Cloud service provider Akamai Technologies

Akamai Technologies CEO Dr Tom Leighton on creativity, ideas and the future of connectivity

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Dr Tom Leighton, the warm, friendly founder and CEO of American content delivery network and cloud service provider Akamai Technologies, has a great story about how and why his company got its name. Although it sounds like something one would christen a Thai restaurant, Akamai is actually a Hawaiian word that means intelligent, cool and clever.

“We initially called the company Cache, a play on caching technology. But we soon realised that caching sometimes had a somewhat negative connotation. And then a marketing expert told us to use a Hawaiian word because he thought a lot of companies were going to do that and it would be the in thing to do. Nobody else did, though, and we stuck to Akamai so we are now the only company with a Hawaiian name,” he smiles.

It is a nice anecdote to accompany the story of a man and a company that has done wonders for  the internet, unbeknownst to many of us. Akamai is a trusted cloud delivery and cybersecurity platform, upon which many of the world’s biggest brands and enterprises build and secure their digital experiences.

One of the world’s preeminent authorities on algorithms for network applications and cybersecurity, Leighton — a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — discovered a solution to reduce web congestion using applied mathematics and distributed computing.

Akamai used this technology to create the world’s largest distributed computing platform, which today delivers and secures tens of millions of requests per second to billions of users around the world. Leighton holds more than 50 patents involving content delivery, internet protocols, algorithms for networks, cryptography and digital rights management. Leighton was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame earlier this year for his inventions in content delivery.

Akamai was founded 19 years ago, when the internet didn’t operate in the way it does now. In 1996, it only had 10 million users, compared with three billion today. People accessed the World Wide Web with computers, while today the majority of surfing is done on-the-go through mobile devices like phones and tablets. Online safety was also less of an issue — no one did their banking online or bought groceries via an app, so the idea of secure transactions was pretty much non-existent.

However, congestion was already something that Leighton could foresee, and that was what Akamai was set up to solve. “We were doing research from a mathematics perspective on how we could find better ways to distribute content and relieve congestion. And then we came to the view that this was theoretical research that could work in practice,” Leighton says. Incidentally, Sir Tim Berners-Lee — who is credited with inventing the internet and whose office was a few doors down from Leighton’s — also foresaw congestion as an issue.

Leighton: "I find it pretty amazing that we are part of enabling all of this. We don’t invent the use cases, but we enable what is invented to work, to be fast and to be secure."

“We tried to get other companies like telcos and ISPs to use it. But back then, they didn’t believe distributed computing could work in the real world. So, the best way to get the tech to be used was to use it ourselves — and that happened through MIT’s year-long business competition. Through that process, we learnt about writing a business plan and getting funding and, ultimately, we bit the bullet and started the business ourselves.”

Although Google has made technology look sexy and creative in recent times, Leighton says that inspiration and innovation in the field has always been of utmost importance even way back then. At MIT in particular, there was a strong collaborative culture that constantly encouraged new ideas, no matter whose they were. Indeed, Akamai was founded jointly by Leighton and Daniel Lewin, who was then a graduate student. Lewin died in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York at 31 years old. Other members of the founding team were  Paul Sagan, former president of New Media for Time Inc and former chairman and CEO of BBN Corp, and George Conrades, senior vice-president of US operations for IBM. Both were CEOs of Akamai  before Leighton himself was elected to the role in 2013.

As unusual as it is to go from academia to entrepreneurship, Leighton feels many of his academic skills have helped him greatly and he is glad to have brought with him much of the culture that made MIT as exciting as it is.

“As an academic, we have an understanding of the technology, which is very important in high-tech businesses. Also, the understanding of research and investing in it for innovation is very important. The ability to communicate and teach is very useful so you can ensure everyone is moving in the same direction. Academics are also very inclusive and diverse, and that makes the company a nice place to work,” he says.

Akamai is getting ready to move into its own facility next year, also in the Cambridge area where the idea for the company first germinated — and Leighton is thrilled. “We grew out of MIT and we have always been adjacent to the campus. Now, we are in six different buildings so we are excited about all being in the same place soon,” he grins. Certainly, a new facility will help Akamai prepare for the future — whatever that may be.

“Some things you can see, but there is a lot you can’t,” Leighton muses. “There will be a zillion devices for sure, and everything will be connected. If you go back 20 years, could you have foreseen social media? No way. But could I have foreseen video streaming over the internet and into people’s homes? Yes, that I could have imagined. Could I have envisioned all the mobile devices and the apps we have now? No, I think that would be harder to have envisioned.

“In the future, I do think cybersecurity is still going to be a huge issue. I think a lot of the use cases are yet to be developed and our goal as a company is to enable those use cases to work, even though we can’t imagine what they all are. I do think that they will be concerned with things we don’t even think about yet. In sport, for example, you put on a virtual reality headset, and all the videos from a game you have just played have bee processed, and the coach will tell you how to improve your game. I find it pretty amazing that we are part of enabling all of this. We don’t invent the use cases, but we enable what is invented to work, to be fast and to be secure.”

Mobile technology and the Internet of Things have changed our lives in countless ways, and things have moved faster in the last five years than most of us could have predicted. Akamai’s role is to foresee that growth as much possible and cater for it, but the work companies like it do is not the kind we can see. Indeed, it is a job well done if we don’t notice what it does at all.

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