By Simon Jones, VP of marketing, Conviva
The news of Netflix closing its last dedicated data center hit the wires recently to fanfare from the industry. The lede was easy to understand — cloud remains a hot strategic move for tech companies — the realities less so.
For Netflix and other content providers, content delivery is tricky. The Internet was not fundamentally constructed to deliver data synchronously — in other words, delivering a stream of data at a consistent speed so that it can be processed in something approaching real-time demands the Internet work in a way it was not intended to.
The Internet opened countless opportunities for a connected world, but it did so in an old-school era. Post-nineties, the world is different and we need a new approach to deliver today’s Internet users what they want and need (which in this case is broadcast-quality video). While a company like Netflix can manage the video content library and coordinating algorithms from the cloud, delivering video to the end user is endlessly complex.
Where this gets interesting is around Netflix’s decision to run its own Content Delivery Network (CDN), with equipment often physically located at Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Data Exchange Centers. Traditionally, the majority of companies don’t manage their respective CDNs and instead rely on outsourced networks. As a result, service can often turn faulty under pressure. Netflix stands out by managing its own CDNs in an on-premise arrangement. The company gets the control it needs to ensure as high as possible quality of experience for its viewers.
This is what causes the no. 1 issue for cord-cutters: buffering. Buffering is the player storing a subset of the content, so that when the data stream slows down there is a reserve to play out as the player waits for more to arrive. The interruptions we experience, and the dreaded spinning ‘buffering’ circle, turn up when the reserve has been used up before more of the video has arrived. This happens due to an Internet infrastructure that’s not made to handle real-time streaming, and it’s when many of us — three-quarters, in fact — get fed up and abandon whatever it was we were watching.
To maximize the speed at which video data is delivered to the player, providers must actively manage the process. In practical terms, there are two levers they can pull: (1) the resolution of the picture — the better-looking the picture, the greater the amount of data that must be delivered; and (2) the route that data takes from the provider’s studio to the viewer’s device. The less busy each piece of the pipeline is, the quicker the data can make it through to the viewer.
When the route between the provider and the viewer is not busy, the provider can send a large file through a default path, and it arrives quickly and smoothly. When the route is congested and the stream at risk of buffering, the provider must balance the size of the file and the network of CDNs it will use to get that file to its destination. Remember, viewers quickly tire of lousy pictures, or even crisp clear pictures that stop and start, ruining the flow of a show.
The transition to a cloud environment trend could also affect smaller Video on Demand (VOD) and Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services and their ability to provide a quality stream with little impact on total savings. Often, these types of services are at a greater risk for quality loss because their bandwidth could be diverted to bigger providers.
According to net neutrality laws, providers are forbidden to create fast lanes. However, when larger players are able to place hardware within the physical locations of ISPs and data exchange centers, they are more likely to deliver a superior viewing experience. In a level playing field, everyone’s infrastructure would be separate. However, when larger players merge their infrastructure, smaller players may have a harder time delivering the same level of experience.
This reality is the crux of Netflix’s web content delivery issues in 2015. For Netflix, managing the core of their business and content in the cloud makes sense. With near-infinite flexibility in terms of computing and storage capabilities (they reportedly have a full petabyte of files stored just for their North American catalog), the cloud makes it possible to perfectly match supply and demand, store and index customer data and wring unnecessary costs out of the business.
But to actually deliver the content to the end viewer is a process that cannot be outsourced. Using their proprietary, on-premise equipment, monitoring and algorithms, Netflix’s systems must make delivery decisions millions of times a second to ensure a high-quality experience to each and every viewer. In order to deliver broadcast-quality content, Netflix will need to own an individual CDN, with presence in Data Exchange Centers and ISPs.
Ultimately, the very complexity of cloud video delivery means that Netflix can happily give up the data centers that house its content and business logic — but would face a dangerous risk in outsourcing the key elements of moving that content from source to destination.
Simon Jones is the VP of Marketing at Conviva. A Silicon Valley veteran, he has led organizations across the collaboration, e-commerce and OTT video markets for 20 years, spending time at Ooyala, BlueSnap, Adobe, Hyperion and Interwoven. He has been a featured speaker at events including Streaming Media and NAB.