Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) 08.21.11
I had an email question two weeks ago regarding CDNs and where they are going or not going and who will be the winner or loser. I answered the question privately, but it gave me cause to think about content deep networking, CDNs and what is going on in the network because of the evolution to longer form data, or big data depending on what term you prefer. There is no question that Web 1.0 (~1995-2000) built on small HTML files is much different than Web 2.0 (~2002-2008) and Web 3.0 (~2009-?) with streaming HD content, state aware apps and access points at the edge that have higher connection speeds and capacities; all that being said, I am still a bit of an OTT skeptic. Here is a chart I produced over a year ago using data from AKAM and CDN pricing trends. The chart is not updated, but I think it shows the conundrum of having to serve longer form data in a market of declining ASPs. I noted on the chart the start of iTunes, which is the poster child for the old content consumption model in which the user had to own the rights locally for the content. The new content model which iTunes is using too, the rights are licensed by the content provider (AAPL, NFLX, AMZN, etc) and the end-user rents usage rights, usually as a monthly fee.
When I wrote that I was an OTT skeptic, I meant that I find it hard to quantify the OTT problem and I find that service providers (SPs) find it hard to quantify the problem. I think there is no shortage of emotion, but I am not sure everyone is talking about the same problem or maybe they are just using the perception of a problem to force a discussion about another subject matter, which is what I really believe.
To start, let us step back and ask what video/OTT problem are service providers and the infrastructure companies are trying to solve? Is it a bandwidth problem (i.e. real capacity constraints), a revenue problem (i.e. SPs want a share of NFLX revenues) or a CAPEX problem (i.e. SPs do not want to spend)? I talk to a lot of people on many sides of the debate; I talk to equipment companies and I read the industry and investment reports. I am skeptic when smart people tell me that it is a well known and understood problem that video is clogging the network. Is it? Can someone show me some stats? When I read puff pieces like this, I struggle to grasp the meaning.
If OTT video is growing 40-50% over the next four years it is somewhat meaningless to me because network technologies and network capacities are not static. The whole OTT space is a bit of conundrum. There is a lot of noise around it and that is good for selling, marketing and thought leadership, but it seems vastly under invested if there is such a problem on the scale it is made out to be. I think the data center (compute) scaling (more VMs on a Romley MB and the virtualization of the I/O) into the network is a much, much bigger market.
What are CDNs really good at? Distributed CDNs like AKAM are really good at distributed content hosting like big file upgrades and regional specific content distribution like day and date. iTunes is hosted by AKAM and they do a good job of ensuring you cannot download content specific to the UK in the US. AKAM also offers really good site acceleration services for web properties that have low to medium traffic demands, but might have a spike in traffic due to an unforeseen event.
Centralized CDNs like LLNW and LVLT do really well at serving up specific content events and they are much better at hosting content that requires that state be updated, think Gmail which likes to update state on a regular basis. Before thinking about CDNs, think about NFLX or Youtube.com (YT).
A year ago most service providers (SPs) who thought they had an OTT video problem viewed YT as the biggest problem, but as a problem it was small. NFLX has overtaken YT traffic. From a SP perspective, there are several ways to handle the problem of OTT video or user requested real time traffic. (i) SPs can ignore it, (ii) SPs can meter bandwidth and charge consumers more for exceeding traffic levels, (iii) SPs can block it or (iv) SPs can deploy variations on content deep networking strategies.
Content deep strategies use products from companies like BTI Systems and JNPR (Ankeena acquisition) to mention a couple. These companies deploy a caching CDN product in the network around the 10-50k user stub point. The device replicates popular content that it sees requested from sites like NFLX (it is a learning algorithm) and thus the 10-50k user group does not have to traverse the entire network topology for popular content from streaming sites.
Similar to a cable node-splitting strategy, hosting popular content deeper in the network works well and seems to slow bandwidth consumption growth rates to very manageable levels. CDNs win because they do not have to provision as much capacity and the SPs win because they have less money going to the CDN and less capacity issues in the network.
The user experience is better too. When you see ATT and LVLT wanting to build a CDN service (GOOG too) it is really about content deep and putting content local to the user. This is something I wrote about in my blog back in April. Recently, there were reports of LVLT and LLNW combining CDNs and this makes sense to me as scale will matter in the business.
In terms of BTI, I listened to a webinar they produced about a month ago that was hosted on Dan Rayburn’s site. BTI is claiming 10 content deep networking customers and in trials with a tier 1. Specifically (if I heard the presentation correctly), they said that at the Tier 1 SP trial, OTT video traffic was growing at 3% per month. 311 days after insertion, video traffic is growing at 0% a month and that was during the rise of NFLX. When BTI started their content deep solution it was all about YT, but this has changed in the last 9 months due to NFLX.
What I really think this entire debate is all about is money. I put a chart in the April post that you can view here. It is all about the chain of commerce. Why did we pay $15 dollars for album in the 1980s and $9.99 for CDs in 1990s? The answer is the chain of commerce could support that pricing model. Today, the chain of commerce is shrinking and consumption habits have changed. SPs do not want to be relegated to a “bits r us” business model. They want a piece of the revenue stream from the content creator, to the content owner, to the content distributor, to the CDN, to the SPs and finally to the consumer. I think the real issue is not the network, but the network is being used as a facility to broker a bigger discussion about the division of revenues. I could be wrong too and the whole internet could collapse by 1996.
* It is all about the network stupid, because it is all about compute. *
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