How Akamai Got Its Start
Akamai’s beginnings lie in a challenge posed by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in early 1995. The father of the Web foresaw the congestion that was soon to become very familiar to Internet users, and he challenged colleagues at MIT to invent a fundamentally new and better way to deliver Internet content. What he may not have foreseen was that posing the problem in an academic setting would ultimately result in a commercial service that has revolutionized the Internet.
MIT Professor of Applied Mathematics Tom Leighton, who had an office down the hall from Dr. Berners-Lee, was intrigued by the challenge. Dr. Leighton, a renowned expert on parallel algorithms and architecture was head of the Algorithms Group at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science. Dr. Leighton recognized that a solution to Web congestion could be found in applied mathematics and algorithms and he assembled a team of researchers to tackle the problem.
After obtaining his undergraduate degrees in computer science and mathematics from the Technion, Danny Lewin came to MIT in the Fall of 1996 to work with Dr. Leighton. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Lewin began making rapid and important progress on a variety of techniques for improving Internet performance. Working with the team, Dr. Leighton and Mr. Lewin developed the mathematical algorithms necessary to intelligently route and replicate content over a large network of distributed servers, technology that would ultimately solve what was becoming a frustrating problem for Internet users.
Building a Business
In 1997, Dr. Leighton and Mr. Lewin began exploring the possible commercial use of their technology. Together with Preetish Nijhawan (a student at MIT’s Sloan school) they entered the esteemed annual MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition in September of that year. Over the course of the 9-month competition, the $50K team grew substantially and their business plan was selected as one of six finalists among 100 entries. The distinction signaled that Internet content delivery had serious market potential and on August 20, 1998, Dr. Leighton and Mr. Lewin incorporated Akamai, with Jonathan Seelig (a student at the Sloan school) and Randall Kaplan joining the founding team. Akamai obtained an exclusive license to certain intellectual property from MIT, and development efforts began in the fall of 1998. Most of the company’s early employees were students who had worked on the project at MIT.
In late 1998 and early 1999, experienced Internet business professionals joined the team. Most notably, Paul Sagan, who was a former President of Time Inc. New Media, a founder of Road Runner cable modem service and who helped launch NY 1 News, became chief operating officer and eventually president of Akamai (later serving as CEO from 2005 – 2013). George Conrades, former chairman and chief executive officer of BBN Corp. and senior vice president of U.S. Operations for IBM, assumed the helm as Akamai’s first chairman and chief executive officer in April 1999.
Launching Commercial Service
The company grew rapidly and delivered its first live traffic (a pixel buried deep in the Disney site) in February of 1999. In March, Akamai gained significant market exposure when it enabled the delivery of March Madness for ESPN and a Star Wars trailer for Entertainment Tonight, both of which experienced historic levels of user demand. Akamai launched commercial service in April 1999 and announced that one of the world's most-trafficked Web properties, Yahoo!, was a charter customer.