Behind the Buzz About ‘Federation’

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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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