Road Runner, ISP Channel Beef Up Caching Skills

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More high-speed online-service providers are moving to
thwart potential traffic bottlenecks by locally storing content that users would otherwise
have to get from the Internet.

Road Runner said last week that it awarded a $5 million
contract to privately held CacheFlow Inc. to deploy that company's caching solution,
which speeds retrieval of Internet and other online content.

Separately, SoftNet Systems Inc. said it would expand its
strategic relationship with Inktomi Corp., becoming the exclusive OEM (original-equipment
manufacturer) distributor of an "Inktomi Traffic Server" caching product for
small and midsized cable operators.

The product, "SkyPOP," will be made available
through SoftNet's ISP Channel turnkey cable Internet-access system provider and by
Intellicom, its satellite-based high-speed commercial Internet link.

Road Runner and SoftNet are following the lead of @Home
Network, which agreed last summer to use Inktomi's network-caching software as an
integral part of its broadband Internet-access infrastructure.

Because of packet losses, congested servers and even
speed-of-light limits, Internet speeds are significantly slower than the throughput
capabilities of broadband cable networks.

The slowdowns are compounded by the fact that there may be
a number of "round-trips" between a browser and distance server to download a
single Web page. So even users of high-speed networks such as Road Runner and @Home may
suffer slow delivery of text, graphics, streaming video or other content accessed on
remote Web servers.

Those speed bumps are likely to get worse before the
situation gets better, as Internet usage surges and more people tap broadband access via
cable, digital subscriber lines or satellite networks, causing demand for high-bandwidth
content to snowball.

By caching temporary copies of Internet content at local
locations like cable headends -- or, in Road Runner's case, regional data centers --
operators reduce the amount of data that users have to get from Web servers and slash the
time that users spend in national network traffic.

"Better efficiency is obtained because the customer,
instead of going over the network to obtain that content, can get it locally," Road
Runner senior vice president of operations Stephen Van Beaver said.

"We also wanted to optimize our bandwidth costs by
decreasing the requirement that customers go over the backbone to obtain content," he
added. "We believe that this solution will reduce our bandwidth costs and, in many
ways, pay for itself."

In January, Road Runner started evaluating alternatives to
proxy servers for its caching needs, forecasting a need for more advanced caching
techniques due to subscriber growth and the addition of more sophisticated content, Van
Beaver said.

For example: Road Runner said last week that in late May,
it would offer subscribers access to a 3-D virtual music environment created by software
and content provider Worlds Inc.

Using an animated alter ego, or "avatar," Road
Runner customers will be able to move throughout different settings representing eight
music genres, listening to streaming audio and watching music videos and live cybercasts.
The avatars also walk, express happiness or anger, dance and even fly.

"The richer the content, the more you're going to
need a solution like this," CacheFlow CEO Brian NeSmith said.

CacheFlow said its solution goes beyond simple caching by
using proprietary algorithms that automatically keep cached Internet content up to date
and reduce latencies that slow data speeds.

The solution incorporates the company's
"CacheOS" operating system, embedded in "Internet accelerator"
appliances installed at Road Runner's data centers.

So far, six of the devices -- which Van Beaver said are
attached to the network's "Layer Four" switches -- have been installed in
MediaOne Group Inc. cable systems. And more are planned for Time Warner Cable systems.

Van Beaver could not quantify the improvements that Road
Runner has experienced so far in access speeds. But he said performance had improved
significantly, lopping seconds off download times for a service where one minute is
considered almost an eternity.