Mobile

Here's why Apple has begun serving up downloads from its own servers

Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif.

Above: Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif.

Apple has begun directing web requests for certain content through its very own content-distribution network (CDN). That’s according to a report today from StreamingMedia.

The report shows proof of one request for an OS X download that started in Massachusetts and ended on a server with an IP address associated with a URL ending in “aaplimg.com.” Plug that into your browser, and you end up at Apple’s homepage.

In other words, in some cases Apple is not sending the download requests through one of the CDN providers it has worked with in the past, like Akamai or Level 3. Instead, the traffic is going to Apple’s own infrastructure.

CDNs have been used for decades to help improve the performance of web sites with heavy traffic. They clone some (or all) of a web site’s content, putting it on servers that are faster and physically closer to end users in a variety of places around the world, reducing lag times and shortening page download times.

Apple is a huge customer of CDNs, not just for OS X downloads but also for music, video, and app downloads. So the fact that it’s building some of its own CDN capabilities is huge news for the CDN market — and for Apple watchers. But it is not a surprise. Here’s why.

First off, in the past year, Apple has been recruiting lots of talent necessary for a move on this scale.

The company has “hired a number of people from the CDN space and also the carrier space, which is probably the best indication that they’ve been working on this for some time,” Matthew Prince, chief executive and a co-founder of CDN and web security startup CloudFlare, told VentureBeat.

What’s more, Apple is one of a very small group of companies for which it makes sense to store and serve content on its own CDN. (Others include Facebook, Google, and potentially Microsoft and Yahoo.) And without question, it’s got the money. With more than $150 billion sitting in the bank, Apple has plenty of cash to spend.

“The rumored cost of Akamai building out their network has been in the kind of $1 billion or $2 billion range,” Prince said. “That’s a rounding error at Apple.”

And Apple has not been shy about building infrastructure, with data centers coming online in Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, and other places.

Now it’s a question of what prompted the move. To Prince, three or more reasons could factor in to the decision-making.

Perhaps it makes sense financially now, for at least some traffic, based on a cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps existing CDN vendors can’t meet Apple’s traffic needs, which could be hefty given the rush to download the latest operating system for Apple devices like iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks. And perhaps Apple is not getting the flexibility that it wants.

The tech giant might want to do something special like staged rollouts for operating systems, or use a customized process involving Apple device infrastructure.

“Either traditional CDN vendors can’t support that, or Apple isn’t willing to provide some secret piece of information to the vendors to support it, for some sort of secrecy reason,” Prince said.

Note that not all areas around the world are going through the new Apple CDN for all traffic to Apple materials. A traceroute for an image on Apple’s website from a computer at VentureBeat’s San Francisco headquarters terminated on an Akamai server.

“It’s probably not all or nothing,” Prince said. The company could be doing this only in “regions where makes sense,” he added.

Apple did not respond to VentureBeat’s request for comment.

More information:

Apple designs and markets consumer electronics, computer software, and personal computers. The company's best-known hardware products include the Macintosh line of computers, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Apple software includes t... read more »

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