By Fred Dawson
January 21, 2014 – Akamai has enhanced its cloud-based support for IP video storage, processing and distribution through a collaboration with Irdeto that will bring a versatile DRM-based mode of studio-sanctioned protection to high-value on-demand content.
The move, slated to go live in the second quarter, follows other enhancements of the cloud-based service over the past year, including a highly efficient mass-processing approach to transcoding. “As mezzanine files that have been uploaded in our storage are transcoded, we integrate the DRM into the files,” said Kurt Michel, director of marketing for media products at Akamai. “When the content is played back from origin by end users, the Irdeto service delivers decryption keys to enable viewing.”
The Irdeto DRM service allows content owners to choose whichever DRMs they want to support and to make changes with a “flip of the switch” to accommodate new options as they become available, noted Paul Ragland, vice president of North American sales at Irdeto. “DRMs are changing all the time,” Ragland said. “We’re enabling customers using the Akamai cloud architecture to take advantage of any DRM they choose. We do the key servicing and take care of scaling that end of the business for Akamai.”
As previously reported, another capability added to the Akamai Sola Vision cloud solution in the past year is support for on-the-fly dynamic advertising placements in streamed content, including live as well as on demand. Sola Vision embodies a wide range of solutions in addition to transcoding and security that are offered on a modular basis, including storage, adaptive bitrate (ABR) stream packaging, authentication and authorization services that federate communication among content owners/broadcasters, service providers and viewers, extensive analytics and support for digital lockers in conjunction with affiliates of UltraViolet.
The cloud service has emerged as a natural extension for media companies who use Akamai’s Sola Sphere CDN service to facilitate distribution of high-quality content worldwide, Michel noted. “Our [CDN] client base includes all 20 of the top 20 media companies,” Michel said. “Customers were asking for a cloud-based solution. The scalability is far better for them, and they benefit from an Op Ex pay-as-you go strategy as opposed to heavy Cap Ex outlays. The onus is on us to keep capacity where needs to be to serve the entire customer base.”
One factor contributing to Akamai’s ability to keep up with demand is the efficient transcoding technology the company has patented to perform processing for on-demand video. Going beyond systems that use multiple processors on a server blade to perform parallel operations in the transcoding process, the new patented Akamai technology can draw on multiple server blades to handle transcoding of a single file, Michel said.
“Typically, transcoding is done in a single box, where the file is fed in on one side and you get the rendition out the other side,” he said. “Akamai is known for its scalability in how our edge servers work for CDN applications. We saw the transcoding function as something that needed to leverage the same idea.
“We take the file in and break it into chunks so that we can farm the processing out to a lot of machines,” he continued. “As a result, we can perform massive amounts of processing at great speeds using resources more efficiently.” Presently the system is used only for transcoding on-demand content, but “live encoding is on our roadmap.”
With 144,000 servers running in its datacenters, Akamai can reserve a certain amount of core processing resources on each one for the transcoding function, while utilizing what it calls “Fast TCP (Transmission Control Protocol)” to speed the transfers of file chunks from mezzanine files for simultaneous processing on disparate servers and from there to compilation into the full file in origin storage. Fast TCP, which was developed by FastSoft, a company Akamai acquired in 2012, modifies the algorithms of the standard TCP/IP mode of recovering lost packets in IP to smooth out and therefore speed transmissions. It does this by orchestrating transmission rates according to measures of whether too few or too many packets are in queue at any location in contrast to standard TCP/IP, which pegs send rates to estimates of packet loss probability based on detection of dropped packets.
All of these techniques have important implications for Akamai’s ability to handle what’s coming as video traffic continues to surge. “If you look at what must be done to accommodate traffic growth over the next five years, you can’t do it by throwing more boxes at the problem,” Michel said. “You have to get more efficient with interconnections.”
The Akamai cloud service is designed to support hybrid models where entities with significant in-house resources can leverage the cloud as needed. For example, Michel explained, if it suddenly becomes necessary to re-format all stored files to accommodate a new streaming platform like MPEG-DASH or a new transcoding protocol like HEVC, those processes can be allocated to the Sola Vision service, utilizing the Akamai storage as well if needed, while maintaining a seamless operational environment across the in-house and remotely stored content.
The various functions built into Sola Vision are offered on a modular basis to allow each customer to coordinate use of the service with their existing workflows and business models, he added. “Each customer’s workflow is different,” he said. “It can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.”
This applies to how customers incorporate the Akamai Media Player technology into their operations, he noted. AMP, which includes advanced heuristics and edge network service mapping to facilitate higher quality and consumption rates, can be customized to the look and feel of any provider’s user interface or elements of AMP can be integrated into a customer’s existing player.
The same kind of flexibility is accorded users of the Irdeto DRM service, Ragland noted. “Each DRM has different feature sets,” he said. “Some are better for on demand, others for live. If you want to introduce MPEG-DASH, you can bring the DRMs you need for that.”
Ragland characterized the forthcoming implementation of Irdeto’s service into Solar Vision as phase one of the affiliation. In phase two the companies will incorporate the added protection provided by Irdeto’s ActiveCloak platform, which brings another layer of security into play to prevent hacking at points of vulnerability in device hardware while providing a means by which content providers can remotely change security with software upgrades on devices that have been hacked.
Another new security mode that’s coming into play is watermarking, which has now been mandated by Hollywood studios for network distribution of any recently released movies that are delivered for 4K Ultra HD display. “We’ve patented and invested a lot of money in watermarking technology,” Ragland said. “I’d see this as phase three, probably taking shape in 2015.”
The functionalities included in the cloud service go beyond streamlining and lowering costs of the direct-to-consumer side of the OTT video business to make it much easier to implement syndication models with third-party outlets, Michel noted. “In the past content owners had to go to each retailer and work out how they would receive and store the mezzanine files and all the payment arrangements,” he said. “Now providers can push the files into mezzanine once and provide their licensed affiliates the URL, allowing them to deliver fully protected content to their end users. The architecture eliminates significant barriers to the content-as-a-service model.”
This includes barriers imposed by multiple payment models and one-to-one interfaces with multiple back-office systems, Ragland added. “Now you can centralize and do all your reconciliations in one place,” he said.