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Open Source P2P Streaming Getting Ready to Disrupt CDN Business Models

The EU-funded P2P Next project has been beta testing a new open source streaming solution since late last week, streaming both a live webcam transmission and an archived video from the BBC through its BitTorrent-based SwarmPlayer. I had a chance to check in with P2P Next’s scientific director, Johan Pouwelse, today about the progress of the test. “(It’s been) positive beyond our expectations,” he told me, adding that more than 4,000 users have installed the latest beta version of SwarmPlayer.

Of course SwarmPlayer isn’t the only effort to utilize P2P for streaming video. In fact, hardly a week goes by without some startup pitching a new P2P streaming solution to us. These companies should pay close attention to P2P Next, not only because the project has €14 million to develop an open source streaming alternative, but also because broadcasters from the BBC to Germany’s ARD just seem to love the idea of ditching their proprietary platforms.

P2P Next’s SwarmPlayer is loosely based on research that a team of P2P developers at the Delft University of Technology has been doing in the last couple of years. The team, led by Pouwelse, has been publishing the social BitTorent client Tribler, and it started to test P2P Next’s BitTorrent-based streaming earlier this year with a closed beta test in cooperation with the Dutch BitTorrent website Mininova. Those early tests didn’t always work too well. We had difficulties accessing the streams when doing an early test for NewTeeVee back in February.

Pouwelse acknowledged that the system needed some tweaking early on, but the reason wasn’t that P2P wasn’t working. Instead, it worked too well, blasting the client with huge amounts of data that overloaded the client computer’s CPU and affected live playback. These initial problems have been fixed, according to Pouwelse, and in fact we had no problems accessing the two test transmissions with the SwarmPlayer client.

Even more interesting than then test itself, however, is who’s participating. P2P Next uses content from the BBC for it’s beta test. Granted, it’s not Dr. Who, just an outdated weather report, but the mere presence of a major broadcaster in a field test like this is noteworthy. Pouwelse says working with the BBC has had bigger benefits for the project than cooperating with Mininova did, since broadcasters like the BBC “have done TV for decades already.” The fact that the project’s not getting sued for copyright infringement might also help when it comes to conducting publicly funded research.

But of course there’s something in it for the BBC as well. The Beeb has been pushing out massive amounts of bandwidth through its iPlayer service. It’s been using Kontiki’s proprietary P2P client to offset some of that bandwidth for show downloads, but all streams have been completely server-based. The BBC also has been deemphasizing their Kontiki player, even though Kontiki’s president Eric Armstrong told us back in May the companys’ relationship is “very strong”.

Still, one has to wonder why broadcasters like the BBC would even need to buy services from Kontiki if a reliable, open source P2P solution existed. The same is obviously true for BitTorrent Inc’s DNA streaming solution and many other P2P streaming providers. BitTorrent Inc’s video streaming is based on a proprietary enhancement of the open source BitTorrent protocol, a strategy echoed by other P2P streaming solutions like the one from Mediamelon. So why not just use open source and get rid of those licensing costs?

Pouwelse agrees and goes so far as to call P2P Next’s efforts disruptive to the still-emerging P2P CDN market. “By developing a common open standard we can move P2P to the next level and craft a single overlay,” he told me, adding that he sees a potential to have an open standard for P2P streaming included in any future browser or next-generation television set.

Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that streaming solutions providers will be cut completely out of the equation. The BBC has enough developers employed to implement a solution like P2P Next on its own, but many smaller broadcasters might still need assistance. This could mean that the streaming media market is moving away from moving — and charging for — bits and pieces toward a model that resembles the one of open source vendors. Said Pouwelse: “We are giving them open source building blocks that should advance the state-of-the-art and they can offer (…) services with that.”

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