Peering challenge looms over content delivery networks

Last week's Content Delivery Networks show featured an array of hardware and software aimed at letting users speed up and manage their Web sites, but the nagging issue of how to make it easier delivering content over disparate CDNs is likely to loom for a long time.

Content delivery has become popular for many businesses looking to bolster Web site performance and reliability. Getting CDNs linked up, a concept known as peering, promises to provide companies better performance by giving their service and Web hosting firms a broader, speedier reach. Without peering, customers typically must subscribe to more than one CDN provider at a cost of about US$1,400 to $2,000 per megabit per second of content delivered, depending on who you ask about pricing.

CDN services and the ability to peer those services will become more important to users, as CDN subscriptions will double over the next year, according to consultancy HTRC Group. Ideally, users would only need to utilize one CDN provider to access multiple CDN services.

Observers agree that being able to access multiple CDN services through a single provider would be ideal for some users, but they say the hurdles are daunting. Obstacles include not only technical issues such as making one vendor's equipment talk to another's, but political and business issues, as well. For example, some larger providers, such as Akamai Technologies Inc. - which provides content delivery services in 55 countries - might not feel compelled to peer with smaller vendors, while the smaller vendors would gain tremendously at the possible expense of the major companies. In addition, CDN providers must agree on sticky issues, such as how they will compensate each other for using each others' service networks and how much they will pay.

Zane Alsabery, president and CEO of Alchemy Communications, a provider of streaming and collocation services, says his company is resorting right now to building out its own network to do content delivery instead of relying on multiple providers. He says a peered network would be ideal, but he doesn't see it becoming a reality until there are enough subscribers to make it worthwhile to CDN providers.

What will spur peering that on, he says, is when enough Web surfers have broadband connections that they are able to take advantage of the types of content that are bread and butter to CDNs, such as streaming and high-resolution graphics. "When people get broadband they hunt for big fat Web pages."

Jonathan Stefansky, vice president of network infrastructure at Akamai, uses an analogy to illustrate another potential thorny problem. If United Parcel Service of America Inc. and Federal Express Corp. suddenly agreed to deliver each others' packages to broaden service offerings, he wonders whether customers would see the same performance from both when things got busy. Or, he asks, would a UPS customer's packages sit on the FedEx truck until all of FedEx's customers were served first?

"Conceptually [a peered network] sounds great. If it works, it's great, but is it going to be available at the breadth and depth of what we are offering [our own customers] today," he asks.

Inktomi Corp.'s Ed Haslam, chief strategist for Inktomi's network products division, echoes some of those thoughts. He says the need for CDNs has been established and characterizes the upcoming year as one when other issues will be hammered out - such as peering. Vendors are going to have to share the wealth at some point to accommodate users' needs, he says.

Two industry alliances have been working to push the concept of content peering. Content Bridge, backed by Inktomi and others, and Content Alliance, backed by Cisco Systems Inc., both formed last summer, have been working to look for ways to peer content on disparate CDNs. Earlier this year, the two groups presented initiatives at an IETF meeting.

Greg Howard, an analyst with HTRC Group, says peering is the eventual goal for CDNs to reach, but given that vendors are now competing on technological advantages, price competition is the next step. Price competition between CDNs will make it more difficult - at least initially - for them to agree to work together, he says. "More competition drives prices down," he says. Still, strong regional CDNs could result in "coopetition" to please users that need to go around the world with content.

"In some countries, unless you are there with [an established CDN provider], you are not getting in. Regional CDNs are going to have to peer, and if they don't, vendors with large bases in those regions are going to win out," Howard says.

The show featured new offerings from Exodus Communications Inc., Chutney Technologies Inc., SpiderCache Inc. and others, as expected (Show to feature products for boosting content speed ). In addition, the following announcements were made:

Hewlett-Packard Co. and Inktomi struck a deal for HP to resell Inktomi's cache technology. HP has an existing deal with Intel to sell its Web acceleration products - formerly under the NetStructure brand name.

XCache released XCache 2.0, software designed to help content creators prepare different types of Web content for delivery.

Pumpkin Networks Inc. showed off new load-balancing and switch technology aimed at content delivery.

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More about Akamai TechnologiesAkamai TechnologiesCiscoExodusFederal ExpressFedExHewlett-Packard AustraliaHTRC GroupIETFInktomiIntelMegaBitSpiderCacheUnited Parcel Service

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