution space with 11 new products offering a turnkey solution to content distributors-to-be and a content peering alliance of its own.The timing of Cisco's move is precarious.

Playing catch-up with Inktomi, Cisco Systems is mobilizing resources to dominate the content distribution space with 11 new products offering a turnkey solution to content distributors-to-be and a content peering alliance of its own.

The timing of Cisco's move is precarious. The announcement comes just days after caching technology provider Inktomi launched an initiative, dubbed "Content Bridge," that aims at the same goals Cisco has set forward in its initiative. What's more, some of the very same carriers that have jointed Content Bridge - Mirror Image, Exodus and Digital Island - have joined Cisco's Content Alliance as well. Both groups aim to develop an industry-wide standard that would help service providers utilize their networking infrastructure to support content distribution business both technically and economically.

Still, the move is bound to create some confusion in the marketplace, especially given that Cisco's Content Alliance may not be the last group that would try to band together a group of carriers to crack content distribution's code.

"There are some other titans in the industry that are now moving, and certainly Digital Island is not going to be in every initiative under the sun," said Tim Wilson, Digital Island vice president of marketing. "Cisco's Content Deliver Network is really a much broader initiative [than Content Bridge], which handles the routing infrastructure, the switching infrastructure and what happens in the hosting environment, where as Inktomi is focused on just the cache component of the Web site."

Cisco's move is especially interesting given that the company is a major investor in Akamai Technologies, a content distributor that is leading the market with a 70 percent market share. Cisco executives refuted the idea that Cisco-led alliance might hurt Akamai more than any other industry-wide effort aimed at easing market leader's grasp on content distribution industry.

"Our objective is not simply to allow other people to compete with Akamai more effectively, but to make the market more openly available for more service providers to offer a service," said Joe Hielscher, Cisco's director of product marketing and product management. "What this is hoping to do is to make it possible for more service providers to offer a service that can either augment with, compete with, or peer with the Akamai solution."

Some industry insiders believe that this sudden activity by various vendors involved in the networking industry is the first sign of vendors beginning to scramble for dominating a new niche in the networking equipment market - that for content distribution appliances. "What we don't want to do is to let vendors go out in strange directions, and we intend to argue for common standards where they make sense," Wilson said.

Cisco's product line is a good indication of where the market for content distribution devices is going. The vendor presented a list of five categories for content distribution appliances, none of which fits a common definition of a router or a server.

"All these products are appliances with a proprietary operating system, with one exception - one of them is a switch - and being appliances, if you define server as having a disk drive in it, then most of them have disk drives in them, but some of them we call content routers because their primary purpose is to provide connectivity for information between sites and to select an optimal server in the variety of algorithms and metrics," Hielscher said.

Broken down by functionality, each of the devices, which has some disk space characteristic of a server, and some routing capabilities further enhanced by their ability to tap into existing Cisco routers, are classified as: content distributors and managers; content routers; content switches; content edge deliverers; and intelligent network service appliances. Cisco execs believe the earliest that the entire line of products will be deployed is early October when it first ships in its entirety, with content peering following up in the first half of next year. Cisco's content distribution installations will use existing Cisco infrastructure, but would require carriers to buy a whole new line of products, an installation that could easily ring up a couple of million to start with, according to company officials.

Despite a sleek product offering, carriers participating in Cisco's Content Alliance point out that the effort is at least six months behind Content Bridge's initiative because Cisco hasn't even defined what content peering is.

"Cisco's content peering workgroup is just defining what content peering might be, whereas Inktomi has put forward at least some concepts, and the other technology is at least a little bit further advanced in terms of a deployment timeframe. But I don't think one vendor will solve it all," Wilson said.