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FastForward Networks Moves Forward

On Monday, FastForward Networks (http://www.ffnet.com) gained its latest customer when it was announced that StreamPipe.com ( http://www.streampipe.com) will be using its content delivery software.

Contrary to its name, FastForward Networks is not a network, nor does it compete with the likes of Akamai or Digital Island. Instead, it's a software provider working in tandem with the aforementioned delivery companies. FastForward's content delivery management software sits on top of current delivery networks to enable delivery and management of live events using multicast technology.

According to Alan Saldich, director of business development, FastForward helps content delivery companies deal with peering, scalability, reliability and managing streams. It offers a Quality of Service (QoS) level, which is a problem many streaming companies are unfamiliar with, contends Saldich. "Most companies solve bandwidth problems by throwing more network capacity and by building the biggest network", he says. According to Saldich, this tactic is not a very elegant way of dealing with network problems.

FastForward's solution uses an application layer of multicast—not the full-fledged IP multicast—which is a bandwidth conservation technology replicating one stream into many. Saldich says that FastForward's multicast can be used on any network, not just on those with IP multicast turned on. "IP multicast has proven to be pretty impractical and difficult to implement," he says, referring to the slow rate of adoption over the public Internet. "FastForward does [content distribution], plus tools like audience measurement, QoS, and other things that IP multicast doesn't have. We're sort of a superset of IP multicast." The only downside to using multicasting is that it isn't available for on-demand webcasting.

Technically, FastForward's architecture is comprised of three software components:

  • MediaBridge: software running on Solaris and Linux that intelligently routes streams through a CDN or ISP network, independent of media format.
  • MediaBridge ServerLink: format-specific modules (Windows Media, RealNetworks and QuickTime) that integrate with streaming media servers at the edge of the network.
  • Broadcast Manager: the network monitoring and management software allowing content distributors to control and monitor events.

The Broadcast Manager acts like the NASA control room. It provides real-time reporting, allowing technicians to see who's connected and what they're watching. Technicians can also see the exact route the data is taking from the origin server to the end user. One of the more interesting features is the ability to give channels (or individual streams) priority, so that a "skating" channel takes lower priority (and thus lower quality) over a "news" channel. Network managers can manipulate these different rules (almost like the "Rules Wizard" in Outlook) for micromanagement of their content.

Part of the management involves performance when your network goes down, which is where FastForward is unique. In case of a network outage in Dallas, for example, the Broadcast Manager can re-route data on the fly and pass it along via New York. This dynamic re-routing is critical since outages typically cause dropped streams, requiring a reconnect. Using FastForward, end users only experience a short pause during playback while maintaining the current connection.

San Francisco-based FastForward officially opened its doors late July when it announced that Digital Island would be using its software on its Footprint streaming content delivery service. (FastForward's first customer was RealNetworks' which uses the delivery software on its Real Broadcast Network.)

Although FastForward's core market is content delivery companies, it's looking to branch out into other specialized fields. Saldich says the company will eventually sell downline to companies like ISPs, DSL providers and even corporate customers looking to integrate the technology for internal use. Currently, FastForward says it sells directly to its customers or through resellers. Pricing is set per location and per server fees, depending on the number of nodes in use over a particular network.

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