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A lost spirit still inspires

After its founder was killed on Sept. 11 and its business damaged in the aftermath, Akamai slid to the edge of failure. What it still had were Daniel Lewin’s technology and vision.

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 4, 2011

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At about 9 a.m. on what would be a very bad day, Paul Sagan, then president of Akamai Technologies Inc. of Cambridge, was on the phone with a company attorney who had just been in touch with cofounder Daniel Lewin.

Lewin, 31, who had invented technology to help the Internet handle huge amounts of traffic, was flying to Los Angeles to drum up new business, which the company desperately needed. Akamai’s stock was trading at about $3 a share, a sliver of its peak of $328 in 1999, at the height of the Internet bubble.

As Sagan and the lawyer chatted, another Akamai employee called on Sagan’s second line. He had been watching the “Today’’ show and saw that a jumbo jet had slammed into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center. American Airlines Flight 11. Lewin’s flight.

For a moment, Sagan hoped Lewin had decided to fly a little later in the day. “The airlines would just let you change planes back then,’’ he recalled. But the lawyer said Lewin had called from the plane, hanging up only when a flight attendant ordered him to switch off his phone.

“So we knew shortly after 9 a.m.,’’ said Sagan. “There was no hope that he was not on that plane.’’

Daniel Lewin was dead, and nobody knew whether his company would survive.

Yet Akamai’s most tragic day would also prove its most important. On that day, and in the days that followed, the world turned to the Internet for information as never before. Web traffic for Akamai’s global network of clients, including major news media sites, surged by a factor of five.

Lewin’s technology managed the spike handily; websites that otherwise might have crashed under the strain continued to offer details about loved ones, rescue efforts, and what went so terribly wrong. “It worked,’’ said George Conrades, Akamai’s chief executive at the time. “It really was designed well.’’

On Sept. 11, 2001, in Akamai’s control room, engineers and technicians worked furiously to direct the crush of Web traffic to every spare server. There was no time to grieve. But then and in the decade since, the thoughts of Akamai employees rarely strayed from Lewin and his technology, and what both had made possible.

“The end result is that you and I, without knowing Akamai is involved, get to see our content, and we get it fast, and it comes through clear,’’ said Brian Partridge, vice president of research at the research firm Yankee Group in Boston. “Akamai has had a behind-the-scenes role in the incredible development of the Internet.’’

In 1996, when Daniel Lewin, a former Israeli commando with a bachelor’s degree from Technion, Israel’s famed scientific university, began his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, computer scientists already knew the Internet would do a lousy job of managing big spikes in traffic. Companies could prepare only by buying vast numbers of extra servers that would be idle most of the time, a big waste of money.

Lewin was already hungry for a challenge like that. “Danny had the kind of mind that comes and says, ‘Well, this is a big problem. Why shouldn’t there be a solution?’ ’’ recalled his MIT professor and Akamai cofounder, Tom Leighton. “And sure enough, he figured out a solution.’’

The Internet needed a better way to instantly locate vast amounts of quickly changing data stored on computers all over the world, and send it to anybody, anywhere. What Lewin and Leighton invented was a mathematical scheme called “consistent hashing’’ that radically sped up the process. Just as important, the system could “scale’’- meaning it would work even as many more people used it. It made possible the advanced Internet services we use today.

Lewin’s innovation allows millions of users to watch streaming video simultaneously, for example, and keeps news websites online during global crises as viewers rush for the latest information.

At MIT, Lewin stood out. He was a gym rat, a fanatical weight lifter who had once been Mr. Teenage Israel. “He was 180 degrees from the computer nerd you might imagine,’’ said his friend Marco Greenberg. “I remember this 16-year-old squatting 375 pounds.’’

Born in Denver, Lewin was deeply unhappy with his parents’ decision to move the family to Israel when he was 14. “He was brought to Israel kicking and screaming,’’ Greenberg said.

But he changed. Lewin’s brother Michael credits his mandatory service in the Israeli military. Lewin volunteered for the toughest, most dangerous branch of the service: the Sayeret Matkal, specialists in antiterrorist operations. He became “much more focused in achieving his goals,’’ said Michael, a financial services entrepreneur who lives in Israel. “When he came out, he was a man.’’

Akamai’s Sagan recalls an executives-vs.-employees paintball bout, where Lewin’s military training made him unbeatable. But when he saw that Sagan couldn’t keep up, “he literally picked me up like a sack of potatoes over his shoulder and carried me around,’’ Sagan said. “Literally, like I was nothing.’’

Shortly after 8:14 a.m., onboard Flight 11, two flight attendants called American Airlines and said that hijackers had stabbed two other flight attendants and a passenger.

The terrorists breached the cockpit somehow, and the one trained to fly a jet, Mohamed Atta, moved to take control of the plane. And it may be at that point that Lewin tried to stop the hijacking, according to the government commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks.

He had the training for it, but he never had a chance. One of the terrorists was seated behind Lewin and stabbed him, possibly in the throat. Lewin was one of the first of many to die on Sept. 11.

There were four airliners hijacked that day; two of them, Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, left from Logan International Airport. At 8:46 that morning, Atta flew Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

Lewin’s loss was even more difficult for Akamai because on the day he died, there was record demand for the Internet as the world went online to follow news of the attacks. At their monitors in the company’s network information center in Cambridge, Akamai technicians, in shock from the loss of their revered colleague, watched as hits on their customers’ websites surged beyond anything they’d seen before.

Sagan knew he had to take command. “I had been a TV producer in my past life,’’ he said, “so I was used to high-pressure deadline situations, where you just totally focus on making all these little decisions in front of you.’’

He quickly addressed the company’s technicians and engineers. “Whatever you do, keep your eye focused on the network,’’ he told them, “because traffic’s going to go crazy.’’

Then Sagan gave one more instruction: Lewin would insist the company rise to the occasion. Do what he would do.

And they did. “Sort of through the fog and the shock,’’ said Sagan, “we just worked feverishly to run the business.’’

Don Marks, an Akamai engineer, spent Sept. 11 reconfiguring servers to build capacity on websites for organizations like the Red Cross and American Airlines. “All of these guys’ websites were getting completely overloaded,’’ Marks said. “It was only at the end of the day when I had a chance to breathe.’’

Although Akamai made it through the day, the company’s financial problems were about to get worse.

The Internet bubble that had floated Akamai through its founding in 1998 and its initial public offering the following year had burst. The dot-com businesses that spent millions with the company were going bust. Akamai tried to reinvent itself as an Internet services supplier to the Fortune 500 - big, stable companies that pay their bills. Akamai needed to “start adding real new customers before all the other ones went away, and we ran out of money,’’ Sagan said.

The Sept. 11 attacks further depressed the US economy, eating into Akamai’s revenues. Investors lost confidence in the company, fearing that the loss of Lewin was irreparable. “Everyone then wrote us off completely,’’ Sagan said.

Executives started citing a metric they called “quarters to live’’: how many more quarters could Akamai stay in business? The company laid off 250 workers about a month after the terrorist attacks, driving its head count down to 900. A year later, Akamai’s stock had fallen to 56 cents a share, and it cut another 145 jobs.

“We had to make just horrendous choices,’’ said Sagan.

But the survivors were determined. Akamai’s Internet-boosting technology was too good of an idea to give up on. Just as important, it was Lewin’s idea. “We stayed out of stubbornness and pride at that point,’’ said Sagan. “We owed him an enormous debt for trying to be a hero. And so that’s why we all hung around.’’

Lewin had left behind one more gift for Akamai, a new product he helped develop called EdgeSuite, which powered websites that were “dynamic.’’ Early Web pages were static; like a printed page, they were assembled beforehand, and everybody who clicked on them saw the same thing. Dynamic websites are put together on the spot. Click on a dynamic news site, and it will pull together a custom page from different stories, images, and ads, that changes the next time you click.

EdgeSuite was a winner. Akamai picked up clients like retailer Target Corp. and computer maker Apple Inc., which in 2003 adopted it for the immensely popular iTunes online music store. In 2004, Akamai posted its first annual profit, and it’s been profitable every year since.

Akamai survived because of Lewin’s vision for the Internet, one he laid out in the company’s earliest days: Its technology would speed up Web pages, deliver streaming video, accelerate applications, and change the Internet as people knew it, and for good.

The shame is that Lewin never lived to see that last goal realized. But everyone at Akamai believes his example made it possible to build the Internet we know today - dynamic, fluid, packed with video and images, and reaching every corner of the earth.

In the decade since Lewin’s death, Akamai has not forgotten him. His portrait, painted by the mother of an employee, hangs in the lobby of Akamai’s headquarters at 8 Cambridge Center. There’s also a plaque listing every winner of an annual award named for Lewin, and presented to employees who demonstrate his motivation and spirit - who have shown, as the award states, “the ability to move mountains.’’

Marks, the engineer, was among four winners this year. So was Parimal Pandya, a global sales service executive based in Bangalore, India.

“I met so many people who wanted to make Akamai successful for Danny,’’ said Pandya, who never met Lewin. “No challenge was too big for anybody to take on.’’

There’s a conference room at the headquarters that has the word “obstreperous’’ - one of Lewin’s favorites; it means loud and stubborn - painted on the wall, complete with definition. Another Lewinism, describing someone who did a really good job, is now the name of the online portal for Akamai’s salespeople: Titan.

A block away, near the MIT computer labs where Lewin and Leighton worked out their early algorithms, the intersection of Main and Vassar streets was named Danny Lewin Square in 2002, to mark the first anniversary of the attacks. That day, a tree was planted in a grassy area outside Akamai’s offices. It’s flourishing now, and there, the company marks each anniversary of Lewin’s death with a memorial service.

Akamai is now under pressure again, though not nearly as severely as in 2001. Rivals have begun to match the capability of its core products, driving prices and profit margins lower. The company’s stock has declined by more than 50 percent since the start of this year.

But there are new opportunities, as well: Akamai is bringing its customers into cloud computing, mobile computing, data security, and the delivery of HD video. And with 95,000 servers in 72 countries, and 2,200 employees, the company delivers 15 to 30 percent of all Web traffic worldwide.

When he died, Lewin left Akamai a legacy of strength. “Danny changed the lives of countless people,’’ said Greenberg, his friend. “He made a lot of people rich. In every way.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at