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.