Cisco Betting Big on Virtualization to Solve Video Challenge
As service providers grapple with the challenges of delivering video, Cisco takes the strategy it pioneered in the data center to the broader Internet
May 17, 2010
by Laurence Cruz
When the World Cup kicks off in South Africa next month, most viewers won't care how video of the soccer tournament makes its way to their TVs, laptops, tablets and mobile devices so long as the picture quality is good, the viewing experience glitch-free and their team wins.
But delivering a high-quality video experience is no easy networking feat, especially when tens of thousands of people around the world want the same content at the same time on an array of devices from high-definition screens in the home to smart phones.
With service providers' networks straining under a rapidly growing freight of multimedia traffic, the World Cup offers a teachable moment about the challenges of moving video around the globe. More than that, Cisco says, it also shows the need for a radical new approach to meeting those challenges one that takes the "virtualization" strategy the company pioneered in the data center and extends it across the global Internet.
If that sounds sweeping and bold, it's because it is. In fact, fully realized, it would constitute nothing short of a re-imagined, re-engineered Internet that would be foundational not just for Cisco's video strategy, the company says, but for its strategies around other key market transitions as well collaboration and Web 2.0, for instance.
"This re-engineered Internet will deliver video-based experiences, using the network, the cloud and data center, to any end point a TV screen, a laptop screen or even a mobile handset," says Kelly Ahuja, who oversees Cisco's routing portfolio for service providers.
Wide Area Virtualization?
The strategy is cast from a similar mold to that of Cisco's revolutionary data center initiative, dubbed the "Unified Computing System," which uses the network to intelligently allocate pooled network, compute, storage and virtualization resources wherever they are needed to run corporate payroll systems or online video sites, for example.
But Cisco's video strategy extends far beyond the data center to encompass networks globally in what one analyst calls "wide area virtualization." The company says it's a logical extension of earlier iterations of its video strategy, which have focused on communications infrastructure.
"It's no longer about networking or routing alone," says Ahuja. "It's about the convergence of network, compute and storage, which drives the virtualization aspect."
Cisco's Network Positioning System
In practice, the approach will use technologies like the Network Positioning System (NPS) a feature of Cisco's recently announced CRS-3 that allows the router to interact with data centers in an entirely new, some might say revolutionary, way. The similarity to another acronym, GPS, is no coincidence. But whereas GPS commonly uses satellite data to identify the optimum route between two locations, NPS uses routing protocols, policy databases and other information to find the shortest path to virtualized resources, such as video storage or servers, then connects the user to those resources.
NPS can help global organizations balance their resources among data centers. If the resources at one data center get stretched thin, for instance, NPS can find additional virtualized resources at another site in the cloud.
Or, to return to the World Cup, it can help soccer fans in, say, Europe or the United States have a better video viewing experience of a game taped in South Africa and stored at various locations around the world, Ahuja says. That's because NPS enables networks to recognize when the requested content is stored nearby.
"Then I can go get that content at much better performance and at a much lower cost to the network operator," Ahuja says.
He says that's a considerable improvement over the current and traditional model where a request from a user in the United States may have to travel all the way to South Africa to get content. Not only is it expensive for service providers to ferry the large data packets that comprise video across thousands of miles, but if huge numbers of fans are watching the same content at the same time, data bottlenecks and network overload may degrade performance.
Ahuja also says NPS works differently from the existing practice of storing or caching video at the "edge" of the network meaning near the end user, on a local Web server or a DVR machine, for instance because it enables multiple users to benefit from the stored content at the same time. If the video is cached in the network in a given geographical area, everyone in a nearby city can see it if they want to, he says.
Quality of Service is King
Of course, bigger pipes must continue to play a role in any effective video delivery system, so Cisco will continue to push the limits of what machines like the CRS-3 can do to address the challenges of moving video around the world chief among which are scale, cost and performance, Ahuja says.
But networking vendors cannot compete on speeds and feeds alone, says Michael Howard, principal analyst with telecom consultancy Infonetics Research. That will be very apparent as service providers duke it out during the World Cup. Not only must they build networks that can scale up to accommodate spikes from perhaps tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of subscribers, Howard says, but a growing number of fans expects to watch the sport in high definition. Even more challenging from a networking perspective, ESPN will be showing the tournament in 3D in Europe a first.
"Carriers build their reputations on the quality of the services they deliver," Howard says. "If they deliver stellar services, they earn a stellar reputation, and if they deliver sub-par services, they earn a sub-par reputation."
Whether technologies like NPS and Cisco's approach to wide area virtualization will help in that regard remains untested, analysts say. But the strategy holds promise, they say, especially as more common video routing features edge caching, video monitoring, quality of service and deep packet inspection, for instance are becoming minimum requirements for service providers.
"NPS is aimed at something communication companies would like to do at some point," Howard says, adding that it will really come into its own when cloud computing goes mainstream. "This is a good idea. Networking vendors don't just make this kind of thing up; they discuss future problems with their customers on a regular basis."
Eve Griliches, a managing partner and analyst with technology consulting firm ACG Research, says she thinks Cisco is onto something valuable with NPS.
"Getting traction in data centers and taking it into the wide area networks makes great sense," she says, adding that the technology is similar in principle to what global companies are exploring in the area of data center redundancy. That is, if one data center goes down, can the others take over from it, for a period of weeks if necessary, until it comes back online? In the case of a global broadband carrier, the challenge might be losing California because of earthquakes.
"Can they position all of their resources in other places for some amount of time in order to handle that type of crisis?" she says.
As for Ahuja, he says NPS is a critical element in Cisco's video strategy and a harbinger of things to come in the company's vision of what it calls a next-generation Internet.
It would not be the first time the networking giant has bet big on a strategy that left many scratching their heads. Barely a decade ago, communications executives laughed when John Chambers, Cisco's chief executive officer, said phone calls would move onto Internet technology and be free. They're not laughing any more.
"You have to give kudos to Cisco for thinking that far ahead," Griliches says. "It's certainly something that's on everybody's mind."
Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.