Content Delivery Networks: Rich Media

By | August 10, 2001 | Via Satellite

By Peter J. Brown

The idea behind the creation of content delivery networks (CDNs) is that as more and more rich media arrives on the scene, the Internet cannot cope with it. While demand for streaming content is slowly building, it has not been at an explosive pace. Thus, the satellite-based CDN –and there are several versions –has not been a slam dunk.

Satellite-based CDNs have a solid reputation for delivering content in a form that wins praise from content and service providers alike. However, this is a fast-changing world where terrestrial competition is not sitting still, where private networks are expanding and where pervasive peering is changing the Internet landscape in a dramatic way. This goes beyond the Quality of Service (QoS) dimension, and making sure one adheres to Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) is not the complete solution either.

Satellite-based CDNs looking for new markets in the enterprise sector should realize that enterprise traffic is leaving the public Internet at a fairly rapid rate. There is more than anecdotal evidence to support this trend. For example, traffic flowing over the network run by CA-based Exodus Communications Inc. tends to remain entirely on private networks as a result of extensive private peering arrangements worldwide. Exodus Chairman and CEO Ellen Hancock recently estimated that 90 per cent of her company’s traffic never even encounters the public Internet.

“The CDN market is different from what it was even six months ago,” says Susan Irwin, president of Washington, DC-based Irwin Communications which issued a report entitled, “Broadband Content Distribution, the Internet and Satellites” on satellite-based CDNs in May.

Irwin estimates the total revenue in 2000 for terrestrial and satellite CDNs was $335 million, and that satellite CDNs accounted for 25 percent of that total.

“CDNs are complex and expensive networks. Many CDNs cannot be supported by the amount of streaming and rich media traffic out there today. As a result we will see more layoffs and more consolidations in the coming months,” she says. “Over the past 18 months, there was too much optimism about the growth of streaming. Still, the more diverse CDN players that have focused on network efficiency and that have other revenue streams in particular should survive.”

Even as this article is going to press, there is more news about developments in this sector. CA-based iBeam Broadcasting Corp., for example, formed a strategic partnership in mid-June with Williams Communications, with Williams investing $30 million in iBeam, along with $10 million more from other investors. This news comes on the heels of Fantastic Corp.’s acquisition of Starburst Omnicast software technology from Adero Inc., a move that brings Fantastic into the business of content delivery. And by the time this article is published, the CDN market is probably going to change again.

And finally, we are detecting a shift at Orblynx amidst news that its employees are being moved to the offices of Maryland-based A&T Systems. This in itself may not be unusual, but OrbLynx is going through a series of changes which warrant further scrutiny.

Combining The Best Of Old And New Media

Before we go any further, it is essential that we look at a situation where a hybrid CDN model is being applied successfully in the broadcast TV industry. Readers may tend to associate all CDN models with PC or Internet-based end points alone, and that is a viewpoint that might be too limited. In addition, our examination here of Atlanta-based Pathfire–formerly Video Networks Inc.–fits well into our broader ongoing discussion of evolving HFS strategies.

Pathfire delivers a mix of content including news, promos and advertising for broadcast clients like NBC, ABC, and VDI Multimedia to affiliate TV stations nationwide.

“CDNs are typically associated with the Internet Protocol (IP) space,” says Floyd Christofferson, senior vice president of broadcast at at Pathfire. “While new media has captured everybody’s attention lately, old media did not dry up and blow away. The cost of sufficient bandwidth for IP multicast can be significant, and the economics do not work when one tries to achieve multicast results in a unicast environment.”

“By creating an Internet-like environment over satellite, we enable this to occur using whatever bandwidth is available, either via satellite or via point-to-point fiber,” Christofferson adds. “In effect, our applications bridge this gap.”

The Pathfire network consists of receiver server-equipped ingest points–or “on-ramps”–at client sites and at the Pathfire network operation center in Atlanta. While much of the content in question bypasses Pathfire’s facilities in Atlanta altogether, Pathfire administers the network, offering its clients access to an enormous satellite footprint– Pathfire taps eight different satellites over North America–on an on-demand basis.

According to Christofferson, helping clients to avoid the expense of one or two 45 Mbps pipes in the sky, while incorporating the functionality, control and customization advantages of new media is what Pathfire is all about.

“We move a half-terabyte of content per day into NBC stations using a multicast engine that we had to create ourselves,” Christofferson says. “We had to build it to achieve the throughput and to have the tools necessary to reach the level of bandwidth savings that we needed for our client base.”

Pathfire not only manages content delivery, but it has also created a far more flexible framework to address the networking requirements of its customers as well.

“Our clients may not need a recurring 15-minute window, so we have set up what looks like a power grid, where we manage the movement of content across multiple bandwidth paths,” Christofferson says. “This is not a bandwidth trading mechanism per se , although that is the net of it from an efficiency standpoint .”

CDN Survival Guide: Cost Reduction Is Necessary

While the trailblazers in the CDN space deserve credit for their vision, commitment and resourcefulness, they embarked on a path that was rocky at best. The economic viability of CDNs suffered from the practice of giving away expensive edge servers that cost anywhere from $30,00 to $50,000 apiece, the purchasing of expensive blocks of transponder capacity, and the developing of CDN technology in-house rather than using off-the-shelf technology. That is why many CDNs stumbled on hard times, according to Carl Wu, vice president of Internet services for Netherlands-based New Skies Satellite N.V.

“Here you can see the risks of being first to market. These companies spent so much money on implementation, which no doubt included writing their own software. What cost $10 million to implement just two years ago can be bought today for $1 million,” Wu says. “The aura that was always surrounding dot.coms in 1999 is entirely absent today. Back then, the more money you lost, the more promising you were.

“We are pursuing a very different CDN model where we reduce our costs significantly by using our own space segment along with best of breed off-the-shelf technology, which is more capable, more feature rich and much more powerful today,” Wu adds.

New Skies sees this Multicasting, Caching and Streaming (MCS) capability as a software-driven quasi-CDN, and as a logical follow-on to the New Skies IPSys Internet access service, which now involves 650 MBs of managed IP content, according to Wu.

“Rich content and bandwidth savings are what our customers want us to provide, and with MCS we can distribute bandwidth intensive and compelling content to regions where backbone connectivity is expensive, congested, and last mile links are problematic,” says Wu. “For multinational enterprise customers, MCS offers reliable file delivery and streaming capabilities which would be ideal for B2B (business-to-business) applications. Enterprises can do their own scheduling and bandwidth management.”

Wu describes the satellite caching market as wide open, despite the fact that other companies have already ventured into this market. With MCS, New Skies will cache local content as well as push cache objects via satellite using one-way or push-oriented user datagram protocol. New Skies intends to fill what it sees as a significant gap, while offering sophisticated content and network management services as well.

“You can deliver files and monitor when files have arrived at their destination. For encryption, you have the option of using something that is native to the multicast itself or a form of conditional access. However, we want to avoid the practice of distributing smart cards,” Wu says.

“This is an exciting opportunity especially in the international marketplace,” he adds.

Quality Is Important For CDNS

Do cable programmers and broadcasters want to set their expectations lower when it comes to the quality of repurposed content on the Internet? What is acceptable in terms of different levels of quality for PCs and TVs? These are important questions at a time when some of the most well-financed and powerful content providers are the same companies pumping content onto cable plants and into broadcast TV stations. These companies are aggressively seeking new revenue sources and lower cost distribution options, including the use wherever possible of existing satellite facilities.

At Israel-based Scopus Network Technologies Ltd., which manufactures Codico encoders and remultiplexers, there is an emphasis on multi-channel content delivery, digital turnaround and broadcast over broadband beyond digital satellite news gathering. There is no doubt that the emerging IP multimedia realm is bound to see several variations of a multiple-use strategy for broadcast streams over IP networks.

“Broadcast over IP is a growing part of the CDN environment,” says Ovadia Cohen, vice president of marketing and sales at Scopus. And CDNs must remain attentive to the needs of the cable operators as cable modems continue to outpace DSL deployment in North America in particular.

“Content creation and distribution is not the same as it was five years ago. In the analog world, cable operators simply selected the right encoding system. Today, many operators can choose to downlink a pre-encoded signal thus avoiding the need to do any local encoding altogether,” Cohen says.

In the case of a CDN, the simultaneous local encoding and remultiplexing of the pre-encoded signals means that careful attention must be paid to PID (packet identifier) remapping, conditional access interfacing, and digital insertion.

Scopus uses Terayon’s CherryPicker for variable bit rate to constant bit rate remultiplexing or grooming. Cohen indicates that operators are keen on doing heavy bit rate reduction as DVB MPEG-2 streams are coming into a headend or downlink via satellite. “The bit rate in the MPEG stream has very defined statistical characteristics, and there is lots of redundancy in the bitstream,” Cohen says.

Conditional access is a concern that will only get bigger as content providers seek to make their content more attractive by adding more valuable, and even time-sensitive content to the mix. The demand for video as a value-added service is seen as driving both the need for greater bandwidth efficiencies on the satellite side as well as for more dexterity on the ground for the Scopus Digital Turnaround Application (DTA) when it comes to remultiplexing.

“Thanks to DVB, a standard protocol is used to bridge the gap between the conditional access system and the encoding multiplexing mechanism,” says Cohen, who adds that Scopus supports the Open Conditional Access (OpenCAS) initiative. Scopus is also pursuing Broadcast over Broadband (BoB) on the basis of a “distributed system approach” that provides operators with a complete system solution for unified interactive video and value-added services.

“The distributed platform uses a central unit for content gathering, and remote units for edge processing. The information between the center and remote units is transferred using Scopus’ BoB technology, which maps the video and the broadcast services over IP, and rebuilds the service into QAM on the remote units,” Cohen says. “The Scopus platform uses a statistical multiplexing technique in order to optimize the backbone information traffic flow between the center and the remote units.”

Playing To Strengths Of Content Providers

The attempt to narrow the focus down to a select number of CDN service offerings, and then to maximize the revenues derived from the services in question has proven to be a real challenge for CDNs in the satellite space in particular. However, new tools and new systems are emerging that have evolved based, among other things, on the CDN experience curve to date.

When it comes to heavyweights in the CDN realm few, if any, companies in the satellite camp can match MD-based Cidera Inc. Cidera, which was launched in 1997, ranks as one of the first CDNs. Over the past several years, Cidera put in place a network of some 500 receive sites worldwide. The company, however, is going through a restructuring. Today it employs 150, or approximately half of, the employees it had on board in 2000.

“We now recognize the need for a diverse portfolio, and we have five products, which we have been rolling out at a rate of one new product per quarter,” says Sriram Iyer, Cidera’s director of corporate strategy. “We have undertaken a major course correction, and scaled back our staff, expenses and resources. There is no question that we have had to adapt. The market is different today.

“Last year, the emphasis was on building out our footprint, and growing our network worldwide. Now, we are focusing on growing our products, as well as the adoption of services and the retention of customers,” he adds.

Just as other CDNs have demonstrated an appetite for acquisitions–for example, Akamai acquired InterVu, and Digital Island acquired Sandpiper Networks and then was acquired this spring by Cable & Wireless–Cidera bought Mainstream from Wavo Corp. “With the acquisition of Mainstream, Cidera is now able to stream content into 10,000 enterprise locations, and we have 40 different content providers as loyal customers,” says Iyer.

Broadband is taking off in the enterprise realm for such vital activities as online training and the Webcasting of corporate results per the Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as for Extranet development. CDNs in general, including Cidera, are focusing on developing a technology base that plays to the strength of the content provider.

“We provide primarily transport and distribution services for broadband content to content aggregators, and we partner with Akamai, Digital Island and Speedera for streaming content,” Iyer says. “We have to ensure that content gets to users in the best and cheapest way possible. We are being prudent when it comes to matching technologies and networks to solutions. And we are choosing those things that we can afford to do.”

In mid-July Cidera launched “Cidera Multicast” which the company describes as, “a fresh approach to content distribution that is designed to efficiently distribute live streaming content throughout the Internet, using IP multicast technology.”

Cidera is deliberately bypassing the need for any edge servers, and making rich media streaming more affordable in the process by keeping bandwidth costs in check. The primary targets here are the live entertainment, news and enterprise markets.

Slicing The CDN Pie

Many satellite-based CDNs spent a lot of money and devoted considerable resources on the basis that demand over the past 24 months would swell more quickly than it actually has. Demand is out there, and while the performance of Akamai as the CDN frontrunner underscores this fact, there has not been enough business generated yet to support all the companies that want a slice of the CDN pie.

Being first to market is all about timing, and in this instance, the rich media market was really not able to support all these CDN players.

“A lot of companies are pulling back from a hardware-based CDN strategy,” says Christopher Baugh, an analyst with Cambridge, MA-based Northern Sky Research which has just issued a report on global broadband satellite markets including CDNs. “We see new software-based CDN models emerging from companies like New Skies where the upfront hardware costs have been eliminated entirely.”

Northern Sky Research forecasts an average global satellite content distribution market growing from $170 million in 2001 to roughly $3.08 billion in 2006. Much of this growth is predicated on the continued rise of enterprise content services and a long-term entertainment (B2C) prospect for satellite players.

“The market is much more cautious,” he adds. “Streaming content still represents a relatively small portion of overall Internet traffic, and streaming content providers are not exactly banging on everyone’s doors. This is happening throughout the entire CDN segment, and not just to the satellite group.”

San Jose, CA-based Frost and Sullivan released a report in mid-July entitled, “World Caching, Streaming, and Multicasting via Satellite Markets” in which three themes are highlighted: partnership, acquisition and failure.

“For many companies working in Internet-related markets, the concept of “zero latency” was once thought to be unattainable. Yet, little by little the technologies are being developed and implemented that bring this goal a bit closer and within the grasp of possibility. Content delivery solutions are one of the Internet performance enhancement solutions that will help bring latency closer to zero and maximize performance. And the underlying technologies will no doubt be further developed and enhanced to the point where content will one day be delivered to the “ultimate edge” of the Internet…the computer sitting on the desk in front of you,” declares this Frost and Sullivan report.

Frost and Sullivan research analyst Patrick French indicates that the need for satellite-based CDN’s is driven by the ongoing and as yet unresolved bottlenecks and congestion problems which continue to plague the Internet, and yet he sees a relatively narrow set of opportunities for satellite-based ventures in this category.

“This industry is just 2 years old. It is more in niches for satellite. Satellite needs to focus on the few areas where it can add real value. In the case of live events, for example, satellites can beat terrestrial hands down,” French says.

There are numerous companies attacking rich content delivery from many different directions including Digital Fountain, Volera, and Vividon, to name just three, while companies such as FineGround Networks are actively seeking new and better techniques when it comes to the delivery of Web pages. The satellite-based CDN sector has to keep all of these players on its radar screen.

A pair of dynamic satellite-related CDN ventures, iBeam Broadcasting and Net 36, have seen a need lately to scale back on their plans, and yet both seem to be making realistic adjustments. iBeam teamed up with USA Network in early June in order to stream an online talk show called “Tennis Talk” from the French Open, while Net 36 announced that EWTN Global Catholic Network would tap Panamsat’s Galaxy 10R and Net 36 to provide streaming content to ISP’s at up to 500 kbps.

Taking tennis and the Vatican into the fast-moving streaming realm via satellite may not seem like a CDN dream story come true, but there is a fundamental shift underway here in terms of how multimedia moves. The Vatican and pro tennis represent two formidable global players, and when a global agenda embraces both the Internet and the power of streaming media, you can bet that satellite-based CDNs are part of the action.

CDNS Large And Small

Variations of the CDN abound and the two discussed here sit on opposite ends of the spectrum. Boeing Digital Cinema is designed to move feature length motion pictures–massive files which are heavily encrypted–from studios to movie theaters via satellite and fiber. On the other hand, Sunysat which is part of the New York Network (NYN), is pursuing a near video-on-demand (NVOD) solution in the educational arena involving limited amounts of bandwidth.

Boeing Digital Cinema has worked with Quvis, Texas Instruments and Williams Communications to test satellite delivery. Films such as “Spy Kids” have already been used to showcase the technology, and the goal is to begin commercial service in 2002. A complete file transfer which normally occurs at night to multiple locations can take eight hours or more.

“A lot of money is spent on distribution by the movie industry. We allow for more flexibility, while guaranteeing lossless delivery and reducing distribution costs by 75 percent,” says Fred Medina who serves as co-director of the venture along with David Baker.

With the industry spending between an estimated $800 million to a $1 billion on the entire release and distribution cycle, including making countless copies of films, the idea of a point to multipoint feed seems to make sense, and, Medina and Baker seem optimistic that customers will surface.

“We are doing a lot of educating right now, showing interested parties how this approach can help them make money, not just save money,” says Medina.

At Albany, NY-based Sunysat, a 20 MHz NVOD platform is emerging with design assistance from Bitcentral using capacity on GE 5. With an added boost from Kencast Fazzt, the NVOD MPEG-2 video files of educational material are mixed with Access to Education New York content, and then delivered to outboard MPEG-2 decoders and PCI card-equipped PC’s at approximately a dozen beta sites. Sunysat is using both Harmonic Cyberstream and Broadlogic equipment for this project.

“We see this as a model for educational media. We are splitting our digital SCPC satellite feed so we can offer a commercial service which then helps to partially offset the cost of the educational service,”says David Palmieri, engineer in charge of NYN.

“We wanted this to be user-friendly and offer the quality of broadcast TV as well. Working through the digital formats has proven to be a challenge,” he adds. “We use a private Web site as the user interface. The user simply logs in, selects the educational content he wants to view, clicks on it and the digital file in question is automatically streamed out to the server at the user’s site.”

CDNS: Poised To Take Off

CDNs and streaming media together have enjoyed only limited success to date as the timetable for the widespread use of streaming media in particular has been revised, and rolled back. This altered schedule, and more conservative approach by the e-marketplace has not caught everyone by surprise.

“We are quite keen on the idea that this is going to take off,” says Susan Miller, vice president of engineering and operations at LMGT Satellite Services’ World Systems. “Early on, we observed a lot of CDN business plans that were heavily slanted towards caching, but we believe that a CDN has to offer customers and users much more than bandwidth savings alone, and, that a CDN has to do more from the standpoint of the end user experience as well.”

A recent report by Jupiter Media Metrix supports Miller’s sense of optimism by projecting that streaming video technology expenditures in the enterprise sector will reach $2.8 billion by 2005, and the same report finds that the vast majority of companies now using streaming technology do so for internal communications.

Miller’s rulebook for CDNs includes multiple points of emphasis. Among other things, Quality of Service, “must be high and offered with measurable performance guarantees to enable customer SLA’s to be met,” and the CDN in question, “must offer performance guarantees to both the content provider customer and end-user service provider or enterprise customer.” Miller believes that the CDNs customer relationship management and billing apparatus must offer streaming that incorporates pay per view or subscription based billing with automated performance monitoring to ensure services meet guaranteed performance criteria.

“Creative arrangements/partnering with technology vendors can minimize service provider risks, lower the entry barrier and ensure state-of-the-art technology updates for the infrastructure, while providing upside vendor returns given higher margins in the services versus product sales business,” Miller says.

LMGT has been working closely with Waltham, MA-based InfoLibria, Inc. InfoLibria offers both a compact web cache known as DynaCache, as well as a more comprehensive solution for CDNs known as Media Mall. Both are part of InfoLibria’s Content Operating System (COS) which includes a network management module known as COS Manager.

“How do you make money? That is the big question for broad generic CDNs in the satellite space,” says Kevin Lewis, vice president of customer advocacy at InfoLibria. “In general, web object delivery takes a lot less time than streaming content delivery. For this reason web content is a good way to step into a service, and it allows you to make money as you deploy the service.”

HitPops Inc. in Japan is one of several InfoLibria-powered CDNs. It was created last year by Mitsubishi Corp and its affiliate, Space Communications Corp. According to Lewis, this was designed as, “an end-to-end Media ASP (applications service provider) ” which targets content providers with rich media including streaming video and gaming software. By using a satellite-based CDN, HitPops’ operators can avoid bottlenecks at terrestrial exchange points, and maximize the flow of bandwidth intensive-content.

“Space Comm was looking for a way to get into the IP business, and to move beyond broadcast customers to more innovative streaming and on-demand services,” says Lewis. “Using Superbird satellites, they are building a 100-node system in Japan using MediaMall. It is an excellent example of a CDN which is technology-driven, but also defined by the applications where delivery of a smooth, high-quality Web viewing and gaming experience is an absolute necessity so that a premium can be charged for the services in question.”

Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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