IT LIFE: James Kretchmar, Akamai EMEA CTO

Akamai CTO talks us through IPv6, the Apollo Lunar Module and why he would study foreign languages if he wasn’t in tech

What is your role and who do you work for? 

I’m CTO for EMEA and APJ at Akamai Technologies.  I work with customers and partners whose challenges require technology that’s beyond the leading edge of the industry today.  

This ranges from serving broadcast quality video over the Internet to very large audiences, to delivering high performance, high reliability website experiences, to securing sites and infrastructure from the largest, most sophisticated attacks on the Internet.  

I also run innovation programs with our telco carrier partners in EMEA to advance next generation technologies for delivering content on the Internet.

James Kretchmar Akamai

How long have you been in IT?

After I graduated from MIT in 1999, I took a full time job in the same department where I had been a student employee for several years, working on the distributed computing system and in network operations.  Five years later I joined Akamai, which was founded out of MIT and where many of my classmates are now colleagues today.

What is your most interesting project to date?

One of the most interesting was Akamai’s project to support IPv6, which started around 2009. Our system for assigning site visitors to servers is based on discovering the topology of the Internet, and measuring its performance from our thousands of deployments around the globe.

IPv6 meant not only extending our core data structures and software to understand IPv6 addresses, but also figuring out how to bootstrap the whole system into learning about an entirely new Internet that itdidn’t know anything about before.

What is your biggest challenge at the moment?

My biggest challenge at the moment is alignment of vision and prioritisation among the various cutting edge technologies, in particular those that require integration between multiple parties. It’s hard enough to know which technology to place your bet on when you can work on something independently, but when partners are critical to the vision and timeline itbecomes much more difficult.

Does IoT security concern you?

  • Yes (89%)
  • No (11%)

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What technology were you working with ten years ago? 

Ten years ago I was working on a team that creates the tools for installing, monitoring and maintaining Akamai’s global network, which at the time was comprised of tens of thousands of servers, but has grown to hundreds of thousands today. I wrote a system that year which predicted whether an action taken by a network operator was going to be safe before executing it. I called it Cassandra out of a sense of irony (it was before the open source project of the same name had been released).

What is your favourite technology of all time?

 I think it has to be the Apollo Lunar Module. It’s such a perfect example of how a truly enormous challenge can be met if it’s approached the right way. It’s also inspiring to think about how much they accomplished in such a short period of time, and with technology that’s now nearly fifty years old.

How will the Internet of Things affect your organisation?

The Internet of Things gives us two new challenges to work on. One is that it will result in more data that needs to be delivered across the Internet, under more difficult conditions and at a larger scale. The second is protecting sites and infrastructure from the new class of attacks that IoT devices will bring to the Internet.

We’ve already experienced the first one of these, with the massive Mirai botnet attack against one of our customers in 2016, which used compromised video cameras and DVRs as a source of attack traffic. While we were able to defend against that attack, it’s a sign of larger, more sophisticated attacks to come.

iPhone X

What smartphone do you use?

Currently an iPhone.  Apple seems to be highly conscientious on security considerations lately, which is a big plus for me. That said, the user interface has been slipping so, I’m keeping my options open for the future.
What three apps could you not live without?

Maps, food delivery and ordering a taxi get the most use, but identifying a song with Shazam always gives me the biggest thrill. There was just no other way to do it before. The smart phone doesn’t just make things more convenient, it makes things possible!

What new technology are you most excited for a) your business and b) yourself?

For our business I’m excited that the core Internet technologies are now being revisited and improved in ways they had not been for many, many years. In just the recent past, HTTP/2 was developed to make much needed improvements over the previous version of HTTP, and IPv6 adoption had truly begun. 

But there’s lots more on the horizon, from UDP based delivery, to revisiting of Multicast for large audience live events. The Internet is changing more now than any time since its beginning.

For me personally, I’m most excited about the opportunities that still exist for what will be built upon the foundation of everyone carrying a cloud-connected device. I think we’ve really only seen the beginning of what’s possible there, and historically some of the biggest leaps forward in technology came when several underlying enabling technologies became available at once.

If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you be doing?

Studying foreign languages, my favourite hobby, but for which I have little time recently. I’ve also been tinkering around with writing mobile apps in my spare time. Creating tools was always my favourite thing and now that I’ve got a little computer with me all the time, it’s too tempting a platform to resist.

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