Win the OTT challenge, say goodbye to the pinwheel

Sat, 04/30/2011 - 8:35pm
Gary Southwell, CTO of BTI Systems

And do it with content-aware networking.

The world is watching, and it has a voracious appetite. Media consumption has shifted violently from broadcast to unicast as consumers embrace a la carte consumption. Media is now consumed on PCs, smartphones and other devices, as well as the traditional TV.

This isn’t a George Orwell novel, it’s the straight truth that demand for a la carte video content has increased exponentially. This increase in interest for video content and the subsequent rise in diverse media available are exciting for many consumers, but it’s a difficult pill to swallow for many service providers. Addressing the demand raises questions about how to keep operational costs at a reasonable level, increase profits, and still offer customers the fast and affordable service they have come to expect. Service providers are challenged to find new ways to adjust to the demand while keeping their networks from buckling under the pressure of increasing broadband traffic.

The shift in media consumption is being delivered in two models: Service providers are extending their existing video delivery networks with video-ondemand and “TV Everywhere,” but more importantly, an entirely new commercial model is emerging called over the top. OTT is a term for a service used by a consumer that is delivered over a network where the service is not offered by the network operator. The service rides on top of the network the consumer already gets and doesn’t require any business or technology affiliations with the network operator. OTT growth is being fueled by social networking, size of content, ease of accessing content (e.g., Netflix) and the currency of content.

Figure 1- Internet Traffic Breakdown...

Not only is demand increasing, but couple that with high expectations for HD-quality videos downloaded in lightning-fast time, and that’s a recipe for a service provider with a migraine. With subscribers’ viewing habits shifting from broadcast to on-demand, as shown in Figure 1, video content is affecting rapid change on the composition of consumer Internet traffic and will likely comprise 60 percent of requests by 2014.

Over the past five years, most service providers have invested heavily in the rollout of high-speed access (VDSL, DOCSIS 3.0, PON) and have ramped up deployment of high-speed Internet services to their customers. OTT content puts massive stress on the network due to traffic growth. The growth impact is felt less on the access, where there has been significant recent investment, than on Internet peering connections, core network infrastructure and middle-mile connections, because these have not been sized or justified to reflect the shifting demand patterns. The huge growth in demand causes network congestion and a sub-par quality of experience (QoE).

The brute force approach to address bandwidth growth, reduce congestion and ensure customer satisfaction is via network overlays and increased Internet transit capacity. Although effective in addressing bandwidth requirements, this system is not economical in the long run. Network overlays drive additional capex and opex, forcing service providers to continue investing in network equipment and capacity, while average revenue per user is static – creating a revenue gap and leading to less profitable service offerings.

As a subscriber’s Internet connection usage grows more bandwidth-intensive with OTT and other sources of video, the experience of accessing online media will deteriorate. This is based on the time to download and view content, as well as system response times for control commands, such as play, pause or rewind. As expectations continue to become more difficult to meet, more service complaints will be logged, and subscriber churn will increase as they try competitive service offerings in search of an improved experience.

Service providers need an alternative content delivery approach that is beneficial to the service provider and customer on both an economical and content-quality level. This approach will need to deliver content effectively and efficiently, provide a high-quality experience for the customer, and limit the service providers’ requirements to augment the network.

Figure 2 - The content-aware networking process.

Enter content-aware networking. This architecture represents the evolution of wide area networking, which manages the delivery of certain content types and reduces bandwidth requirements over middle-mile, core and Internet transit networks to improve profitability for service delivery.

Content-aware networking is a new approach that leverages the patterns of consumer behavior. Most of the content requested by consumers is common – it may be requested at a different time or on a different device, but 80 percent of the content is common. Content-aware networking distributes the most popular, frequently accessed content closer to the subscriber, at the edge of the network, to expedite downloading or streaming time and limit the impact of repetitive requests on the entire network.

This approach allows the service provider to significantly reduce backhaul, metro and Internet peering costs and defer network investments requiring capex and opex. This approach also provides subscribers with an improved QoE, with transparent caching technology that automatically stores and locally serves any content that is frequently requested within a defined geography and dramatically improves download and response times for all forms of entertainment content.

Content-aware networking focuses on data sessions established between service provider subscribers and Internet content sources, such as Web servers, CDN networks, P2P nodes, etc., supporting all of the HTTP services and P2P protocols. As shown in Figure 2, content requests are analyzed and classified on the basis of file type and are assessed based on download frequency, size of file, last download and other factors to determine their caching potential. Popular media files are held locally, and rarely requested files are sourced from farther back in the network.

For subsequent requests, the content cache will determine whether the requested file has been previously stored and will determine the integrity of the content to ensure that it is valid, up-to-date and what the subscriber requested. It will then stream or download the file to the subscriber. By serving the data from the edge of the network, traffic over transit and peering links is reduced and delivery is accelerated. In addition, the content cache, in conjunction with a network element that is tasked with redirection of users’ requests for cacheable content, will let other forms of traffic bypass this redirection point.

There are a number of forms of content caching that are used to address different problems with content delivery. Content-aware networking automatically adapts to shifts in consumption patterns to offer the consumer more bandwidth, while reducing costs to the service provider. Content-aware networking does not require operators to master the black art of content management or to invest in a whole CDN infrastructure. It doesn’t require protracted licensing deals with content owners, nor does it oblige the operator to take legal responsibility for content. The session between the consumer and the content owner is preserved during this process, so neither the content nor the consumer is ever hijacked, and that benefit overcomes a significant issue with CDN solutions. Content-aware networking is easy to deploy, easy to operate, and offers significant cost and user experience advantage.

Figure 3 - Putting it all together...

The key to addressing critical network requirements as we enter the era of a la carte consumption is to use an innovative approach for content delivery. Service providers’ high-speed Internet services must leverage an efficient service delivery infrastructure to address high-bandwidth subscriber requests for content and information. A content-aware networking approach defers metro network buildouts and reduces Internet transit costs through a more effective content delivery model using content caching technology tightly integrated with a packet optical networking solution.

Alleviating network congestion associated with delivering requested content to the subscriber means content is viewable faster and without interruption – in some cases, subscriber response time is seven times faster. In many cases, the investment in content-aware networking can be easily justified on an ROI basis against saved capex and opex that previously would have been required to augment network capacity. Service providers are finding that up to 70 percent of content is cacheable, and bandwidth savings realized are between 20 to 30 percent.

Content-aware networking frees up bandwidth to deliver other services, such as VoIP and video conferencing, more effectively. The quality of these offerings is higher, as they are no longer contending with as much OTT content traveling across the network at the same time. Content-aware networking approaches provide a foundation to increase average revenue per user by providing tiered services and by partnering with OTT content providers to jointly offer enhanced service offerings. For example, its location close to the subscriber allows for the creation of additional offers such as tiered service offerings, local interest content delivery or location-based advertising. ISPs and access service providers can use the solution to build cost-effective distributed CDNs to offer these services, as well as other premium content services.

The consumer demand for OTT content is growing at an unprecedented rate, along with the expectation that content will be readily available, timely in delivery and easy to control. A content-aware networking approach provides an “at the subscriber’s front door” delivery model for popular content and ensures sufficient bandwidth to deliver OTT content and other communications services – over the same Internet pipe – effectively and with an improved quality of experience for the subscriber. With a content-aware networking architecture, both sides benefit: Service providers get a platform for future service evolution, and customers can say goodbye to the pinwheel.



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