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Next-Generation Content Delivery: The Shift Is Underway

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In other words, the context around where the potential viewer might look is as important as the primary encoding itself. This next-generation delivery option could have significance in both quality enhancement and bandwidth reduction for VR-video delivery. Headset sales for VR and 360° video are beginning to rise, with the authors citing a 69 percent increase in headset sales in Q1 2017 compared to Q1 2016.

How High Is Too High?

The question of accurately building out streaming delivery solutions to meet an anticipated number of viewers at both peak and non-peak times has plagued the streaming industry from the earliest days. It was such a significant issue, both technically and financially, that it led to the rise of initial content delivery networks (CDNs) as a way to minimize the buildout costs for popular content publishers, while at the same time providing peak capacity functionality if a particular on-demand video asset “went viral” or became very popular very quickly.

The need for CDN solutions hasn’t changed, but the technology around delivery has dramatically changed.

It’s possible, for instance, to forego a CDN if content is being delivered from standard HTTP servers. Today’s primary delivery method uses fragmented MP4 files (segmented dynamically by virtually “splitting” a whole MP4 file into thousands or tens of thousands of 2- to 10-second small files, often referred to as segments) through the use of byte-range addressing. These segments are packaged up in de facto standards such as Apple HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) or the MPEG standard Dynamic Adaptive Streaming via HTTP (MPEG-DASH) and then delivered in a semi-sequential order.

Given the need to deliver several of these segments prior to playback starting, the industry has knowingly boxed itself into a corner of choosing scale over lower-latency delivery. However, since it is now possible to achieve scale with plain-vanilla HTTP servers, many companies have chosen to forego external CDN services, replacing them with their own HTTP server farms—but a virtual one in most cases, which can be accomplished by spinning up multiple virtual machine instances on the likes of Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, Rackspace, or even the Microsoft Azure platform.

But what if a content publisher wants to deliver a lower-latency experience to its app viewers, mimicking a television-like “channel change” approach? In this case, there’s still a raison d’être for CDN solutions.

How Low Is Too Low?

Flipping the script to address delivery issues from the latency angle, it seems every encoder, media server provider, and CDN provider is each hyping its low-latency credentials.

As we noted above, this is partly the fault of HTTP-based streaming, but not entirely.

Given the consistent growth of OTT on-demand media assets and the parallel rise of live-linear OTT delivery—both occurring against a backdrop of more media consumption, but declining traditional OTA and cable live-linear delivery—there’s a desperate need for low-latency delivery that can scale. But is there a way to make OTT “channels” behave more like traditional TV channels?

New approaches to content delivery need to address the mounting problems in delivering unicast streams, while at the same time keeping in mind that multicast—the initial approach to delivering streaming at scale when we all thought a 500-channel galaxy had way too many media choices—is probably not going to be the panacea needed in our current 100,000-channel universe.

What options do we have for lowering overall latency?

The first option, and one of the more popular solutions, is being built into browsers from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla. The WebRTC standard is a real-time communications approach that is primarily focused on voiceover-IP or video-over-IP two-way communications, but enterprising companies are harnessing its low-latency underpinnings to allow for interactive streaming. There’s quite a bit written about this in the 2018 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook, as well as in white papers by yours truly and other Streaming Media contributors.

Another option is to invest in delivery solutions that are purpose-built for real-time communication. In a world where OTT is rapidly replacing OTA and cable delivery for live-linear “television” consumption, it’s a natural next step for some companies to focus on building out delivery networks that are designed to handle hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers.

This baseline of infrastructure, designed to handle single-digit millions of simultaneous viewers from a limited number of global points of presence (PoPs), covers most nonpeak use cases. For peak demand delivery, some of these solutions offer additional services that allow peak demand to be handled more efficiently.

This would seem to be the typical CDN solution, but the approaches that some companies are exploring around how to best balance latency and scale have led to rethinking the way next-generation delivery occurs.

Stefan Birrer, CEO and co-founder of Phenix, sums up this type of next-generation platform up when describing his company’s new focus.

“To achieve <500ms end to end latency, I fundamentally believe things have to be done differently than CDNs have been used to with chunked delivery,” says Birrer, noting that he and members of his team “had the good fortune to be involved in projects in financial services with trading platforms that offer low latency delivery” prior to moving into the video streaming challenge.

While Birrer says latency in financial technologies has a different meaning than latency in the streaming world, the end result was the same—a network “with a few hundred milliseconds lag across the US.”

According to Birrer, “That experience, combined with our video background, gave us the conviction that it’s possible and confidence to build our platform.”

Phenix itself originally started after he penned a dissertation at Northwestern discussing modified approaches to tree-based content promulgation. In our industry, we’d know this better as parent-child tree structures, or even peer-assisted delivery. When Phenix started, it was known as PhenixP2P, but has recently changed the name to PhenixRTS (real-time streaming).

That change segues nicely into a final next-generation delivery option, whose very name carries significant baggage–peer-to-peer (P2P) delivery.

Most of the companies offering P2P solutions are shying away from the P2P label, given the checkered past of claims made around P2P. For the moment, we’ll bypass the discussion of resurgent P2P delivery options, but rest assured we’ve got lots of detail from several of the peer-assisted companies, and we’ll be delving into that in a future article. In other words, we’re acknowledging that a P2P discussion has enough baggage— and enough potential, whether in enterprise or entertainment—to warrant its own article.

CONCLUSION

A number of today’s new crop of next-generation delivery solutions hark back to previous technologies, from multicasting to peer-assisted delivery. But that fact shouldn’t be construed to mean there’s been no innovation in the last few years.

Standards move along slowly, which may explain why WebRTC has been talked about for more than 10 years but only recently implemented.

In the short run, the industry needs innovation that helps get to scale, at lower latencies. Everyone agrees on this. But what we don’t need is another scenario like the one we’ve faced over the past 6 years, where the expedient scalable solution (HLS) fundamentally painted the whole industry into a corner. So watch the pages of the next few issues of Streaming Media as we delve more deeply into the promise and pitfalls of some of the next-generation solutions that are vying to become the next de facto standard in OTT live-linear delivery.

[This article appears in the June 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Next-Generation Content Delivery."]

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