A CDN for the People, by the People

pcdn_logoIf someone told you he’d pay for your FiOS Internet connection in exchange for you putting a Network Attached Storage (NAS) server full of Russian movies in your living room, would you do it? And if someone told you that a network of residential NAS drives could serve your startup’s video needs better than Amazon’s S3, would you believe him? The Bay Area-based video startup Russart believes it can make the case for both.

Russart just introduced a pretty unusual infrastructure play called “People’s CDN” (PCDN) that is entirely based on such residential nodes. The project is still in its infancy, with only two servers up at this time, but Russart CEO Oleg Sinitsin told me the plan is to eventually deploy up to 1,000 nodes, offering competitive rates to content publishers and sharing revenue with the people serving the content. “We are a people’s venture,” he wrote me in an email, “and people like to be rewarded.”

I know what you’re thinking. This guy has two NAS servers up, and already he wants to take on Amazon? Well, there actually is some back story to all of this. Russart has been working as a distributor for Russian and old USSR movies for a number of years now, according to Sinitsin, shipping physical DVDs with a Netflix-style subscription to customers in the U.S. and offering movie downloads to Russian expats worldwide.

It’s somewhat of a quirky business, judging from its web site, offering forums to movie lovers and explanations on how to watch imported PAL DVDs in the U.S. Somewhere along the line, Sinitsin met like-minded expats who helped him to develop the business. “We just found on the web people we never knew, and they have become our partners and run shipping centers,” he told me. That got him thinking: If the expat community can help with physical distribution, why not get their help for a download service as well?

Russart’s download business started with Amazon’s S3 servers, but Sinitsin didn’t think the service didn’t offer enough flexibility, so he came up with his NAS CDN scheme. “Today we serve 90 percent of video from PCDN, keeping Amazon S3 as backup service just in case,” he explained. Sinitsin plans soon get up 10 servers to achieve a stable production environment, and then just grow from there.

And he’s already trying to get customers for his offering. PCDN offers one Terabyte of download traffic and storage for $100 per month. That’s admittedly a lot cheaper than even S3, which would charge you at least three times as much. Sinitsin also offers $150 per month to each participating node.

So what about the ISPs that have to shoulder PCDN’s traffic? Sinitsin explained to me that his node operators get broadband services for business customers that allow them to host servers. “If some ISP gets fancy, they are not alone – fiber is becoming a commodity,” said Sinitsin, who also plans to add some traditional web servers to the mix to deal with any potential ISP outages.

OK, admit it. You don’t really think this is gonna work, but part of you is rooting for this guy and his scrappy scheme. So was I — until he sent me this email: “If you want to add some salt to your material, here is a crazy idea. Cyber warfare.” A worldwide, semi-decentralized system like PCDN could be used as “military bases” for the U.S., with nodes acting as “sleeping shares,” waiting to be activated by the military or some other U.S. agency, Sinitsin told me.

Oh, and he also wants to run a banner ad network based on those NAS servers, presumably when they’re not busy fighting off cyber threats. Or, you know, serving Russian thrillers.

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