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Summary:

Sometimes it’s tough to be the winner. CNN attracted by far the largest online audience for its web stream of President Obama’s inauguration, delivering a total of 25 million streams on Jan. 20th. It did so by utilizing Octoshape’s P2P plug-in for Adobe’s Flash player, a […]

octoshape-installSometimes it’s tough to be the winner. CNN attracted by far the largest online audience for its web stream of President Obama’s inauguration, delivering a total of 25 million streams on Jan. 20th. It did so by utilizing Octoshape’s P2P plug-in for Adobe’s Flash player, a fact that was widely known within the industry but only received very little coverage. Until yesterday, that is, when Windows Secrets suddenly came out blasting the network for “deceptive marketing,” alleging that CNN hijacked its users’ upload bandwidth. Others quickly jumped on the bandwagon, going so far as to suggest that “the most trusted name in news just stole your computer.”

I got in touch with CNN and Octoshape to get both sides of the story, which are, unsurprisingly, slightly different. Both companies reject the claim that they misled viewers. But Mike Wise, technical adviser of the R&D group of CNN parent company Turner Broadcasting System, had an even more important point to make: CNN used P2P, he told me, because it had to.

The inauguration is now seen as one of if not the largest live video event in the history of the Internet, and the folks at CNN believe that traditional CDNs simply weren’t up to the task. “Turner anticipated that the resulting stresses on the various CDNs and the Internet in general would make it extremely difficult ­ if not impossible to serve such an unprecedented audience without the use of P2P technologies,” Wise told me in an email.

To drive his point home, he also shared some previously unreleased numbers about CNN’s online audience during the event: The network’s web site saw more than 1.3 million simultaneous streams on Inauguration Day, and more than 650,000 of those simultaneous streams were delivered with the help of P2P.

So what about the issue of using viewers’ upstream bandwidth? Wise thinks that for most users, this is not longer such a big concern. “Companies like the BBC, Joost, AOL and many others have delivered content using P2P technologies for years,” he noted, adding, “P2P technologies are also used by millions of consumers daily for activities such as the transmission of files via instant messaging applications and Internet telephony.”

What remains is the allegation that CNN somehow tricked consumers into installing Octoshape’s P2P plug-in. Wise pointed out that the use of Octoshape has been optional for users of CNN since the network first started to use the technology in November of 2008, and Octoshape’s U.S. CEO Scott Brown added that the P2P functionality of the plug-in is clearly explained in the plug-ins EULA. Which is true, but who knows how many people took the time to read that document before Obama put his hand on the bible.

And there is another caveat: Adobe’s Flash player actually tells users that it “requires the Octoshape Grid Delivery enhancement” to play any live video from CNN.com, which doesn’t exactly sound like a choice to me.

“We believe that the majority of the concerns are misunderstandings about how our software works,” said Brown. He might be right about that. The Windows Secrets article that started the whole brouhaha contains half-informed fear mongering, even suggesting that Octoshape is dangerous because, well, any media player puts your PC at risk of being hacked.

That might be true in case of unfixed vulnerabilities, but the same could be said about any other third-party application installed on your machine. Also, you won’t be able to watch online video without a media player, so this might be a trade-off worth taking. Never mind that Octoshape is in fact not a media player, but a delivery component.

Still, one has to wonder whether the whole uproar could have been prevented if CNN and Octoshape had just been a little more transparent about the technology. Making it clear that the Octoshape installation is in fact optional would have been a good place to start.

  1. Ah… That’s probably wy my disk was quickly running out of space…

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  2. Excellent post, Janko. I’m surprised how much this has flown under the radar myself. The install is the slickest I’ve ever seen by far. Julian and I looked into it a bit, and it appears CNN/Octoshape are basically paying Adobe a lot of cash to be able to do that.

    I actually think it’s great as long as they’re conservative with user resources.

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  3. Oh, and they’ve had it on CNN live for awhile, actually — I first noticed it about 6 months ago. Wonder when it started.

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  4. I thik they had it in when they did the election coverage. I also saw a post that they were using it for a product on NBA. It is so fast to start and switch streams. Best I have seen by far.

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  5. All very interesting.
    I am not surprisd that this is going on under the radar.
    Adobe would want to mature this technology and make as few waves as possible..
    It is the death bell for CDN’s which have spent billions on infrastructure. Thinking they would be the oil that makes the new digital media future run.. And taking a cut from all who travel it..

    I have blogged about this for years. Eventually the negative scope that P2P have (Ie its a pirating technology) will be over come and P2P proxy technology will all be adopted like the good old days with WEB-Proxy. And ISP will download content only once. That is it. The P2P proxy will take care of the rest.
    Under that type of “very doable” infrastructure. True HD delivery of movies and TV is totally doable. No CDN in sight.

    James

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  6. The windows secrets article and some folks commenting on this post are getting a bunch of the facts wrong.

    Windows secrets is writing for a headline and making it sound like they have exposed something no one knows about and wants people to get all angry as if they are being lied to. CNN has been using Octoshape for nearly a year, which has always been out in the open and requires the user to agree to install the software. CNN is not doing it without the users consent. Now the user may not pay attention, made not read the text or in most cases, like most folks, could care less. But that’s not CNN’s fault.

    No one was “forced” to have to download the plugin, they could have gone to another website to watch the inauguration. It’s not like CNN.com was the only website that had the content. If you don’t want to download something or don’t trust it, then don’t, move on.

    While CNN says they “had to use” P2P, they didn’t. They could have shared their non-P2P traffic amongst more than just one CDN, Akamai, but they chose not to. That was their decision and was not as a result of the Internet not being able to handle the webcast. There were plenty of CDNs not being used that day that had plenty of capacity available if CNN really wanted to insure they could handle the traffic. That’s why major content owners use a dual-vendor strategy. The only reason CNN even used anyone other than Akamai for the P2P, (Highwinds) is because Akamai does not support Octoshape’s technology. So CNN put all their eggs in one basket with their non-P2P traffic.

    If CNN had split their regualar non-P2P traffic over two or three CDNs there would have been no problem. The fact they didn’t want to do that is fine, but that is a business decision they made and not a decision made because the Internet could not handle the “stresses”. That is a poor excuse.

    Also, the 650,000 thousand number was not previously unreleased, it was put out in a press release the next day by Highwinds, the CDN that CNN used for the P2P delivery.
    (http://www.streamingmedia.com/press/view.asp?id=11168) So for folks that think you can do P2P without any kind of CDN at all, they don’t understand how P2P delivery works.

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  7. Hybrid CDN/P2P is a valid technology for content delivery. Especially for popular, high quality, long form content.

    I am pretty certain we will see all major publishers opt-in to a hybrid p2p/cdn delivery to gain the benefit of cost reduction and scale in the upcoming 12 to 24 months. This is the only way to maintain a business model that makes economic sense for online video delivery.

    The issue here is about disclosure – there should be more clarity when asking users to install software on their machines.

    And speaking of disclosure, it should be noted that Scott Brown is not just the CEO of Octoshape but also was until recenetly the exec at Turner who made the decision to deploy Octoshape on cnn.com .

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  8. 650K of 1.3M – that doesn’t sound very efficient at all to me. 50% in a CDN/P2P hybred? Some providers can easily go to 90% efficiency while keeping a decent 400k-600k streaming speed. (90% of streams delivered via P2P, that is). Why is Octoshape performing so much lower than others like BitTorrent, or the more mature Pando is beyond me.

    One thing James Gardiner above forgot when he suggested that CNN could have delivered the entire thing via multiple CDNs is of course the painful cost. – isn’t the point of using P2P/CDN hybred is reducing the cost of mass delivery and flash crowds while maintaining the same or better performance? Now imagine for a second the evacuation of New Orleans in private cars, one person per car. The fuel, congestion and the slow inefficient rate of movement is no different. For CNN it translate in cost of GB delivered via CDN vs the 50%-75% discount for any GB delivered in P2P. This is how they can sell ads and make profit. The video is nothing more than an overhead cost that need to be shrunk.

    The weakest link was perhaps adjusting the speed vs. efficiency level properly, or choosing a better performing, mature P2P/CDN hybrid platform

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  9. I agree there was nothing underhanded about this.

    Kudos to Octoshape for being in the right place and the right time with Turner 2 years ago when this evaluation started. The REAL win for OctoTurner was this plug-in support from Adobe that no other vendor has ever received (and may never again). Octo never would have gotten the time of day from the Adobe if it weren’t for Turner’s influence (Scott Brown that is). Of course Octo hasn’t deployed this anywhere else, and they may not be allowed to.

    As far efficiency goes, Pando would have done no better. 650Kb/s represents the average uplink capacity available from CNN’s audience. Without “sleeping daemons” providing silent bandwidth (talk about a blogger s&%t-storm), no P2P can deliver 1.5Mb/s streams into this audience with 100% efficiency. Korea and Paris are another story of course.

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  10. Well, I am not going to argue performance and stand corrected – it did look to me that some of leading experienced P2P video providers have far better numbers to stand at this efficiency with so much data availability. This is from whitepapers and not real world, so if you say so…

    But you do bring up anothe rimportant point – the Adobe point. Early locking of technology to a vendor always reminds me how in the 50′s the FCC went nuts looking for a broadcasting standard so that US TV makers can have something to go by. They figured out the NTSC system which transmit all the colors to the TV set and then adjusted by balance and alpha tint on the set. 2 years later, Europe had agreed on a far superior standard called PAL where the colors are naturally pre-mixed in the signal and arrive pre-balanced in the TV. The US was thrown into 50 years of trying to set that tint button right on their television sets, and NTSC was not-so-fondly dubbed by broadcast professionals as the acronym for Never The Same Color.

    Case in point – there has to be a better way to standardize this other than lock a single vendor with a technology. This is good for a government to do maybe… but Adobe?

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