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New product adds zip to computer networks

Scientist used DNA model to develop process

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The Internet is most often compared to a massive highway. Amit Singh hit upon a more elegant analogy, and it helped him design something to make computer networks work better.

Two years ago, Singh was a doctorate student at Stanford University, researching how computers could assist molecular biology research.

He realized that human DNA is like a complicated computer network, transmitting vast amounts of data as chemical compounds, rather than in binary computer code. Some of the compounds form genes, while others amount to clutter.

Singh saw how complex computer algorithms let scientists scan through the haze of DNA molecules to find genes while disregarding the clutter. Fascinated, he decided to see if the technique could work on a real computer network.

Singh enlisted the help of his brother Balraj, then an engineer at Intel Corp., and lined up $10.4 million from venture capitalists. Last month, their small company in Santa Clara, Peribit Networks Inc., began selling its first product — VCR-sized boxes that companies can plug into their networks.

Like a scientist hunting for genes hidden in DNA, Peribit's box scans packets of data crossing a network and searches for what's new.

Things it's seen before — from sentences that appear in several e-mails to the unchanging background in a video conference — get translated into a tiny bit of code. It's as if a hairball stuck in a drainpipe could be magically converted into a grain of salt.

"Data goes in fat and inefficient, data comes out lean and efficient," Singh said.

Bulky e-mails zoom in and out. Digital content plays better. And more applications can be used on the network at the same time.

Peribit is one of a handful of companies that apply strategies gleaned from physical science to computer work. Some companies diagnose problems in networks by treating their disparate parts — routers, hubs, switches and circuits — as a unified organism, like a human body, and studying their symptoms rather than probing for individual causes.

"This cross-pollination of ideas from different fields is what I find challenging," said Singh, a 28-year-old native of Bombay, India, who serves as Peribit's chief scientist.

Peribit is by no means the first company that can compress traffic on a computer network. But it claims it can do so more efficiently because its DNA-inspired process can shrink chunks of data of varying length.

That is "the big unique thing there," said Jerald Murphy, a senior vice president for networking services at the Meta Group research firm.

Although at least two of Peribit's boxes are required for the process to work, and each costs $20,000, Murphy said that is much less expensive for companies than buying more network capacity.

While in its testing phase, Peribit asked its law firm, Fenwick & West, to try the boxes. The firm's chief technical officer, Matt Kesner, said he very rarely agrees to sample clients' technologies but was intrigued by Peribit's. He was startled by the results.

After installing the boxes on the links between the firm's Palo Alto headquarters and its offices in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, Fenwick & West's network traffic plunged as much as 93 percent.

The network used to slow down if too many big e-mails were being sent or too many databases were being searched. Now the same system can host video conferences and voice transmissions — two applications expected to get increasing use in coming years. Fenwick & West wants to buy more boxes, Kesner said.

Business software maker BroadVision Inc. found the Peribit boxes helped its employees use financial and human-resources data much more quickly.

"I've been in this business for 20 years," said BroadVision's chief information officer, Shawn Farshchi. "This was something that caught my eye that was amazing."