Akamai has been explaining how it intends to enable broadcast-grade television services across the Internet, including for 4k/UHD video, and support general IP traffic volumes as high as 20 times what we see today. Ian Munford, Director of Product Marketing and Enablement for EMEA at the company (which says it carries 20% of todayâ€™s Internet traffic) characterises the challenge as achieving great quality at huge scale across all content types. When it comes to video in particular, â€œthe challenge is how we deliver a television-like experience when we have all the unpredictability of the Internet.â€
Akamai has identified a number of technology pillars for the Internet of the future, all of them progressing at different rates, including some that are already in Beta trials. The company is also considering the possibility of client CDN software being installed on devices in the home.
The hybrid HTTP/UDP transport protocol, combined with Forward Error Correction and advanced congestion control, is viewed as a way to prevent packet loss and reduce latency, and so speed the transit of content through the Internet and make it easier to handle unpredictable peaks within the CDN. Akamai has been testing the protocol at scale and it is expected to be in use fairly soon. Initial test results show that start-up times have been halved and bit rates have been increased 2-5 times, and there have been 10 times fewer re-buffers for video.
The second technology pillar is pre-positioning of content. Munford explains: â€œIf we know there is a large event taking place, like a big software download or upgrade or a movie release or television premiere, we are looking at the concept of pre-positioning content at the edge [of the CDN] to by-pass unpredictable events.â€
Focusing on video, he adds: â€œFrom a consumer perspective, the expectation is for a television-like experience, which means immediacy. Pre-positioning allows us to be quite smart about how we move certain content pro-actively to the edge rather than being reactive, which is how caching works.â€
At this point the focus is on pre-positioning content at the edge of the CDN, which means on Akamai servers. However, there are plenty of clues that Akamai is considering pushing some CDN edge functions into the home itself. Broadpeak is already doing this with its nanoCDN operator CDN solution, where client software resides on operator customer premise equipment (like a broadband gateway or even a media gateway) and â€˜transcastsâ€™ a multicast stream from the CDN into unicast for final delivery over the home WiFi network into multiscreen devices. Broadpeak is also pioneering the concept of caching inside the home, maybe even using a DVR hard drive, for push VOD content delivered via CDN.
Munford indicates that in-home caching is at least on the radar, warning that there is lots to think about before client device pre-positioning or in-home caching becomes feasible, including content rights and content security. He admits that going into the home represents a big step for Akamai.
It does seem likely that Akamai will try to get software onto client devices in the home, even if only to extend the intelligence of the CDN network. Munford says client software is considered an R&D project. As part of its research, Akamai is developing an SDK that makes use of HTML5 browser based technology in order to move the network edge into the home.
The first clues for an Akamai in-home CDN client were at CES in January when the Qualcomm subsidiary Qualcomm Atheros demonstrated its IPQ home gateway. This included a proof-of-concept client software from Akamai designed to optimize the delivery and pre-positioning of content like video and software. At the time an Akamai spokesman said the demo â€œoffers a glimpse into the future of our platform as we explore ways to move beyond the edge and onto devices of many types â€“ not only gateways but game consoles, set-top-boxes, Blu-ray players, connected TVs and more.â€
Content caching was not mentioned. Akamai said that with its intelligent software onboard, you can make more efficient use of resources between the network provider and the Qualcomm Atheros IPQ smart gateway, and between the gateway and in-home connected devices. The company spoke of â€œmarkedly faster and more reliable consumer experiencesâ€ for broadband delivered services. A spokesman said such an evolution would help meet existing bandwidth demands â€œand also pave the way for delivering the massive amounts of video and other content at scale, including 4k.â€
Meanwhile, Akamai is investigating the potential for peer-assisted delivery, which means getting video from peer devices instead of direct from a server. This is considered an efficient architecture for live and popular VOD content and the company says that todayâ€™s adaptive bitrate streaming formats lend themselves to this technology. This technique would also require that software is embedded into devices, with the CE devices effectively turned into video nodes.
Last, but certainly not least, among the technologies that could help scale the Internet is multicasting. Akamai is developing multicast capabilities for its CDN and according to Munford: â€œWe believe that ultimately multicasting is the only mechanism today that will deal with the huge challenge we have in terms of delivering high quality video at huge scale. Multicast has a major part to play in enabling this.â€
Akamai is about to embark on some major trials with third-parties to study some of the challenges associated with multicasting. Among other things, it wants to understand the impact on the core network and on traffic profile. Akamai also has to decide whether to multicast across the CDN and then turn multicast streams into unicast for final delivery into the client devices [like a tablet or smart TV] or whether to use multicast all the way to the client [receive] device.
The use of multicasting would require agreements with telcos (and cable operators) plus platform software upgrades, and it is envisaged that it could be used for events that require high streaming capacity, like sports and live news events, or maybe even prime time television or special VOD launches.
As mentioned above, Broadpeak, with its operator CDN solution, is already using multicasting, harnessing in-home client software to intercept the unicast requests that come from multiscreen devices and turn them into multicast requests for the network. The multicast streams that are returned are then converted to unicast in the home.
The various improvements Akamai is working towards apply to different network types. Multicasting is mainly envisaged for broadband networks into the home rather than for mobile networks or public Wi-F and the same is true for intelligent pre-positioning, as examples. Because of this, these developments should not be viewed as one synchronised advance that will result in a global Internet 3.0, or whatever number we have reached. But they all lead the same way – towards the â€˜20x capacityâ€™ figure Akamai wants to achieve without having to keep adding servers to a network that already boasts 140,000 of them.
If you are interested in how the television industry can achieve broadcast-grade experiences for streaming video, especially for multiscreen devices in Pay TV homes, check out our new report: â€˜Taking the Pay TV multiscreen UEX to the next levelâ€™.