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9-11 Anniversary: Danny Lewin's Life and Legacy

Today is the 14th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. To mark the occasion, I'd like to share this post from 2013, in which Akamai CEO Tom Leighton and CSO Andy Ellis share memories of co-founder Danny Lewin -- including his tragic death aboard American Airlines Flight 11 that tragic day. They shed more light into Akamai's actions that day, which kept the Internet running in the face of crushing demand for information.

The interviews coincided with the release of a book about Danny called "No Better Time: The Brief, Remarkable Life of Danny Lewin, The Genius Who Transformed The Internet."
Tom remembers his company rushing into action and doing what it was built to do, even as colleagues reeled from news that Danny had been killed. It's widely believed he was the first casualty that day, stabbed during a likely attempt to stop the hijackers before they crashed the plane into the north tower of the WTC.

"Phone lines were down, I couldn't reach anyone at Akamai, and one method of communication was the Web," Tom said. "People flocked to various websites and were ground to a halt."

Meantime, he added, hackers were taking advantage of the situation and attacking government websites -- a source of critical information during the attacks. Akamai conducted more than a dozen emergency integrations that day, including that of several government sites and CNN, among others.

By Tom's estimation, Akamai has about 3,600 employees today, many added this year. On Sept. 11, 2001, however, there were 800-1,000 employees and the company was in the midst of layoffs after the dot-com bust. Employees had to put their anxieties over the company's future aside and keep the Internet from going down. They succeeded.

"That day was a thesis example of what Akamai is about," Tom said. 

Andy Ellis was originally scheduled to travel on Flight 11 that day, but his travel arrangements were rescheduled, putting him on a Sept. 12 flight. With all flights banned in the hours following the attacks, the rescheduled trip never happened. 

Andy worked closely with Danny, and remembers his relentless drive and passion.

"Danny was a really obstreperous person who didn't easily take no for an answer," he said. "He wanted to see the evidence for everything. You had to convince him that something wasn't possible before he'd believe it. He was a great guy who had this tremendous energy."

On Sept. 11, after absorbing the shock of what was happening, Andy went to work. He walked right into the situation room designated for incidents. "Up until that day, our peak traffic had been somewhere around 6 gigabits per second that we had served for all of our customers," he said. "We had one customer -- MSNBC -- reach 12.5 gigabits per second that day. They were live-streaming their cable channel -- it was a tiny 3-inch by 2-inch video stream, but it was something you could get anywhere in the world."

As traffic doubled for that one customer, the rest of the customer base averaged about 8 gigabits per second that day -- still above normal.

"We were integrating organizations left and right," he said. "As soon as the FBI released pictures of the assailants, their site came under such a flood of traffic -- much of it believed to be malicious -- so they Akamaized. We picked up customer after customer as people decided they were going to do denial-of-service attacks in conjunction with the kinetic attacks."

Today, such online attacks happen around the clock and are now one of Akamai's chief business drivers, Tom Leighton said.

"Cyber extortion is big business, and there are those who launch attacks out of political motivation," he said. "As a result, security is a much bigger part of our message and business."

That business will continue tomorrow as it does every day. But in the midst of it, the company will take time to remember Danny Lewin's life and legacy with a ceremony outside Akamai headquarters, fittingly in the park that bears his name.

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1 Comment

Sad day for Akamai and for a lot of people.