Exclusive: Akamai Interview with Kris Alexander

Akamai provides connects companies to their clients. The very word “middlewear” sometimes causes a glaze to come over people’s eyes, but it is actually a very important part of making sure people get what they want, when they want it. Akamai is in that business and recently our own Shannon Drake interviewed Akamai Senior Product Line Manager Kris Alexander about the company and the services they provide.

Akamai: Connecting People
Based on interview with Kris Alexander (Akamai)
Article by Shannon Drake

Akamai is one of those big companies you don’t hear much about, but they work quietly in every aspect of your Internet life, from the websites you view to the music you download to the games you play. Imagine an entire company devoted to making sure you have a better gaming experience and you’ll begin to see the wonder in what they do. Kris Alexander is the Senior Product Line Manager for Akamai, and his job is to make sure that you have a better online gaming experience.

If the name rings a bell, he says, you’ve probably run into their website acceleration business – “everything from MTV to CNN to things like Gamespot and Gamespy” – but they also deliver software for everyone from Microsoft to Sun to the Playstation 3 for the PlayStation Network, as well as the Nintendo Wii’s diverse lineup of software offerings. Akamai provides those companies what Alexander calls a, “service platform” that allows them to skip the step of building all their own infrastructure, “so that they can focus on doing what they do well, which is making great games, and what we provide is everything from storing games and game-related content to delivering it, plus allowing the user communities to publish back in, providing the tools…to publish things back into the user community.”

Akamai has been working closely with Nintendo and Sony, Alexander says, because “they were extremely concerned about making sure that they provided a pretty high quality end user experience, because Microsoft already had like a six million unit lead on them. We spent a lot of time talking to them about what kind of end user experience they wanted to make sure they provided.” Akamai worked with them to make sure that, “certain key pieces of content – game-related content, games and other key pieces of content-got to both of those devices [the PS3 and Wii].” When you’re relaxing on the couch checking out the weather in Cairo simply because you can, you can quietly thank Akamai and their server backbone and tools.

Their technology also allows them to provide developers with the most important knowledge they can get: what is actually happening to the user. Akamai gathers “information on everything that’s happening, so that we provide all the reports on what the actual end-user experience is like.” They can provide the developer details on regional variances in the connection to the servers, where their players are coming from, the kind of Internet connection they’re using, allowing them to find out who is having problems and, most importantly, how to solve them. Elaborating, Alexander says, “Anytime somebody downloads or requests a piece of content that comes across the Akamai network, we can basically-down to the zip code-tell where the request came from, did the end-user get the whole thing or did they only get part of it, did they choose to terminate it on their own or was it terminated due to a bad connection, essentially, what happened to the end-user experience.” Usually, he says, they start getting all sorts of complaints on their forums, “but they don’t actually know what’s going on, and so they can’t fix the problem. They’re trying to placate all the unhappy gamers on their boards, but they don’t actually know how to actually fix the problems. And so one of the reasons we capture all this information is that we can, basically, laserpoint them down to, ‘Here’s the problem. And here’s how to fix it.”
Future projects for the company include a heavy push into digital distribution-names he mentioned included Turbine, Electronic Arts, Popcap, NHN, and Nexon-as well as working with developers to ensure players get the best possible connection to game servers.

Alexander says that Akamai has so many points of presence on the Internet that they can track, in real time, the fastest route between two points on the Internet. Ordinarily, he says, routing “goes by the default rules, the economics of whatever business is using them. So, if someone is getting traffic onto their network that costs them a lot of money, they want to get it off as quickly as possible, which is contradictory to having a great end-user experience.” Akamai can figure out, in real time, what the best route for that traffic would be, and they’ve already applied it to some applications to reduce latency and lag. “We are actively talking to gaming companies right now about applying that,” Alexander says, “[and] if you look at everything from MMOGs to first person shooters, anything with a lot of client-server communications, one of the biggest problems is inconsistent end-user experience. Because, depending on where you’re coming from, you may have a worse experience than somebody else.” Akamai can apply their technology and map that route, he says “so we can improve that experience of the real-time interaction with the service.”

They’re also working closely with developers and publishers. “The thing that we consistently hear is that they don’t have the actual tools [for building] the client-side pieces of software.” He uses download managers as an example, saying developers could use, “a consistent set of APIs… that are used across the industry, and that’s what we’re really focusing on.” His central focus is, “How can we help to improve the end-user experience?” he says, and thinks they can do that, “by providing a more consistent toolset for the industry for download managers, download management APIs, [and] standards in APIs for how to collect data for the end user experience, so that makes it more seamless and improves the overall experience.” If you ever notice everything working perfectly, you might want to say a quiet thanks to Akamai.

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