Behind The Buzz About 'Federation'

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These days, in the world on online things, it seems that everything wants to “federate.” Federated authentication; federated social networking; federated encoding. Clouds, apps, domains; libraries, servers, databases. All are apparent candidates for federation.

Try it yourself. Do an online dictionary lookup of the term (or any other). What pops up? In my case, a definition, and, to my slightly creeped-out surprise, a thumbnail-sized photo of my dog, Stella. Huh?

This is federation in action, as it turns out: Stella turned seven this month, so I set her photo as my Facebook profile picture. Apparently, and Facebook are “federated” - look up a term, get the definition, and the option to post it and a comment to your status.

To federate, then, in an online sense, is to pool certain resources - either to make a more tricked-out, unified consumer experience, or to make it more efficient for the underlying piece parts to unify into a whole.

Obviously, this is not a new concept. In the tactile, nondigital world, we’ve seen this before. Individual states federated into the United States. Before that, individual colonies federated into states.

In cable, the newest addition to the “federation” buzz is the content-delivery network, or CDN. CDNs come from the language set that is the industry’s transition to Internet protocol as a delivery environment for video.

In a big oversimplification, CDNs use fiber backbones and video-size (read: big) servers to ingest and hierarchically distribute streams of video to the mass of things in our lives that don’t necessarily get signal through a set-top box, but can connect to video signals over an Internet connection - PCs, laptops, tablets, phones.

Comcast built its own CDN; Time Warner Cable currently outsources its CDN activities. The rest of the industry, right now, in mid-summer 2011, is examining its options.

For small to midsized operators, it’s a real conundrum: Local and regional fiber rings are justifiable to consolidate headends and increase reliability. But augmenting them with a national web of video-centric servers and software, when signal collection is already working just fine the old way (satellite)? Last I checked, money still didn’t grow on trees. Which is why there’s so much buzz - mostly from vendors, so far - about finding ways to link regionally, pool networks and federate into a national CDN. An ambitious concept, to be sure.

So far, it’s just buzz. But it’s a buzz that grows louder day by day, just like when you take the lid off a beehive.

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