Content Delivery Networks Can Distribute Your Streaming Video - But At What Cost?

Delivering multimedia online represents an investment that goes beyond initial production costs. However, many online enterprises lack the technology infrastructure and resources needed to ensure the quality delivery of their streaming video.

When your technology needs exceed your capabilities, yet demand more than you're willing to spend on infrastructure, it may be time to work with third-party service providers called content delivery networks (CDNs). CDNs will help improve video quality, as gauged by the amount of time it takes for your video streams to start up. In addition, CDNs will distribute your multimedia content for you, or supplement your infrastructure, to help you more effectively reach various regions in your overall viewer area -- because there can be as much variability in service between the U.S. East Coast and West Coast as there is between the U.S. and Asia.

CDNs have the technology infrastructure you need -- but there are many of them out there, each promising to deliver your content better and faster. To justify and manage a relationship with CDNs, you need to evaluate their performance to be sure they can solve your specific problem and to validate your investment. Here are several suggestions for how to do that:


1. Make meaningful comparisons. Just as you would when you make infrastructure upgrades, you need to take measurements that allow you to compare performance levels, including:


  • Against your baseline: Test the CDN before making a commitment. How do their performance figures compare to your previous baseline for streaming delivery?


  • Against competing providers: Shop around. Compare CDNs against each other to seek optimal performance. Chances are some CDNs may be stronger in particular regions than others; you may want to hold multiple vendor contracts that apply each CDN to its region of greatest strength.


  • Against in-house performance: Even after you contract with a vendor, test the CDN against your servers. What's the performance gain? What is the differential, the degree of improvement provided by the CDN? Over time, does the CDN continue to provide a significant improvement in performance? Or is the differential shrinking as the months pass?

    2. Watch the delivery sources. You need to know precisely where your multimedia content is coming from. In general, there are two areas of concern:


  • CDN sources: You may have contracted a given CDN by virtue of its proximity to an important market, such as Southeast Asia. But is the CDN really distributing your videos from Singapore -- or are they sending them via California? You can establish monitoring that tracks the true sources for you.


  • Third-party content: Even though advertising and consumer-generated content doesn't come from you, its performance reflects on your site, business and brand. Apply your testing methodology to third-party streamed content to be sure it's consistent with your site -- and with your visitors' expectations.

    3. Create workable service level agreements (SLAs). SLAs articulate your expectations and your vendor's promise of performance. Yet too many SLAs aren't worth the paper they're written on, generating dissatisfaction, frustration and, in the worst cases, litigation.

    To avoid this, craft a mutually agreeable SLA that is:


  • Quantifiable: Every expectation and promise must be assigned a hard number. That way, you replace subjective "understandings" with objective goals both parties can see and measure.


  • Measurable: If it can't be measured, it can't be monitored. Your agreement must be predicated on actions that can be measured against baselines and expectations.


  • Achievable: Unrealistic goals suit no one's purposes. Set objectives that all parties can reasonably expect to accomplish.


  • Flexible: Online and multimedia technologies are evolving at a breakneck speed. Be sure your SLA can accommodate new tools and new opportunities.

    You and your CDN should also share common ground on the execution of the SLA. Be sure to specify:


  • Data set: What will be measured and using which numbers? The figures by which your CDN agrees to be measured must be consistent with the metrics you use to monitor in-house performance; this is the only way to identify meaningful differentials that reveal value.


  • Testing methodology: Define what will be measured, how it will be measured, and from what point or points on the distribution path it will be measured.


  • Frequency: How often will the tests be conducted and reviewed?


    Finally, consider using an independent third party to test and monitor your SLAs. As an outside resource, an independent tester can provide unbiased data both parties can trust. Ultimately, your content is only as strong as your users' ability to access it without error or frustration.



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