Akamai Looks to the Future of Broadcast at Edge World Conference

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OTT video is still in its early days, but it's on a clear trajectory to triumph over broadcast. That was one of the many video-related takeaways from Akamai CEO Dr. Tom Leighton during his keynote at Akamai Edge World in Las Vegas this week.

"I was recently told by one of the world's largest broadcasters that they are planning to stop using satellites altogether within 10 or 15 years," Leighton said. "Broadcasters are wondering if the internet can scale, and if they can afford to stream. They worry about cost and capacity challenges when streaming, especially for live events and linear programming. They didn't need to worry about that with broadcast. With OTT, the more successful you are, the more you have to worry about these things."

How much traffic is video going to create? "2.5 billion people have watched at least one video on the internet," Leighton said. "In the future, let's say 2.5 billion are watching concurrently at 10Mbps. That's 25,000Tbps."

According to Leighton, the answer to the capacity question lies not in the cloud, but in the edge, also known as the last mile.

"One common misperception is that the last mile is the bottleneck. That's true in some less-developed countries, but in developed markets there's a lot of capacity. There are roughly 1 billion lines at an average of 40Mbps. That equals 40,000Tbps, plus 10,000Tbps for cellular."

And while Leighton discussed IoT and security during his keynote—saying that it's likely that security will eventually become the company's biggest revenue generator—video represents the biggest source of Akamai's traffic.

Media companies have historically used data centers that connect to Tier 1 networks. Now, most use data centers plus cloud hosting services like Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, he said. But core data centers are further from the end user (increasing latency), present a single point of failure, and are ripe targets for hackers. Akamai has a quarter-million servers in 4,000 locations in 1,000 cities and 140 countries, so it's well-positioned to deal with the increase in video traffic.

Leighton showed a slide that demonstrates the dramatic increase in video traffic on Akamai's network. Back in 2008, the company saw a peak of 1Tbps for the first time; last year it saw a peak of 72Tbps, and last month 18 million viewers watched a cricket match in India at an average of 4Mbps, which Leighton pointed out was equivalent to "the low end of DVD technology."

Will 5G ease the burden? "5G improves the performance of the last mile. Latency is lower, throughput is higher, and more people will be connected," Leighton said. "5G will enable lots of new apps that will increase internet usage even higher than today. Users will expect to have even better performance. We'll need the Edge Platform even more than we do today."

It's going to take more than increasing capacity to solve the latency challenge, and Leighton brought out Akamai's chief architect for media cloud engineering, Will Law, to show how the common media application format (CMAF) can help.

"We need to make changes in the encoder, the CDN, and the player to attack latency," Law said. "We want to enable scale while minimizing latency. One way to do this is by shifting to CMAF and chunked encoding. Instead of waiting until the end of a six-second segment, [the encoder] outputs a couple of frames to the CDN, and the player can be decoding the front of the segment while the encoder is encoding the tail end of the segment."

To demonstrate, he showed a satellite feed of the NBA channel from one of AT&T's broadcast centers in Atlanta on one side of the stage, and the channel's Apple TV stream on the other. At the beginning of the demo, OTT was about 20 seconds behind satellite (which itself has a 15-second latency from the point of ingest). By switching to chunked encoding and slowly speeding up the playback, Law was able to bring the OTT stream down to the same latency as the satellite feed. By getting even more aggressive with smaller chunks, OTT can even beat satellite by as much as 12 seconds, Law said.

Of course, throughput does matter, and later in the day, Akamai's principal architect for media engineering, Shobana Shankar, showed an engineering prototype called Distribution Manager that uses predetermined parameters to automate CDN switching, something Akamai’s existing Global Traffic Manager already lets customers do manually.

Will Law at the Akamai Edge World conference (courtesy of Akamai).

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