Monthly Archives: March 2009

Fourth-generation CDNs and the launch of Conviva

First-generation CDNs use a highly distributed edge model, and include companies like Akamai and Sandpiper Networks (whose acquisiton chain goes Digital Island, Exodus, Savvis, Level 3).

Second-generation CDNs basically try to achieve most of the performance of a first-generation CDN without needing hundreds of POPs, aiming for just a few dozen locations. Speedera (eventually acquired by Akamai) is the best example of a CDN of this type.

Third-generation CDNs follow a megaPOP model — two or three dozen huge points of presence, which they hope will be highly peered. Limelight, VitalStream (acquired by Internap), and the new entrants of the past two years are pretty much all megaPOP CDNs.

Fourth-generation CDNs are very different. They are a shift towards a more software-oriented model, and thus, these companies own limited (or even no) delivery assets themselves. Some of these are not (and will not be) so much CDNs themselves, as platforms that reside in the CDN ecosystem, or CDN enablers. Velocix (for their Metro product) and MediaMelon both reside in the fourth-generation space.

That gets us to the morning’s interesting announcement.

Conviva has come out of stealth mode with a powerhouse customer announcement — NBC Universal. Conviva is not a CDN in the traditional sense, but they’re part of the ecosystem for Internet video. Rather than owning delivery assets themselves, they’ve got a pure-play SaaS solution — a platform that can arbitrage resources from multiple content sources (multiple CDNs, data centers, etc.), as well as offer value-added services like real-time analytics and integration capabilities across those multiple sources. (From an ecosystem perspective, the closest analogue is probably Move Networks.)

What makes Conviva immediately notable is their ability to do real-time monitoring of the performance of every individual delivery, and seamlessly switch sources midway through playing a video, driven by metrics and business rules, thus allowing the customer to deliver consistently good-enough performance (i.e., a target of no buffering or other degradation) at the lowest price point, i.e., cost-arbitraged QoS.

I’ve been writing about the customer desire for control and the rise of the fourth-generation software “CDN” since last year. Conviva takes full advantage of the overlay model. I’d rate the significance of this launch on par with that of Netli’s (back in 2003), although obviously in a very different way.

Because it’s a particularly important launch, I know it’s going to be of substantial interest to Gartner’s Invest clients, and likely of significant interest to our media and telecommunications industry clients. As such, I’m refraining from blogging a detailed description or analysis of the company’s technology and strategy, its likely impact to the rest of the video delivery ecosystem (which goes beyond the CDNs themselves), and the more general impact of the conceptual shift that’s taking place with fourth-generation CDNs. If you have inquiry access, please feel free to use it. A note to clients will be published soon.

(Disclaimer: I was pre-briefed on this, and I am quoted in Conviva’s press release. As I almost always do, I wrote my own quote, rather than letting words be put in my mouth. As with all Gartner quotes in press releases, it is a statement about the market, and no endorsement of the vendor is implied.)

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Smoke-and-mirrors and cloud software

On my more cynical, read-too-many-press-releases days, I wonder if there’s some hapless, tortured PR gnome at Amazon whose job consists solely of vetting one empty cloud fluff piece after another, proclaiming how such-and-such a vendor is now offering deployments on EC2, and how this therefore gives them an on-demand cloud offering (“please think of me as hip and visionary!”), when in reality, the vendor is doing nothing other than packaging up its software as an AMI (an Amazon machine image, basically a disk image of a server with the application installed).

Packaging something up as an AMI doesn’t make it a cloud service. It doesn’t make it massively scalable, automatically scalable, transparently scalable, on-demand, multi-tenant, or any one of a vast number of other terms that get fatuously lavished on anything with a whiff of cloudiness. If a piece of software doesn’t have any cloud traits when it’s deployed in your data center, it won’t have them when it’s deployed on EC2 (or any other cloud infrastructure service), either.

[the cake is a lie] Cloud infrastructure services today, whether EC2 or from one of Amazon’s competitors, are basically servers in the sky. They are almost always a hypervisor-virtualized server with a normal operating system installation, on top of which you install normal applications. There is no magic cloud pixie dust that settles on these instances and turns them into application faeries of scalability and joy.

Building massively and horizontally scalable, multi-tenant software with elastic economics is hard. It’s even harder if you’re trying to take some legacy software package and re-engineer it. This is why practically no one does that kind of re-engineering, and why software vendors have to resort to puffed-up “yes, we run on EC2!” claims, rather than genuinely delivering on-demand cloud services.

Don’t be fooled.

Marketing and PR folks at software vendors: I forgive you for these releases because I know you’re under pressure to put something out, but every time I read them, I cringe on your behalf, and hope that you’re not genuinely entertaining the belief that releasing an AMI meaningfully moves you forward along the cloud path.

IT folks: When your CEO / CFO / CIO comes to you and asks you why you aren’t taking advantage of your software vendor’s awesome new money-saving cloud service, you can tell him it’s because the PR release is just artfully painting a unicorn — a mythical beast everyone talks about but doesn’t actually exist.

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TCO tool for cloud computing

Gartner clients might be interested in my just-published piece of research, which is a TCO toolkit for comparing the cost of internal and cloud infrastructure.

A not-new link, but which I nonetheless want to draw people’s attention to as much as possible: Yahoo’s best practices for speeding up your web site is a superb list of clearly-articulated tips for improving your site performance and the user’s perception of performance (which goes beyond just site performance). Recommended reading for everyone from the serious Web developer to the guy just throwing some HTML up for his personal pages.

On the similarly not-new but still-interesting front, Voxel’s open-source mod_cdn module for Apache is a cool little bit of code that makes it easy to CDN-ify your site — install the module and it’ll automatically transform your links to static content. For those of you who are dealing with CDNs that don’t provide CNAME support (like the Rackspace/Limelight combo), are using Apache for your origin front-end, and who don’t want to fool with mod_rewrite, this might be an interesting alternative.

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Billing is hard?

Spreading a little linkage…

A blog post from Reuven Cohen of Enomaly, in the form of musings on billing, metering, and measuring the cloud, and specifically, Amazon’s current inability to offer real-time billing-related reporting for their cloud services.

A blog post from James Hamilton, of the Microsoft Windows Live platform team, provides some brief thoughts on the fact that service billing is hard. The comments thread holds a few things of interest, too.

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There’s more to cloud computing than Amazon

In dozens of client conversations, I keep encountering companies — both IT buyers and vendors — who seem to believe that Amazon’s EC2 platform is the be-all and end-all of the state of the art in cloud computing today. In short, they believe that if you can’t get it on EC2, there’s no cloud platform that can offer it to you. (I saw a blog post recently called “Why, right now, is Amazon the only game in town?” that exemplifies this stance.)

For better or for worse, this is simply not the case. While Amazon’s EC2 platform (and the rest of AWS) is a fantastic technical achievement, and it has demonstrated that it scales well and has a vast amount of spare capacity to be used on demand, as it stands, it’s got some showstoppers for many mainstream adopters. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of the market can’t fill those needs, like:

  • Not having to make any changes to applications.
  • Non-public-Internet connectivity options.
  • High-performance, reliable storage with managed off-site backups.
  • Hybridization with dedicated or colocated equipment.
  • Meeting compliance and audit requirements.
  • Real-time visibility into usage and billing.
  • Enterprise-class customer support and managed services.

There are tons of providers who would be happy to sell some or all of that to you — newer names to most people, like GoGrid and SoftLayer, as well as familiar enterprise hosting names like AT&T, Savvis, and Terremark. Even your ostensibly stodgy IT outsourcers are starting to get into this game, although the boundaries of what’s a public cloud service and what’s an outsourced private one start to get blurry.

If you’ve got to suddenly turn up four thousand servers to handle a flash crowd, you’re going to need Amazon. But if you’re like most mainstream businesses looking at cloud today, you’ve got a cash crunch you’ve got to get through, you’re deploying at most dozens of servers this year, and you’re not putting up and tearing down servers hour by hour. Don’t get fooled into thinking that Amazon’s the only possible option for you. It’s just one of many. Every cloud infrastructure services platform is better for some needs than others.

(Gartner clients interested in learning more about Amazon’s EC2 platform should read my note “Is Amazon EC2 Right For You?“. Those wanting to know more about S3 should read “A Look at Amazon’s S3 Cloud-Computing Storage Service“, authored by my colleagues Stan Zaffos and Ray Paquet.)

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