Akamai's Peer-To-Peer Love Story

At IBC 2017 in Amsterdam, Akamai’s Jim Ewaskiew - currently their Sr. Product Line Director, formerly Director of Digital Content at Turner Networks - casually mentioned that Akamai is getting back into the business of peer-to-peer video streaming.

For those who follow the streaming industry, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise as Akamai - the world’s largest Content Delivery Network (CDN) - has previously acquired at least two companies that developed Peer-to-Peer (P2P) streaming technology.

However, this renewed effort to explore P2P streaming (with the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics intended to be the big debut) shows that Akamai still believes in the benefits of this technology.

Quite simply, a CDN cannot sufficiently scale its delivery capacity around the world using a server-only approach. As video streaming only becomes more popular everywhere, P2P delivery (or “multi-source” delivery) may be the only answer.

What is P2P streaming?

Let’s take a step back and review how video streaming works. Modern streaming protocols such as HLS (HTTP Live Streaming) and MPEG-DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming) are based on the concept of segmentation. You take a piece of content (like an episode of Game of Thrones) and cut it into small slices (segments) of video -- the logic being that it’s easier for viewers to download lots of small files instead of a single large file. Segments are fetched via HTTP requests made by the video player. Once received, these segments go into a buffer and are extracted as needed.

Peer5 and other P2P streaming services work by creating a network between users (peers) who are watching the same content. This means users can share video segments with each other instead of everyone fetching the same segments over and over again from a server. Why download the scene your neighbour just watched from a server half the country away, when you could get the same files sent from next door?

To clarify though, this is a hybrid approach designed to enhance server capacity rather than replace it entirely. The core CDN infrastructure is still a central component to P2P video streaming.

A brief history of Akamai and P2P

Akamai’s history with P2P is a tortured one. It starts with their acquisition of Red Swoosh back in 2007 (which was founded by Uber’s Travis Kalanick) and their tentative rollout of the NetSessions “plugin” in 2009.

Immediately, after the Red Swoosh acquisition, Akamai was besieged by analysts wanting to know if the deal portended the impending launch of a P2P based streaming solution. Akamai declined to answer and things went dark. So dark, in fact, that only a year later, the industry was asking “Whatever Happened to Red Swoosh?”

Finally, in 2009 there was industry chatter about the “Akamai NetSessions Interface”, a downloadable client-side application of some 900KB that offered "secure client-side networking technology that enhances networking protocols for delivery of software and media, improving the speed, reliability, and efficiency of content downloaded from the Web".

In 2010 NetSessions was used as part of Akamai’s exclusive deal to support NFL streaming to their website. Then in March 2011 it was used to help download caching for MMO publisher Aeria Games, much to the ire of the gaming community.

Akamai’s past attempts to engage with peer-to-peer technology probably didn’t have a monumental impact due to fact they required the end-user to download client software

A quick search of Akamai NetSessions today reveals an abundance of forums posts from 2011-2013 asking “what is it?”, “is it malware?” and “how do I get rid of it?”. So much so, that even the Akamai FAQ on NetSessions addresses the malware question directly.

With the Netsessions experiment seemingly over, Akamai bought out Ocotoshape in 2015, “to provide customers with the most comprehensive suite of video delivery and optimization technologies” and to “further the deployment of Akamai software into devices, carrier networks, enterprises, and homes.”

Octoshape was best known as the P2P service that CNN used to stream Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. However, as with the NetSessions product, Octoshape also required end users to install a plug-in which again saw push-back from users.

Akamai’s past attempts to engage with peer-to-peer technology, through Red Swoosh and Octoshape probably didn’t have a monumental impact due to fact they either required the end-user to download client software, or because they required the broadcaster to use their proprietary streaming protocols.

Writing for Gigaom in 2011, Ryan Lawler offered this conclusion:

“With the exception of Adobe’s Flash - which today is nearly ubiquitous - every streaming solution that has relied on client software has struggled to gain massive scale”

The problem he argues is not the technology, but the manner in which it is distributed. Ubiquity was the goal these P2P efforts needed to achieve, but failed to do so.

Peer-to-Peer today

If Akamai's history with P2P has taught us anything, it’s that a modern P2P streaming solution must be plug-in free. But, the technology required would have to be as ubiquitous as Flash once was and be supported by all the big players in video streaming.

Thankfully, WebRTC is the technology that can do it all.

Peer5 has always been focused on WebRTC to create our P2P mesh networks. As part of the HTML5 spec, WebRTC is now built into every major web browser, which means that users will never need to install any software or plug-ins. It also means that Peer5’s approach integrates seamlessly with the HTML5 video streaming stack, merging with Javascript-based video players and HLS and MPEG-DASH streams.

The fact that Akamai has now launched a WebRTC-based P2P product suggests that Akamai knows that in order to scale their network sufficiently to meet customer demand, at a low-cost, a server-only approach is too limiting.

"The fact Akamai is going with WebRTC demonstrates that WebRTC is a key technology for streaming" - Hadar Weiss, Peer5 CEO

Peer5 Co-Founder and CEO Hadar Weiss had this to say on the news: “The fact Akamai is going with WebRTC demonstrates that WebRTC is a key technology for streaming. Akamai has begun to evangelize the concepts we started to work on 5 years ago and it's very exciting and good for the whole industry.”

WebRTC is the steam engine of the peer-to-peer video revolution. Akamai have now acknowledged this, and we are eager to see what they do with the technology. However, they’ll playing catch-up to Peer5 and other companies that already have a head start in operating and scaling a “serverless” CDN.

If this has piqued your interest in peer-to-peer streaming, the team at Peer5 would be happy to tell you more.

Peer5 operates a WebRTC-based peer-to-peer content delivery network (CDN) for massively-scaled video streaming. Peer5 turns the peak demand issue into an advantage - the more users that watch, the more effective the streaming becomes for everybody. By increasing our customers’ streaming capacity by a factor of up to 100x, Peer5 ensures perfect video playback with no buffering for millions of viewers every day.