The Internet Has Always Been Open, It’s The Platforms & Devices That Are Closed

As expected, today’s vote on the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rules passed with a 3-2 margin. While this is a big step in a process that has been going on for thirteen years now, we’re still a long way off from this debate being over. Since a draft of the proposal wasn’t shared with the public we still don’t know what exactly the rules state or how to interpret them. We’ve also learned that FCC Commissioner Clyburn did get FCC Chairman Wheeler to make “significant changes” to the newly passed FCC rules, but what those changes are we won’t know until we get to see the actual language.

The problem is that even when we do get to read the new rules, many of the words used are going to be vague. Things like “fair” and “unreasonable” have no meanings. What is the baseline that will be used to define what is fair, and what isn’t? Apparently that is up to the FCC and from what I am told, the new rules provide no definitions or methodology at all of how those words will be put into practice. Vague, high-level language isn’t what we need more of, yet that’s what we get when the rules are being written by politicians. It also doesn’t help that many in the media still can’t get the basic facts right, which only continues to add more confusion to the topic. My RSS feed is already full of more than a hundred net neutrality posts and some, like this one from Engadget, get the very basics wrong.

The post says that the new rules will, “ban things like paid prioritization, a tactic some ISPs used to get additional fees from bandwidth-heavy companies like Netflix,” except that Netflix is getting NO prioritization of any kind. Netflix has a paid interconnect deal with Comcast and other ISPs but a paid interconnect deal is not the same thing as paid prioritization. All you have to do is read the joint press release by Comcast and Netflix, to know this as it clearly states that, “Netflix receives no preferential network treatment“. Engadget is not the only media site to get this wrong. These are the basics, if people can’t get those right, what chance do we have of having an educated discussion on net neutrality rules when people don’t even know what they apply to?

For all the talk of how this now help consumers with regards to blocking or throttling of content via wireline services, it has no impact. We don’t have a single example of that being done by any wireline ISP, so there isn’t a problem that needs fixing. To me, the biggest piece of language in the new rules is that the FCC is using Title II classification not just for ISPs, but also edge providers. This gives the FCC the right to examine the ISP practices downstream to broadband consumers as well as upstream to edge providers. But is the oversight and regulations for upstream and downstream going to be the same? Probably not and one would expect it could very well be different.

I find it funny that the term “open Internet” keeps being used. Has the Internet ever been “closed” to anyone? I’ve never heard of any consumer complaining that they went to a website or content service and it was denied on their device, do to their wireline ISP provider. It’s usually denied on the device because the platform or device has a closed ecosystem, which the net neutrality rules don’t address. So for those that have been saying that today’s vote now, “opens up the Internet to be a level playing field”, think again. The Internet itself has always been open, the apps and platforms we use, for the most part, are all closed.

Job Opening: Sony PlayStation Vue, Technical Product Manager With CDN Expertise

playstation-vueThe Sony PlayStation Vue team is looking for a Technical Product Manager with solid CDN and HLS skills. Must have experience with video streaming technologies such as HLS, CDNs and understanding of the caching layer and scalable architecture. Familiarity with PlayStation consoles, iOS and Android smartphones/tablets, and various standard streaming set-top boxes/devices (Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast) also required. If interested, check out all the details via the job posting on LinkedIn.

If your company has a unique position they are trying to fill, send me the details.

ABC’s Oscars Webcast Riddled With Technical Problems, Again

B-fSrVQCMAABXeEFor the second year in a row, ABC wasn’t able to pull off a successful Oscars webcast without some major technical problems. The backstage stream I was watching on the PC got messed up and cut over to the World News Tonight program just before the start of the awards ceremony. Later, while watching the stream via the Watch ABC app on the iPad, the stream once again got switched, this time to the movie The Social Network. This happened three times, all during commercial breaks. Along with the wrong feeds, I also got error messages during playback on the iPad of “An error has occurred during playback” and “Unable to retrieve content. Please try again in a few minutes.” In addition, the stream on the PC was very pixelated, froze on me multiple times and looked to be encoded at a low bitrate.

Those who tried to watch the stream last year, might remember that ABC had even bigger technical problems when the live streams went down altogether nationwide. ABC claimed it was “due to a traffic overload/greater than expected”, but that wasn’t the case at in. Last year, the problem was as a result of the signal acquisition software (Uplynk) at Verizon not spinning up properly on Amazon’s Web Services platform. I don’t know what ABC is going to say the problem was this year, but I suggest they don’t try the “too much traffic” excuse again, especially considering viewers had to authenticate with a cable subscription in order to even get the main awards stream. The volume of viewers didn’t create the technical issues in 2014 or this year.

Doing a live webcast isn’t rocket science, yet we still continue to see companies like ABC and others have major problems. Live broadcasting over the Internet has been taking place for twenty years now, yet broadcasters and content owners are still having massive failures. There is no excuse for it.

Microsoft Relying More On Third Party CDNs, Limelight Networks Getting More Business

In 2009, Microsoft detailed how they were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build out their own enterprise CDN to deliver software, games and other Microsoft related content. By their estimates, third-party CDNs would only deliver 40% of their content in 2010, down from 95% in 2007. As anyone who followed the CDN market in that time frame knows, CDNs like Akamai and Limelight lost a lot of Microsoft traffic during 2008-2011 as Microsoft continued to bring more of their content delivery in-house.

However with the growth of Microsoft’s Xbox and Windows business in particular, Microsoft’s traffic has really exploded over the years and once again, Microsoft is relying on third-party CDNs to handle a large portion of their delivery. I don’t know the new split between how much Microsoft is delivering in-house versus third-party CDNs, but I would estimate that Microsoft now uses third-party CDNs to delivery 75% of their overall traffic. Over the past 12 months, I’ve been watching where Microsoft’s content has been coming from and it’s clear that they have made a big shift from their in-house CDN to giving more business to third-party CDNs.

Microsoft has always used a combination of third-party CDNs including Akamai, Limelight, Level 3, EdgeCast, ChinaCache and Highwinds for a portion of their delivery, but in the past 12 months, the volume of Microsoft traffic coming from some of these CDNs has really been growing. While Akamai still has the largest share of traffic, volume across Level 3’s network really grew in 2014. But within the past two quarters, Limelight Networks is now the one that is seeing lots of additional traffic from Microsoft, especially for large file downloads.

I’m not surprised that Microsoft is relying more on third-party CDNs as their in-house CDN is quite old and I hear, limited in its capabilities. When the Microsoft Azure team was looking to pick a CDN partner, they didn’t use their own in-house CDN available to them at Microsoft. Instead, they ended up going with Verizon’s EdgeCast CDN as their default delivery platform. I don’t know all the details on the selection process, but when you pass up your own in-house CDN to use a third-party, it’s pretty clear there are some severe limitations to what your in-house CDN can deliver.

It’s an interesting time to see Limelight getting more traffic from Microsoft as Limelight recently raised guidance for the year and projected better margins. Adding to Limelight’s benefit is the fact that third-party network measurement provider Cedexis shows the performance of Limelight’s network improving, which makes sense given Limelight has spent the past 4-5 quarters pumping money back into their CDN platform. Limelight seems to be getting back into the CDN market little by little and I see small signs they are making some progress.

It also helps all CDNs that there is very little pricing pressure in the market. For all of 2014, pricing amongst all the CDNs combined fell on average of about 20%. But some of the major CDN have told me that for them, they saw pricing decline by only 10% last year, and for the first time, have seen their ARPU increasing, which is signs of positive price compression. I don’t see any trends on the horizon to change this in the New Year, so absent some major issue, 2015 should be a very good year for all CDNs. I’ve already said on Twitter that I predict that Akamai’s media business could grow 15-16% this year and Level 3’s CDN business could grow twice that. It’s too early for me to predict what Limelight’s CDN business might grow, but based on the fact that the big Microsoft business from Microsoft is still to come, (Windows 10) all the major CDNs look to be in good shape this year.

How To Choose The Right CDN For Mid-Sized Customers In The SMB Market

One of the most common questions I get asked by content owners, of all sizes, is which CDN they should use to deliver their videos. I like to answer their question by throwing one back to them saying, what’s the best car to buy? In both cases, it all depends on exactly what your use case is and without knowing more details, no one can really provide any helpful guidance. This is especially true in the small and medium business (SMB) market where many don’t have robust IT departments, aren’t as up to speed on the technology, don’t know what services cost, or simply need help knowing where to start.

With any CDN project, the first few things you have to identify are the types of video you are delivering (live/on-demand, short form vs. long form); how many viewers you think you will get; the devices you are delivering video to; any custom features you may need; what your monthly budget is; and whether your viewers are regional or global. Having answers to those basic questions will give anyone who is trying to help you enough of a foundation to work from, to try to point you in the right direction.

The budget number helps a lot as it enables vendors to define what size company you are. While that may seem irrelevant, it’s very important as some vendors tailor their solutions towards specific sized companies and verticals. When it comes to web services like CDN, however, there’s little said about where small and mid-sized companies stand. This becomes a problem when customers are reconsidering their current CDN or trying to find their first. It’s also a problem because the general criteria used in many other markets like annual revenue, employee count, etc. can’t be used due to the scalability of the web. For instance, a small five person team behind a video sharing platform could easily use more CDN services than a fifty person company who isn’t distributing viral videos.

Because of this kind of disparity, I’m going to set some loose standards for what small and mid-sized companies are when it comes to content delivery networks. This way those in the process of choosing a CDN will know where they stand in the market and it should help guide them to pick from the right pool of vendors. A small customer would be anyone spending less than $1,000 a month on video delivery and who doesn’t expect their needs to grow much in the next twelve months. Those spending less than $1,000 a month are often solo publishers with little traffic. A midsize customer would be one that is spending more than $1,000 a month and continues to grow their traffic at a rate that would double the value of their CDN contract within a twenty-four month period. Mid-sized customers also tend to have more specific technical requirements, be it for security, analytics, or player integration. Now that you know whether you’re a mid-sized company or not, let’s take a look at some of the things you should consider when choosing the right CDN for your business.

Superior Support
A mid-sized company typically has a lean technical team in comparison to traditional media companies. This is great for profit purposes, but not so great for in-house specialization. For instance, a smaller team behind a video sharing platform may have web developers and market-minded people who know how to create social buzz. But, somewhat ironically, they won’t have a person who specializes in delivering video. Because of the lack of in-house specialization and operations people, you need to rely on your CDN as a partner, not just a CDN provider. This is one of the places where CDNs that target the SMB market can really add a lot of value for customers.

With this partnership principle in mind, it’s the CDN’s duty to do the following: hold your hand through initial setup, show you how to interact with their control panel, offer transparency through status reports, and provide near-instant support in your preferred format (phone, web chat, written tutorials). Not all CDNs do this, however. And very few, that I have seen, take the time to measure their level of CDN support. One exception I have seen is MaxCDN. This content delivery network focuses on the mid-market and is working to establish a standard for support and customer satisfaction in the industry. According to their December 2014 blog post, the company has a transactional Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 80-90+. I mention them because I have yet to see another CDN publicly rank their customer satisfaction scores. Also, CDN customers I speak to who use MaxCDN are always saying how good they are. Given that there is not yet an established industry average NPS in the CDN space, MaxCDN is leading the charge in developing this crucial metric to help customers find the right CDN provider.

On the other hand, some CDNs are infamous for prioritizing their biggest clients and taking hours to respond to requests from other clients simply because their focus isn’t truly on the SMB market. And if they lose you as a customer as a result of poor support, they really aren’t worried. Therefore, when interviewing CDNs and testing out their platform, ask what their average ticket response time is. It should be no more than a few minutes, especially if your company doesn’t have someone fully committed to the intricacies of content delivery.

Easy To Understand Product and Pricing
If what you need is video delivery, go with a content delivery network, be it a regional one, or global. Don’t bother with a general web hosting provider that sells CDN “on the side.” To find out if a CDN provider has a streamlined product that fits your needs, look in these two places: the main feature/product page and the pricing page of the company’s website. If you see multiple offers on the feature/product page that are unrelated to CDN, like web hosting, managed services etc. continue your search elsewhere. However, if what you see is directly related to CDN, continue to the pricing page.

When comparing pricing pages, you’ll notice that there are various add-ons that cost extra. Many of these add-ons are legitimate as content delivery networks are progressing and offering upgrades like SSL, mid-tier caching, or custom caching rules to name a few. The CDN you want is the CDN that isn’t charging outrageous fees for these add-ons. The additional charges should be purposeful and make sense. For instance, if you want SSL (because you need SSL), you shouldn’t have to pay ridiculous sums of money, as serving traffic over SSL is becoming the standard. This leads me to my next point.

Affordable SSL
Companies that don’t serve content over encrypted connections will grow in irrelevance at the same speed as non-encrypted connections. For instance, soon publishers will start demanding ads to be secured from malware. And once publishers and security advocates like Google start enforcing this, you will need SSL. As a mid-sized company, you can probably afford heightened SSL costs. But why do it when you don’t have to?

Some content delivery networks, mainly those that target larger enterprise customer, charge outrageous sums of money for something that will eventually be as common as HTTP. One way CDNs overcharge for SSL is by increasing the cost of bandwidth. Instead of charging a flat fee for custom SSL or wildcard SSL, bandwidth served as HTTPS costs slightly more than that served as HTTP. The increase is usually slim, but when you’re a mid-sized company with a growing base of customers, those slim margins add up to thousands of dollars. If security is something you need, it’s also important to note that the CDN you choose should support SPDY, the secure protocol developed by Google that has lower latency than HTTPS. Most quality CDNs support this, and it’s worth inquiring about when investigating different providers.

Efficient Architecture
Some CDNs will tell you that when it comes to quality of service, it’s all about how many points of presence (POPs) they have. The fact is, POPs are only one of the many attributes of a CDN network that determines performance. But quantity does not equal quality. Many companies are still stuck on the notion that the CDN with the most POPs or locations is always the fastest or provides the best service. However, this isn’t always true. And even when it is, those few milliseconds shaved off of delivery speed, usually have no business ROI with video specifically and can cost your company thousands. Is it worth paying 30% more per month to one CDN just to have your videos startup up two-tenths of a fraction of a second faster? Probably not. In all seriousness though, there’s a POP problem, especially with many of the larger CDNs who are so focused on how many locations they have. That’s great for enterprise customers that need global delivery, but not good for an SMB customer with smaller traffic, less inventory of content, and doesn’t have tons of money to spend. If you are a growing mid-sized company dedicated to scale, you should seek out a CDN dedicated to the same.

Instant Purging
Many customers need to have full control over the content delivered by their CDN. If you’re not currently using a CDN, you’re accustom to this level of control. You simply access the CMS or FTP of your origin server and hit delete. Some content may still live on in browser caches, but the main source the content lives on is wiped clean. Now new or updated content is delivered to users rather than older content. This is how it should be, and this is how it is when you use a content delivery network with instant purging. This feature gives you origin-like control over the content delivered by your CDN, meaning old or unwanted content is purged and inaccessible to users in a matter of seconds.

Using the video streaming company as an example again, say a user uploaded a controversial file onto your server. Based on your algorithm, this file could be automatically pushed out to your CDN for quick user consumption. To protect your brand image, you’d want to remove all traces of this file as soon as you became aware of it. With a CDN that has one-click instant purging, the unwanted video would be removed in a matter of seconds. This wouldn’t be the case with some CDNs though. They often require minutes, even hours to purge content on their servers. This is a major problem in an age when the face of your business hinges on the nature of your content.

Conclusion
If you’re a small customer and only have a few hundred dollars a month to spend, I would argue it really won’t matter who you pick. For mid-sized customers, picking and choosing the right CDN usually means looking past the big CDNs. While they do have some small and mid-sized customers, that’s not really their focus and they are more suited to handle large media, enterprise and broadcast customers. That’s not to say you can’t get good service from them if you are smaller, but you will be paying far more than you need to. Why pay enterprise rates when you’re not an enterprise customer?

For mid-sized customers, align yourself with mid-sized CDNs that specialize in CDN rather than a slew of non-related web services like web design or marketing. A service-based company dedicated to offering content delivery will almost always have better support, better prices, and more CDN-specific features than a traditional web hosting company or solutions integrator. You’ll find many options in the mid-sized CDN space, but as mentioned earlier, companies like MaxCDN, who are specifically serving this space make them a great starting point for you in your search. Bottom line: Whomever you choose, keep the 5 points mentioned above in mind during your CDN decision-making process. This will save your company money and other resources down the road.

The great news for all content owners is that content delivery services are now within reach of all SMB customers and only continue to improve in ease of use and performance each year. If you still need help picking and choosing the right CDN, feel free to send me an email. I’ll gladly walk you through the process and help guide you, free of charge.