Rob Malnati
October 12, 2016

We can all agree to blame Major League Baseball Advanced Media (MLBAM) for online video: they started an honest-to-goodness online subscription video service in 2002, putting the pressure on everyone else to get in the game. They turned an adorable hobby into a cut-throat business that is on its way to being worth $70 billion a year.

Today’s leaders enjoy huge valuations (Netflix is worth more than $40B), substantial subscription revenue flows (at around a million subscribers, HBO Now generates nearly $200M annually), and rapidly-growing advertising income (YouTube is estimated to have seen $8.5B in advertising in 2015, and to be on a path toward exceeding $27B by 2020).

However, consumers haven’t sat quietly by and taken whatever they were given. Earlier this year, Ineoquest coined the term Buffer Rage for consumers who become agitated when their playback doesn’t meet expectations. There have been plenty of examples of embarrassing ‘OTT Fails’ (even Netflix isn’t immune), which lead to public wringing of hands and potential cycling of subscribers.

Getting the content from ‘here’ to ‘there’ has been a work in progress since its inception. It has now reached a sustainable place, where the pressures of consumer satisfaction, operational manageability and economic returns, are in balance. Today’s ideal infrastructure is known as Hybrid CDN: a combination of self-managed origin / private CDN, and agreements with third party CDN providers.

But how did we get here?

Getting the video to users has gone through a long, steady evolution, encompassing four phases:

  1. Single Origin
  2. Origin fronted by one CDN
  3. Origin fronted by multiple CDNs
  4. Hybrid CDN

Single Origin Phase

During the original, Single Origin, phase, stalwarts in the IT and Operations teams valiantly fought to get video delivered to end-users from a single data center. It used the technology to which the companies were already accustomed, and the people they already had on staff. On the other hand, this was a system doomed to eventual failure: it relied on a single group of internal experts to be constantly available, and ran into inevitable roadblocks when trying to support geographically-distributed viewers, and even nearby audiences as they grew too big.

Origin Fronted by One CDN Phase

Fortunately, the cavalry was already on the way. Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) entered the fray with a solution specifically designed to solve scalability problems: continue to use your own Origin, for sure, but front it with a CDN, so that there are two data centers, and thus redundancy. They had plenty of experts, working in shifts, could scale to large audiences, and maintained points of presence in different spots around the world to serve a more geographically diverse audience. As consumer interest grew, however, so did the cracks in the CDN facade: their customers realized they were locked in to vendors (which became expensive), none of whom were able to replicate their offering exactly in every geographical theater. In other words, CDNs were able to move the ball a long way forward, but ultimately could not bear the load of the whole industry at an affordable price.

Origin Fronted by Multiple CDNs Phase

The CDNS’ customers realized that the CDNs weren’t obsolete – they simply needed to play better together. Instead of committing to a single CDN they moved to the next phase: one Origin fronted by multiple CDNs, to leverage the best of each of the providers. This allowed for improved global performance (with targeted improvements in challenging locales), improved availability, and, importantly, improved leverage for price negotiations.

Hybrid CDN Phase

In the end the solution is inexorable: Hybrid CDN. In Hybrid CDN, a portion of the traffic can be cached and served by low-costs public or private cloud Origins, keeping costs down, and allowing for additional control over sensitive content; the rest can be intelligently distributed across multiple CDNs, enabling a top-notch consumer experience, whenever and wherever, and at the optimal price. Combining the power of easily distributed and scaled cloud origins with commercial CDNs ensure delivery if the best consumer experience, with confidence in its robustness, and with the greatest agility, at the lowest cost.

Which is not to say that Hybrid CDN is without its challenges. Intelligent switching of traffic from path to path requires huge volumes of Real User Measurements (RUM) to spot risks before they become emergencies, as well as the algorithmic power to start making decisions before failures become evident to the end user.