If companies such as Cidera Inc. and Orblynx Inc. have their way, MSOs will be getting edgier content over the next 18 months to two years.
These companies, along with competitors such as Adero, Akamai Technologies Inc., Digital Island Inc., iBEAM Broadcasting Corp., and Speedera, are hoping to use edge technologies to deliver broadcast-quality streaming media channels directly to cable headends, via content-distribution networks. In the meantime, they are using these networks to boost cable-modem performance and customer satisfaction.
Edge technologies take content, whether it's streaming or static, and bring it closer to the end user. There are two main types of edge technology: content-distribution networks (CDNs) such as Akamai and Digital Island, and Edge Services Providers (ESPs), such as Edgix and Orblynx. Both were created to deal with Web latency and overcongestion.
The premise is simple: think of the Internet as a giant highway. Every time a user makes a request for content, that query is sent over the Internet. Once the content is located, it's transported over the same network.
Popular sites or streaming events can generate millions of requests, which translate into millions of packets traveling simultaneously, often over the same sections of the Internet backbone.
Edge technologies take some of the most popular or frequently requested content and copy it-or cache it- locally, at the Internet-service provider level. As a result, when a cable-modem user requests a page or object, that request doesn't have to travel any further than the headend.
The content is delivered to the MSO or ISP either by satellite or a network of terrestrial servers that can route content from the closest server instead of the actual content provider's server, which can be thousands of miles away. The content then sits on the headend, waiting for the user's request.
Reducing the number of hops that a request must make before it is received doesn't just save bandwidth costs for the MSO-it also saves subscribers time. The use of satellite also helps the overall health of the Internet, since it removes a major chunk of traffic from its fiber backbone.
WHO PAYS THE CDN?
CDNs sell their services to content providers. At the same time, they contract with ISPs, digital-subscriber line providers and MSOs, then place their servers as close to the "last mile" as possible. Most do this for free.
Some, depending on the size of a company's subscriber base, share profits by paying for the privilege of placing the servers.
In the case of MSOs, the servers are placed in the headend and integrated with existing cable-modem termination system equipment. Usually, MSOs get paid based on the number of subscribers they have.
ESPs also help cut bandwidth costs, but usually require MSOs and ISPs to pay for their services. In some cases, ESPs have cut deals with CDN providers so MSOs can get the best of both worlds.
For example, Edgix and Cidera have inked separate partnership deals with Akamai and Digital Island. Orblynx has its own content-delivery network and works directly with the content providers on its own, said John Stevenson, Orblynx's chief technology officer.
According to a report from The Yankee Group, the CDN market is expected to grow exponentially over the next three years. In 1999, the CDN market was worth $10 million. By 2003, that market is expected to grow to $875 million. The ESP marketplace is less defined, since it is a newer concept. However, cable operators until now have been slow to integrate both technologies.
That's something Yankee Group Inc. analyst Alex Benik said will change in the near future.
"Caching services and CDNs will become useful for cable companies, especially once their networks become more saturated with customers," he explained. "Right now, the content-delivery companies want to partner with MSOs, so they will start promoting their services heavily, if they already haven't."
Once an MSO makes the decision to integrate a CDN or ESP server into their infrastructure, the process is fairly simple, Akamai director of broadband networks Will Biedron said. All of the installation can be taken care of by the CDN, with no MSO intervention needed.
"All we need is an IP address and a place to put the machine," Biedron said. "There's no routing or switching involved. It's completely seamless."
Although the servers are integrated within the existing IP network, they are still independent of the MSO's server and equipment, so if they go down, it doesn't affect anything. Since all of the CDN servers are networked together, if there is an outage, the MSO's traffic is rerouted to the next-closest server, Biedron said.
WHO GETS THE SPEED?
After the servers are installed, MSOs can expect to pass big speed boosts along to their end users, Edgix vice president of business development Ahbi Chaki said.
Edgix customers received a speed boost of more than 330 percent, compared to performance without the server installation, Chaki said. He cited an independent study by Internet performance company Keynote Systems.
In the future, this data-speed surge can be utilized to deliver broadcast quality Internet-based video content, multiplayer gaming, and other types of entertainment services such as interactive television. Video-on-demand is an especially interesting application, because a Web-based server could help smaller companies offer the service more cheaply than via an in-house VOD installation.
Of course, every MSO doesn't necessarily have to use edge servers. In fact, some companies that are already provisioning via Excite@Home Corp. or Road Runner may already have edge services at work for them. Road Runner is working with Cidera, while Excite@Home is an Akamai customer.
But one analyst predicted every MSO would eventually have to use such edge-content services.
"Unless a company has a lot of extra backbone bandwidth to play with, they will need to use some of these services," International Data Corp. analyst Courtney Monroe said. "Anything that positively affects the network will positively affect the broadband provider.
"Customers will see more of a value in the services if they notice an increase in speeds."