Increased investment in content delivery, including multi-CDNs and open caching, remains among the most noticeable of all broadcast industry trends.
Several key questions have revolved around the topic of content over the last few years, and they include: How can we make enough of it? How can we harness new technologies to ensure it attracts an audience in the escalating ‘battle for eyeballs’? And how can we ensure it reaches viewers with no reduction in quality, and across more platforms and delivery mechanisms than ever before?
With production processes continuing to be streamlined, and newer technologies such as 4K and HDR now part of regular production, it’s arguably the last question that is currently the most urgent. Accordingly, IBC 365 has carried a number of articles in recent times – such as this 2020 piece – indicating that many content owners intend to invest heavily in content delivery networks (CDNs) and content distribution in general, with increasingly complex approaches being the order of the day.
In 2022, it is apparent that this is very much an ongoing process. Lisa Aussieker, senior vice-president of marketing at video delivery specialist Qwilt, observes: “The reason for content providers’ investment in content delivery is universal and simple: to deliver their content at the best possible quality. However, CDN strategies demand evolution, particularly in a world of booming content consumption, further complicated by the increasing richness and interactivity of those online experiences.”
Moving away from a ‘centralised CDN’
There are a number of factors to suggest that a more traditional CDN model will be less widely deployed in the future. First and foremost, there is the sheer amount of content that needs to be distributed – much of it in higher-resolution formats such as UHD. Then there is the growth of technologies geared towards immersiveness and interactivity, such as AR, VR and XR. Then we can also factor in a generally increased expectation of uninterrupted high quality bolstered by the rise of ultra-fast domestic internet and now 5G.
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“Content providers have grown an acute understanding of how the quality of their content is highly linked to the perceived value of their brand,” observes Aussieker. “They have started to assume responsibility for that quality by enlisting the help of CDNs that have acted as an intermediary for improving content delivery.
“When content is highly valued, it comes with associated pressure on content providers to invest in media delivery to ensure the best quality-of-experience, while meeting peaks in demand. This is particularly noticeable in areas such as live sport, where the spend on sports rights for subscription OTT services is rising dramatically – and with the investment of these valuable rights comes the responsibility to properly deliver.”
All of which means increased pressure on the ‘traditional, centralised CDN model’ that Aussieker says “already suffers under today’s content delivery burden; the caching servers are often just too far away from users. Low bit-rates, playback failures, rebuffering, and long start-up times are just some of the factors at play here.”
Qwilt’s own response to this is a solution called Open Edge Cloud, which focuses on providing capacity closer to the end-user. According to Aussieker, it creates “network capacity embedded deep within the access networks of its global service providers, so that delivery can scale efficiently and content can be delivered in higher quality from the edge. Partner service providers can use these caches within the network to deliver all content, including live streams, much more effectively than a legacy CDN model.”
There is the possibility for a single CDN provider to hold content providers “captive.”
Qwilt points to an achievable latency as low as five milliseconds, in contrast to the 20-100 millisecond latency often associated with traditional CDNs. The Open Edge Cloud has been used to deliver a number of high-profile streamed events, such as the 2021 US Open women’s tennis final, while a caching partnership with BT has helped to ensure that BT’s network could “efficiently provide premium quality above peak to huge numbers of viewers throughout the UK”.
Looking ahead, Aussieker predicts a continued evolution from centralised CDNs to an “increasingly edge-oriented model, unlocking greater delivery potential from proximities much closer to the end-user than ever before.”
Investing to handle the video consumption surge
If pushing as much of the content distribution activities towards the edge is one approach that’s gaining ground, then it’s important to note that a multi-CDN strategy – whereby multiple CDNs from different providers are combined into a single network to increase capacity and mitigate failure risk – is also very popular. Nivedita Nouvel, VP marketing at video delivery component innovator Broadpeak, notes that there has recently been a move away from content providers relying on a single CDN towards a multi-CDN approach that yields “more control over the delivery”.
“This can be achieved by setting up load balancing and CDN selection mechanisms and by directly accessing the streaming capacities of operators,” Nouvel explains. “In any case, the last couple of years marked by the Covid-19 global health crisis have led to a surge in video streaming consumption and investments to handle the growing traffic volumes.”
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As well as capacity issues, there are also strategic business factors at work here. For example, there is the possibility for a single CDN provider to hold content providers “captive”, with “no reason to share the benefits of new features or lower prices. Moreover, the best CDN to stream in different regions or to various ISP customers is not the same, due to distinct peering and transit contracts. A balancing capability that allows content providers to instantly take traffic out from a CDN experiencing a breakdown is key to improving overall quality.”
Taking all of these elements into consideration, Nouvel predicts several big CDN trends for 2022-23, including a closer relationship between content providers and operators “to access their resources directly, leveraging open caching types of approaches.” Nouvel also suggests that there will be “an increased use of multicast ABR [adaptive bit-rate streaming] for live content delivery.” In addition, we should anticipate “more context-aware CDNs, where each behaviour – i.e., ad insertion, blackout, delinearisation, offload, layer filtering – is related to elements contained in the streaming request to enable a finer granularity of optimisation.”
Direct-to-consumer (D2C) strategies
Alexandre Arnodin, VP delivery solutions at video delivery company Ateme, perceives this more diversified approach within the broader push towards media organisations going D2C. Increasingly, he indicates, content providers are “looking at ways to optimise their content delivery as part of their direct-to-consumer strategy. [Content providers] want to own the relationship with their subscribers in order to get important benefits: mainly, a better understanding of what consumers want, and fewer intermediaries to share profits with.”
Echoing Nouvel’s observation about a rise in CDN balancing that enables individual providers to experience the “best mix between the different options”, Arnodin says that developments around its own CDN have been multi-faceted. The latest changes include efficiency improvements – the average ‘hit ratio’ now being over 99% – and greater ‘elasticity’. This enables the CDN to take advantage of containerisation of the core components and centralised orchestration mechanism.
All of which makes it possible to “improve resource sharing and usage on the CDN, and to use the CDN in low-traffic time for other applications, such as file transcoding,” says Arnodin. “It also makes the software agnostic to infrastructure, allowing it to be deployed in any multiple networks, including 5G, and in any environment, such as public or private cloud.”
Whilst a single-CDN approach may remain appropriate for some content services for the time being, volume and quality demands will inevitably prompt an increasing number of organisations to adopt a more complex solution. More than ever, it is clear that there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to content delivery, and content services will have to rigorously explore and identify a blend of content delivery technologies that meets their particular needs and ensures they never let their viewers down.
To find out more about how the industry is approaching the challenges of delivering a great direct-to-consumer content experience, watch our workflow tour on Content Distribution