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Streamlining those IPL live streams

Content delivery networks serve terabytes of video to a billion users in India – and even they struggle with live-streaming mega-sports events.

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Content delivery networks serve terabytes of video to a billion users in India – and even they struggle with live-streaming mega-sports events.

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In its 17th edition, the Indian Premier League broke all viewership records in its opening days in March and April. The first ten matches of IPL ’24 had 350 million viewers on Disney Star’s TV network, up 20% over the previous year. JioCinema, which has the IPL digital streaming rights, saw 113 million viewers logged in on the opening day, up 51% from day one in IPL 2023. The Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings match drew 715 million views from 130 million unique viewers, totalling 9.33 billion minutes.

While JioCinema, which owns the digital rights for IPL ‘24, has not shared overall viewership data beyond day one, IPL clearly caused a spike in internet traffic in India, which was already 73% video in 2023 thanks to on-demand video streaming, video-intensive applications such as conferencing and gaming, and of course live streaming of sports and other events. All this video use has driven up monthly mobile data use to over 30 GB per smartphone in India.

The staggering amount of video would break the Internet without the CDNs, which cache video locally and deliver it from thousands of PoPs or edge servers worldwide, often inside telco networks.

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All of IPL streaming video originated in India, where the IPL matches were, and almost all of it was consumed by users in India. It may seem strange, therefore, that quite a bit of this streaming video traffic was routed outside India. Many users, especially customers of operators other than Jio (see sidebar: Tracing the IPL Streams), were served streams from outside India. But more about that later.

Despite the surge, the IPL 2024 viewing experience was much smoother this year, especially for Jio users. Remember IPL 2023? The opening match on March 31, 2023, nearly broke the platform. JioCinema viewers complained of the app freezing, buffering or crashing, and the backlash on the provider was strong.

So, how did they fix the streaming video despite the viewership surge? Among other things, they and other telcos used CDNs–Content Delivery Networks–that were provisioned and optimised better.

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Even websites rely on CDNs to distribute their content worldwide instead of solely relying on the web host. When visitors visit a webpage, these ‘edge servers’ provide a cached version. But CDNs are even more crucial for video.

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How CDNs Smooth Out Video

Global video demand could break the internet if most videos were accessed directly from remote servers worldwide. And it is impractical for content providers to install video servers in every country.

Enter the CDN, a system of distributed servers that delivers web and video content and services to users based on their location. The CDN virtually shortens the physical distance between the server and the user, reducing latency and speeding up content delivery. This is essential not just for video streaming but also for other dynamic content, such as interactive websites and real-time applications.

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India’s digital landscape is complicated by its vast size and diversity across urban and rural areas. This could result in inconsistent user experience for internet access, especially video: high latency, packet loss, and uneven bandwidth availability. CDN mitigates these issues by caching content at multiple locations closer to end-users for faster response and delivery and a more consistent user experience. It also reduces the load on the origin servers for better uptime and service reliability.

It is easier to see how this works with on-demand content, such as movies on Netflix or Prime.

Caching: CDNs store copies of videos on multiple servers, called PoPs (points of presence) or edge servers, in different cities and towns. When you request a video, the CDN delivers it from the nearest server with a cached copy, reducing latency and improving load times. This may, in turn, populate a server even closer to you with that video so that the next request from your area will be served even more quickly.

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Prefetching: CDNs analyse user behaviour to predict what content will be requested next and prefetch it to nearby servers, for instance, in a web series where users are likely to binge on several episodes in succession.

• Bandwidth management: CDNs use adaptive bit-rate (ABR) streaming to optimise bandwidth by adjusting video quality based on your internet speed and device capabilities so that the video plays smoothly without buffering and excessively consuming network resources.

 Security and DRM: On-demand services often require digital rights management to protect copyrighted content. CDNs use DRM software to enforce copyright policies, ensuring that content is only viewed in permitted regions and under appropriate conditions.

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CDNs are critical not just to video but also to most modern web applications. In the earlier days of the Web, CDNs would merely improve content delivery by replicating commonly requested files across caching servers or PoPs. They’ve now become much more useful over time. A CDN will reduce the loads on an application server and improve the requestor’s experience by delivering a local copy of the content from a nearby cache edge, or PoP. But CDNs do a great job of even non-cacheable dynamic content unique to a requestor, boosting application performance and scaling. The CDN will establish and maintain secure connections closer to the requestor and can accelerate dynamic content retrieved from the origin.

A CDN reduces the load on an application server and improves user experience by delivering a local copy of the content from a nearby cache edge, or PoP.

CDNs make such a difference to user experience that Netflix has invested billions into ‘OpenConnect’, its own CDN, though it has also used third-party CDNs like Akamai. It has thousands of OpenConnect servers located around the world, embedded within ISPs like Airtel. That owned, embedded, distributed CDN is Netflix’s secret sauce for the user experience of on-demand video.

Live-Streaming: A Different Ball Game

Unlike on-demand content, live streaming requires real-time content delivery without a buffer. The real-time traffic isn’t anything like the single video file of a movie. And IPL and other live-streamed events pose other unique challenges. The increased traffic may last days, weeks, or a month, within that time, spiking sharply over a few hours for individual matches. This makes provisioning for CDN infrastructure all the more difficult.

Good CDN design and implementation can dramatically improve the live-streaming experience. CDNs minimise latency in various ways, including the use of edge computing, bringing processing closer to the user, and optimised routing to reduce the distance data travels. Here are some features of such a good design.

Scalability: An IPL-like event experiences highly variable viewership, surging often unpredictably at certain times. CDNs must be able to scale quickly to accommodate these spikes in traffic without degrading video quality. This could be managed by over-provisioning capacity, elastic scaling and routing to automatically adjust resources based on demand, or a mix of the two.

Reliability and redundancy: CDNs use redundant data paths and servers to ensure continuous streams without interruptions. If one stream fails, another takes over, ensuring that the stream continues uninterrupted. This redundancy is critical during high-stakes events like live sports.

• Latency: Protocols such as HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) or WebRTC are optimised for lower latency, which is crucial for live events where even a small delay can spoil real-time viewer experiences. CDNs optimise these protocols for the fastest response and delivery speeds possible.

Silent testing: This lets admins simulate large events on corporate networks, allowing thorough and non-disruptive testing and troubleshooting before an event.

Mass live streaming of popular sports events such as IPL can push networks and CDNs to the edge, no pun intended. One major issue stems from India’s vast and diverse geography, coupled with infrastructure limitations such as inconsistent grid power, resulting in network latency. Moreover, the sudden surges in traffic during events like the IPL can overwhelm local CDNs, highlighting the need for robust capacity planning.

Another hurdle arises from local caching inefficiencies or infrastructure constraints, often leading to the international routing of traffic that should ideally remain domestic. Additionally, regulatory and licensing hurdles further complicate content delivery, including streaming licensees that may have optimised traffic with a captive CDN for one telco with which it partners but not necessarily for other telcos.

Traffic analysis for IPL 2024 (see sidebar box: Tracing the IPL Streams) shows some of these issues. JioCinema is the streaming licensee for IPL, and Jio’s mobile and broadband users are being served the streams almost entirely from within the country–with low latency and great performance, from JioCinema’s own CDN servers within the Jio network.

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Some Vi users, however, saw less consistent performance, even where 99% of the traffic was routed inside India and most traffic was routed internationally.

And then there’s Airtel, whose users were often served the live streams from outside India, using its own and third-party CDN–yet performance appears to have been optimised, with low latency.

For instance, in a match in early May, much of the IPL traffic on Airtel was routed via CDNs outside India, while Vi’s traffic streams were all within India. Even so, Airtel users experienced better latency and overall performance.

For Airtel and Vi, there was likely inadequate local CDN capacity, and it was considered more practical to route some or all of the traffic via foreign-located PoPs. While this may appear to defeat the purpose of CDNs – local PoPs in the proximity of the consumer – the Airtel example shows that it can be done without much of a performance penalty if bandwidth and network provisioning are adequate and can lead to better performance in some cases than local CDNs. The preferred route is to have local traffic routed locally—for better resilience, performance and cost—but “taking the longer road” is not uncommon on the internet.

This also suggests that the CDN capacity deployed in the country may be just about adequate for regular static or on-demand video traffic. Still, it lacks adequate headroom for a major surge in streaming video. It also indicates that India’s CDN market has a lot of room for growth. There may also be situations where sensitive traffic, such as a video stream for government or defence videoconferences, may need to be routed locally, by contract or by law.

India’s CDN Boom

Video is driving the CDN market growth in India for mobile and fixed-line broadband users alike. Enterprise use is driving CDN evolution, including businesses adopting hybrid and multi-cloud systems and pushing competing CDN providers to integrate their platforms, such as Cloudflare’s integration with Microsoft Azure CDN and AWS Cloud Front.

Most global CDNs operate in India, with Akamai, Cloudflare, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft (Azure CDN and others) dominating. Major local telcos and ISPs such as Bharti Airtel and Tata Communications also have CDN offerings, with the latter leveraging its submarine cable network for better CDN services. Here is a list of some of the major CDN providers in India.

Cloudflare: It has a strong presence globally and in India. It offers a variety of plans, starting from a basic free tier.

Akamai: It is a global leader with enterprise-level solutions and a network of over 100,000 edge servers worldwide.

Amazon CloudFront: It is integrated with AWS, leveraging the latter’s infrastructure with a network of PoPs/edge servers in India.

 Microsoft: The company has Azure CDN, Microsoft 365 CDN, and others.

CtrlS: An Indian data centre and CDN company, it claims to be ‘Asia’s largest Tier-4 data centre’ and a CDN with 170 PoPs worldwide.

• Cloud CDN: Uses Google’s globally distributed PoPs to accelerate websites and applications served out of Google Compute Engine and Google Cloud.

The CDN market in India was estimated at USD 793 million in 2023 and is projected to grow over 13% CAGR to nearly USD 1.9 billion by 2030. As the number of connected smartphones in India creeps up toward a billion, with users across a range of literacy levels mostly consuming video, CDN investments and usage will grow sharply.

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By Prasanto K Roy

The author is a public policy advisor in tech and new energy and former President and

Chief Editor at Voice & Data’s publisher, CyberMedia. (X: @prasanto).

feedbackvnd@cybermedia.co.in

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