Is There a Magic Pill for Web Performance Problems?

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Event Summary

A recent study by Peter Sevcik of Northeast Consulting Services has raised the visibility of possible near-term problems with Internet performance. Sevcik studied Web-page delay both analytically and through experiments, the latter using data from Keynote Systems. He explains Web-page delay in terms of two parameters: Payload is the number of bytes a server sends to a browser for complete one page, and Turns are the number of times a browser must exchange packets that do not contain content, such as a query-response pair. Turns reflect page complexity, since each item on a page requires its own query-response exchange. He concludes that since 1995 the payload associated with the average business page has grown by 80% while the complexity, as reflected in turns, has grown by 121%. Up to now the performance seen by users has actually improved due to a number of technical and infrastructure advances, with the Web's ability to deliver doubling every 24 months. However, Sevcik warns that this rate of improvement may not be sustainable because of the number of router hops between the browser and the destination server. The number of hops is a reflection of both the complexity and the underlying architecture of the Internet.

According to Zona Research, there is a cutoff when a page load takes more than eight seconds; after eight seconds more than one third of shoppers become frustrated and give up. Also recently released is a study from the Census Bureau showing that in 1997 there were 57 million U.S. citizens using the Internet. Current estimates have placed the number of shoppers still only a fraction of the total surfer population at over 40 million in 1999, and predict more than 80 million shoppers in the year 2000. Zona suggests that the lost sales could exceed $4 billion in value.

Market Impact

We predict that once Y2K is no longer the permanent technology news item, Internet performance will take its place. With more companies looking to use rich media and streaming technologies, either within their websites or within their ads, performance will become an increasingly important issue especially to entertainment and shopping sites. This will add impetus to businesses and venture capitalists to invest in fundamentally different approaches to reducing delay.

One approach that is available to businesses is caching. Companies plant caching servers around the Internet. When an object such as an image or sound file is requested by a browser, it can be retrieved from a nearby cache, which reduces the number of hops. Caching services can be sold to Web publishers, who can pre-store their data, or to ISPs, which will take advantage of cached copies of objects that have already been requested. Akamai, which played a prominent role in the recent Net Aid concert, is a player in this market.

A second approach is to find an alternate pathway. For example, iBeam, which recently received $42 million in funding from Intel, Microsoft and others, deploys its own servers linked by satellite to avoid network delays.

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