Firm turns to fiber to bypass Internet

Oct. 1, 1997

Firm turns to fiber to bypass Internet

By GRACE F. MURPHY

The Hawaiian firm Digital Island Inc. is attempting to provide faster, more-reliable service for companies that are conducting international business on the World Wide Web by assembling a star-shaped, fiber-based network that bypasses the U.S. Internet.

Digital Island offers a private application network that connects to an Internet service provider (isp) in one of eleven countries and allows companies whose sites are hosted on the central server direct access to each country`s Internet community (see figure). In turn, companies and users connected to the isp can then transmit to Digital Island without passing through the U.S. Internet and receive guaranteed bandwidth for business applications, according to company president Ron Higgins.

Because points of presence (pops) are located in different countries, customers can avoid delayed or missed connections at overloaded U.S. network access points when going straight through the Internet, says Higgins. Since starting this program in January 1997, Digital Island has pops in locations such as Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, France, England, Germany, and the United States. More are planned for Tel Aviv and Moscow, and the company expects to have 25 placed by year-end.

Higgins describes the managed star network as an "overnet" that allows companies access to a local markets with a single hop, as opposed to a mesh network. At the center of the star topology is a data center where clients` Web sites are hosted.

The current U.S. Internet infrastructure is inefficient, according to Higgins. "Every time you make a leg of that mesh, you have to go through a router. You don`t know what the available bandwidth is on each of the available legs on the mesh, so it`s somewhat unreliable. It takes a long time, and essentially, jumping across the United States on even one of the major carriers` backbones could be 14 hops," Higgins says.

Digital Island`s Honolulu, HI, location is beneficial because it is the last landing point connecting Asia and North America before entering the continental United States. To keep true to its "one-hop" boast, Digital Island contracts with carriers and carriers` carriers and other suppliers to acquire circuits.

"We can actually get on international circuits and go directly to the countries that we`re going to. The goal is to bypass the U.S. infrastructure as much as possible because that`s what`s being overloaded by the Internet," Higgins says.

Digital Island leases cable capacity from various carriers and suppliers to acquire circuits. The company uses major undersea cable networks such as the Pan American Cable system to jump out of Hawaii. The fiber-optic network uses T1 (1.554- Mbit/sec) or greater data circuits to each continent. Fiber-optic transmission was chosen over copper or satellite technology because of its transmission speed and lack of latency.

A growing trend

Greg Howard, program director of network services providers for Infonetics Research in California, says Digital Island is leading a trend internationally. "I think an important factor is that they`re building a very large data center to host Web sites. Catering to multinational corporations in multiple time zones, and being up all the time, they`re in a strategic place to offer better or more-successful connection rates to their customers internationally," he says.

Higgins says the company`s customers are multinational corporations looking for a faster alternative to conducting business on the Web.

Customers who sell items over the Internet, are involved in transaction-based businesses such as stock trading, or try to save money on customer support costs by making services available on the Web cannot always afford to wait the long time it frequently takes for a file to download, he says. Current Digital Island customers include Cisco Systems of San Jose, CA, and Stanford University.

Howard says companies with traffic originating outside the United States are best served by Digital Island`s star network, followed by any U.S. company that conducts large amounts of traffic on the Internet.

Internet costs a barrier

However, many businesses might not find it economical to subscribe to Digital Island until Internet access becomes cheaper in some international markets, he says. Costs incurred by Digital Island to contract with carriers and ptts (post, telegraph, and telephone--current and/or former state-owned telephone companies in Europe) in foreign countries for circuits, along with physically installing local loops, could show up in subscription prices.

"I think one of the major problems they`ll have is dealing with a lot of countries and dealing with the cross-cultural boundaries. There are many different models and levels of government intervention," Howard says.

However, both Higgins and Howard say companies would find Digital Island a less expensive alternative to setting up "mirror servers" in other countries.

"It`s a big problem, and these multinational corporations are realizing that the bandwidth that`s available for transactions in international markets is heavily oversubscribed, and customers are not being satisfied. So then they start saying, `We`ll put a server in other countries,` and then they see the cost. Next, they see the nightmare of managing it, and finally, they hear about us," Higgins says.

Howard anticipates that Digital Island will have competition from all of the major isps and Internet exchange carriers, but does not expect to see companies employing a star topology anytime soon. "Right now, market space is very elastic and there are a lot of customers around. However, competitors can find enough customers in the United States without having to go into foreign markets yet," he says.q

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