Volume 7, Number 1, 1997

Cyberspace device avoids Internet traffic jams

When Michael Almquist, AS '91, graduated with a degree in computer science, he didn't know whether he should opt for academia or industry. So, he tried both.

"I thought graduate school would be the way I could unlock everything I have within me," he says, "but I was continually frustrated with the lack of resources, tools, time and money, and I decided the only way I could accomplish what I wanted was to do it myself."

Almquist has done just that in Seattle, where he now heads his own company, F5 Labs Inc., one of more than 1,000 high-tech software start-up firms in a city synonymous with coffee bars and alternative music. His company, which found success with a device to speed the flow of information through the World Wide Web, was cited earlier this year in Business Week's Information Technology Annual Report as being "part of a new guard...making their mark on the industry."

Almquist didn't start out to run his own business. He moved to Seattle to work in virtual reality research at the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington. "I fell in love with Seattle, and I fell in love with virtual reality, so I decided to stick around," he recalls. He and some co-workers left the lab to start Ambiente, a virtual reality company.

Six months later, the realities of trying to launch a start-up operation overcame the fledgling effort. Undaunted, Almquist formulated a business plan for his own venture, raising $1 million in two weeks from private investors to launch F5 Labs.

The timing for the company, which he co-founded with Jeff Hussey at the end of 1995, couldn't have been better.

"It became obvious to me that people loved to interact and communicate with each other," Almquist says. "But, because of the way the Internet was set up, it wasn't easy. I thought the best way to accomplish this would be to help improve the infrastructure."

As the World Wide Web's popularity skyrocketed, the servers that connected users to millions of sites were becoming overwhelmed. F5's product, BIG/ip, allows multiple computer servers to process simultaneous requests to a particular web site from thousands of computers, thus avoiding traffic jams and slowdowns on the information superhighway.

"BIG/ip keeps your web site up, and it's fast, reliable and affordable," Almquist explains. "It also serves a variety of administrative purposes and can act as a firewall by providing security for a site."

To date, F5 has sold more than 40 BIG/ips at $20,000 each. Clients have included Mapquest, which produces online maps; ISI, a large Internet service provider; Tower Records, which sells CDs via the web; and Warner Brothers, which recently used the BIG/ip to facilitate a live web broadcast in conjunction with the season premiere of NBC's hit show, ER.

And, BIG/ip is only the beginning for F5, Almquist says. He has plans to double his staff of 25 within the next six months in preparation for the launch of his next product, which will address other cyberspace traffic bottlenecks.

While F5's products are designed to improve the bottom lines of companies attempting to do online commerce, Almquist says he has a larger goal in mind.

"I want to create programs for the real world, for the average user. BIG/ip is one of the ideas I have for improving the interactivity of the human race."

-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88