Akamai Co-Founder Dr. Tom Leighton Wins 2018 Marconi Prize

Mountain View, CA, March 22, 2018

Pioneered Content Delivery Network Services Industry

Dr. Frank Thomson “Tom” Leighton, who developed the algorithms now used to deliver trillions of content requests over the Internet every day, has been selected to receive the 2018 Marconi Prize. The award will be given at The Marconi Society’s annual Awards Dinner in Bologna, Italy, on October 2.

The Marconi Society, dedicated to furthering scientific achievements in communications and the Internet, is honoring Leighton for his fundamental contributions to technology and the establishment of the content delivery network (CDN) industry.

Dr. Leighton is the co-founder of Akamai Technologies, Inc., the world’s largest and most trusted cloud delivery platform. The company routes and replicates content over a gigantic network of distributed servers, using algorithms to find and utilize servers closest to the end user, thereby avoiding congestion at the center of the Internet. This cost-effectively scales the Internet by ensuring that content—whether it is a bank transaction that should be seen only by the account holder, or a live sporting event streamed to millions of viewers worldwide—reaches the end user quickly, reliably and securely.

“Dr. Leighton is the embodiment of what the Marconi Prize honors,” says Vint Cerf, Marconi Society Chairman and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. “He and his research partner, Danny Lewin, tackled one of the major problems limiting the power of the Internet, and when they developed the solution, they founded Akamai – now one of the premier technology companies in the world – to bring it to market. This story is truly remarkable.”

Dr. Leighton likes to say that Akamai’s role within the Internet revolution was to end the “World Wide Wait.” And he is the first to share the company’s success with co-founder Danny Lewin. The roots of their triumph lay in a challenge posed in 1995 by World Wide Web founder and 2002 Marconi Fellow Tim Berners-Lee. Berners-Lee foresaw an Internet congestion issue and challenged colleagues at MIT to invent a fundamentally new and better way to deliver content. At the time, Leighton was a professor in MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) where he headed the Theoretical Computer Science group, working with some of the brightest minds in the field. The brightest of these—a self-professed “math geek”—was Danny Lewin. Leighton and Lewin set out to solve the problem posed by Berners-Lee using distributed computing algorithms.

After two years of intense research, Leighton and Lewin discovered a remarkable approach to solving the congestion problem on the Internet—but then faced the challenge of convincing others that it would really work. In 1997, they entered the $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, a business plan contest run by the MIT Sloan School. “We literally went to the library and got the equivalent of Business Plans for Dummies because, as theoretical mathematicians, we had no experience in business,” Leighton remembers. But they learned quickly from those who did, including business professionals they met through the $50K Competition.

At the time, Leighton and Lewin didn’t envision building their own company around the technology. Instead, they planned to license it to service providers. However, they found that carriers needed to be convinced that the technology would work at scale before they were interested. “Akamai was state-of-the-art in theory, meaning that it was well beyond where people were in practice. I think folks were very skeptical that it would work,” said Leighton.

While carriers were ambivalent, content providers were looking for scalable content delivery. Several recent events had shown how vulnerable the Internet could be to congestion, bringing down websites when traffic jammed in bottlenecks during high demand periods. And so Leighton and Lewin decided to build their own content delivery network and provide content delivery as a service. Although their business plan did not win the $50K contest, it attracted enough venture capital investment to get a company started, and Leighton and Lewin incorporated Akamai in August of 1998.

Akamai’s first big opportunity came in 1999 with the U.S. collegiate basketball tournament known as ‘March Madness.’ With 64 teams playing basketball during the course of a few days, millions of viewers were watching their favorite teams online, mostly from work. When ESPN and their hosting company Infoseek became overloaded with traffic, they asked if Akamai could handle 2,000 content requests per second, Leighton and his team said yes – even though they were only delivering one request every few minutes at the time. “We were a startup and we believed,” said Leighton. Akamai took the traffic, delivering 3,000 requests per second and helping ESPN to get back on line and run six times faster than they would on a normal traffic day. Akamai’s technology and viability were proven.

Akamai’s growth was explosive. The company went public in 1999 making millionaires of several of its young employees. But there were hard times to come. When the tech bubble began its implosion in 2000, the stock plummeted and the firm faced the prospect of retrenchment. Then, Akamai’s darkest day came on September 11, 2001. Danny Lewin was killed aboard American Airlines flight 11 in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, a devastating loss. Yet Akamai employees had to set aside their personal grief and complete emergency integrations to restore client sites that had crashed in the overwhelming online traffic created that day.

Akamai rebounded from the tragedy, and continues to thrive, accelerating trillions of Internet requests each day, while protecting web and mobile assets from targeted application and DDoS attacks.

Leveraging the pervasiveness and resilience of its global platform, Leighton and his team at Akamai expanded their innovative offerings to help enable Internet users to have a seamless and secure experience across different device types and network conditions, however they connect. They created new technology for leveraging machine learning to analyze real-user behavior to continuously optimize a website’s performance, as well as algorithms that differentiate between human users and bots.

As the threat landscape continued to rapidly evolve, security became critical for safeguarding business online and Akamai’s security business surpassed half a billion dollars per year in revenue, making it the fastest growing part of Akamai’s business.

“Going from a clever set of algorithmic ideas to the world’s largest distributed computing platform and a hugely successful company involved a truly amazing combination of skills and vision,” says Dr. Jennifer Rexford, Chair of Princeton’s Department of Computer Science. “Tom has been responsible for Akamai’s technology vision for going on twenty years, through a period of tremendous growth (of both Akamai’s infrastructure and the Internet as a whole), technological advances, new applications, and diverse threats. Today, Akamai has over 240,000 servers in over 130 countries and within more than 1,700 networks around the world and handles roughly 20-30% of the traffic on the Internet. Over time, Akamai evolved far beyond static image content to dynamic content and real-time applications like streaming video. And, as cyberattacks become more prevalent, Akamai plays an important role in defending content owners and end users alike against a wide range of adversaries. Tom played an important leadership role at the national level, including his influential service on the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC), chairing the PITAC Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, and testifying before Congress on topics ranging from cybersecurity to computer science research.”

“Tom is truly unique,” says Ion Stoica, a Professor in the EECS Department at University of California at Berkeley and the Director of the Real-time Intelligent Secure Execution Laboratory (RISE Lab).  “He is the only person I can think of that has reached the pinnacle in both academia and industry. He is not only one of the very top computer scientists in the world, but also one of the top entrepreneurs and CEOs in the world. Tom has no peers when it comes to bridging theory and practice, and his work has revolutionized the way we consume the information over the Internet today.”

By receiving the Marconi Prize, Leighton joins a distinguished list of scientists whose work underlies all of modern communication technology, from the microprocessor to the Internet, and from optical fiber to the latest wireless breakthroughs.

“Being recognized by the Marconi Society is an incredible honor,” said Leighton. “It’s an honor not just for me, but also for Danny Lewin, who created this company with me, and for all of the people at Akamai who have worked so hard for over two decades to make this technology real so that the Internet can scale to be a secure and affordable platform where entertainment, business, and life are enabled to reach unimagined potential.”

Dr. Leighton will receive the $100,000 Marconi Prize at the Society’s annual Awards Dinner, to be held October 2, 2018 in Bologna, Italy. This money will be donated by Leighton to The Akamai Foundation, with the goal of promoting the pursuit of excellence in mathematics in grades K-12 to encourage the next generation of technology innovators.

Established in 1974 by the daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel Laureate who invented radio, the Marconi Society promotes awareness of key technology and policy issues in telecommunications and the Internet and recognizes significant individual achievements through the Marconi Prize and Young Scholar Awards. More information may be found at www.marconisociety.orgSubscribe. Follow: LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.