Amazon Takes on Akamai with CloudFront Delivery Network

Does Amazon’s CloudFront announcement today mean a cold front is on the way for Cambridge, MA-based Akamai?

Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) said a couple of months ago that it was working on a way to let users of its Amazon Web Services  infrastructure speed delivery of Web graphics, software downloads, audio and video files, and other materials to Web users over its global network of servers. And today, in a direct assault on existing content distribution networks (CDNs) like Akamai, Limelight, and Voxel, it has unveiled the beta version of that service, called CloudFront.

It’s the latest step in the expansion of the Seattle e-retail giant’s cloud computing infrastructure, which allows other companies large and small to rent as much external processing power or storage as they need. As with its processing utility (the Elastic Compute Cloud, or EC2) and its storage utility (the Simple Storage Service, or S3), Amazon will sell access to CloudFront on a self-service, pay-as-you-go basis.

The service seems aimed at least in part at customers who currently have fixed, long-term contracts with the likes of Akamai (NASDAQ: AKAM) and Limelight, or who don’t generate enough traffic to qualify for discounted rates with the established CDNs.

“Traditionally, to secure scalable, reliable, low latency content delivery, businesses have been required to negotiate upfront or long-term commitments,” Amazon’s CloudFront announcement states. “Even then, only customers with significant scale have been able to negotiate inexpensive rates. With CloudFront, there are no upfront costs or commitments required—all developers are able to benefit from Amazon’s scale to enjoy low prices.”

Pundits have speculated that Amazon’s new service will put pressure on existing CDNs to introduce lower or more flexible prices. When I put that point to Jeff Young, Akamai’s director of corporate communications, he declined to comment.

Young did say, however, that he thought Akamai’s network—which was built specifically to support transfers of large or frequently requested files such as e-commerce Web pages and high-definition videos—will continue to be a better choice for most large online publishers. “Akamai provides comprehensive content and application acceleration services for powering the online businesses of today’s leading global enterprises, helping our customers to monetize their content,” Young said.

For existing Amazon Web Services customers, CloudFront makes it easy to copy original files already stored on S3 and replicate them across CloudFront “edge servers” around the Internet, where they’re closer to the users requesting them and can therefore be delivered faster. That’s the same idea behind all CDNs—the difference with CloudFront being that users pay only for actual data transfers, at rates that vary between $0.09 and $0.22 per gigabyte, depending on the geographic area. (Transfers from Amazon’s edge servers in Hong Kong and Japan are more expensive than those from servers in North America and Europe.)

Amazon identified two early users of CloudFront: Dallas, TX-based online retailer Woot, which highlights one product per day and is using the service to deliver product photos to shoppers, and London, UK-based casual games company PlayFish, which uses CloudFront to speed downloads of its games.

But CloudFront isn’t the first pay-as-you-go CDN: that title may belong to New York-based Voxel, which introduced technology back in April that allows customers to pull content into its network from Amazon S3. Tech blogs such as ReadWriteWeb have described CloudFront as a preemptive move by Amazon to keep services like Voxel from overtaking the market for cloud-based content distribution.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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