August 5, 2008

Future Proofing for Video

By Whitehead, Jennifer

To manage demand for video applications, websites need to build in capacity from the outset, writes Jennifer Whitehead Unless you're Doctor Who whizzing around the universe in your Tardis , there is no way you can have failed to realise that 2008 is emerging as the year that video-on-demand (VoD) went mainstream in the UK. Still, it is worth recapping on the figures because of the staggering pace of uptake.

Between its launch at Christmas last year and April this year, BBC iPlayer received more than 75 million requests to stream or download shows, with the adventures of Doctor Who among the most popular programmes. And earlier this year, Channel 4 claimed that its 4oD service passed the 100 million mark, having launched in January 2006. has also recorded 69 million views since relaunching in August 2007.

With the launch of Kangaroo, the joint VoD service from broadcasters including BBC, ITV and Channel 4, mooted for August this year, the amount of video being streamed and downloaded could be in for another exponential increase.

This has led to a fairly vicious spat between ISPs and the companies behind the biggest of the VoD websites, especially the BBC. Some ISPs have threatened to start charging users for access to VoD, or to restrict the amount of content they deliver. Ashley Highfield, the new chief executive of Kangaroo, hit back by saying content providers that find that users are being offered restricted access could publish a list of ISPs that are being uncooperative.

Tiscali's head of strategy, Simon Gunter, accuses Highfield of making inflammatory comments. "There seems to be a lack of understanding about how networks are built. Either we are not explaining it properly or it is falling on deaf ears," he says.

On the more practical side, the BRC, is reportedly looking at a solution that will involve a caching infrastructure, although there is debate as to how much this will help ISPs cut costs.

Video applications place heavy demands on web services far more than static web pages or even music downloads. But website owners are waking up to the fact that video is fast becoming a staple element of any property that wants to keep visitors for as long as possible.

FabioTorlini, marketing director, EMEA, for web hosting company Rackspace, says the key to managing demand for bandwidth is to design flexibility into the systems from the outset. "The way you design the infrastructure is very important at both the back end and the front end, so you can add extra capacity if it is needed."

As well as being built in to sites from the early stages, web hosting can also be used to shore up existing websites when an influx of traffic is expected, he says.

Rackspace provided hosting for Sky's general election coverage online - where a massive amount of traffic was expected in a 24- hour period - and podcasts for Channel 4's Big Brother.

Rackspace can help deal with forecast spikes in traffic, but likes to plan ahead for these too. It was given very little warning before being asked to help out environmental campaigners Climate Change Now, owing to problems with other suppliers. The company was drafted in just five days before Climate Change Now was due to launch a major promotional campaign.

Duncan Malcolm, managing director of EveryCity, agrees that forward planning is the secret to laying solid foundations for web hosting. "Solutions are in the planning; we always create a scalability strategy with our clients so that if and when a growth situation arises there's a plan already in place," Malcolm says.

He admits that building in too much capacity too early in the process can be unnecessarily costly but that a longer-term perspective is useful. "Make sure the client knows what they're getting themselves into, but also point out the benefits; Pounds 6,000 sounds like a lot but if a million people have watched your video it's much more targeted and much cheaper than TV," he says.

As far as the issue of VoD services overloading the internet goes, Torlini says Rackspace buys capacity from seven different network providers, so that if one network floods, there will always be other stable providers. "We have massive pipes to make sure we don't suffer. At the moment, the maximum client use is about 30 per cent of the network at any given time. If it goes over that we add extra capacity," says Torlini.

Demanding video

What is for certain is that any attempt by ISPs to restrict access to content is likely to be met with passionate opposition. Malcolm says: "Ultimately, it's the broadband providers who need to reconsider their model of unlimited traffic or invest more in their networks or charge the consumer more."

Despite the heated debate between ISPs and content providers, the opinion from hosting companies isn't one of panic - in the short term at least. Malcolm says: "The internet has huge capacity and is not about to go pop any time soon from all the new activity but it can put a strain on the broadband providers."

This is a view backed up by the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), a body that includes representatives from many different parts of the industry. A spokeswoman for the group said: "While video-on-demand is not breaking the back of the internet, it is bandwidth-intensive applications like this that we think will be key drivers for the roll-out of widespread next-generation broadband networks in the future."

The group is looking at network deployment within the next five years, warning that the UK could lose out if it doesn't happen in the medium term. It says: "The UK could reap significant social and economic value from the wide-spread deployment of next-generation broadband. It is tempting to jump in feet first but it matters more to do this right than to do it now."

The way you design the infrastructure is very important at both the back end and the front end, so you can add extra capacity if it is needed

Fabio Torlini, Rackspace

Toonattik relies on Backspace

GMTVs flagship children's strand Toonattik claims to have an audience of more than two million youngsters tuning in every weekend, many of whom are incredibly loyal to the brand.

A loyal audience is great for GMTV and great for advertisers, but it can lead to a headache for those running the site due to incredibly large spikes in traffic.

4T2, a company that builds software to help clients use the internet for strategic marketing purposes, was commissioned to build a new site for Toonattik. "Sites like Toonattik can cause serious hosting problems," explains John White, managing director of 4T2. "Massive bandwidth demand from an avid audience can easily outstrip pre-set limits.

"If you launch a new game or an online competition, then you potentially have every young viewer rushing to log in, causing an inevitable spike in bandwidth usage," he says.

4T2 chose Rackspace because it offered a flexible, fully scalable product with burstable bandwidth on demand, and 24/7 customer support.

Doug Loewe, managing director of Rackspace, says business is increasing rapidly from clients in the creative industries. "Short- term hosting or high bandwidth bursts are all everyday occurrences. 4T2 is a case in point where its websites are the lifeblood of client companies and site failure or downtime cannot be contemplated."

Toonattik: competitions can lead to large spikes in traffic

Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Ltd. Jul/Aug 2008

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