The advent of 4K and now 8K, as well as interactive applications that require sub-1 second latency, are obliging CDN service providers to enhance capacity and efficiency, writes David Davies.


CDN: Higher resolutions and interactivity 

Pity the CDN provider trying to get to grips with the current remarkable expansion in volume and resolution of content worldwide. Actually, ‘pity’ is hardly the most appropriate word since, for those companies who can surmount the multiple hurdles, the new content revolution represents an enormous opportunity. But there is also a fair argument to be made that the size and scale of the technical challenges now facing CDN providers is without precedent.

Most obviously, this increase in content and quality of content expectations is translating to most CDN providers adding to their points of presence and global egress capabilities. Steve Miller-Jones, VP of product strategy at Limelight Networks, says that the company now has more than 100 points of presence and over 50Tbps of egress capacity, the latter up from about 30Tbps 18 months ago.

Invited to outline the factors behind this growth, Miller-Jones highlights “the drive in the VOD and OTT market for higher and higher quality. Also, the amount of content is continuing to grow, while the number of live events [to be distributed] is also rising. It is apparent to us that there is a need to grow faster than the market rate.”

The move from HD to 4K and now possibly on towards 8K means that the bandwidth requirements of content are only going to become severe. Factor in the additional latency pressures related to interactive applications, including gaming, and it’s not surprising that the CDN sector has become both more competitive and specialised over the last 2-3 years.

As Edgeware CPO and CTO Johan Bolin indicate, it’s the suppliers who can keep one step ahead of these changes that stand to thrive. “With the CDN market becoming more and more competitive, price pressure is increasing, and we expect this to continue to happen in the near future,” he says. “The onus is on CDN providers to build innovative solutions which respond to the needs of broadcasters and OTT providers in an ever-evolving media landscape.”

Getting ready for 2020
With next year paying host to multiple global sporting events that will bring huge spikes in traffic, most CDN providers have notably expanded their network capacity in 2019. In addition, says Akamai senior director product management Jon Alexander, “we have seen a lot of excitement around new launches of OTT services [due to take place in 2020].

“This will translate to traffic growth next year and so we have been doing a lot of preparation with [content providers] to make sure they are all set up and optimised for these launches.”

Enhancing existing services has been a focus of activity for multiple CDN providers – in Akamai’s case, this has involved additions to the Adaptive Media Delivery streaming service, announced at IBC 2019 and including: quick-retry, which intelligently detects any signs of bottlenecks along internet delivery routes and finds alternative connection paths; segment pre-fetch prepositions anticipating video segments at the edge during playback, resulting in faster video start-up times and lower rebuffering rates; and use case optimisations that allow OTT operators to fine-tune their configurations with reference to tried-and-trusted settings.

Akamai (Sundry Photography shutter)

Akamai: CDN provider mentions security-related measures for OTT

Source: Sundry Photography / Shutterstock

Akamai also highlighted a cluster of security-related measures at IBC2019, including scalable watermarking support, individual access revocation for OTT operators and customer identity management.

Alexander agrees with the suggestion that security is now “elevated” in terms of customer priorities, but clarifies: “It’s not necessarily that the [overall threat level] has become elevated – it’s more about the industry having reached a position of maturity and the fact that people are now taking it more seriously. A lot of customers are pivoting toward online strategies and that involves [thinking deeply] about content protection.

Sub-one second latency
For Limelight, Miller-Jones highlights two ongoing preoccupations for the company as its CDN services evolve: “One is a focus on driving efficiency through the servers and the network fabrics we have. The other is an expansion strategy that includes building new points of presence and expanding with network partners such as Edge Gravity.” (In October 2018 Limelight Networks and Ericsson Edge Gravity announced a collaboration to deliver CDN and additional edge services on the Edge Gravity UDN platform.)

But the company has also been devoting considerable energy to reducing latency with a view to satisfying a predicted fresh generation of interactive services. Comparing the “around 5 seconds” latency requirements of many current OTT services, Miller-Jones says that for “game-sharing, e-sports tournaments and gambling we think there is going to be a drive towards sub-one second latency because of the interactivity that goes along with [these services].”

Limelight has already made significant progress in this area having introduced Limelight Realtime Video Streaming – a sub-one second, globally scalable live video streaming solution – in autumn 2018. At IBC 2019 the company announced several enhancements to Realtime Streaming, including ABR (Adaptive Bit Rate) support for the highest picture quality based on each viewer’s network conditions; and RTMP (Real-Time Messaging Protocol) fallback for devices that do not support WebRTC.

Like Alexander, Miller-Jones speaks of the market having reached a new phase of maturity, and as such it will be necessary for vendors to continue improving their “ability to control and understand traffic flows” as deeply as possible.

OTT on a par with traditional TV
The need to optimise reach, gain redundancy and manage traffic peaks is leading some broadcasters to pursue multi-CDN TV delivery – although as Edgeware CTO Kalle Henriksson observed in his IBC2019 presentation in the IABM Future Trends Theatre (14 September), this can give rise to challenges in terms of overall control of delivery.

As well as content providers increasingly wishing to deliver OTT services whose quality is “on-par with the quality of traditional broadcast TV, even for live content,” the growing volume and diversity of content is having “a large impact on CDN services and infrastructure,” says Bolin.

“This is partly why we see multi-CDN environments becoming more and more common. The need for redundant solutions, to offload peak traffic, and to extend reach into new regions are all reasons for deploying a multi-CDN strategy. This would not be needed if there was not an increased demand for content which again is driven by the increasing volume, diversity and availability of content.”

With all this in mind, IBC2019 saw Edgeware launch its new SaaS-Based StreamPilot control session platform, which is designed to give broadcasters, content providers and telecom operators real-time, in-session and per-segment delivery control when streaming media in a multi-CDN environment.

Bolin explains: “StreamPilot is agnostic to CDN, client device and media format, and provides a unique way to both monitor quality of experience and manage potential quality problems within the same system.

“This tells us that broadcasters want to be in more control of their content delivery. They need the means to immediately identify and fix any quality issues their viewers have. This correlates to the perceived value of the broadcasters’ quality of service and content, the churn they are facing and, eventually, the perception of the broadcaster as a provider of new, innovative and interesting services.”

The number of new or updated CDN-related products introduced at IBC 2019 is a good indication that service providers are now in full acknowledgement of the content-pressures facing broadcasters worldwide. Those companies who can demonstrate they are capable both of predicting future trends and partnering broadcasters through all the related challenges will best-placed to thrive in a sector that is certain to remain highly competitive.