MIT Professor of Applied Mathematics, Tom Leighton, has been elected CEO of Akamai Technologies, effective January 1, 2013. Since co-founding Akamai in 1998, Professor Leighton has been its Chief Scientist, driving both its strategic direction and technology vision. He is one of the world’s preeminent authorities on the use of algorithms for network optimization, with numerous patents and hundreds of research papers to his name.
At MIT, Professor Leighton serves as the Head of the Algorithms Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and teaches several classes addressing innovative uses of applied mathematics for computer science. One of his courses, 6.042J/18.062 Mathematics for Computer Science, available through OpenCourseWare, covers many of the foundational concepts that went into the Akamai solution.
The creation of Akamai Technologies is a classic Internet success story that began as an academic challenge taken up by Leighton and others at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). In 1995, several years before big media events began testing the capacity limits of major websites, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web and leader of the World Wide Web Consortium, had already predicted that network congestion was inevitable. A lack of efficient coordination among network routers, and the likelihood of hot-spot websites that would attract millions of users within a few minutes, guaranteed increasingly frequent slowdowns and outages.
Berners-Lee approached his CSAIL colleague, Leighton, whose office was a few doors down, because he believed that distributed algorithms offered a solution. Leighton was intrigued, and together with Dan Lewin, his graduate student and co-founder of Akamai, they conceived a system for the intelligent routing of content through a decentralized network. Their solution—in theory—would vastly shorten the distance between content and users by replicating that content among a vast series of interconnected servers across the globe. This “edge network,” as they called it, avoided all the traffic and security pitfalls of the centralized server model that dominated Web content delivery at the time.
Together, Leighton and Lewin packaged their idea as a business plan, where it became a finalist in the MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition in 1998. Although they failed to actually win the contest, their idea attracted the notice of major investors like Battery Ventures, who helped them harden their plans into a real-world business, and Akamai was founded later that year.
Today, Akamai is a billion-dollar company with over 100,000 servers that currently deliver up to 30% of the Web’s overall traffic. Most of the Internet’s top commerce and content sites use Akamai services for its speed, reliability and security. The application of Leighton and Lewin’s mathematically inspired concepts to Internet server technology has literally revolutionized the market.
Professor Leighton has continued to teach at MIT since Akamai’s founding. His 6.042J/18.062J Mathematics for Computer Science course includes extensive readings, recitations, assignments, and exams, as well as twenty-five video lectures—seventeen of which are delivered by Leighton himself. Because concepts such Graph Theory are explicitly referenced in relation to the Akamai solution, the course offers an excellent opportunity to learn about a cutting-edge field directly from one of the true innovators of the Internet Age.