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Akamai Announces HD Network
Delivering on CEO Paul Sagan's vision from Streaming Media East, Akamai delivers HD for Flash, Silverlight, and iPhone via HTTP.
Wed., Sept. 30, by Tim Siglin

During his keynote at Streaming Media East 2009 in May, Paul Sagan, president and CEO of Akamai Technologies, talked about the scalability needed to get to HD content on the internet to audiences that would rival television's numbers.

Yesterday, as part of a roll-out of the Akamai HD Network, Sagan pointed to his company's solution.

"Many have said that the internet's not capable of HD delivery," said Sagan. "We disagree, and we're rolling out a solution that's capable of scaling beyond any HD delivery that's been done to date."

"We're at television numbers," Sagan continued, "as we've seen an event—the Presidential Inauguration - that scaled to 10 million streams, but to maintain and grow that scalability, we need to go to HTTP delivery."

Akamai's co-founder and chief scientist, Tom Leighton, also added his view during a question and answer period on today's conference call.

"Today there are 50 million gaming devices in the home, as well as 40 million iPhones capable of viewing HD content" said Leighton who is also Akamai's Chief Scientist. "Our last mile average delivery to end users in North America is an actual 5Mbps, not just a stated rate, and last-mile delivery bandwidth is growing rapidly."

While Leighton did not elaborate on the HD content capabilities of the iPhone, and the company has yet to respond to our follow-up question on this new capability, he did detail additional issues facing HD delivery. [Editor's note: The iPhone's screen is 480x360, and HD is at minimum 720p wide, and Akamai is now saying they are delivering "HD quality" to the iPhone. Tim Siglin has more on what the company means by "HD quality" on his blog, Workflowed.com].

"The middle mile (interconnects between Tier 1 providers and others) creates another scaling roadblock, as does delivering video from just a few large data centers," said Leighton. "Both of these create bottlenecks to deliver a large number of HD streams."

"We have over 50,000 servers located in 1,000 last-mile networks in over 750 cities around the world, in multiple locations in each city," said Leighton. "The upgrade to the Akamai HD network requires no additional cost for server hardware, as the only upgrades requires are server software. In fact, our ongoing delivery costs will drop as we deliver HD content."

Sagan pointed out that online video often frustrates end users with long start-up times, poor picture quality, and frequent interruptions for buffering. An Akamai press release noted that Jupiter Research found that 60% of regular online video users are less likely to return to a site for video content if the viewing experience is poor.

"The ramifications are huge," said Sagan. "Eliminating the roadblocks to HD content means that higher quality content, delivered either as live streams or on-demand content, puts Internet video delivery in to the realm of a quality television experience. The average viewer will experience sub-second response times as our architecture allows us to more tightly control the frequency at which the streams switch [via adaptive bitrate streaming]."

"Akamai HD channel switching will be nearly instant, a second or two seconds, at worst," added Leighton.

Available for Flash, Silverlight and the iPhone, with a demonstration available here, Sagan noted the new Akamai HD Network will include an HD DVR, new media analytics, and a unified solution for multiple playback environments.

Akamai is also making available its HD Player, an open-source standard-based video player as part of the Open Video Player Framework. But end viewers need not upgrade to the Akamai HD player.

"Our HD delivery makes use of all the existing players, using HTTP," said Leighton. "No additional requirement for additional players to be able to view HD content."

One major technology-related question to come out of session centered on HTTP delivery of HD for Flash. When asked what this means for the relationship with Adobe, now that Akamai is doing HD Flash over HTTP, Leighton attempted to assure listeners that the Adobe relationship was intact.

"We're delivering HD now on HTTP in addition to RTMP," said Leighton, with Sagan adding a series of announcement with Adobe will be forthcoming.

When asked about the HTTP delivery of HD, an Adobe spokesperson responded with the following statement from the company:

"Adobe is always exploring ways to better provide the highest quality video experience to our customers," the spokesperson said. "Adobe has a long-standing partnership with Akamai and as part of these efforts, Akamai and Adobe are exploring new ways to integrate Flash Media delivery technology within Akamai's network. Akamai's HD for the Adobe Flash Platform is a great example of the extensibility of the Adobe Flash Platform. It further enhances content delivery methodologies."

A final question asked why content owners should leverage Akamai HD when telcos and cable networks are building out their own systems (some of the telco solutions will be showcased at SUPERCOMM in Chicago late October).

"Content users want to reach everyone," said Sagan, echoing his Streaming Media East keynote, "and not just those in a particular walled garden that requires multiple licensing agreements, one per walled garden. That's where Akamai's HD solution provides a key differentiator."

I also asked Dave Stubenvoll, CEO of Wowza, about his take on the switch to HTTP delivery and adaptive bitrate streaming.

"A better, or cheaper, solution is always what’s needed," said Stubenvoll. "As is Wowza’s position, we seek to deliver in every way that the end user wants to consume video. HTTP is one of many protocols, but there are some funny things about HTTP as a 'standard' for delivery. Flash, Silverlight and iPhone can all accept HTTP, but each in a different manner."

"A Silverlight Smooth Stream cannot play in an iPhone,but it’s still HTTP," Stubenvoll continued. "Separate infrastructures are needed for each client, at least in part. Akamai can absorb the infrastructure costs but those without Akamai’s scale cannot. Adaptive bitrate streaming everywhere with fast response and security in a single infrastructure is what everyone wants, so we're in violent agreement."

"You may say that Wowza 2 Advanced is an Akamai HD in a box," Stubenvoll concluded.

An on-demand version of the press conference is also available here, although I've not yet been able to play it on my iPhone.