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Content Alliance Tackles Net Bottlenecks.

Partnerships, such as the Cisco-led Content Alliance, are working to make the technologies speak to each other.

We've all seen streaming video on the Internet. Most of the time, however, it looks more like an early silent film, with its jerky motion and poor picture quality--not exactly state-of-the-art for visual presentation. This and other performance problems, such as endless software downloads and slow-motion page displays, result from an over-burdened and inefficient Internet. With content being moved around the globe, hundreds of millions of users, and increasingly "rich" media--like streaming video, streaming audio, and flash animation--the old distribution channels are simply not up to the task.

Help, however, is on the way. New technologies are coming that will ease the Internet performance crunch. Partnerships, such as the Cisco-led Content Alliance, are working to make the technologies speak to each other. Of course, this means dealing with yet another new tech talk glossary that includes "rich media," "content delivery networks," and "content peering." It will be worth it, because it all promises greatly improved Internet performance at all levels, from enterprises to B2B and B2C applications.


A central technology in the new and improving Internet is the content delivery network (CDN.) In simplest terms, A CDN is a more efficient way to move information, especially larger files, around the Internet. According to Frank Scibilia, Cisco Systems' market development manager for content services, "CDNs enable you to deliver richer media, at higher performance and lower cost, than delivering from a centralized data center." Although there are many variations on the CDN, they typically have three common elements:

* Dispersed content. Instead of having content on one single server, a CDN will place it at numerous distributed sites that are closer to users. Thus a piece of content, instead of having to skip around the planet, can travel a shorter and faster path. If the content is placed within an enterprise where it can feed directly into a LAN, the speed-up can be dramatic.

* Smarter routing. A CDN may have a much more intelligent and proactive routing system that senses bottlenecks, identifies the optimum server for a specific request, and otherwise maximizes the efficiency, and thus speed, of the transmission.

* Rich content focus. If the Internet handled nothing but small text files, its performance level would not be an issue. But bandwidth-gobbling media applications have become a driving force, says Scibilia, "As you get higher and higher performance demands, because the quality of the media is richer, you have to make the network better able to deliver high performance." CDNs are optimized to deal with a variety of rich media.

The CDN marketplace includes equipment manufacturers, network service companies, content producers, and Internet service providers. Indeed, any large Internet-dependent business is now, or soon will be, dealing with CDNs, if not as a provider, then as a customer or user.


CDNs, of course, need to communicate with each other. Their internal efficiencies will be hollow victories if exchange with the rest of the Internet is clumsy and slow. Scibilia explains, "Content peering simply allows multiple content delivery networks to work together. In the future, we envision content delivery networks that are deployed by multiple service providers; those networks will interoperate using standards which we call content peering standards."

The Content Alliance is the lead partnership in the movement to develop such standards. It includes over 100 major Internet stakeholders, including America Online, AT&T, Cable and Wireless, Cisco, Digital Island, Genuity, IBM, Mirror Image, Navisite, Novell, PSInet, and Sun Microsystems. The group was established by Cisco, which retains a first-among-equals status. Scibilia points out that, despite Cisco's initiative, the Content Alliance's work is equipment-neutral. "Cisco initiated the effort because you need market leadership to make it happen," he says, "but from the very beginning, many other vendors have been involved. The effort is geared toward standards that any vendor or service provider can implement."

The Alliance was formed last August, and had its first planning session in October. Its next major step was a December meeting with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF.) The IETF ( is another coalition of Internet stakeholders that provides planning and guidance in a large number of technical areas. Its role will be to endorse content peering standards developed by the Content Alliance and others--there are other groups working on content peering standards, most notably, the Content Bridge, led by Inktomi, another important CDN player. IETF endorsed standards are voluntary, but its imprimatur carries much clout. Scibilia predicts, "There's a very good chance that these will be implemented very rapidly once they're actually developed."


The details of CDNs and content peering will be dealt with by the engineers, but Scibilia explains that most Internet users, from the biggest enterprises to individual consumers, will benefit.

Enterprises, especially those that are geographically dispersed, will experience overall speed increases in their Web applications, especially elearning, as Scibilia explains, "There's a general trend toward elearning and Web-based training. You certainly can digitize those rich media assets that are being delivered with other techniques today." As elearning becomes faster and better, it will increasingly replace conventional in-house training and expensive training-related travel.

As for B2B, Scibilia notes, "We definitely see a strong trend toward B2B communications, where you can take advantage of the higher bandwidth connectivity that corporations have. Software and media downloads are important applications. Many corporations have to distribute these to large numbers of sites, where users are requesting the same file over and over. If you move it once to a device on-premise, the cost is much less for each user to download to the desktop." The content peering standards, in addition to dealing with file transfers, will also facilitate cross-CDN logging and billing, which should stimulate ecommerce.

B2C will benefit, not only from improved rich media transfer, but also from the greater ability of CDNs to handle high traffic volumes. The busiest consumer-oriented sites handle much larger numbers of users than enterprise and B2B settings; CDNs and content peering can alleviate delays and "busy signals" during peak traffic periods. Entertainment and other rich media uses will improve, even for consumers who have slow "last miles." The slowest leg in most consumer Web connections is the local telephone call to the ISP. Scibilia notes that even slow last mile connections will experience better response time, and consumers who have faster last miles--such as DSL and cable modems--will see bigger speed increases.

Many rich media applications have been retarded, or completely delayed, because the Internet was simply not fast enough. CDNs and content peering promise to break this limit and open new opportunities in elearning, ecommerce, and entertainment. Perhaps soon, Web movies will look like real ones.

MICK O'LEARY is library director at Frederick Community College.


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Date:May 1, 2001
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