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Mail and Scale

Looking forward, a few business opportunities have obvious appeal to both Google and Akamai. For example, both companies could take their experience in building large-scale distributed clusters to create a massive backup system for small businesses and home PC users. Or they could take over management of home PCs, turning them into smart terminals running applications on remote servers. This would let PC users escape the drudgery of administering their own machines, installing new applications, and keeping anti-virus programs up to date.

And then there is e-mail. Back on April 1, Google announced that it was going to enter the consumer e-mail business with an unorthodox press release: “Search is Number Two Online Activity-Email is Number One: ‘Heck, Yeah,’ Say Google Founders.”

Since then, Google has received considerable publicity for the announced design of its Gmail (Google Mail) offering. The free service promises consumers one gigabyte of mail storage (more than a hundred times the storage offered by other Web mail providers), astounding search through mail archives, and the promise that consumers will never need to delete an e-mail message again. At first many people thought that the announcement was an April Fools joke-a gigabyte per user just seemed like too much storage. But since the vast majority of users won’t use that much storage, what Google’s promise really says is that Google can buy new hard drives faster than the Internet’s users can fill them up. [Editor’s note: Google’s proposal to fund Gmail by showing advertisements based on the content of users’ e-mail has received significant criticism from a variety of privacy activists. Earlier this month a number of privacy activists circulated a letter asking Google to not launch Gmail until these privacy issues had been resolved. Simson Garfinkel signed that letter as a supporter after this article was written but before its publication.]

Google’s infrastructure seems well-suited to the deployment of a service like Gmail. Last summer Google published a technical paper called The Google File System (GFS), which is apparently the underlying technology developed by Google for allowing high-speed replication and access of data throughout its clusters. With GFS, each user’s e-mail could be replicated between several different Google clusters; when users log into Gmail their Web browser could automatically be directed to the closest cluster that had a copy of their messages.

This is hard technology to get right-and exactly the kind of system that Akamai has been developing for the past six years. In fact, there’s no reason, in principle, why Akamai couldn’t deploy a similar large-scale e-mail system fairly easily on its own servers. No reason, that is, except for the company’s philosophy.

Leighton doesn’t think that Akamai would move into any business that required the company to deal directly with end users. More likely, he says, Akamai would provide the infrastructure to some other company that would be in a position to do the billing, customer support, and marketing to end users. “Our focus is selling into the enterprise,” he says.

George Hamilton, an analyst at the Yankee Group who covers enterprise computing and networking, agrees. Hamilton calls the idea of Google competing with Akamai “far-fetched.” But Google could hire Akamai to supplement Google’s technology needs, he says.

Still, such a partnership seems unlikely-at least on the surface. Google might buy Akamai, the way the company bought Pyra Labs in February 2003 to acquire Pyra’s Blogger personal Web publishing system. But Akamai, with its culture of openness, doesn’t seem like a good match to secretive Google’s. Then there is the fact that 20 percent of Akamai’s revenue now comes directly from Microsoft, according to Akamai’s November 2003 quarterly report. Google’s rivalry with Microsoft in Internet search (and now in e-mail) has been widely commented upon in the press; it is unlikely that the company would want to work so closely with such a close Microsoft partner.

Ted Schadler, a vice president at the market research firm Forrester, says that it’s possible to envision the two companies competing because they are both going after the same opportunity in massive, distributed computing. “In that sense, they have the same vision. They have to build out a lot of the same technology because it doesn’t exist. They are having to learn lots of the same lessons and develop lots of the same technologies and business models.”

Schadler says Akamai and Google are both examples of what he calls “programmable Internet business channels.” These channels are companies that offer large infrastructure that can offer high quality services on the Internet to hundreds of millions of users at the flick of a switch. Google and Akamai are such companies, but so are, eBay and even Yahoo!. “They are all services that enable business activity-foundation services that [can be] scaled securely,” Schadler says.

“If I were a betting man,” Schadler adds, “I would say that Google is much more interested in serving the customer and Akamai is more interested in provide the infrastructure-it’s retail versus wholesale. There will be lots and lots of these retail-oriented services.”

If true, Google might suddenly find itself competing with a company that, like Google itself, seemed to come out of nowhere. Except this time, that company wouldn’t have to figure out any of the tricks of running the massive infrastructure itself.

And that explains why Google is so secretive.

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