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CDNs Provide Link to Video Anywhere

MULTIPLE CITIES—It began as a simple concept: Use dedicated networks to send data more quickly from a website to end users. Then about 17 years ago came the first streaming video, which changed everything. The challenge for content delivery networks became greater and far more complex.

Today, because of an avalanche of portable Internet technology, we expect to be able to view all of our video at any time, in any place and on any device. The breadth of platforms includes the home television set, desktop and laptop computers, gaming systems, tablets and smartphones. This trend of mobile communications has spawned companies that specialize in providing all or a few of the estimated 30 discrete functions needed to make video programming instantly available on a range of devices around the globe.

We haven’t achieved this huge shift in mobile technology without a lot of significant change occurring in a short period of time. It was at the NAB Show in 1995 that Seattle-based Progressive Networks, led by Rob Glaser, introduced RealAudio, the first technology to “stream” audio media over the Internet.

A little later that year, on Sept. 5, 1995, Progressive made history when it broadcast a baseball game between the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners over the Internet using RealAudio. Within two years the company had changed its name to RealNetworks and Glaser announced RealVideo, the first streaming video service. The era of streaming media took off. By 2000, more than 85 percent of streaming content on the Internet was in the Real format.

In 1998, Glaser launched a media-specific network called RBN, for Real Broadcast Network. It was the first content delivery network configured specifically for streaming media. Despite RealNetworks’ early success, the company could not hold onto its lead. The company’s primary business model was based on the sale of its streaming media server software. In a competitive end run, both Microsoft and Apple began giving away their own streaming media technology. The free services dealt an economic blow to Real’s pioneering business.

The events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, affected the course of content delivery network development. The terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center and other locations that day overloaded the Internet as people tried to get news from a few primary sites. The attack led to severe caching problems and revealed a flaw in the Internet’s network infrastructure.

One of the victims of the attack, Daniel Lewin, was a co-founder and chief technology officer of Akamai Technologies. He was flying on company business in one of the jets targeted at the World Trade Center. Coincidentally, Lewin happened to be an expert on the Internet overload that occurred when he died.

At first, Akamai execs were unsure whether the company could remain viable without Lewin. In an ironic twist, however, it was the tragic loss of its leader that helped turn the company around. After the attack, Web traffic for Akamai’s global network of clients, especially major news media sites, surged by a factor of five. Lewin’s technology had managed the spike handily, and his death had helped highlight his accomplishment.

What Lewin and co-founder Tom Leighton had invented with Akamai was a mathematical scheme called “consistent hashing,” which distributed requests more efficiently among a changing population of Web servers, resulting in greater speed. The system could also scale, meaning that it could expand as more people used it.

Lewin’s technology allowed millions of users to watch streaming video simultaneously. It also ensured news web sites would stay online during global crises that caused huge traffic spikes as people swarmed to sites for updates.

The September 11 attacks spurred greater investment in expanding CDNs to provide greater Internet stability.

It was with the rapid success of Apple’s iPhone in the summer of 2007 that the idea of portable media consumption began to take hold. Apple followed up the blockbuster iPhone launch with the unveiling of the iPad in the spring of 2010. With these two devices, the concept of “media anywhere, anytime, on any device” really took off.

In the past five years, as average connection speeds to the Internet have increased, streaming media has evolved into a genuine alternative distribution system for television and motion picture programming. This evolution has driven the development of content delivery networks even further.

A content delivery network is essentially a string of web servers distributed across different data centers in different geographical regions. Its goal is to serve content to users with high availability and high performance, resulting in faster and more reliable service.

CDNs are able to significantly boost performance because of their large distributed server infrastructure, or multiple points of presence. Servers store identical copies of content and apply a mechanism that provides data to the origin servers. Today’s CDNs have many data centers in different geographical regions. They deliver multimedia content to end users from servers located closest to the user.

Modern CDNs also incorporate cloud computing. A cloud infrastructure essentially means that content providers no longer host their content on their own servers at a fixed location, but instead give it to a provider, which places it on a network of redundant servers located throughout the world. The cloud is cheaper, works faster and eliminates a major operational and maintenance task for content providers.

CDNs and their associated smaller companies are growing. Cisco projected that its business grew between 40 and 45 percent last year and predicts the complete market will grow from $6 billion to $12 billion by 2015.

Akamai is the leading CDN, based on its global footprint (the company’s distributed cloud optimization platform claims more than 147,000 servers in 92 countries within more than 1,200 networks), while Level 3 and Limelight follow. Verizon has acquired EdgeCast, a leading CDN network, to enhance its portfolio of cloud and web services. The telecom says EdgeCast will move into Verizon’s Digital Media Services unit when the deal is completed this year.

EdgeCast provides content delivery expertise and a network of Internet content servers to Verizon Digital Media, which is interested in improving and extending video delivery. EdgeCast operates thousands of content servers in 30 Internet hubs around the world.

On a tier below the primary players that own and operate their own networks is a larger group of niche companies that serve as middlemen, providing specialist hardware and software services to clients such as broadcasters and all types of video content providers. Virtually all connect to one of the larger CDNs for distribution.

All the companies say they offer virtually every service to their clients, so figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of each can be a significant challenge.

Edgardo Nazario, vice president of product management at Limelight Networks, says his company offers every one of the functions needed by content providers for distribution from any location to any device, at any time.

“You ask why there are so many players,” says Nazario. “I would answer that there are a lot of wannabe players.”

Nazario, who began his career at Progressive Networks with Rob Glaser, says Limelight’s clients want his company to manage their assets, allowing them to focus on their core businesses. “That’s our value proposition,” he says.

He says 50 to 60 versions of a client’s content have to be created (transcoded) in order for that content to be available to all the viewing devices throughout the world. Adaptive bit-rate streaming allows video to be optimized for play on every device regardless of the speed and condition of the network.

The broadcast infrastructure of Level 3, another top-tier CDN, is called Vyvx. Vyvx is headed by Derek Anderson, a senior director at Level 3. The company’s CDN began more than 25 years ago, before streaming media, with the goal of helping move traditional broadcast signals from satellites to fiber networks.

“We are unique because we deliver all types of content on an end-to-end basis,” Anderson said. “We have connections to all the professional sports stadiums in the States and can take terrestrial broadcast signals and convert them simultaneously for delivery to Internet devices anywhere in the world.”

One of the major trends identified by Level 3 is the continual movement of television content from satellites to fiber networks. One of the reasons is lower cost as the number of high-definition channels continues to grow. Where bandwidth can be an issue on satellites, he said, his networks can easily handle 4K resolution and above.

“Having to compress a video signal more for use on a satellite does not compare well to less or no compression on fiber,” Anderson said. “Better quality input equates to better quality output and delivery.”

A smaller company targeting a variety of markets that want to distribute video, although not a CDN itself, is Unified Video Technologies (UNIV), which has introduced a new front-end interface for its white label uVOD video-on-demand service. The technology enables subscribers to view real-time linear TV as well as on-demand and VOD programming.

Edgar Moyano, business development manager for Unified, says a broadcaster has to find a vendor for each of 30 pieces for any over-the-top solution. For each of those 30 pieces, he says there are four to five options from other vendors.

His company, he says, resells Akamai’s CDN, but supplies broadcasters with all the pieces needed to transmit programming to the Internet. “We put their content on our cloud, we define the workflows for the client, and they tell us the kind of users they want,” he says. “We monetize the content and experience.”

He says his company acts like a systems integrator in creating the service for the broadcaster and then nurtures the service in the future. “We take the R&D risk,” he says. “We have the roadmap for the 30 pieces.”

He notes that his company’s close relationship with Akamai benefits Unified’s customers. “We get new features Akamai is developing first and can offer it to our customers,” says Mayano.

Another specialist company is Nevion of Norway, whose offering fills a niche not covered by the major CDN players.

Janne T. Morstøl, Nevion’s chief production and development officer, says her company specializes in helping broadcasters get signals from sport arenas, events spaces and government buildings. “We do the part that brings the content to the broadcaster,” she says.

Nevion provides the hardware and software required for media transport. It services both broadcasters and service providers. She says Nevion’s competitors are Cisco, MediaLink and sometimes Evertz.

“Our software is defined to make it easy to manage both traditional and IP-based media networks. We make it easy for broadcasters to set up a connection. Our clients don’t have to do a lot of thinking. They can use non-trained people to set up the connections. They have an overview of the system and are able to monitor the network. That’s what makes us unique,” Morstøl says.

The demand for online video content is increasing so quickly, it’s almost impossible to keep up with it. Consumption of online video by consumers is exploding mainly due to the increasing number of low-cost portable digital viewing devices and the availability of higher bandwidth at lower cost. A maze of functions that includes back office software, cloud storage, transcoding, content delivery and customer monitoring opens the door to specialties from a range of companies. Many are now staking out their niche in this rapidly expanding universe.