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Akamai Strives For a Safer, Speedier Net

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page E01

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

It was dark and eerily quiet here Monday in the network command center of Akamai Technologies Inc., an unusual company whose mission of easing Internet traffic jams gives it a clear view of what's happening on the Internet.

Co-founder Tom Leighton, an applied mathematics professor at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was pacing in front of large wall monitors displaying revolving globes and blinking charts -- graphics that do for the Internet what heart monitors do for humans. A single red spike in an illuminated graph suggested a major Internet traffic carrier had dropped a batch of communications, but otherwise there were no hints of data disasters.


The network control center at Akami Technologies, which handles 15 percent of all Internet traffic. (Leslie Walker -- The Washington Post)

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"This is all normal," he declared. "In fact, it looks unusually good right now."

Such was not the case the morning of June 15, when the Internet's heartbeat skipped a few mega-beats and a Priority 1 alert popped up on Akamai's wall display, sending the few humans present scurrying to telephone federal authorities and alert Akamai's customers to the fact that something was amiss.

In the June 15 incident, unidentified attackers (who still have not been caught) used vulnerabilities in the Internet's address system to interrupt traffic to Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and other large customers of Akamai's traffic management services. Leighton declined to specify what was unusual about the method -- "We don't want copycats'' -- except to say it was aimed at the system for looking up Internet domain names.

"That was a very sophisticated attack; the nature of it was novel," Leighton recalled.

Akamai worked with federal authorities to shut down the zombie "botnets," or virus-infected computers, that had been unwittingly used to launch the attack, then designed ways to thwart repeats.

There was enormous irony in the fact that hackers had succeeded, at least for a few hours, in sharply slowing traffic to and from big Web sites that had hired Akamai to speed up their traffic and make it more reliable.

While Akamai is hardly a household name, it handles about 15 percent of all Internet traffic, and it helps serve the Web sites of more than 1,000 government and commercial customers, including most major news and search sites, FedEx, Apple Computer, the FBI, Defense Department and the Homeland Security Department. Akamai also handled Web video streaming this summer for the Olympics, Major League Baseball and both presidential nominating conventions.


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