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Brand New Infrastructure: The FedEx Model

Just like with physical goods, data must be transported from A to B. Like trucks on a highway, data usually travels the most frequented routes. But as more vehicles start cruising that highway, and as the trips become longer, packages get delayed, go astray, arrive spoiled, or don't arrive at all.

To solve this problem in the physical world, faster, more attentive carriers with their own hardware and infrastructure came into being: UPS, FedEx, Airborne Express, and so on. These new carriers paid attention to speed, tracking, billing, quality of service and automation. They also devised systems that didn't travel through the middle of town, except for final delivery, and didn't change hands en route. And finally, they offered lots of optional services to make life easier for both shipper and recipient.

The same is true, in theory at least, of CDNs. As a content distributor or destination, CDNs can allow you to drop-ship your data from warehouses near your customers, rather than from a central factory or dealer. In CDN lingo, that's called "edge-caching." That is, your standard, non-changing content, like a promotional video, movie trailer, or MP3 file, is held in a number of "caches" at the edge of the Internet and delivered on demand.

The intention of most CDNs is to make delivery a turnkey operation, allowing content producers to concentrate on their products, not on shipping. Ostensibly, end-users benefit because they get better quality audio and video with less re-buffering. "[CDNs] improve user response and give [viewers] a much better experience, as opposed to the ‘world wide wait'," says Patrick Harr, vice president of marketing at CacheFlow, a technology provider to CDNs.

CDNs can also help to keep costs down, according to Solom Heddaya, chief technology officer at Infolibria, which makes MediaMall, a streaming appliance that caches and serves video and audio streams from the edge of the network. "Costs can go down to a few pennies per megabyte," he says. "It enables you to improve the economies of hosting. You're able to get extremely low costs and high quality as you shorten the path to the end-user." CDNs can also help when you get a huge spike in traffic, which Heddaya calls the "Flash Crowd Phenomenon."

Content management is another potential benefit. Inktomi, which offers caching and delivery products, lets providers measure their bandwidth so that they can better charge for events or streams. "Our software provides information on what's going on," says San Mai, director of product marketing for Inktomi's Network Products Division. It lets you find out who's watching what, which can help you bill content providers based on bandwidth usage. Managing your streams is also easier, since you can schedule content to be pushed at 2 a.m. when the network is slow.

But the most important issue always boils down to quality. "If the content looks bad, you look bad," says Mai. And that can translate to lost customers.

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