Panther Express: CDNs for the little guy

The NYC startup is knocking down the barriers to content distribution

It's 1999; the dotcom bubble has inflated to a monstrous, menacing size; and tech firms all over the world are hungry for bandwidth. The reasons are simple: Accepted wisdom is that victory goes to those who can attract and keep the most eyeballs. That means that companies -- whether media outfits, B2B portals, or e-commerce sites -- have to keep their Web pages up and serving pages quickly.

Companies like Massachusetts-based Mirror Image and Akamai were all the rage, helping smooth out the surges in demand for content and speed up Web page performance by serving up content closer to where users actually lived.

Then came the bust of 2000. With ambitious dotcoms washing up in bankruptcy court like toxified fish after an algae bloom, bandwidth and datacenter rack space, once scarce resources, became abundant. In that environment, CDNs (content distribution networks) seemed an extravagance for all but the most heavily trafficked Web sites.

Ah, how things change. A mere seven years later, dotcom startups are all the rage again -- albeit with different business models and a different attitude. Demand for bandwidth is also soaring with the advent of global outsourcing and high-bandwidth habits like video streaming and VoIP going mainstream.

Look around the CDN space, however, and many of the names look awfully familiar: Akamai, for one, survived its precipitous drop from the dotcom stratosphere and has incrementally updated its offerings and built out its worldwide network of caching servers. But a dearth of competitors has translated into high prices for customers, says Kevin Ryan, CEO of Panther Express, a New York City startup in the CDN space that hopes to make content caching and CDNs as common as Web hosting in the next decade.

Ryan knows a thing or two about managing big networks. As president and then CEO of DoubleClick from 1996 - 2005, he oversaw the growth of that Web advertising giant from its startup days through its sale to private equity firm Hellman & Friedman in 2005.

Running DoubleClick taught Ryan and Panther Express CTO Dwight Merriman a lot about the CDN space.

"DoubleClick basically is a CDN," he argues. "To a server, an ad is the same as content. Nobody thinks of it that way, but it's true."

If anything, serving ads can be trickier than merely serving content because ad campaigns almost always rely on sophisticated policies on logic on the back end to organize and manage thousands of concurrent ad campaigns, he said.

For Panther Express, Ryan and Merriman decided to start from scratch: Writing efficient code that could optimize performance and hardware as well as finely control bandwidth, caching, and content serving.

In many cases, that meant looking for ways to minimize the cost of Panther Express, and doing less -- not more -- than larger, more mature competitors, which spent the last few years expanding their offerings to speed up everything from software downloads to video streaming, corporate Web applications, b-to-b transactions, and two-way Web 2.0 interactions.

"Akamai was built from day one to be a gold plated service. It's a good offering, but it's expensive. I saw that you could give people 90 percent of the functionality at less cost. What customers care about is great performance at a very low price," he said.

Tom Plunkett, vice president of IT at Gawker Media, an early Panther Express customer, said that Panther isn't yet able to do the kind of sophisticated Web application acceleration that competitors like Akamai can but that the service is perfect for the kind of content Gawker is serving up: Web content, images, and video.

Plunkett said that Panther's pricing is lower than its competitors and doesn't come with the hefty penalties for exceeding expected bandwidth use that Akamai and Mirror Image impose.

So far, the market seems to agree. Since announcing its first client one year ago, Panther Express has signed 100 clients in the U.S. and Europe. Business is growing quickly enough, in fact, that Ryan has had to delay new customer roll-outs to give his company time to prepare.

For now, the types of companies interested in CDNs are still what you'd expect: media and consumer-oriented firms that have to manage heavy daily traffic and intermittent spikes without breaking a sweat. But with Gartner predicting the market for CDNs and ADNs (application delivery networks) will double in the next three years, companies like Panther hope to drive down the price of the technology to a point where more companies can take advantage of what CDNs have to offer, Ryan said.

"Over time, you're going to wonder why anyone would use something other than a CDN," he said.