It has become one of the most vital statistics for any e-business: Web site performance. Quick site response times mean happy, eager-to-return customers; slow responses mean frustrated users who will head off to a competitor in a mouseclick.
For many sites, boosting site performance now involves some kind of caching technology that allows temporary storage of content for faster user access. It is a trend that has led to an explosion of growth across the caching industry, including content-delivery services such as Akamai and Digital Island, and is forcing hardware and software caching companies to keep innovating just to keep up.
"People are putting a lot of effort into this kind of edge acceleration, which means getting it away from the Internet," says Peter Christy, research director and research fellow at Jupiter Communications, based in San Francisco. "There's a boundary to get content close to where you're going to consume it."
Caching companies are singling out one piece of the process for particular attention: the "last mile" - the last segment of content delivery. Accelerating the last mile means more content and action pushed out to the edge to be more quickly accessible to end-users, and Christy believes this will make caching even more valuable.
For Los Altos-based Fireclick, the last mile has been the focus of its Blueflame caching software, which uses predictive caching technology to preload a user's browser cache with content, thereby improving performance. The company will soon unveil Netflame, which turns Blueflame into a hosted service running on Fireclick's network.
Netflame subscribers run a "Fireclicker" script to add a line of code to the HTML body of each page, which then calls a Java applet from the Netflame network to do the acceleration, explained Steve O'Brien, vice president of marketing at Fireclick. Netflame also marks Fireclick's foray into the ASP (application service provider) space.
"Ninety per cent of the pain occurs in the last mile, and I think that's why people are really starting to focus on it," O'Brien says. "The answer previously had been 'Oh, broadband's going to solve that [performance problem],' and I think people are finding out with DSL and cable modem adoption that broadband's great, but not everybody's going to have access to it this year so we'd better do something in the meantime."
Fireclick will soon begin adding complementary technologies to Blueflame and Netflame, such as Web management and monitoring tools and adding caches to "different points in the Internet bottleneck", O'Brien says.
"Now, the pure-play caching vendors compete with each other: Inktomi competes with CacheFlow [which] competes with Network Appliance [which] competes with Cisco," O'Brien says. "We chose to focus on the last mile, and there haven't been many direct competitors. I know that won't last very long because all those people I just mentioned know about this problem and are doing something about it."
CacheFlow is offering a new product line headed by the CacheFlow Server Accelerator, which improves site performance by easing the burden of Web servers. Content requests can be routed to the Server Accelerator, which delivers the content from memory and enables Web servers to handle the more involved processes, such as running applications and handling credit card transactions.
Greg Govatos, director of product marketing at CacheFlow, says that the target market for the Server Accelerator will be e-businesses and enterprises putting content online for employees and partners, as well as hosting providers who are viewing it as a potential managed service.
CacheFlow is also working on making caches collection points for user information, such as time of access and location, that can then send out targeted content for open Web-based marketing to small, local merchants.
"Overall, caching is becoming much more of a content-smart, content-intelligent-type technology, and it's really rising in the capabilities it can deliver," Govatos says. "Instead of just 'We hold these objects and we serve them up,' now it's determining how to best deliver information to a particular user at a particular time and place, and taking all those factors into account within that transaction."
Meanwhile, Packeteer is increasing the intelligence of its AppCelera Internet Content Accelerator (ICX) - based on caching technology from recently acquired Workfire - to address last-mile performance by adapting to the user's resources. AppCelera ICX can transform content to match browser types and also compress data for faster delivery based on connection speed.
According to Jennifer Geisler, senior marketing manager at Packeteer, the infamous eight-second standard online waiting time is far too slow for today's users. "We believe it's going to be down to two seconds or even less," she says.