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Do You Really Need A CDN?

Comparison shopping for CDNs is crucial, as is negotiating on price once a decision has been made. But first, you'll need to determine if you actually need — or can afford — a CDN. It's not a no-brainer. Roy Lawson, founder of streaming service company Xeon.tv, is somewhat skeptical about the value that CDNs can provide, especially for smaller streamers. "They're more after big business and people with deep pockets. Speedera is the only one actually willing to talk to me right now," he says.But perhaps the biggest issue for streamers not armed with large and flexible budgets is pricing. Lawson says he had to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to get firm pricing information from CDNs. And when he did, he was surprised at what he found. "The high-end rate can be eight cents per megabyte," he says. "That's like $80 a gig. That's crazy. When you crunch the numbers, they're too expensive."

Another option is to do it yourself: buy the hardware and software, and hire and train IT staff. However, if you plan to stream in high volume, Gitlin says the do-it-yourself route might not be feasible, unless you already have a stream-ready network. "To build a really secure, robust network that provides potentially a real economic incentive, takes a lot of investment, a lot of know-how, and it's an entirely different business," he says. "The CDNs are so far the biggest players in town."

The Big Event

The service and reliability touted by CDNs can be most crucial for live webcasts. But not surprisingly, given the difficulties of delivering live content to large audiences, CDNs also face the most criticism for live webcast performance. For instance, last year's live Madonna concert webcast was a hit, in terms of sheer numbers. MSN, which hosted the event, said that 9 million users "logged on" to the site to watch the event. Webcast partner NaviSite claimed that the webcast used "85 percent of the world's streaming media resources," employing all of the major CDNs.

But many viewers reported that they couldn't watch the event — either the site was too busy, or the stream wouldn't come through. Critics say that the Internet isn't made for big events; that if you must reach millions of viewers, your best bet is cable or TV. But Infolibria's Heddaya thinks otherwise. "The Internet as a medium is capable of supporting a large audience," he says, "but it requires certain changes like the enabling of multicast and storage and processing at the edge."

Xeon.tv's Lawson isn't quite as optimistic. "Right now you'll never be able to stream NBC or the Super Bowl, because no matter who you use, they're not capable of streaming to that many people," he says.

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Back when streaming video first started catching on...

Christopher Levy, chief technology manager of NaviSite's streaming division, says he took lumps from the press for the Madonna webcast glitches, but says he still considers it a watershed event. "It was a very ambitious thing to do and by no means was this event perfect," he says, "but it will define what we do from now on."

Levy says that big events tend to foster partnerships and innovations. After all, he reminds us, it was directly after the first Victoria's Secret webcast that InterVU announced its distributed network. "Now, we have lots of companies doing it but that's not enough. They have to talk to each other."

There is hope for such inter-platform dialog. NaviSite promises to support synergies between delivery networks and add value to content management with its StreamOS platform. And just a few days after the Madonna event, RealNetworks released its RealSystem iQ, a new delivery architecture that ties together the various CDN technologies — using RealServers, of course. Ben Rotholtz, general manager of media systems for RealNetworks, says that RealSystem iQ would have helped to deliver the Madonna webcast more reliably. "The one thing that happens with large-scale events is that they're not very reliable," he says.

But the answer, many say, is not in proprietary solutions, but in the creation of open standards that will allow CDNs to interoperate, via "content peering." To this end, Inktomi created the Content Bridge (www.content-bridge.com), an initiative formed to promote standards in the CDN space. In August 2000, Cisco started a rival faction called the Content Alliance, with similar goals. Many top CDNs, infrastructure providers and bandwidth providers belong to one or the other group. The most prominent holdout is Akamai, which is going solo.

Young at Akamai says that Inktomi's alliance isn't what it appears to be. "Their effort is to get players to stand on Inktomi's Traffic Server," he says. "This is not an open standard group — it's really a marketing strategy for Inktomi." Still, Young says that Akamai is open to the idea of content peering. "We'd do anything that's best for our customers, but in order to peer, there needs to be agreement on sharing, billing, and reporting. Peering is not an easy thing."

Future of CDNs

The world of CDNs is complex and competitive, and the players suffer from the same technical and market pressures as the rest of the Internet economy. "They face a challenge because the business models of CDNs have been under a lot of fire and scrutiny by the world of finance," Gitlin says, "particularly because they haven't achieved any sort of critical mass to have a roadmap to real profitability yet. And that's an issue."

Whether CDNs can prove their worth and justify their prices to content owners and distributors may well be at the crux of this issue. Given the investment in this arena, it's a fair bet they're not going to stop trying. "CDNs are like the weather," says CacheFlow's Harr. "If you don't like them today, it's likely to change tomorrow."

For true market pricing and researched advice on shopping for CDNs and other service providers, order Streaming Media, Inc.'s report, The Cost of Streaming Services, at http://www.streamingmedia.com/data)

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