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Streaming Hurricane Katrina

The destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina across the Gulf Coast of the U.S. provided a lesson in the preparedness, or lack thereof, of the government to react to and manage natural disasters of this magnitude. The hurricane also shed light on the ability of CDNs to handle the demands of delivering streaming media brought on by an event of this magnitude, as well as the ability of news providers’ business models to expand to support the costs associated with these large-scale singularities in streaming traffic.

This article explores how big this event was from a streaming perspective, how CDNs managed this unexpected increase in traffic, how news providers approached the monetization of these surges in streaming, and what an event of Katrina’s scale can do to drive streaming’s overall adoption among consumers as a primary method for accessing news.

Surging Streaming
When viewed from the perspective of individual news providers, the impact of Katrina on streaming traffic was enormous, leading many to reach new highs in terms of streams served. MSNBC reported a record surge in traffic through its relationship with Limelight Networks, serving more than 9 million streams on the day Katrina came ashore, a number that tops the previous record set by AOL during its Webcast of the Live8 concerts. "Back around the end of March when we had the Pope’s death and the Terri Schiavo happening, we had about 5.6 million on one day. The day after the presidential election we served about 5.3 million streams," says Ted McConville, video architect for MSNBC. "This was our biggest day ever, close to double anything we’ve previously had."

CNN’s historical benchmarks don’t provide a lot of insight into the size of Katrina’s effect relative to other recent events, as the news source has switched from paid to free streaming distribution in the last three months, but Katrina’s impact on its streaming traffic was still huge. "Last week’s numbers were five to ten times normal if there has been such a thing in the last three months," says David Payne, SVP of CNN News Services and general manager of CNN.com.

Despite Katrina’s national scope, local news broadcasters also experienced significant increases in their streaming traffic, although not nearly as large as the national broadcasters. "I don’t know how this compares to other events, but Mirror Image has told us that we experienced 150% increase in overall Web traffic," says Cris Nuernberg, webmaster for Boston’s NBC affiliate WHDH. Additionally, WHDH saw a threefold increase in their video on demand traffic.

Significant But Not Strained
While the impact on individual news providers by Katrina is significant, this and other large-scale singularities in streaming traffic don’t adversely affect CDNs’ ability to serve streams, which is reassuring considering that one primary selling point for most CDNs is their scalability. "Our TV and print media customers are all up, but by differing amounts based on format. Streaming traffic is up two to three times across all media customers and continuing to grow. Across our network, Internet activity is not up much, and it’s not up significantly among the advertising community," says Richard Buck, vice president of engineering for Mirror Image. "I can’t claim that Katrina’s been a particularly big business event for us. It’s a huge political and personal event for many, but it’s not shaking the Internet the way the tsunami did or even the way a nasty virus does."

Much of this has to do with the aforementioned fact that CDNs are built with the specific intent of being able to scale to handle events in a way that a content provider managing their own servers likely couldn’t. "Because we service so many news customers, we’ve built our network to handle these surges," says Bill Wheaton, director of streaming for Akamai. "That’s what Akamai’s all about, giving this scalability to our customers during these unexpected events. Right now we’re not running that hot. We’ve seen the growth patterns and we’ve kept ahead of them."

But this doesn’t mean that news providers must rely on CDNs to handle these kinds of surges in traffic, especially since covering unexpected events is one of the primary functions of any major news provider. CNN.com, which manages its own servers, has been able to handle its increase in traffic without any trouble; they designed their system specifically for these large-scale singularities in streaming traffic. "We scale our business to accommodate events that are ten times our normal traffic. Thank goodness we did that prior to Katrina," says Payne.

An Issue of Advertising
In addition to being prepared to handle a surge in streaming traffic from a technical point of view, CNN.com also has built its business to be able to monetize these influxes in streams served. "We carried advertising throughout, and we had a significant number of advertisers through here. We have a pretty strong sales team who are used to this kind of volatility," says Payne. "We did fine. We did better than fine, we did excellent."

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