Akamai buys Prolexic, extends heroic c0-founder Danny Lewin’s legacy

SEATTLE — Akamai Technologies’ $370 million acquisition of cybersecurity vendor Prolexic, announced Monday, brings the content management giant full circle.

Co-founded in 1998 by a young math genius named Danny Lewin, and his MIT professor, Tom Leighton, Akamai pioneered a way to deliver Web pages at very high speed. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company was instrumental in enabling marquee companies — such as Apple, Facebook and USA TODAY — to display Web pages that could absorb massive amounts of Web traffic in near real time, and thus grow their Internet businesses.

Prolexic, meanwhile, is known for helping companies defend against so-called denial-of-service attacks, in which bad guys deploy infected computers to bombard a targeted website with nuisance queries, thus making the site inaccessible.

Iranian hackers in the past year have launched huge waves of denial-of-service attacks to punish U.S. banks, knocking them off line for days at a time and causing huge losses. Syrian protestors last August temporarily knocked out The New York Times,The Washington Post, CNN and Time off line.

It’s the kind of thing that would have gotten Lewin’s juices flowing. However, Danny Lewin was a passenger on board American Flight 11, one of the jetliners that slammed into the World Trade Center on 9/11.

In her book No Better Time: The Brief Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, The Genius Who Transformed the Internet, Molly Knight Raskin recounts Lewin’s pivotal role launching Akamai — and the heroism he is credited with demonstrating on 9/11.

Transcripts of the flight attendant relaying what was unfolding in the jet cabin describe a passenger in Lewin’s seat resisting the terrorists and getting killed before the plane slams into one of the twin towers.

“Danny was fluent in Arabic, he was a captain in the Israeli forces who specialized in anti-terrorism, so it makes perfect sense, knowing Danny, that he would have done exactly that,” says Leighton, Akamai’s CEO and Lewin’s onetime mentor.

At the time Lewin died at age 31, Akamai was using his algorithms to make the Internet work markedly faster for enterprise customers. Lewin pioneered delivering media files at lightning speed. Akamai today helps companies deliver Web applications via the Internet cloud, and also helps its customers secure their websites.

With the acquisition of Prolexic, Akamai will begin honing technologies to lock down data centers and internal business apps, key assets that can be disrupted by denial-of-service campaigns.

“Security has from the beginning always been part of the vision — part of Danny’s vision,” Leighton says. “Even when Danny was alive, we worked on security behind the scenes. It’s recently become of commercial interest, so we’re really rapidly growing our security business today.”

Combining Prolexic’s defensive know-how with Akamai’s access to vast amounts of Web traffic data generated by major companies, could add up to a big win for the good guys, says Paul Ferguson, director of threat intelligence at Internet Identity, a Tacoma, Wash.-based network monitoring firm.

“Akamai sees a lot of data,” Ferguson says. “The more data streams you have to correlate, the more effective you can be.”

Had he lived, there is little doubt Lewin would have been in the thick of cybersecurity innovations. “Danny used his security training to try to save that flight, and he may have been the first person to get killed on 9/11,” says Leighton. “Lots of innovation is still required to make the Internet fast, reliable and really secure. It’s part of the original vision, and we’re still delivering on that vision.”

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