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Most caching solutions are equally effective at distributing both live and VOD as the caching devices are deployed with storage that can hold the video for later viewing. Also, caching solution providers often allow you to pre-position content on the caches in expectation of high demand which further assists network congestion and video start times. Think of that pre-recorded executive communication that everyone will want to view as soon as they arrive in the office. This content can be distributed overnight to caches, when no one is using the network, and be available "locally" for flawless viewing without impacting other network traffic.

Caching Advantages:

  • One solution that can optimize both live and VOD traffic.
  • All HTML5 browsers are supported, so no client software or plugins on viewing devices.
  • No cloud access is required. Caching can operate without having to make calls to outside resources, enhancing security.
  • Can pre-position VOD content.
  • Assists with distribution efficiencies to all on-prem devices, including mobile devices

Caching Limitations:

  • Needs a physical or virtual server/s to run on and may require remote support.

Peer-to-Peer

Remember the days of Napster and LimeWire? Those services were used to efficiently distribute content over the Internet. Unfortunately, that content was often being illegally distributed and often viruses and malware came along with it. It's taken many years for P2P to shake that negative stigma.

P2P traditionally required a client on the viewing devices. In most cases, the client was deployable software that was either installed via the P2P vendor's cloud service, pushed to devices through desktop management processes, and/or accessible for download from an app store. This can create challenges for administrators as they need to support a client that is running on all devices at all times. 

P2P has recently experienced a step forward with the emergence of WebRTC P2P clients. WebRTC relies on inherent capabilities built into HTML5 web browsers that allow the P2P client to be downloaded at the same time the video player is downloaded, making deployment completely automated and invisible to the user.

How Does P2P Work?

Put very simply, a P2P network is designed around nodes functioning as both "clients" and “servers”. Rather than each client pulling content from a central server, each client pulls content and serves content to peers within the network. Most P2P networks create their own overlay network which allows them to serve and pull content from each other.

This form of networking can bring efficiencies in terms of speed, quality, and cost-efficiency of content delivery and viewing. Rather than returning to the source for content, users can pull content directly from other users that already have the content and are electronically closer. The more people requesting to view a live stream at any given point in time, the more efficient P2P distribution becomes.

Much of the marketing material talks to high scalability and high efficiency—up to 95%—a rate typically achieved when P2P trees average around 20 nodes, preferably on the same LAN. However, published use cases typically show efficiencies closer to 80% for P2P trees averaging five nodes. VOD is a challenge for P2P as typically very little content is stored on end-devices and therefore requests for content need to be returned to the source.

Advantages of WebRTC P2P:

  • Modest or no infrastructure is required and therefore can be deployed quickly and effortlessly
  • Functions in locations of all sizes
  • Ability to replay segments
  • Efficiency increases as more people watch a live stream

Challenges of WebRTC P2P:

  • Unlikely to help VOD distribution
  • Not efficient with WiFi networks
  • Many require a connection to a cloud controller
  • May cause unpredictable LAN traffic and therefore latency
  • Savings are not always optimal

Other Considerations

Security

Most eCDN solutions can accommodate enterprise security measures. They can also accommodate specific video security measures, such as DRM. Video is usually encrypted at the source and decrypted on the viewing device by an authenticated player. Where issues can arise is when some of these eCDN solutions need to make external calls for statistics gathering and monitoring. If enterprise security is of the utmost concern to your organization, look for solutions that can be 100% deployed behind the firewall.

Return on Investment (ROI)

Determining the ROI from an eCDN investment should factor in soft and hard variables. Soft variables include the following:

  • Improvement in the video quality
  • A more inclusive workplace as everyone in every office can view video
  • The convenience of not gathering in halls or conference rooms—may be a hard cost
  • Greater return from enterprise investments in unified communication platforms

Hard variables will differ from one enterprise to another depending on existing service contracts and the pricing model of suppliers. The big cost, which may justify the investment on its own, is bandwidth savings. Enterprises should already know the impact that video is having on your ISP charges. Implementing an eCDN should reduce your video traffic on your WAN anywhere between 75% and 95%. If you have a contract that charges for spikes in traffic, an eCDN will reduce the severity of those spikes considerably. If VOD is responsible for driving up your ISP charges, being able to preposition content in off-peak hours should also considerably reduce bandwidth charges. Justifying your investment may be as simple as knowing what you are paying your ISP in terms of bits per second, and then estimating the reduction in traffic an eCDN will deliver when deployed.

Other hard cost savings that an eCDN is likely to deliver include a substantial decrease in the need to upgrade switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers, and VPN concentrators.

Reporting and Analytics

Reporting and analytics are critical components in any eCDN solution. Being able to see how video is impacting your network in real-time is important in the quest to improve QoE and determine your ROI on the eCDN investment. Most eCDN reporting and analytics packages will present data to you gathered directly from each video player such as the following:

  • Bandwidth saving from the use of the eCDN
  • Number of viewers, unique and simultaneous, by location and subnet
  • Types of devices and operating systems viewing
  • Average bit rate viewed by device, by location
  • QoE measures such as buffering time and average viewing length, by location and device type

Being able to access this data in real-time is critical for pinpointing network trouble spots or identifying device issues. Aggregated metrics can be very useful in generating reports for management on the adoption of video—CEOs are going to be very interested in who's viewing and for how long. Ask to see sample reports from the eCDN vendors you engage with. Look for the intuitiveness of their reports and how easy it is to identify trouble spots, via network maps for instance, and drill down for deep insights.

VPNs

ECDNs won't help alleviate video traffic over VPNs, but delivering streaming video to remote workers isn't always a challenge.  If the enterprise video solution is hosted in the cloud and video delivery is supported via a CDN, remote workers may be able to connect directly through their ISP connection.  Security is still provided by authenticating through a secure Single Sign-On (SSO) configured to work with the organization's directory services.

VPNs can be configured differently, so it's important to work within the standard of corporate IT/network security. The most restrictive form of VPN is the "full tunnel" in which all traffic from the remote endpoint is forced through the tunnel. If the VPN is configured to force only business-critical traffic through the tunnel and allows direct connection to services hosted outside of the corporate network, such as an Enterprise Video Platform, then video can be delivered via a CDN.  This is called a split-tunnel VPN. Most flavors of the eCDNs covered in this paper can be configured to work optimally with split-tunnel VPNs.

Virtual Desktops/Thin Clients

It is very challenging to deliver streaming video to Thin Clients/Virtual Desktops due to a lack of local processing power and the network is already carrying the load of delivering the computing experience.  The ability of an eCDN to assist with reducing video traffic on a network where virtual desktops are requesting video will largely depend on the clients themselves. Since it's unlikely that clients can be installed on the devices, multicast isn't going to provide assistance. If the devices have a WebRTC browser then caching and/or P2P may be able to relieve congestion with some configuration.

Conclusion—One eCDN Doesn't Rule Them All

An optimized eCDN solution combines technologies to address the different challenges presented by each location, device, and type of video. For large buildings and campuses, the bandwidth optimization of multicast for live video is likely to be more effective than both caching and P2P networking. P2P networking is likely to be best suited for smaller offices and branches where infrastructure does not exist. While P2P can scale, the WAN impact can rapidly become unnecessarily high when large numbers of users are involved.

Like multicast and P2P, caching optimizes bandwidth for live video, but is also the only reliable technology for VOD. Caching requires no client software, and all client devices are supported, including mobile, making it a comprehensive option for all viewing devices and scenarios.

Most enterprise use cases and requirements lead to a mix of all the above. As such, the most flexible eCDN allows multicast wherever possible, augmented by caching at locations that can support the necessary infrastructure, with P2P at remote locations that are not multicast connected and do not have the ability to host a cache.

The overarching conclusion is that no eCDN technology represents deployment nirvana on its own. Instead, an optimized eCDN combines technologies to address the different challenges presented by each location, device, and type of video.

Regardless of which eCDN technologies you choose to deploy, keep in mind your end-users cannot be expected to select which one they will use if you make multiple available. The eCDN must be deployed in cooperation with the enterprise video platform such that the decision which one to invoke is made transparently, seamlessly, and quickly with the end-user completely unaware.

The table below provides an at-a-glance comparison of multicast, caching, and WebRTC P2P. Note that it reflects general capabilities. Specific vendor solutions may vary.

Capability

Multicast

Caching

WebRTC P2P

Live Video

Yes

Yes

Yes

VOD

Yes

Yes

Very Limited

Client software required

Yes

No

No
 (Yes for Non-WebRTC)

Best for locations with...

100+ viewers

25+ viewers with local IT resources.

10 to 100 viewers and no IT support

Ease of installation

Intensive if network not multicast enabled.

Network planning and local support needed.

Easiest - administered and deployed centrally.

Mobile viewers

No assistance.

Yes

Limited assistance.

Wi-Fi viewers

Yes

Yes

No - may hinder.

Cloud access required

No

No

Maybe

Support for HTML5 & ABR

Yes

Yes

Yes

[Editor's note: The author is a streaming industry veteran who currently runs his own consultancy, Roogle Marketing,and he is currently engaged with Ramp Holdings, which commissioned this article. Streaming Media accepts vendor bylines based solely on their value to our readers.]

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