Akamai Gets Ready for HD Video

[qi:013] Akamai (AKAM), under pricing pressure from upstart rivals such as Limelight Networks (LLNW), is upping the ante in the content delivery network wars. The company yesterday announced a new distributed delivery mechanism optimized for the delivery of high definition-quality content online.

The push for HD video over the Internet is a way for Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai to get an edge over the increasing number of commodity CDN service providers. The company is using technologies from its recent acquisitions of Nine Systems and Red Swoosh for this new effort, which it describes as a “distributed delivery model.”

Akamai Chief Technology Officer Mike Afergan told us that many of the company’s media clients are now producing content in HD and are looking for ways to distribute it over the Internet. Higher quality video isn’t likely to make its presence felt on Web video communities (such as YouTube) anytime soon, but companies that make television shows and films have an eye on HD.

“People are getting used to HD content on their televisions, and they have similar expectations for Internet delivered video as well,” said Afergan. (Related post: Is Web Video Ready for HD Upgrade?) Akamai’s new service is optimized to deliver videos with resolutions from 720p to 1080p and 1080i.

As part of the new effort, the company is going to be working with Internet service providers to get even closer to the edge, use distributed delivery mechanism (the kind that made Red Swoosh so popular for large file downloads) so as to reduce latency in the network and make both downloads and streams faster and more stable.

Without a CDN, the file travels from a video server inside the data center through a virtual spaghetti of networks, before arriving at your your computer or set-top box. In short, there are many points of anxiety along the way. If using a CDN, in most cases the video files are served from storage servers inside the CDN data center and are sent directly to the access network of, say, a cable company. The files are served out of the location closest to the broadband subscriber seeking to download a file.

Afergan argues that CDNs are even more important when it comes to distributing larger files, especially the HD kind. A typical 2-hour feature-length movie would need to be encoded at a bit rate of at least 6-8 megabits per second, which would result in a file of 5-8 gigabytes in size.

While broadband service providers like Verizon are putting fiber-based broadband connections in place, there are a large number of folks who are using connections in the 3-6 Mbps range. The solution, Akamai argues is to come closer to the end user. Why? Because as the distance from the server increases, the throughput is dramatically reduced – even a slight distance increase can result in delivery problems.

In order to achieve this, the company is going to beef-up its infrastructure and for that it would have to spend money – a fact that got Akamai into trouble with some of its public shareholders. But with HD video looming large, it doesn’t seem like the company had much of an option.