Channel surfers and the irresistible rise of Content Delivery Networks

When load balancing just won't cut it

Fastly, a four-year-old content delivery network start-up, this month landed $75m in venture funding.

It was the firm’s fifth intake of cash, the second in less than a year. What’s remarkable is that inventors are backing a firm that is going up against some big names – among them the massive Amazon juggernaut.

Clearly, investors see plenty of demand for CDNs and for new and independent providers. But why?

When you’re delivering content online, speed is king. You can be offering the best website or service in the world, but in our always-on, instant-access consumer culture waiting is beyond unacceptable.

If your content isn’t instant, in that five/ten/fifteen seconds (or worse) the chances are a good portion of your audience has gotten sick of waiting and gone elsewhere.

Your content may be good, but be honest with yourself: is it so good it will defy even the shortest of attention spans? Didn’t think so. Then you may well benefit from a CDN.

A CDN (sometimes called a Content Distribution Network) is a specialist infrastructure, network or system for the high performance delivery of information and services.

How you achieve it may vary (and we’ll get onto that later). It might comprise a super-low latency routing platform or exceedingly intelligent load-balancing, backing onto a vast and distributed – or at least flexible and scalable – server infrastructure, and will probably offer some form of DDoS mitigation due to its capacity and scale, but the net result is fundamentally the same: you want to get whatever you’ve got, to whoever needs to receive it, as quickly as possible.

Most of us are using CDNs every day, and probably don’t even realise it.

If you’ve downloaded a piece of software from Adobe or Apple, then you’ve been using the Akamai Content Delivery Network. AMD use Akamai for delivering driver updates, Rackspace Cloud Files runs over Akamai for its Dropbox-type services, and Trend Micro even operates its House Call on-demand remote virus scanning from it.

Then there’s the video and audio content that have used Akamai over the years: BBC iPlayer, China Central Television, ESPN, MIT Open Courseware, NASA, NBC Sports and even the Whitehouse use the Akamai Content Delivery Network – yes, even Barrack Obama uses a CDN – to deliver Presidential webcasts while the 2009 Presidential Inauguration was delivered by Limelight Networks.

Limelight Networks has delivered some similarly ostentatious events for MSNBC including the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympic Games, provided the backbone delivery platform for other major sporting events (including the Six Nations rudby and the Wimbledon tennis championships), and content for Facebook and Netflix.

CDNs aren’t just big boys toys for high bandwidth systems, though; there are a number of free options out there to speed up static web delivery, and Wordpress even offers their own in-house CDN for the fast delivery of images and videos on Wordpress blogs.

Thinking back then, you may have already used a CDN today, and will probably be using one later. You might even be using one right now. But how do they work?

Priorities, priorities

On their most simplistic, basic level, a CDN is concerned with delivering some form of content to you as quickly as possible.

When you examine a website like YouTube, for example, there are some distinct components to it: there’s a search, there’s video listings, there’s an account sign-in and social features to go with it – comments, likes, sharing and the like – but most importantly, there’s a whacking great video player in the middle of the screen.

Video is of course the number-one priority. It’s the site’s very raison d'être. If somebody lands on YouTube and the social experience isn’t working then for most consumers it’s not a deal-breaker.

But if they were to arrive on YouTube and the video playback was unwatchable – either through poor performance or a total outage – then there’s really no compelling reason for them to stick around. Customers would just go elsewhere (Vimeo, Metacafe) to find that video of a cat doing something hilarious. So, the prudent will prioritise video delivery above all else.

A CDN, in terms of media delivery, might host the heavyweight portion of the content (pictures, video, and audio) on a different portion of the system to the application itself. The parts of a site like YouTube we’ve already identified as “less important” – that are predominantly database queries in the back-end and simple text delivery in the front-end – can be run from any old part of your server farm.

Broader topics

Narrower topics

Other stories you might like

  • Venezuelan cardiologist charged with designing and selling ransomware
    If his surgery was as bad as his opsec, this chap has caused a lot of trouble

    The US Attorney’s Office has charged a 55-year-old cardiologist with creating and selling ransomware and profiting from revenue-share agreements with criminals who deployed his product.

    A complaint [PDF] filed on May 16th in the US District Court, Eastern District of New York, alleges that Moises Luis Zagala Gonzalez – aka “Nosophoros,” “Aesculapius” and “Nebuchadnezzar” – created a ransomware builder known as “Thanos”, and ransomware named “Jigsaw v. 2”.

    The self-taught coder and qualified cardiologist advertised the ransomware in dark corners of the web, then licensed it ransomware to crooks for either $500 or $800 a month. He also ran an affiliate network that offered the chance to run Thanos to build custom ransomware, in return for a share of profits.

    Continue reading
  • China reveals its top five sources of online fraud
    'Brushing' tops the list, as quantity of forbidden content continue to rise

    China’s Ministry of Public Security has revealed the five most prevalent types of fraud perpetrated online or by phone.

    The e-commerce scam known as “brushing” topped the list and accounted for around a third of all internet fraud activity in China. Brushing sees victims lured into making payment for goods that may not be delivered, or are only delivered after buyers are asked to perform several other online tasks that may include downloading dodgy apps and/or establishing e-commerce profiles. Victims can find themselves being asked to pay more than the original price for goods, or denied promised rebates.

    Brushing has also seen e-commerce providers send victims small items they never ordered, using profiles victims did not create or control. Dodgy vendors use that tactic to then write themselves glowing product reviews that increase their visibility on marketplace platforms.

    Continue reading
  • Oracle really does owe HPE $3b after Supreme Court snub
    Appeal petition as doomed as the Itanic chips at the heart of decade-long drama

    The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear Oracle's appeal to overturn a ruling ordering the IT giant to pay $3 billion in damages for violating a decades-old contract agreement.

    In June 2011, back when HPE had not yet split from HP, the biz sued Oracle for refusing to add Itanium support to its database software. HP alleged Big Red had violated a contract agreement by not doing so, though Oracle claimed it explicitly refused requests to support Intel's Itanium processors at the time.

    A lengthy legal battle ensued. Oracle was ordered to cough up $3 billion in damages in a jury trial, and appealed the decision all the way to the highest judges in America. Now, the Supreme Court has declined its petition.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022