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Streaming and Caching: Bandwidth Efficiency Is Top Priority

By | April 10, 2001

      Streaming media is much more than the Internet’s answer to TV. Data, audio and graphics can be streamed, and not just video. Satellite started embracing streaming two years ago, and there has been a noticeable uptick in streaming-related activity as content owners and content providers alike are giving satellite a second look for a number of reasons.

      All those media players have triggered a spurt of new services, and consumers and enterprises alike are displaying an enormous appetite for streaming content. As more users drive their PCs onto the rich media fast lane, the demand for satellite-based streaming content is likely to soar.

      There are numerous popular streaming formats such as MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, Microsoft Windows Media, RealNetwork, RealVideo and RealAudio, Apple QuickTime and MP3. However, one quick look at the Apple Computer Web site, and you suddenly realize that the streaming world is awash in formats. Apple states that, “QuickTime is capable of importing the following formats: AVI, Flash, MOV, BMP, GIF, JPEG/JFIF, Photoshop, PNG, Targa, TIFF, DV, MPEG, AIFF, Audio CD, Karaoke, MIDI, MP3, WAV, Text. QuickTime can export these formats: AVI, DV Stream, MOV, BMP, JPEG, Photoshop, PNG, Targa, TIFF, AIFF, MIDI, WAV and Text.”

      Lots of companies are propelling the streaming sector with new content creation and content delivery tools and technologies. The list includes Skystream Networks, Harmonic Data Systems, Infolibria, Talarian, CacheFlow which acquired Entera last year, SGI spinoff Kasenna, iVast, Emblaze and Vividon, to name just a few.

      San Diego-based DFC Intelligence reports that Internet-based video streaming grew 215 percent last year with more than 900 million streams accessed in 2000. Success stories in this category, according to a recent study by this firm include the Survivor and Big Brother TV series, music videos and Internet movies, along with the 2000 presidential election. Look for music and news to continue to lead the streaming content race over the next three years, DFC Intelligence predicts.

      And almost every month, we remind readers of the trend involving a gradual yet steady reduction in storage costs coupled to the availability of more GB in storage capacity per unit. These are important variables which are helping to create new caching-driven data and content depots all along the distribution path. You encounter them at the core of the network–for the purposes of data or content origination, this may or may not be the actual network operations center (NOC)–in a node at the edge of the network, and right at the user’s fingertips.

      Caching is in the hands of consumers who are now able to purchase digital personal video recorders (PVRs) with up to 60 GB hard drives for recording TV content. They already have the option to add sizeable storage capacity to their PCs, and this is a huge force which has not been completely unleashed, not yet anyway.

      What exactly is streaming? Let’s look at how Microsoft Corp. defines it.

      “streaming: A method of delivering content to an end user, in which media is located and then played by streaming it across a network. The other method is downloading. The methods are differentiated by the location of the source media. With the downloading method, media is first copied to a client computer and then played locally.”– from Inside Windows Media (p.282) published by Microsoft Corp., 1999.

      On the RealNetworks’ Web site, a more condensed definition is offered. “Streaming media is a method of making audio, video and other multimedia available in real-time over the Internet or corporate Intranets, with no download wait and no file to take up space on your hard disk.”

      There are two types of streaming: a live event which is encoded in real-time, or content streamed from a storage device or server on a pre-encoded basis. Both live and recorded content can be made available via “on-demand,” or via “download-and-then-play.” This is often referred to as a store-and-forward mode.

      The process of Webcasting involves broadcasts over the Internet of live and stored streaming media. Distribution via satellite simply diverts the stream in question away from the terrestrial Internet. Skipping multiple router hops on the ground avoids the degrading, or even the complete shutting down of the streaming process entirely. The media or data stream can either be beamed via satellite somewhere to the edge of a network or right to the user’s doorstep as a single, direct, and uninterrupted transmission. Thanks to the two-way satellite broadband platforms such as SkyBlaster from Gilat, Hughes Network Systems’ DirecPC in both its two-way and older hybrid versions for both business and residential users, along with new two-way solutions from StarBand Communications, and Tachyon, to name a handful of terminal vendors, the satellite industry is able to provide plenty of choices to clients worldwide.

      Multicast Via Satellite Is The Way To Go

      In terms of the client/server connection, this can be done as a unicast–on a one-to-one basis–or as a multicast which is a one-to-many event. If the name of the game is distributing content to multiple users, and the objective is to do it as efficiently as possible then multicasting is the way to go. In order to reach just 1,000 users with a 28 kbps stream on a unicast basis requires 28 X 1,000 in total bandwidth or 28 Mbps. Do it via multicast and it takes just 28 kbps to reach the same audience.

      The problem is that a vast majority of terrestrial networks are not multicast-enabled, and so they remain basically unusable in this regard. There are exceptions. For example, Sprint operates a multicast-enabled network

      “Multicast was a great idea, but when people went to deploy it, they quickly discovered it was more complicated than it was worth,” says Kevin Almeroth, an assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and one of the world’s top experts on IP multicasting. “It is much easier to use a data link that is inherently broadcast such as Ethernet, cable modems, terrestrial wireless–MMDS and LMDS-and satellite.”

      Almeroth indicates that ISPs have an incentive for not deploying multicast-enabled services, and they suppress multicast traffic because it adversely impacts their revenues. While satellite service providers can go to content providers and make the case that it costs the same to send a block of streaming media to 1,000 consumers as it does to send it to one in terms of bandwidth requirements, it has been a slow process resulting in the fact that the satellite industry is just beginning to win over lots of streaming converts, according to Almeroth.

      “For a long time, satellite people were predominately non-IP people, and they emphasized their desire to send IP in DVB, for example. In other words, they did not speak IP to the people who had IP content to deliver. Now, all that is changing considerably,” says Almeroth.

      “The Internet is largely unicast. Still, unicast via satellite is a criminal waste of bandwidth, although unicast via satellite has its place with services like voice over IP (VoIP). Now, we are seeing new multicast protocols like Multicast Diffusion Protocol (MDP). This entails using a back channel for negative acknowledgements which is more efficient because it minimizes back channel traffic,” says Jon Mansey, chief science officer at CA-based Interpacket Networks, a Verestar company, which provides core IP transit via satellite, and is exploring new streaming opportunities.

      “Both streaming media distribution and multicast via satellite sound very enticing, but figuring out how to make these types of services pay for themselves is an enormous challenge. The problem lies in creating the right business plan. A lot of streaming media-based business plans are not making themselves viable, and setting this up remains a very expensive and time-consuming proposition,” Mansey adds.

      “It only makes sense to develop networks which reduce bandwidth and delivery costs, while increasing the consistency and reliability of delivery,” says Bruce Leichtman, a former Yankee Group analyst who is currently vice president of corporate strategy at Vividon Inc. in Sudbury, MA, which specializes in the design and development of caching devices and streaming delivery appliances.

      “As we move from the static caching world of pictures and Web pages to the rich media world, the caching appliances are becoming smaller in terms of their footprint, smarter in terms of their operating efficiencies, and faster, much faster as well. The continuous nature of this rich media demands a network that is able to deliver the content correctly, and that means the data must arrive at the client in question in the proper sequence,” Leichtman adds.

      As for the content delivery networks (CDNs) like Akamai, iBeam, Edgix, and Digital Island, to name a few, they are all embracing satellite-based distribution to a certain extent, and it is easy to see why. Still, here we touch only briefly on CDNs, and we intend to look at them more closely later this year.

      Getting the message right at the industry level is something that Joe Amor, vice president of NC-based Microspace Communications Corp., is quite vocal about.

      “Users are confused by all the jargon. I try to get people to use the word ‘live’ instead of the word ‘streaming’, as opposed to the VCR-type content to the desktop which is caching,” says Amor. “Taking the confusion out of the technology will make it easier to use.”

      “Does the customer want the video up on a PC or a TV screen? Although it may have some small effect on the cost model at each receive site, we do not care on the satellite end if it is a video or a data stream. We have put together networks that do both. Whether it is video or data, we still divide the transponder the same, and charge the same,” Amor adds.

      Microspace’s Velocity service offers video and data in a range from 19.2 kbps to over 4 Mbps. And for Microspace customers, the benefits of the open standards interface (OSI) model are becoming more apparent with each passing month. According to Amor, a number of Velocity-compatible receiver manufacturers such as BroadLogic, Valley Products, Westport Research, and Ipricot ensure that customers are able to enjoy enhanced quality as well as lower priced products.

      “This open standard environment allows our customers to know that in a multi-platform PC world, their IP content will work on any browser. The end user sees no difference. With streaming accounting for perhaps 25 percent of our new revenues, this is an important factor. And because Velocity is DVB-based, the continuing refinement of DVB chips is another significant contributor to our steadily increasing performance curve,” Amor says.

      Have there been any surprises? Audio has suddenly taken on an added emphasis, according to Amor, and streaming audio over the three dominant media platforms is not at a point where it allows for multiple language streams–English, French, German, etc.–with a single video stream on a quasi-subcarrier basis. Instead, each video stream must go together with its individual language component.

      “Going forward we are seeing that monitoring traffic in this increasingly IP environment is a little easier than we expected. Software upgrades at remote sites should be done in a controlled environment to eliminate glitches. Sometimes we see these, but not nearly as often as I thought we would,” Amor says.

      Satellite Operators Prepared, Satellite Receivers Ready

      Satellite operators and satellite receiver vendors watched the dawn of the streaming era with much enthusiasm. The mood in both camps is upbeat as each sees a lot of opportunities, both within and outside of the territory that has been claimed by the purveyors of fiber optics.

      “It takes a network with consistent Quality of Service (QoS) end to end. From source to destination extremely low packet loss is a necessity whether you are talking live or on- demand content. Customers will not tolerate a reduction in video quality triggered by such things as freeze-framing, dropouts or a complete loss of pictures,” says David Puente, vice president and general manager for streaming media services at Loral Cyberstar, which has bundled its IP multicast transport, content delivery and streaming services under the name of Clearstream. CDN powerhouse Akamai, for example, is one of Loral Cyberstar’s streaming service clients.

      “We see many of our BTV (business television) customers preparing to migrate to a streaming platform from conventional video. A lot of this is on-demand content where Cyberstar is the paper boy loading up the caches,” says Puente. “Akamai uses our multicast transport for streaming, Web page updating and software downloads.”

      Loral Cyberstar has tapped International Datacasting and Viacast Networks as its receiver vendors, while using Inktomi and Network Appliance hardware for caching. Skystream Networks is used by Cyberstar for its DVB platform with Kencast’s Fazzt 6.0 network performance-enhancing software in the mix as well.

      In addition to a recent announcement involving delivery of streaming content to customers of DirecPC from Hughes Network Systems (HNS), PanAmSat’s Net-36 satellite-to-edge service also announced a streaming media delivery arrangement synchronized with Bell South Corp.’s Fast Access DSL service. Bell South, which had just pulled the plug on its plans to launch a DTH service is obviously an endorser of the HFS (hybrid fiber satellite) concept.

      “For last mile providers, our value is clear. We are making good progress with large players in the broadband space,” says Mike Demko, vice president and general manager of Net-36. “We can bundle traditional and IP video together, while remaining technology agnostic regarding the last mile.”

      Net-36 is part of the backbone infrastructure, and it is an extremely flexible and robust solution. “We are one of the first networks which is completely multicast-enabled all the way to the client. We can accommodate scheduled broadcast streams and Webcasts,” says Demko.

      Last November, Atlanta-based Pathfire–formerly Video Networks Inc. (VNI)–announced that PanAmSat and Enron Broadband Services, a subsidiary of Houston-based Enron Corp., were among the participants in Pathfire’s latest round of financing which totaled $66 million. Besides Pathfire’s news and ad insertion capabilities, there are other reasons to watch this situation more closely.

      “Pathfire has a great presence in the cable market. Net-36 with Pathfire represents a compelling bundle to the cable industry. Multiple service operators (MSO’s) need to better understand the benefits of multicasting, among other things. While some MSOs understand the efficiencies involved, they have not fully embraced multicasting, although there are DOCSIS cable modems which are capable of handling it,” Demko says.

      Cable is a traditional customer of satellite, which uses scores of transponders on a routine basis. What the satellite industry needs to do no in order to catch the streaming wave, so to speak, is focus on new customers.

      “The satellite technology, which can be integrated properly with IP data networks, is just now rolling out. With the emergence of this IP over satellite phenomenon, the satellite industry has to stop talking to traditional customers and aggressively partner with the guys in the data networking space,” says Toby Farrand, CEO of Milpitas, CA-based BroadLogic. “Streaming inherently lends itself to multicast, and the IT guys do not want to talk about MPEG-2 anyway.”

      ‘”Since the Victoria’s Secret Webcast, we have heard a continuous set of wake up calls. To date, streaming has been addressed by brute force with a lot of mirroring and massive amounts of bandwidth. Our objective at BroadLogic is to make data easily accessible and transparent, while doing it all on a single network management system with HP OpenView and SNMP,” Farrand adds.

      Farrand reminds readers that the Mbone–Multicast Backbone–on the ground has been around for six years, and it is still unpredictable. BroadLogic is focused on reliable multicast and controllable stream flows. It supports different multicast and routing protocols such as Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP) and RIP (Routing Information Protocol).

      “There is no denying the benefits of multicast, and the advantages of satellite. But given the size of the Internet, we need a certain critical mass to get on everyone’s radar screen,” Farrand says.

      Ottawa, Canada-based International Datacasting (IDC) has embraced IGMP as well, and includes it in all of its new SuperFlex data broadcasting receivers. The IGMP is controlled through the receiver graphical user interface (GUI) which polls to see if a multicast is requested, and only streams if there is a request, avoiding flooding networks with unnecessary traffic, according to IDC spokesperson Diana Cantu, who adds that other new multicast protocols will be integrated into IDC products once they become widely accepted.

      “Streaming and caching are a huge part of our business, and it’s growing. Everyone is trying to figure out how to do it,” says Cantu. “Since 1998, we have been streaming and caching with SuperFlex, and we continue to add features and enhancements [for streaming and caching] to our product line as the industry evolves.”

      IDC addresses QoS issues via the IP encapsulator configuration, and/or independently with a QOS appliance. In addition, IDC has developed the NetManager network control software which controls individual receivers and groups of receivers from the headend.

      “A year ago we were talking about caching and crude streaming, now we are getting into more sophisticated nuances such as IP filtering,” says Cantu. “A key issue is seamless integration with broadband last mile technologies, getting not just to the edge of the Internet, but actually to the end user’s PC.”

      Far Better Than T1 After The 80th Node

      Creating and delivering value-added IP-based services to a nationwide audience is a challenge, and one company that is adopting a very innovative approach using satellite technology is Los Angeles-based iBlast, a data broadcast service which is preparing to use an IP satellite feed consisting of channelized or predictable data as well as opportunistic data. Is this a wireless CDN with a 10 Mbps IP multicast stream flowing out of every TV station in the country? Sort of, but iBlast is not there yet. The IP encapsulation is performed by Skystream Network’s multi-protocol encapsulators based on null packet optimization (NPO) technology.

      This feed will be uplinked from Los Angeles by BT Broadcast Services via its Marina Del Ray teleport to Galaxy X, and then on to 246 nodes located at local TV stations nationwide. From there, the IP feed is broadcast to homes which have digital tuner-equipped devices. TV stations simply offer the iBlast content as an integral part of their 19.4 Mbps ATSC DTV broadcasts. Trials are underway in California, Arizona and Florida. iBlast plans to have signals beaming to 50 percent of the United States this year with full nationwide coverage scheduled to begin in 2002.

      “Our whole network is streaming with roughly 10 to 20 percent of it done as live streaming, while the rest is done on a store-and-forward basis,” says Oliver Luckett, iBlast’s CTO. “We are using satellite broadcasting for most of our distribution for the simple reason that it is far better than a T1 network after the 80th node.”

      For its multicast network architecture, iBlast has turned to U.K.-based NDS Group plc to provide its MediaStorm data broadcasting system as the back end system. Luckett describes a two-tier data broadcast architecture with applications running atop the Media Storm.

      “Our goal is to have no wasted bits anywhere on the network. We are offering a free open client, and we intend to publish both the software development kits (SDKs) and application program interfaces (APIs) on a royalty-free basis,” says Luckett. “Caching plays a large part in this network. So does streaming audio. In the near future, homes with 80 GB of storage on their hard drives will not be uncommon.”

      NDS has been improving its Media-Storm data broadcasting product over the past two years, and Luckett is quite impressed with the system’s robust software architecture, among other things. NDS bases its entire MediaStorm user interface at the client level on Microsoft Explorer, which is an extremely user-friendly approach.

      “With our Content Provider Server (CPS) and content provider management software (CPMS) at the network operations center, the operator and content provider can define the data stream, and oversee all the playout scheduling remotely so that the right content goes to the right node, and then on to the right audience at the right time,” says Yorai Feldman, vice president of data broadcasting at NDS.

      In other words, the operator uses the CPS and CPMS to manage the entire distribution chain. This includes the multiple authorization levels surrounding the content along with the whole content request and approval sequence. NDS CastGuard is used to encrypt the streaming content.

      “MediaStorm can deliver streaming content, large files, and large Web sites. The browser-based user interface gives the consumer access to all services,” he adds, describing MediaStorm as “fully open on all sides,” which is seen as a big advantage when building a large audience in the shortest time frame possible.

      Pushing Streams Over HFS

      The future of HFS networking is something that this magazine has emphasized repeatedly over the years, and we spoke recently with one satellite industry executive who sees a big future for “push” services in particular over HFS networks.

      Myron Mosbarger is president and CEO of Lindon, UT-based Helius Inc. a company specializing in routers and associated technology. He emphasizes that despite having similar characteristics, IP multicasting and broadcasting are two completely different activities.

      “A lot of people have the misconception that an IP multicast stream is like a broadcast. IP multicast is a streamed application that does not work like a broadcast,” says Mosbarger. “IP multicasting requires a whole new view of the world, and very few of us understand this impact. It is not simply a matter of dropping a router out there.

      “You have to involve the Information Systems (IS) folks in any enterprise that has it under consideration. They need to know right up front how much data the IP multicast is going to put on their network,” Mosbarger adds.

      While IP multicasting has its roots in BTV, streaming is now moving quickly to the B2B sphere where a large file is distributed and then viewed with an MPEG browser at the desktop, according to Mosbarger.

      How many streams? How much bandwidth? Which devices on the network have 10BaseT Ethernet as opposed to 100BaseT Ethernet switching capability? These are just three of the questions that need answering.

      “What happens when the cards in the printers are only equipped to handle 10 Mbps, for example? You tend to do a lot of reconfiguring whenever a multicast capability is introduced. This is also why incorporating satellite connectivity into a LAN where IP multicasting is underway can be so problematic,” Mosbarger says. “Above all, you do not want to flood your entire network or backbone. We equip our satellite gear with a pair of Ethernet interfaces, and not just one to avoid this headache. Otherwise, you will need more than one router to manage multicasting across the LAN.”

      This second Ethernet interface allows for the routing of all multicast traffic on to a separate LAN reserved for that traffic. On the other hand, if all multicast traffic is left on the office backbone, multiple streams will quickly interfere with normal traffic like print services, e-mail and Internet browsing.

      Helius works with partners like Philips and Telesat Canada. Helius and Telesat Canada have been working closely in particular for years on spidering, which involves multicast reliability and the patterning of Web content. Helius defines spidering as a pre-caching mechanism, and a way to intelligently manipulate satellite-to-edge bandwidth requirements. According to Fred Markhauser, a senior broadcast specialist at Telesat, Helius initially provided Telesat with router functionality for the DirecPC system enabling multiple users to be hooked into a single terminal at one time. Helius recently loaned Telesat a receiver/cache/router with what Markhauser describes as some very interesting features, including among other things, a browser-based local search engine which allows the user to directly view the cache’s contents.

      Helius recently announced that its integration efforts with 2netFX involving its satellite routers linked to the 2netFX ThunderCast IP servers and 2netFX StreamRider players were moving into high gear. This is an enterprise streaming solution that enables distribution of high-quality audio, video, data and graphics directly to the LAN, and then on to the users’ desktops.

      Mosbarger is prepared to become an aggressive vendor of push service technologies; and, among other things, Helius is rolling out its Media Write application for use across the entire HFS spectrum. This addresses a long list of push-related management functions such as content aggregation, scheduling, and downstream notification. Keeping track of what is being pushed and where it is going is vital to this process.

      “I see a need for push applications, and we have been very careful in our effort here so it doesn’t run on satellite only. It is unwise to build a model on a single product or a network on one or two services,” Mosbarger says. “The demand for integrated push applications with both guaranteed and best effort delivery is growing. Enterprises in particular will be pushing more and more content to large storage arrays in network hubs.”

      Streaming Is Still A Tough Sell

      We have to be careful not to portray the demand for streaming services as strong, or urgent in all markets. Sesh Simha, director of product development, satellite services at Virginia based Teleglobe, a BCE Company, says that beyond North America and Europe, “streaming is still a tough sell.”

      “In Latin America, we are seeing growing signs of a demand for streaming as more and more companies are hunting for streaming content. Elsewhere, streaming is not a priority, rather it is third on the list after transit and caching,” says Simha. “Revenues in streaming are not there overseas. Many ISPs are looking for guidance in terms of identifying and implementing the most suitable business model.”

      Critical mass is missing as far as streaming over satellite is concerned, and companies attempting to be niche content distributors are not going find it easy to survive, according to Simha.

      “Caching is tangible, and everyone can immediately grasp the benefits from the standpoint of improved performance and reduced bandwidth requirements. Streaming is not the same as caching. It is viewed primarily as a value-added service with lots of people openly wondering whether there is a viable business model which allows the service provider to make money off that streaming content,” Simha says.

      Teleglobe is an aggressive adopter of the HFS network architecture which we emphasize constantly. Harmonic Data Systems, Sun Microsystems and Inktomi are vital partners in Teleglobe’s Intelligent Content Acquisition and Distribution (ICAD) platform.

      “We are trying to optimally deploy our HFS resources. Our advantage is that we have an immense installed base, and we can use our own capacity to populate our own caches,” said Simha.

      He is excited by improvements appearing on the ground, such as the next generation of turbo codec-based modems from companies like EF Data and Newtec. And yet, he does not see the satellite operators spurring this on, and believes that with all the time it takes to spec and release products, the satellite industry risks losing market share as current users continue to migrate to fiber.

      “The buildout of fiber, which has been slow, is gathering steam as PTTs are not only encouraged by their governments to pick up the pace by reducing pricing for phone and Internet-based services, but these same PTTs are also becoming quite good at tapping into new revenue streams primarily from voice services. So, there are numerous incentives to increase capacity and access,” Simha said.

      As you can see, HFS rules. And satellite is king of the streaming hill, no matter where this hill is found, and how much caching the model in question requires. The CDN guys know this, and the cable guys are waking up to this fact as well. As for the ISPs, while the picture is a bit fuzzy, as we noted, there are a number of players converging on the ISP sector.

      “The role of satellite is largely misunderstood. It is not a gigantic force in IP multicasting. You can use fiber, too. However, if you are talking more than 10 sites, satellite is like plumbing, it works. That is a no-brainer,” says Tom Gillis, general manager of entertainment and media at Santa Clara, CA-based iBeam Broadcasting. “Trickle- charging the cache does not take much transponder capacity. With respect to video caches, the objects are so huge, and they are getting bigger. That is another reason for embracing satellite.”

      Saving money while reaching the maximum amount of eyeballs is the essence of the point-to-multipoint advantage of satellites. Delivering content on time and in excellent condition with no hassles and no hiccups to as many clients as possible is a critical selling point. When Akamai Technologies Inc., for example, beamed a 1 Mbps live-stream to Europe last fall via satellite from the Streaming Media 2000 show in New York City to demonstrate that HFS networks are ideally suited for delivering streaming content, there was little doubt that satellite would do anything but enhance the performance of the content stream in question. Does this mean that the technological framework for streaming content via satellite translates easily into a win-win on the revenue side? That remains a challenge.

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

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