|Summary: Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) are becoming familiar in the fixed broadband world as a means to improve the experience and reduce the costs of delivering bulky data like online video to end-users. Is there now a compelling need for their mobile equivalents, and if so, should operators partner with existing players or build / buy their own? (August 2011, Executive Briefing Service, Future of the Networks Stream).
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As is widely documented, mobile networks are witnessing huge growth in the volumes of 3G/4G data traffic, primarily from laptops, smartphones and tablets. While Telco 2.0 is wary of some of the headline shock-statistics about forecast “exponential” growth, or “data tsunamis” driven by ravenous consumption of video applications, there is certainly a fast-growing appetite for use of mobile broadband.
That said, many of the actual problems of congestion today can be pinpointed either to a handful of busy cells at peak hour – or, often, the inability of the network to deal with the signalling load from chatty applications or “aggressive” devices, rather than the “tonnage” of traffic. Another large trend in mobile data is the use of transient, individual-centric flows from specific apps or communications tools such as social networking and messaging.
But “tonnage” is not completely irrelevant. Despite the diversity, there is still an inexorable rise in the use of mobile devices for “big chunks” of data, especially the special class of software commonly known as “content” – typically popular/curated standalone video clips or programmes, or streamed music. Images (especially those in web pages) and application files such as software updates fit into a similar group – sizeable lumps of data downloaded by many individuals across the operator’s network.
This one-to-many nature of most types of bulk content highlights inefficiencies in the way mobile networks operate. The same data chunks are downloaded time and again by users, typically going all the way from the public Internet, through the operator’s core network, eventually to the end user. Everyone loses in this scenario – the content publisher needs huge servers to dish up each download individually. The operator has to deal with transport and backhaul load from repeatedly sending the same content across its network (and IP transit from shipping it in from outside, especially over international links). Finally, the user has to deal with all the unpredictability and performance compromises involved in accessing the traffic across multiple intervening points – and ends up paying extra to support the operator’s heavier cost base.
In the fixed broadband world, many content companies have availed themselves of a group of specialist intermediaries called CDNs (content delivery networks). These firms on-board large volumes of the most important content served across the Internet, before dropping it “locally” as near to the end user as possible – if possible, served up from cached (pre-saved) copies. Often, the CDN operating companies have struck deals with the end-user facing ISPs, which have often been keen to host their servers in-house, as they have been able to reduce their IP interconnection costs and deliver better user experience to their customers.
In the mobile industry, the use of CDNs is much less mature. Until relatively recently, the overall volumes of data didn’t really move the needle from the point of view of content firms, while operators’ radio-centric cost bases were also relatively immune from those issues as well. Optimising the “middle mile” for mobile data transport efficiency seemed far less of a concern than getting networks built out and handsets and apps perfected, or setting up policy and charging systems to parcel up broadband into tiered plans. Arguably, better-flowing data paths and video streams would only load the radio more heavily, just at a time when operators were having to compress video to limit congestion.
This is now changing significantly. With the rise in smartphone usage – and the expectations around tablets – Internet-based CDNs are pushing much more heavily to have their servers placed inside mobile networks. This is leading to a certain amount of introspection among the operators – do they really want to have Internet companies’ infrastructure inside their own networks, or could this be seen more as a Trojan Horse of some sort, simply accelerating the shift of content sales and delivery towards OTT-style models? Might it not be easier for operators to build internal CDN-type functions instead?
Some of the earlier approaches to video traffic management – especially so-called “optimisation” without the content companies’ permission of involvement – are becoming trickier with new video formats and more scrutiny from a Net Neutrality standpoint. But CDNs by definition involve the publishers, so potentially any necessary compression or other processing can be collaboratively, rather than “transparently” without cooperation or willingness.
At the same time, many of the operators’ usual vendors are seeing this transition point as a chance to differentiate their new IP core network offerings, typically combining CDN capability into their routing/switching platforms, often alongside the optimisation functions as well. In common with other recent innovations from network equipment suppliers, there is a dangled promise of Telco 2.0-style revenues that could be derived from “upstream” players. In this case, there is a bit more easily-proved potential, since this would involve direct substitution of the existing revenues already derived from content companies, by the Internet CDN players such as Akamai and Limelight. This also holds the possibility of setting up a two-sided, content-charging business model that fits OK with rules on Net Neutrality – there are few complaints about existing CDNs except from ultra-purist Neutralists.
On the other hand, telco-owned CDNs have existed in the fixed broadband world for some time, with largely indifferent levels of success and adoption. There needs to be a very good reason for content companies to choose to deal with multiple national telcos, rather than simply take the easy route and choose a single global CDN provider.
So, the big question for telcos around CDNs at the moment is “should I build my own, or should I just permit Akamai and others to continue deploying servers into my network?” Linked to that question is what type of CDN operation an operator might choose to run in-house.
There are four main reasons why a mobile operator might want to build its own CDN:
This Analyst Note explores these issues in more details, first giving some relevant contextual information on how CDNs work, especially in mobile.
The traditional model for Internet-based content access is straightforward – the user’s browser requests a piece of data (image, video, file or whatever) from a server, which then sends it back across the network, via a series of “hops” between different network nodes. The content typically crosses the boundaries between multiple service providers’ domains, before finally arriving at the user’s access provider’s network, flowing down over the fixed or mobile “last mile” to their device. In a mobile network, that also typically involves transiting the operator’s core network first, which has a variety of infrastructure (network elements) to control and charge for it.
A Content Delivery Network (CDN) is a system for serving Internet content from servers which are located “closer” to the end user either physically, or in terms of the network topology (number of hops). This can result in faster response times, higher overall performance, and potentially lower costs to all concerned.
In most cases in the past, CDNs have been run by specialist third-party providers, such as Akamai and Limelight. This document also considers the role of telcos running their own “on-net” CDNs.
CDNs can be thought of as analogous to the distribution of bulky physical goods – it would be inefficient for a manufacturer to ship all products to customers individually from a single huge central warehouse. Instead, it will set up regional logistics centres that can be more responsive – and, if appropriate, tailor the products or packaging to the needs of specific local markets.
As an example, there might be a million requests for a particular video stream from the BBC. Without using a CDN, the BBC would have to provide sufficient server capacity and bandwidth to handle them all. The company’s immediate downstream ISPs would have to carry this traffic to the Internet backbone, the backbone itself has to carry it, and finally the requesters' ISPs' access networks have to deliver it to the end-points. From a media-industry viewpoint, the source network (in this case the BBC) is generally called the “content network” or “hosting network”; the destination is termed an “eyeball network”.
In a CDN scenario, all the data for the video stream has to be transferred across the Internet just once for each participating network, when it is deployed to the downstream CDN servers and stored. After this point, it is only carried over the user-facing eyeball networks, not any others via the public Internet. This also means that the CDN servers may be located strategically within the eyeball networks, in order to use its resources more efficiently. For example, the eyeball network could place the CDN server on the downstream side of its most expensive link, so as to avoid carrying the video over it multiple times. In a mobile context, CDN servers could be used to avoid pushing large volumes of data through expensive core-network nodes repeatedly.
When the video or other content is loaded into the CDN, other optimisations such as compression or transcoding into other formats can be applied if desired. There may also be various treatments relating to new forms of delivery such as HTTP streaming, where the video is broken up into “chunks” with several different sizes/resolutions. Collectively, these upfront processes are called “ingestion”.
Figure 1 – Content delivery with and without a CDN
Source: STL Partners / Telco 2.0
It is important to recognise that the fixed-centric CDN business has increased massively in richness and competition over time. Although some of the players have very clever architectures and IPR in the forms of their algorithms and software techniques, the flexibility of modern IP networks has tended to erode away some of the early advantages and margins. Shipping large volumes of content is now starting to become secondary to the provision of associated value-added functions and capabilities around that data. Additional services include:
It is no coincidence that the market leader, Akamai, now refers to itself as “provider of cloud optimisation services” in its financial statements, rather than a CDN, with its business being driven by “trends in cloud computing, Internet security, mobile connectivity, and the proliferation of online video”. In particular, it has started refocusing away from dealing with “video tonnage”, and towards application acceleration – for example, speeding up the load times of e-commerce sites, which has a measurable impact on abandonment of purchasing visits. Akamai’s total revenues in 2010 were around $1bn, less than half of which came from “media and entertainment” – the traditional “content industries”. Its H1 2011 revenues were relatively disappointing, with growth coming from non-traditional markets such as enterprise and high-tech (eg software update delivery) rather than media.
This is a critically important consideration for operators that are looking to CDNs to provide them with sizeable uplifts in revenue from upstream customers. Telcos – especially in mobile – will need to invest in various additional capabilities as well as the “headline” video traffic management aspects of the system. They will need to optimise for network latency as well as throughput, for example – which will probably not have the cost-saving impacts expected from managing “data tonnage” more effectively.
Although in theory telcos’ other assets should help – for example mapping download analytics to more generalised customer data – this is likely to involve extra complexity with the IT side of the business. There will also be additional efforts around sales and marketing that go significantly beyond most mobile operators’ normal footprint into B2B business areas. There is also a risk that an analysis of bottlenecks for application delivery / acceleration ends up simply pointing the finger of blame at the network’s inadequacies in terms of coverage. Improving delivery speed, cost or latency is only valuable to an upstream customer if there is a reasonable likelihood of the end-user actually having connectivity in the first place.
Figure 2: Value-added CDN capabilities
An increasingly important aspect of CDNs is their move beyond content/media distribution into a much wider area of “acceleration” and “cloud enablement”. As well as delivering large pieces of data efficiently (e.g. video), there is arguably more tangible value in delivering small pieces of data fast.
There are various manifestations of this, but a couple of good examples illustrate the general principles:
Hosting applications at CDN-type cloud acceleration providers achieves much the same effect as for video – they can bring the application “closer”, with fewer hops between the origin server and the consumer. Additionally, the CDN is well-placed to offer additional value-adds such as firewalling and protection against denial-of-service attacks.
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Organisations and products referenced: 3GPP, Acision, Akamai, Alcatel-Lucent, Allot, Amazon Cloudfront, Apple's Time Capsule, BBC, BrightCove, BT, Bytemobile, Cisco, Ericsson, Flash Networks, Huawei, iCloud, ISPs, iTunes, Juniper, Limelight, Netflix, Nokia Siemens Networks, Ooyala, OpenWave, Ortiva, Skype, smartphone, Stoke, tablets, TiVo, Vantrix, Velocix, Wholesale Content Connect, Yospace, YouTube.
Technologies and industry terms referenced: acceleration, advertising, APIs, backhaul, caching, CDN, cloud, distributed caches, DNS, Evolved Packet Core, eyeball network, femtocell, fixed broadband, GGSNs, HLS, HTTP streaming, ingestion, IP network, IPR, laptops, LIPA, LTE, macro-CDN, micro-CDN, middle mile, mobile, Net Neutrality, offload, optimisation, OTT, OVP, peering proxy, QoE, QoS, RNCs, SIPTO, video, video traffic management, WiFi, wireless.