Content Delivery Networks (CDN): Buying Guide

Monday Jan 30th 2012 by Jeff Vance
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Choosing a content delivery network to accelerate Web content entails weighing factors like end format and ability to scale up.

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) used to be pretty straightforward. Online businesses use CDNs to accelerate static web content to keep consumers from navigating away from their sites.

For years, CDNs were really about B2C interactions. They were, in essence, web acceleration tools, and the acceleration was accomplished by having many points of presence (POPs), which could be used to cache content and move it closer to end users. Today, as more and more aspects of our lives move online, organizations are relying on CDNs to accelerate static content, dynamic content, mobile content, e-commerce transactions, video, voice, games and on and on. CDNs are as important for B2B interactions as for serving up content to consumers. However, simply caching content and placing it close to users isn’t enough anymore, and different CDN providers offer various tools and techniques to get your content to your most important users as quickly as possible. Here are five considerations that will help you make buying decisions as you navigate the confusing, complex and rapidly evolving CDN landscape:

1. Is your colocation, hosting or cloud provider giving you enough choice?

Today, CDN services tend to be consumed in a less-than-ideal manner. “Businesses sign up for a CDN service the same way consumers sign up for broadband Internet access or cable TV: they choose a single vendor with long-term commitments. This creates dependencies on that vendor’s specific capabilities, coverage map and service level agreements,” said Chris Sharp, GM for content and digital media for Equinix, a provider of global data center services. ‘ As a result, it’s a common practice for businesses to overprovision, which limits their ability to cost effectively develop a high-performing, flexible content delivery strategy that can meet their business requirements. Sharp advocates a unique step in the CDN buying process: vetting colocation, hosting and cloud service providers first. Eventually, Sharp believes CDNs will follow the cloud and SaaS trends, and they will be delivered on an as-needed basis. However, for that model to work, businesses must look for colocation or cloud providers that give them access and inter-connections to multiple CDNs that offer different capabilities, thus allowing users to align their CDN choices with end-user needs and business goals. For instance, if you plan to roll out a ton of mobile content, you should have access to CDNs that optimize for mobile, which just got easier with Akamai’s acquisition of mobile optimization company Cotendo). The same goes for video or e-commerce traffic.

2. How central is video to your future content plans?

Two types of content are really stressing traditional CDNs today: video and e-commerce. In e-commerce, studies have shown that as little as 200 milliseconds of lag time can reduce conversion rates by 2 percent. A 1000-millisecond delay lowers conversions by 3.5 percent. Video poses an equally daunting challenge. Obviously, you can’t cache video for a live event and place it in a POP. Moreover, with video, format matters, since users on iPads will rely on different protocols than those on desktop PCs. Even when the video challenge is fairly simple, CDN choices are not. Josh Maurer is the Assistant Athletic Director, Broadcasting for the University of Massachusetts. Recruiting is a challenge for every athletic department, but UMass felt that it was losing ground to schools with strong TV presences. For instance, UMass had nothing like the Big Ten Network to showcase to recruits. For a few years, the athletic department had been broadcasting sporting events on the Internet, but Maurer wanted to get them on TV. A local channel, delivered to the majority of central and western Massachusetts cable subscribers, was being underutilized. The channel offered to air UMass basketball games for free – if UMass could deliver a high-quality stream in real time. First, UMass tried a homegrown solution that didn’t work out very well. Next, they tried a small local provider, Pack Network, that did accelerate the streams, but not at a high enough quality. Then, Maurer looked at some high-priced solutions like those from Akamai and determined that they were out of their price range, as were adding satellite or fiber connections. Finally, Maurer attended the College Sports Video Summit and saw a demonstration for ZiXi, a company that specializes in video content delivery that has been working with a number of college athletic departments. “Using ZiXi not only enables us to get broadcast quality video streams on TV, but it also opens the door for new revenue models. More importantly, it levels the playing field for recruiting,” Maurer said. “Now, our basketball coach can tell a recruit that every one of his games will be televised, which you need to be able to compete with schools that have affiliations with regional sports networks.” The total ZiXi solution cost about $20K, with annual licensing in the $4-5K range. Maurer expects that the solution will eventually pay for itself many times over.

3. How good is their customer support?

Content delivery is a complex challenge. These networks aren’t simple, especially when you tie in complementary technologies like WAN Optimization. Granted, it’s a cliché to point out that you want good customer service (everyone wants low prices and good service for everything), but in the case of CDNs, the level of customer service merits some vetting. Jolokia Networks, a provider of hosting, streaming and IT services, was seeking to improve delivery solutions for live and on-demand rich media, as well as dynamic content, for its customers. When Mark Pace, Jolokia’s CTO, began weighing his CDN options, customer service was one of the key selection criteria in choosing Internap’s CDN. “This is a hugely complex technology, and you need a partner who can help you when something goes wrong,” Pace said. He added that over the years, with Jolokia and at other companies, he’d tried other CDN services, and unless you’re a major customer, support could be sketchy. “I’ve been through Akamai, Limelight and Speedera,” he said. “I didn’t feel the love from them. We’re not a huge company, so we don’t get the red-carpet treatment.” In contrast, Pace lauds Internap for its responsive, individualized support. For a company like Jolokia, which resells the content delivery service, support is even more important, since Jolokia may be blamed for problems they have no control over. This is true as well when the problem is on the customer’s end. “You can’t just blame the customer for doing something wrong,” he said – which in fact happens all the time. “If it’s your fault, you need to own up to it. If it’s your customer’s fault, you provide evidence, and then you must work with them to help them fix it.” Pace recalled a customer having problems with video delivery due to network saturation issues. Internap helped with the post-mortem, and Jolokia was able to point to logs showing saturated routers. Then, they helped the customer tweak their encoder and set up QoS rules, transforming a frustrated customer into a happy, loyal one.

4. What kind of end devices will you target with your content?

In most cases, the only real answer to this question is: “all of them.” Yet, even with HTML5 on the horizon, content delivery to a fragmented device landscape is incredibly difficult. (And don’t expect HTML5 to be a magic bullet.) “It’s mayhem out there with end devices,” Pace said. “You have to ensure quality delivery to everything from iPads to desktops to HDTVs. Each one relies on a different format.” Because of this, Pace advocates looking for a vendor that includes services like WAN optimization and transmuxing (transcode-multiplexing), which will convert formats on the fly. Even if you don’t have plans to deliver content to smartphones, TVs or Internet radios, you probably will in the very near future. Looking ahead to how end users will consume your content in two, three or five years could alter your buying decision.

5. If you are an SMB, can you start small?

Michael Kaiser-Nyman, founder and CEO of Impact Dialing, didn’t have the money to spend on high-dollar CDN services. Impact dialing provides auto-dialing services for polling, political campaigns and small business marketing. Obviously, ensuring high-quality voice streams is critical. As a new bootstrap startup, though, the company couldn’t devote the kind of resources necessary to sign up for traditional CDN services. At first, the company used Amazon’s CloudFront, but once they migrated their static servers away from AWS to WordPress host page.ly, the company decided to evaluate other options. Kaiser-Nyman learned of a free service through Cloudflare. “Basically, they become your DNS host,” Kaiser-Nyman said. “You move your DNS records to them, and then they use their servers as, essentially, a reverse proxy.” Cloudflare then caches all of your static content and pushes it out to their edge locations. Dynamic content is pulled from the customer’s server, but also routed in an optimized fashion through edge POPs. Of course, as your company grows, Cloudflare offers both premium- and enterprise-level service tiers. Impact Dialing now uses Cloudflare’s pro version, which costs only $20/month. “They do a lot beyond hosting content. If your site goes down, they’ll serve up cached content until your website goes back online. They protect you from DDoS attacks. They block traffic from bots and optimize all sorts of content on your site,” he said. For an SMB looking to compete against deep-pocketed incumbents, leveling the content delivery playing field could be the difference between success and failure.

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