From Broadcast to Video-on-Demand: is the network up to it?

Connectivity as a business-critical component for media organisations

The media world is facing substantial changes. Content distribution is moving away from the airwaves and cable TV towards the Internet. Digital networks must be prepared for this shift. Content publishers must meet these changes head-on.

By-Rutger-Bevaart,-CTO-and-Lead-Architect-at-Custom-Connect

The entire content landscape is being turned upside down. With the arrival of services like BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix and other equivalents, Video-on-Demand has seen enormous growth in recent years. As a result, media organisations need to begin customising their offerings while simultaneously improving the metrics made available to advertisers.

Ongoing content digitalisation means the Internet will become a significant distribution channel. All-IP content delivery is the future. Even traditional distribution networks will begin to look different. For example, plucking media on-demand from the cloud and pausing live TV have already changed how content is consumed and future developments will cause even more challenges.

Software Defined Networking (SDN) is expected to play a significant role in the media as will the movement towards ‘cutting out the middle man’. The traditional layered approach, with its fixed roles of content producer, post-production company and broadcaster, is gradually dying out. Content publishers now interact with customers directly. Content must follow the consumer everywhere, be available at all times and be watchable in the highest quality.  What does all this mean for the underlying network infrastructure? There are a number of clear requirements surfacing:

1. The impatient viewer: low latency

Viewers now expect content to begin immediately.  There is no question of waiting. The network must accommodate this demand. If we consider the route that the content has to take from the point of storage in the data centre to the viewer’s device, it becomes clear that providing the necessary speed presents an enormous challenge. The challenge is even greater in an international environment where the content has to travel even further and the speed offered must be available across the entire route.

2. Large volumes of data: large bandwidth

Video gobbles up bandwidth. Freezing or jerky footage accompany connections that cannot cope with demand. Ignoring this will only lead to irritated consumers that go elsewhere for their video services. The connectivity in place must be high performing, but also offer sufficient capacity.

3. Multi-device: consistent quality

Viewing now takes place on smartphones, tablets, laptops and smart TVs. The viewing experience has to be the same across every device.

4. Multi-party: chain integration

Content travels long distances – from data centres where it is stored, via content delivery networks (CDN) such as Akamai or Limelight, through the internet provider’s network and eventually to the consumer. Content syndication adds another level of complexity as it means the content publisher needs to bundle and distribute content from various parties. All these connections need managing, preferably, via an SDN-enabled infrastructure.

5. Availability: ‘Five 9s’

For the sake of operational dependability, many large media publishers choose to set up several, inter-connected data centres in the vicinity of their customer base. As a result, the network connections within these facilities need to be redundant in order to guarantee network stability and reliability. The impact from a failure at the source would affect the entire content delivery chain. Data centre availability and these mutual connections are extremely important to success. Connectivity influences customer satisfaction and the publisher’s reputation. The Video-on-Demand network chain is only as strong as its weakest link and its most important link, connectivity, is often neglected. There is the fact that content providers have no influence over the final link in the chain, the end-user’s own internet access. This is because the consumers select their own Internet Service Provider. Thankfully, for the content provider’s sake, everything else in the distribution process prior to that point is controlled internally. What this means is that content providers must concentrate on the quality of their communication infrastructure.

Often this can seem challenging, because it involves a completely new set of rules. An option is to consider the successful delivery models used by organisations like Google and Netflix.  Other sectors also offer effective lessons. The financial sector has invested heavily in advanced network technologies and concepts in recent years, especially in High Frequency and Algorithmic Trading, and it will not be long before media is confronted with the same ‘need for speed’ phenomenon that typifies financial trading. The same approach around low latency and bandwidth is already beginning to apply to content distribution and advertising syndication. Just like financial traders, media publishers lose money as soon as a connection falters.

Ground Zero

So what connectivity do you need? Ultimately it varies for each media company and each application. For this reason it is always advisable to undertake a Zero Assessment to align connectivity with business objectives, processes and the specific market. The second consideration is application-led. From a risk management and cost perspective, determining what connectivity is required for each application category is critical. Content distribution networks supplying videos in several languages and formats will need their own connectivity profiles. The average latency of a standard trans-Atlantic connection is 60-80ms. This is suitable for enterprise applications, but it is far too slow for media distribution.

The scope of a Zero Assessment

  1. Business objectives and how connectivity influences them
  2. Regulatory considerations
  3. Basic infrastructure and applications
  4. Industry-specific applications
  5. The relationship between data, servers, storage and networks
  6. The data volume per unit of time (actual and anticipated)
  7. Required bandwidth (dimensioned over peak load)
  8. The allocation of bandwidth per application and per location

A Zero Assessment will highlight the minimum and maximum bandwidth required and also the effect of latency on users and their application usage.

Rutger2

Two fronts

Once a Zero Assessment has taken place, approach connectivity on two fronts. Ensure your own infrastructure between consumer locations, data centres and partners, is of the highest standard. This alone poses a substantial challenge, especially if the content provider is an international organisation. It is extremely challenging to implement a ‘Five-9s’ (99.999% availability) environment in more than one country. For this reason, content publishers often choose a large global carrier. What they actually get is a global player that is dependent on local access partners and a carrier that utilises its own network infrastructure first, even if it is not suitable for the needs of the content publisher.

An alternative is to select an independent specialist that will implement a flexible infrastructure that caters to your exact needs. Also, with technology and costing changing so rapidly, staying with the same provider too long can sometimes lead to a sub-optimal and expensive experience. It is very important to select a partner who stays on-trend with developments and one that can react to industry changes. The second front is content delivery from the ‘outside world’. There are two choices: do it yourself or outsource. If you outsource, Akamai, Amazon, CloudFlare or Google are strong CDN providers. Often these options are more cost effective and offer unrivalled operational reliability. They also help shorten the time-to-market for new services.

Pay-per-use

An important trend for media organisations to be aware of is the pay-per-use model. This is where the customer pays for the actual bandwidth used, not the capacity. It has proved more popular in the US, while Europe is still lagging behind. This is because many legacy carriers find it challenging to set up billing systems to accommodate the concept. What we are seeing in Europe is, when pay-per-use is possible, a hybrid model is more likely: 50% of the peak load dimensioned bandwidth is purchased while the remainder is invoiced on the basis of actual usage. This is an extremely important development for media publishers, because they often have unexpectedly large peaks in usage, especially when popular content is released or high-value news items are broadcast.

Tips for content providers:

  • There is always a greater need for availability than you think, therefore conduct a Zero Assessment
  • Apply the bandwidth for each application – a one-size-fits-all strategy is needlessly expensive
  • Never choose a single carrier for everything
  • Remain flexible and avoid long-term contracts (maximum 2 years). Connectivity continues to fall in price, latency reaching historic lows and innovation is on the rise
  • Today’s solutions are outdated quicker than you think
  • Consider asking for pay-on-demand bandwidth billing

Whatever stage you are at with your content network strategy, connectivity – although often neglected – remains crucially important. A comprehensive connectivity policy should match the overall business strategy and creating one is effective risk management. Approach it right and you can lower costs, improve availability and drive flexibility throughout the organisation.By Rutger Bevaart, CTO and Lead Architect at Custom Connect    

Case study: Content cloud based on ‘Five 9s’ connectivity

App Stores, e-commerce, cloud storage… you name it, this Custom Connect customer listed in the Fortune 100 had it. One of the world’s leading names in consumer technologies chose Custom Connect as a Preferred Supplier for building and maintaining its connectivity between its numerous data centres around the world.

The Consumer IT Brand’s connectivity demands were exceptionally high. “If customers have to wait too long for their information from the Cloud, they simply move on to another provider. That is why high performance connectivity is such a strong business driver, especially for this customer,” said Willem Meijer, co-founder and CEO of Custom Connect. The Consumer IT Brand in question has data facilities across the world that have been strategically built to service local customers. Its global data centre footprint is unmatched. Its facilities synchronise with each other, but they also require high speed and high volume connections with the public internet for content delivery.

Meijer continued, “Even with its unique requirements, we succeeded in delivering world class connectivity across the organisation, even in its most exotic of locations. The customer demanded a ‘Five 9s’ environment (99.999% availability). Every component had to be redundant, but the biggest challenge was that for some markets, there was only one telecom company operating locally. For us, finding the solution to such questions was what drove us forward.”  Meijer followed with, “At first we were undeniably challenged to the very limits of our capabilities to find the perfect solution for the company, but now, after several years, we have exceeded its expectations and requirements.”

Jan-Willen-Meijer

Like most businesses, the customer has an exclusive list of ‘Preferred Suppliers’, including its chosen telecom companies. “As a relatively small, flexible and neutral player we can distinguish ourselves from competitors through a networking-as-a-service approach. We leveraged our relationship with thousands of carriers to build an integrated redundant global network. Everything is visible within a service module, which includes 24/7 managed support of the entire network environment. We also delivered everything over a short period of time – for us, several days is a common occurrence.”

Custom Connect’s competitors remain trapped inside their own infrastructures. “More and more businesses want to get away from vendor ‘lock-in’. Remember, today’s solutions quickly date, so optimising the customer’s network and reconfiguring the carrier infrastructure is a continuous process. Therefore it is better left to a flexible, carrier-neutral service provider,” concluded Meijer.

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