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An Update On TikTok’s DIY CDN Strategy and The Impact On Third-Party CDNs

I’ve seen a lot of speculation over what’s currently taking place with the delivery of TikTok traffic as it pertains to third-party CDNs as well as TikTok’s own DIY efforts. So in an effort to clear up some of the confusion, here are some details on what’s happening. TikTok has been working on their own DIY CDN to deploy hardware they own and operate inside third-party networks. So far they are early in their efforts with some deployments in specific countries, but they are still in the process of rolling it out and expanding their footprint. In September of last year TikTok said it plans to hire about 3,000 engineers over the next three years, mostly in Europe, Canada and Singapore. So while they haven’t gotten their DIY CDN to mass scale yet, we know that is ByteDance’s goal for the delivery of TikTok content.

Around the end of Q2 2020, TikTok changed their approach to delivering videos and other content and moved to a model that relied on what looked to be almost two dozen different providers globally, large and small. When the changed happened, you could see this from public trace routes in various countries. This change was driven by politics due to the Trump Executive Order and was not driven by any kind of performance or capacity problems with the CDNs they were using. Fastly and Akamai were two CDNs that had a large volume of TikTok’s delivery traffic in various regions of the world and at different volumes. For example, we know Akamai was doing a lot of delivery for TikTok in India, where the application has since been banned by the government.

While it doesn’t seem like TikTok will be banned in the U.S. for now, the Biden administration has said they will continue to “hold China accountable” on technology-related topics, though final decisions around its stance on TikTok and other telecom issues have not yet been made. Since the start of the new year, third-party CDNs have started to see some additional TikTok traffic come to their network, in specific countries. This is not an indication that TikTok is going to default back to third-party CDNs, but is a sign that they may once again rely on them more as they continue to build out their own CDN. Even if TikTok had not made the change in their strategy in the second half of last year, it was only a matter of time before they started moving to more of a DIY model in 2021. So while some think the TikTok change was unexpected, we all knew that going DIY was coming sooner than later. It’s also important to note that not all DIY customers move 100% of their traffic to their own CDN platform, especially when they have such a global audience. So even with TikTok’s DIY CDN growing over time, they still might rely on third-party CDNs in specific regions.

There has also been some speculation that if Oracle and Walmart were to get a combined 20% stake in a new company called TikTok Global that, “TikTok will likely move its video to Oracle’s cloud computing platform.” Oracle does not have their own CDN offering as part of their Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI) platform and I would not envision them building out a CDN just for TikTok. As part of the proposed deal it was announced that Oracle would host all U.S. user data on its cloud platform, but that’s not the same as delivering videos. Other cloud based services like origin storage and compute could potentially be moved to Oracle, but one would expect that Oracle would use a multi-CDN strategy of third-party CDNs for video delivery, like all large video customers have adopted.

I think the biggest potential opportunity for third-party CDNs to get additional revenue from the delivery of TikTok related content would be if the deal with Oracle and Walmart went through. Based on the latest data I saw, TikTok had over 100M users for their application just in the U.S. alone. So far we haven’t gotten any information from the new administration on when or if that deal will happen, or what any new requirements might be needed for it to take place. But if that deal were to come to fruition, I would estimate that it would be good for third-party content delivery networks.

Weekly News Roundup: New Sub Numbers For HBO Max, Peacock, AT&T; Sling TV Raises Pricing

Between all the craziness on Wall Street and the number of earnings in the past few days, it’s been a busy week to say the least. With earnings from NBCU, AT&T, Verizon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Charter, along with news from Sling TV, Peacock, YouTube and others, there’s a lot that’s taken place. I’ve broken down all the earnings, news and concise takeaways at the links below to try and make it easy for everyone to catch up on what they may have missed:

  • Vimeo’s Business Detailed In IAC’s S-4 Filing: Revenue from first 9 months of 2020 of $199.4M, with a net loss of $44.8M. Has 1.5M subscribers who pay an average of $214 per year ($17.83 a month). See my blog post for the full details: http://bit.ly/2M8v5E1
  • Some clarity on Vimeo’s $300M raise. The report by Reuters that they raised $150M on a $2.75B valuation is NOT accurate. Vimeo did a $200M raise at a $5.2B pre-money valuation and a second raise of $100M at a $5.7B pre-money valuation.
  • Comcast Q4 2020 Earnings: Lost 248,000 pay TV subs in the quarter, total loss of 1.4M pay TV subs for the year; 33M “sign ups” for Peacock TV in U.S.; Revenue of $103.6B for the year, a decrease of 14.9% y/o/y. More details: http://bit.ly/3r3eRur
  • NBCU says Peacock TV brought in $100M in Q4 revenue and that losses on Peacock TV are estimated to be $2B for 2020/2021. Peacock TV has 33M “sign ups” as of this week. CEO says, “Peacock remains primarily an advertising play”.
  • AT&T Q4 2020 Earnings: Ended the year with 41.5M combined HBO Max and HBO U.S. subscribers but didn’t break out how many are just HBO Max subs. Lost 617,000 DirecTV and AT&T TV premium video subscribers (27,000 were the AT&T TV streaming service). More details and a chart that breaks down HBO Max subs more here: http://bit.ly/2YtpLxi
  • Verizon Q4 2020 Earnings: Lost 72,000 pay TV subscribers. Total pay TV losses for all of 2020 totaled 298,000 subscribers, which was 7.2% of all pay TV customers. Verizon ended 2020 with 3.8M pay TV subscribers. More details: http://bit.ly/2YrvjZf
  • Sling TV raises pricing by $5 a month for new subscribers with their base plan now starting at $35 a month. Sling says they are being “forced to raise prices because the television networks keep charging us more.” Customers now receive 50 hours of free DVR storage, an increase from 10 free storage. More details: http://bit.ly/2M8CZ08
  • Apple Q4 2020 Earnings: Total revenue of $111.4B, up 21% y/o/y, Services revenue of $15.7B, up 21% y/o/y,; iPhone revenue of $65.5B, up 17% y/o/y. Revenue from China of $21.3B, up from $13.5B y/o/y. More details: http://bit.ly/3afvRaa
  • For those that got free Apple TV+ accounts from buying an Apple product, Apple has extended subscriptions for free until July. They were due to roll over to paid accounts in February.
  • Verizon CFO: “As the early cohort of Disney+ customers have come off of the initial free 12-month period, more than two-thirds have maintained their subscription, either through their Verizon direct billing relationship or by opting into one of our newest Mix & Match plans with the Disney bundle included.” More details: http://bit.ly/3orVzgx
  • Facebook Q4 2020 Earnings: Total revenue of $28.07B, up 22% y/o/y; Monthly active users of 2.8B, up 12% y/o/y; Daily active users of 1.84B; Warns Apple iOS changes could hurt business. More details: http://bit.ly/3akq9UB
  • Charter Q4 2020 Earnings: Lost 66,000 residential pay TV customers; but ended the year up a total of 19,000 residential pay TV customers, totaling 15.6M residential pay TV customers at year’s end. More details: http://bit.ly/3oEJBAB
  • YouTube is introducing clipping, the ability to make short clips of live streams or videos with a small group of creators. YouTube blog: http://bit.ly/2YtBwUE

If you have questions on earnings or news, and what the key takeaways are, I’m happy to chat at any time. 917-523-4562 or dan@danrayburn.com

Vimeo’s Business Detailed In IAC’s S-4 Filing: All The Numbers and Key Takeaways You Need To Know

[Updated with Q4 and full year revenue] Last month, IAC filed an S-4 detailing Vimeo’s business and their planned spin-off from IAC. Here’s the numbers which are all from the first 9 months of 2020 and some key takeaways on the business:

  • *Updated: Q4 revenue of $83.8M, up 54% y/o/y
  • *Updated: Total 2020 revenue of $283.2M, up from $196M the previous year
  • Based on Q4 growth, total 2020 revenue should be $230M-$240M (my estimate)
  • Revenue for first 9 months of $199.4M, with a net loss of $44.8M
  • Vimeo has 1.5M subscribers who pay an average of $214 per year ($17.83 a month). 50% of revenue came from customers outside of the U.S. Vimeo has 200M free users one the platform, having added 25M free users in the first 9 months of 2020.
  • Has over 3,300 enterprise customers who pay over $22,000 per year ($1,833 per month), on average. Vimeo defines “enterprise customers” as those who purchase plans through contact with their sales force. As a comparison, in Q3 2020, Brightcove’s average annual subscription revenue per “premium” customer was $87,200 ($7266 a month).
  • Less than 1% of subscribers pay more than $10,000 per year
  • While a majority of Vimeo subscribers began as free users, only a small percentage of free users become paying users over time
  • Vimeo’s sales and marketing expenses were $77M, an increase of $12.1M, or 19% y/o/y, due to the growth in the sales force and increased commission expense resulting from growth in bookings and marketing costs. Accounted for 39% as a percentage of revenue.
  • Research and development expense increased $14.7M, or 44% y/o/y, due primarily to increased investment in products, including Vimeo Create and accounted for 24% as a percentage of revenue.
  • Cost of revenue primarily consisted of $48.9M in hosting fees, $9.4M in credit card processing fees and $4.2M in-app purchase fees paid to Apple and Google.
  • 674 full-time employees, of whom 204 were based outside of the U.S.
  • Vimeo uses Google’s Cloud Service (hosting/transcoding), AWS (S3) and multiple CDNs (Akamai/Fastly [my info added, CDNs not called out by name in the filing]) Vimeo does not have backup systems for GCS or Amazon S3.
  • [Corrected]The $150M Vimeo raised in November of 2020 was by selling 8,655,510 shares at $17.33 per share (They have since raised another $150M in 2021, valuing Vimeo at $6B) Vimeo did a $200M raise at a $5.2B pre-money valuation and a second raise of $100M at a $5.7B pre-money valuation. [Updated] Raised $450M in total with another $150M raise in January 2021.
  • Vimeo has $19.4M of a current payable due to IAC and $90.6M of long-term debt
  • IAC financed the acquisition of Livestream in 2017 and Magisto in 2019 for Vimeo, but didn’t break out what they paid for the acquisitions, only calling them “small acquisitions”. But they did say the cost of revenue in 2018 increased from 2017, by $19M, “due primarily to the inclusion of Livestream”.
  • Over 300,000 new videos are being uploaded to Vimeo’s platform each day
  • Vimeo typically does not provide 100% uptime across its video services in any given month
  • In its 16-year history, Vimeo did not decide to focus primarily on SaaS offerings until 2017. In addition, Vimeo has only operated an enterprise-focused sales operation since 2017, when it acquired Livestream.
  • Based on Vimeo’s internal data, they estimate their total addressable market to be approximately $40B in 2021, growing to $70B in 2024. [I 100% DISAGREE with these TAM numbers, they are not realistic]
  • Vimeo says the growth they experienced during the first nine months of 2020 may be partly or largely attributable due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If the COVID-19 pandemic ends and the level of demand for online video returns to pre-pandemic levels, then the growth rates Vimeo achieved in 2020 may not be indicative of growth rates in future periods.
  • Vimeo has a few lawsuits currently on their hands, including one filed by British Telecommunications plc on March 18, 2018, regarding patent infringement. Another is a class action complaint in Illinois against Vimeo regarding “facial biometric information”.

The video platform market is crowded with many vendors offering services and I routinely heard Vimeo compared with the likes of Kaltura, Panopto, Zype, Resi, Brightcove, Microsoft Stream, MediaPlatform, Vidyard, Wistia, Qumu, Wowza, YouTube, Dacast, JW Player, ON24, Uscreen, Frame, Hive Streaming, VidGrid, Metacafe and a long list of others. Of course the majority of companies on that list are NOT comparable to Vimeo at all! Let me make that clear. Many vendors target a specific vertical only, or a specific video use case, go after only certain sized customers based on users or revenue, or only operate in regional locations.

You cannot compare Vimeo who has 1.5M customers, paying $17.83 a month, with an enterprise video platform that is on-prem, that ties into learning management systems (LMS), ingestion from video conferencing gear etc. and has customers signing six and seven figure contracts per year. The same goes for video platforms targeting edu institutions and lecture capture based solutions. There are a LOT of differences between video platforms in the market and it is very important to compare apples-to-apples across services and market targets.

If you have any questions on Vimeo’s business, the size of the market for video services, the competitive landscape, Vimeo’s strengths and weaknesses etc. I’m happy to chat more about it. Reach out anytime at 917-523-4562 or dan@danrayburn.com

Vimeo’s $6B Valuation, on A $300M Raise Since November, Isn’t Justified

[Updated Post Here: Vimeo’s Business Detailed In IAC’s S-4 Filing: All The Numbers and Key Takeaways You Need To Know]

I’m all for companies in the video space being valued by investors and Wall Street for the value they bring to the market, but I am also a firm believer that valuations needs to be realistic to set proper expectations with investors. Since November, Vimeo has raised $300M with a valuation of $6B. They had $199.4M in revenue for the first 9 months of 2020 and are expected to end the year with about $230M in total revenue. [Updated Feb 3rd] Vimeo ended the year with $283.2M in revenue. So even if they grow at a continued 40% y/o/y rate, they are valued at almost 19X projected 2021 revenue. Vimeo is competing in one of the most competitive and price sensitive markets around and they are not an enterprise platform. Their customers are SMBs with spends well under $100 a month and none of these video platforms for SMBs are sticky. Vimeo offers an easy to use and reliable video streaming service, but so do many other companies specifically targeting the SMB market.

Their parent company IAC keeps mentioning how Vimeo has “200 million users globally”, but those are not all paying customers and they don’t define what a “user” means. Vimeo doesn’t have any kind of proprietary service or platform and from the IAC investors and Wall Street people I have spoken to, many don’t really understand Vimeo’s business or the competitive landscape for their services. Yes, Vimeo has an easy to use service and it works well. But not to the tune of a valuation based on 19x revenue, which includes a 40% year-over-year growth assumption. Vimeo’s 2018 revenue was $147M, so assuming back-to-back years of 40% growth by itself is a big bet. IAC plans to spin Vimeo out and take the company public this year, so at some point in the next 3-6 months I would expect we’ll see them file an S-4 which will break down all their numbers. Updated: The S-4 has been filed. See my details on it here.

Latest Data Shows What It Would Take To Convince Operators To Upgrade Their Video Encoding With New Codecs or LCEVC Enhancement

In 2020, over 80% of video streaming traffic still used the H.264 codec, which seems staggering when you consider we’ve had HEVC and VP9 around for quite a while and there are even more advanced options on the way (AV1, EVC, VVC, LCEVC). This isn’t news to anyone who is close to this stuff and has been widely discussed before, but we should be taking a frequent look at what continues to block progress in one of the most fundamental components of the streaming media stack.

I recently conducted a survey on behalf of compression experts V-Nova, and then moderated a webinar (which you can check out here) to discuss the results with Luis Vicente, CEO of sports OTT operator Eleven, and Karam Malhotra, Global VP Revenues for Asian top 10 video app SHAREit. The survey’s focus was on key barriers to improve the quality-of-experience operators are serving their customers. Over 200 senior business and technical decision makers responded from a broad range of industry verticals and the results provided some real food for thought. You can download all the results from the survey for free, at this link.

From the results of the data, it was enlightening to hear which components of their video delivery systems people think are most critical for QoE. CDN comes out top here and in my view that’s simply because it’s the easiest to measure and everyone’s first thing to look at. This is indicative in part of services tending to consider components like video codecs as a fixed constant because changing them is assumed to be a long-term project, which it doesn’t have to be. Interestingly, however, video codec came out close second in terms of relevance to QoE.

It stands to reason that deploying new compression tech and streaming equivalent quality at substantially lower bitrates improves QoE all round by accelerating start-up times, reducing buffering incidents, increasing the % of viewers that can receive higher quality ABR profiles and reducing the traffic load on those CDNs that appear to be taking most of the heat for QoE issues.

So, what are the barriers holding the industry back from moving video compression forward? As you can see below, the widely publicized royalty costs regarding uncertainties for codecs like HEVC have generated a lot of hesitancy.In addition, the increased operating costs of encoding and processing are an important barrier too. Furthermore, quite a few of the survey options on this one all point to the risk of incurring significant new costs from heavier compute requirements and the additional complexity that comes from duplicating workflows to serve different types of device. For many, royalty issues are so loud because in truth most people see unclear business benefits from deploying new video codecs and immediately incurring cost increases.

Despite these barriers to adopting new compression technologies, 33% of respondents reported that they are wanting to trial new options in the next 12 months, a clear acknowledgement of the need to find ways to progress somehow. This is possibly being driven by the clear need to differentiate in this evermore competitive entertainment space by launching more premium services like 4K and HDR, which 29% said they were intending to do in 2021.

All of these survey results brings us to the question that really prompted me to do this survey in the first place, which is what would actually convince companies to upgrade their video encoding and reap the available QoE benefits? What are the key factors and where do they need to be to tip the balance?

Respondents were asked to quantify what sort of compression efficiency benefit would be needed (most easily expressed as how much could you reduce the bitrate and maintain equivalent quality). The average came out at 31% which is pretty well aligned with the typical improvement between codec generations (e.g. AVC to HEVC or VP9 to AV1) and also the uplift typically provided by using LCEVC enhancement with AVC or HEVC.

Respondents were also asked what reduction of transcoding costs would be required to convince them to upgrade (that big barrier from earlier). That came out at a very similar average of about 30%. The combination of the two answers is interesting, suggesting that transcoding efficiency is considered roughly as important as compression quality.

I then explored what impact on operating profitability would be generated by an improvement in compression tech meeting these sort of criteria. More than half of respondents felt that optimizing compression technology in this way would provide more than a 25% improvement in profitability. This is surely material, especially if we consider that improved QoE should also produce a benefit to the top line from better user retention and engagement.

A key takeaway from all of this data is that 52% of respondents don’t know what the primary cause of losing viewers from their service is, a key point that warrants more discussion another time.

The general theme that emerged from this survey is one of hesitancy to upgrade video compression because of an array of perceived complexity and cost risks. At the same time, respondents do recognize that improved compression could produce material business benefits. It’s the first time I’ve seen such a clear picture of the criteria that must be met to enable significant progress and an acknowledgement that the benefits to profitability are substantial. It’s also the first time that I see such a clear highlight on the importance of transcoding efficiency, tightly connected to the processing requirements of video codecs.

Objectively it looks like MPEG-5 LCEVC is well positioned to tackle the barriers this survey highlighted. A blend of significant improvements in compression efficiency, simple licensing terms and crucial reductions in the operational processing cost of encoding and delivery seems to be what’s needed to unlock things. It’s going to be interesting to see how that all plays out.

If you want to see all the results from the survey, you can download them for free, at this link.

Ad Revenue Is Secondary: Roku Increased Their Market Cap $2.52B, by Spending Less Than $100M for Quibi’s Content

On Friday January 8th, Roku announced it had acquired Quibi Holdings LLC, the company that holds all of Quibi’s content distribution rights for their library of 75 original shows. All of Quibi’s content will be added to Roku’s free ad-supported channel and as part of the deal, Roku is not permitted to change the format of the shows and must keep all the episodes separate.

Normally for a deal like this we’d all be running calculations on how many ads Roku has to sell, at what CPMs, and with how many viewers, to see a positive return from the deal. But in this instance I would argue that we can value the deal for Quibi’s content with different metrics. The day Roku announced the deal their stock closed up $19.84 a share, adding $2.52B to Roku’s market cap – in one day. Roku’s stock might have gone up that day even without the news, so there is no way to know the exact impact, but Roku’s stock was clearly impacted in a positive way from the news.

The sale price for Quibi Holdings hasn’t been announced but I heard the deal size was “around” $50M, [not verified] while others are reporting the price was less than $100M. Even if Roku paid $100M for Quibi’s content, the return on their investment based on the increase in their market cap would be 25x what they spent. If Roku paid $50M for the content they got a 50x return for their investment, all for just making an announcement. Even if the rumors on wrong on what Roku paid for Quibi’s content and the price was higher, Roku still made back their investment many times over.

If you’ve followed Roku’s stock, you know just how much Wall Street is in love with it and how much it moves based on news. The stock saw positive benefits when they announced the deal with NBCU for support for PeacockTV and again with WarnerMedia for support of HBO Max. We don’t know exactly how much Roku’s stock may have already gone up without the news, but even if it simply doubled the raise that day, Roku sill got a 12x return on their investment. Whether they sell any ads across Quibi’s content and generate any ad revenue almost doesn’t even matter at this point.

News Roundup: Discovery+ Launches; Roku’s Market Cap Grows $2.5B on Qubi News; Comscore Gets Investment; Netflix Raises Pricing in UK; fuboTV Grows Subs; NFL Broadcasts on Nickelodeon

If you were still on vacation last week to start the New Year, here’s a rundown of some of the interesting news that took place you might have missed:

Job Opening, Disney Streaming Services: Sr. Software Engineer – Solutions Architect

If you’re interested in working at Disney Streaming Services, they have an immediate opening for a Sr. Software Engineer – Solutions Architect. I can make a direct introduction to who your boss will be, so if you are qualified, contact me (dan@danrayburn.com) if interested. Full job details: jobs.disneycareers.com/job/new-york/s

Hands On With Discovery+: Massive Content Library, Streamlined UI; Parental Controls and Downloads To Come

Today, Discovery+ launched in the U.S. for $5 a month with “light” commercials, or $7 commercial free, allowing up to 4 concurrent streams per account and a 7-day free trial. The company is showing “up to 5 minutes” of commercials per one hour of content, hence the “light” branding. This is similar to what NBCU is doing with Peacock TV, with a lower ad load on streaming services when compared to cable TV, which averages 20 minutes of ads per hour of content. As expected, the company is doing a huge marketing push across all social platforms and on TV, promoting the service with their “stream what you love” branding.

Discovery+ is available on platforms and devices including Apple TV, Fire TV, Chromecast, Roku, iOS, Android TV, Xbox consoles One/X/S and Samsung smart TVs from 2017 and newer. It is not yet available on smart TVs from Vizio, Sony, LG or PlayStation consoles but support for other brands of smart TVs is expected this year. The biggest strength of Discovery+ is their massive content library of over 55,000 episodes, with 2,500 series, across brands including A&E, HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Lifetime, OWN, Travel Channel, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. They also plan to offer more than 1,000 hours of Discovery+ original content this year. Discovery also announced today a multi-year carriage deal with Vodafone in which Discovery content will be made available to Vodafone mobile customers in 12 European markets. Discovery+ was already live in the UK on Sky and previously announced a deal with Verizon in the U.S., where some Verizon customers can get Discovery+ at no cost.

I’ve been hands on with the service for a short time and so far, have found the UI intuitive and easy to navigate. It has content categories as the top nav, but also breaks out channels, which then features content only from that one brand. Functionality like continue watching has worked flawlessly for me, along with starting back up in the right place when moving to a different device. The left side nav is where you go home, manage your account and search for content, along with making a favorites list. Browsing allows you to search by brand and under each brand you can see what’s trending. Not all content is offered in 4K, which isn’t surprising being there are some old shows in the catalog, but I found plenty of other shows had 4K quality. Discovery didn’t say what percentage of the entire catalog has 4K support, but for the content that is in 4K, the max bitrate is 13.5Mbps. None of the content at launch is available for download and they don’t yet have any parental controls you can enable, but both of those options are coming to the service this year.

Of course with any new OTT launch in the market you have those in the media and on Wall Street that are going to base the success of Discovery+ on the wrong metrics. We are already seeing Discovery+ compared to HBO Max, Netflix and Disney+, which makes no sense. Some are asking if Discovery+ can show similar success to Disney+ when it comes to subscriber numbers, but that’s the wrong metric to be using. Disney+ is very niche content, targeting mostly kids and family friendly content and had about 8,000 episodes and movies at launch. Discovery+ has much more breath of catalog and is targeting adults across a wide range of content. 90 Day Fiancé is the number one show on TV with the 15-49 demographic and that’s not the type of content you will see on Disney+.

On CNBC today, Discovery’s CEO said he expects Discovery+ to “be very very big” and will have “big scale”, but didn’t define what that means. The company is not giving out any initial projections on the number of subscribers they are anticipating, but did say that “over the next couple of quarters”, they will give out subscriber numbers and growth. I see some making the ridiculous statement that Discovery will need to hire firms to help Discovery “understand” the streaming market and to be able to compete with Disney+ and others. Streaming is a technology, it’s not a “service”. The service is content, which Discovery knows very well. The medium that’s delivering the content is simply streaming technology.

Discovery knows all about operating channels, producing and distributing content, creating original shows, doing integrated marketing across multiple channels and tracking viewership. Discovery has a 20% share of cable viewership and the company says “nearly 250 millions hours of Discovery content is watched on TV every day.” TLC, beat every one of the cable news nets in the third quarter, based on time watched and their portfolio is #1 for average time spent across all TV entertainment in the US. That’s a lot of viewership they can build on. Discovery is not new to the content game and doesn’t lack any expertise or strategy, with the company having hired execs from places like Hulu, Amazon, Microsoft and others. For some to suggest that Discovery is “late to the game”, doesn’t understand the D2C market, or lacks any kind of streaming expertise – that’s simply not accurate. I won’t make exact projections on the number of subs Discovery will sign up, we need to give the platform time to grow. But Discovery+ is a global service, with a deep catalog of content, big marketing tie-ups and we should expect them to have tens of millions of subs by the end of this year.

My Video Presentation: CDN Trends – Latest Pricing, Customer Challenges and Growth Opportunities

Here’s my presentation entitled, “Video CDN Trends: Latest Pricing, Customer Challenges and Growth Opportunities” from the Mile High Video workshop event this month.  Happy to answer any questions in the comments section or you can email me directly at dan@danrayburn.com. Apologies for the rough voice, had a cold. #mhv2020

Detailing the Privacy and Performance Problems with Cloudflare’s Oblivious DNS Over HTTPS Announcement

Recently Cloudflare announced that their researchers have been working to improve internet privacy and security through a DNS protocol called Oblivious DNS over HTTPS, or ODoH. While the announcement suggests that it will improve internet privacy, their proposal can actually lead to significant privacy issues, if it’s adopted. In addition, as it is written today, ODoH is likely to seriously impact internet performance or force providers to invest in software and process changes because it strips information that ISPs and CDNs require to do effective and efficient mapping to ensure performance for their users.

The ​IETF​ is an internet standards body made up of ​an international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the internet.​ Community members bring proposals for internet standards to the IETF through published “drafts”, mailing lists, and typically through in-person meetings. Proposals are submitted, and require working groups to pick them up in order to progress them into standards.

At this point, ODoH is an early-stage draft proposal which has been discussed in the “dprive” (DNS Privacy) working group but not yet adopted there, meaning that it is in a formative stage. Common practices to encourage the IETF to adopt work in a working group include deploying production implementations of proposed technologies, and driving interest and support from vendors and businesses, which is what Cloudflare is doing with their announcement.

So why is there contention around the proposal? Cloudflare’s head of research Nick Sullivan has ​stated​ that ​”sweeping technical changes to the internet will inevitably also impact the technical community. Adopting these new protocols may have legal and policy implications.” Some of these legal and policy implications are detailed in a blog authored by Akamai Fellow Erik Nygren, back in 2018 on what​ ​encrypted DNS means for the Internet as a whole​.

ODoH is an extension of DoH, so let’s start with that. The protocol exists because DNS queries are sent in cleartext. This means anyone on the network path between a user’s device and the DNS resolver can see both the query that contains the website the user wants to visit, as well as the IP address that identifies their device. Both protocols are designed to increase user privacy by preventing queries from being intercepted, redirected, or modified between the client and resolver – something known as a middle (MiTM) attack. DoH encrypts communications from the client to its resolver, and ODoH takes this a step further to obscure the client from the resolver.

DoH itself is just a protocol for doing DNS lookups over HTTPS. Most of the contention comes from ways in which DoH resolvers might be discovered and configured. For example, when DoH is used at the application level, it can bypass name servers configured at the OS level. So a web browser can come with a list of DoH compatible resolvers already configured, and traffic from that client would then use those DNS settings.

In 2019 Mozilla ​turned on DoH by default for all Firefox users​, using Cloudflare as the server. This meant that the browser would prefer DoH via Cloudflare. This has been​ ​heavily criticized as an anti-privacy move,​ ​since Mozilla is essentially handing off all DNS resolutions to a single for-profit corporation. ISPs expressed concerns over their ability to perform lawful interception and content filtering (for example, legal requirements or parental controls), and many feel that since Cloudflare is an American company, this could not only be centralizing a large portion of the internet but also making it subject to law enforcement from a single government.

To explain this, switching from using an ISP’s local in-country DNS resolver to a DNS resolver that is out-of-country could make both privacy and performance worse rather than better, regardless of what communications transport is being used for the DNS. Consolidating DNS lookups to a few services also introduces new risks for enabling the correlation of user activity, and these services potentially become highly attractive targets for subpoenas and extra-legal attacks. This is all made substantially more challenging as many users lack a way to judge the level of trust they have with various DNS service providers, making it hard for them to make an informed choice.

So Cloudflare’s ODoH announcement is their way of asserting that they will provide users with an option not to send IP information to their DNS resolvers, which Cloudflare claims will ensure privacy​. ​But this introduces another challenge: that ​ODoH will impact performance because it introduces significant latency, and also strips information that is required to do effective and efficient CDN mapping. Cloudflare’s research​ paper about ODoH​ provides testing conditions that are not relevant to the real-world, and the performance impact numbers mask latency introduced by load times for real web applications.

There are a wide range of other options being explored by the IETF. Given the wide variety of use cases, there is not likely to be a single solution. Many of the leading proposals involve a mixture of sources for secure DNS resolver configuration, device policy, associated and designated resolvers, and user choice. Something like ODoH may fit into this for resolving names where performance may be traded off for possibly improving privacy, but at this point, the concerns and potential pitfalls seem to outweigh the benefits.

News Roundup: Updated HBO Max Subs; Disney and Paramount Investor Days, Nielsen TV Ratings; Streaming Fitness Apps; Roku Stock

Here’s a rundown of some interesting news over the past few days with links to the stories on LinkedIn where discussions are taking place:

As Quibi Closes Down This Week, Here’s Some Key Lessons All Companies Can Learn From

1. You have to offer something better than others in the market or solve a problem. In other words, you must have a “competitive advantage” in some way.

2. Good execs hire people smarter than themselves. Quibi hired a lot of very smart people, on many fronts, but then didn’t listen to them.

3. Collecting the right consumer data will tell you how consumers want to engage with OTT services. We have plenty of this data in the video world but Quibi ignored it.

4. The power of any mobile content offering is sharing. By not allowing viewers to act as the marketing vehicle for Quibi’s content, Quibi threw away the biggest value of being on mobile.

5. Calling the service Quibi, a name many could not spell or pronounce, results in higher customer acquisition costs due to the education that is required.

6. Marketing the service, instead of specific shows is a mistake. Consumers don’t care about the “channel”, but rather the content. Don’t highlight the “length” of the show, highlight the content. We all know content is king.

7. You have to set the proper expectations with advertisers. 22 brands bought $150M in advertising, #Quibi sold them on the metric of “reach”, but didn’t have it.

Math doesn’t lie and no matter how you ran the numbers, from a P&L standpoint, it would not lead to a profitable outcome. The content costs were too high and the fee they could charge consumers would always be too low. 100% of their revenue was generated from one service, without any revenue diversification like other OTT services have. When you have a plan that is setting yourself up for failure from day one, with a business model that doesn’t work, why should they be congratulated for “trying”? You can’t spend well over $1B to get a service off the ground and then “learn on the way”.

Quibi wasn’t a “startup” with a few dozen people and they ignored their own employees feedback, many of whom were the exact demographic they were targeting. Whitman has said the role of Quibi was for use “waiting for a doctor’s appointment or standing in line at the bank.” In those instances, consumers were not lacking video viewing options. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, sports highlights, YouTube or the pause button, on any streaming service, works just fine. Qubi was looking to solve a problem that does not exist in the real world.

In all industries change happens and you need to be ready to adjust, even if you don’t know what the change will be. Some employees say there was no “what if this doesn’t work scenario” discussed internally. It can’t be an “all or nothing” approach. Lack of communication kills companies and you have to put in place a strategy to pivot, when the time comes, hopefully proactively instead of reactively.

List of The Best Black Friday Deals on Streaming Devices (Roku $17, Fire TV $18, Chromecast $40)

With Black Friday almost here, I’ve compiled a list of the best deals when it comes to streaming media devices. I’ve not included pricing for the new Xbox Series X/S and PS5 gaming consoles since inventory is extremely limited and pricing varies based on all the bundles offered.

Roku
– Roku SE for $17, Walmart exclusive
– Roku Streaming Stick+ for $30 ($20 discount), direct from Roku and other retailers
– Roku Ultra for $70 ($30 off), direct from Roku and other retailers
* Aside from the Walmart exclusive, all other deals start 11/20 and ends 11/30 or while supplies last

Amazon Fire TV Stick/Cube
– Fire TV Stick Lite for $18, ($12 discount), direct from Amazon (Nov 20-27)
– Fire TV Stick for $28, ($12 discount), direct from Amazon (Nov 20-27)
– Fire TV Stick 4K for $30, ($20 discount), direct from Amazon (Nov 20-27)
– Fire TV Cube for $80, ($33 discount), direct from Amazon (Nov 20-27)

Google Chromecast
– Chromecast (not 4K) for $19 at Walmart
– Chromecast with Google TV for $40, ($10 discount), Google Store, Best Buy, Walmart and others
– Chromecast with Google TV for $90 (comes with 6-months of Netflix), direct from Google Store
– YouTube TV is offering a free Chromecast with Google TV, once you make your first payment for YouTube TV of $65 (Note the offer is only good for first time subscribers and ends December 31st, 2020)

Apple TV
– Apple TV 4K 32GB for $169, ($10 discount), via Walmart
– Apple TV 32GB for $144, ($5 discount), via Walmart and B&H

TiVo Stream 4K
– Retails for $50, no details yet on any discount being offered by any retailer (Amazon reduced the price by $3 on Amazon Prime Day)

Why Akamai’s Elimination of Overage Fees Helps To Keep More Traffic On Their Network

During Akamai’s Q3 earnings call (transcript), the company referenced doing away with overage pricing and how that was allowing their customers to have a more predictable spend with Akamai. Due to the holidays and in particular with retail customers, it’s common for customers to see some big peaks in their business, with regards to traffic. While Akamai discussed how this helps better adjust traffic and spend for certain customers, the biggest advantage for Akamai in doing away with overage charges is really a competitive one.

Zero Overage Fixed Fee (ZOFF) pricing, as Akamai calls it, provides a construct where as long as their customer does not exceed their traffic commit by 2x or more for multiple consecutive months, they will not pay any overage charges. So, if there are marketing sites that don’t have massive bandwidth requirements, non-core apps that are not susceptible to bursting, or APIs that are being distributed and protected by Akamai, they can be included in a ZOFF contracting structure without their own separate traffic commits and bills. This effectively allows customers to add additional delivery services to their existing commits with Akamai, at no additional cost or commitment.

Akamai has been quietly changing their pricing strategies to be better aligned to the company’s customer base, with flat fee pricing for large media streaming customers based on subscriber/download volume, and increasingly a zero overage model for businesses that primarily monetize via websites, apps, and APIs. While Akamai says this strategy was designed to de-risk adding any internet-facing application to the platform for fear of incurring significant traffic overage charges, it actually serves an even more important benefit from a competitive standpoint.

Doing away with overage fees helps Akamai keep more traffic on their network from customers who are growing, which in many cases, may have previously been offloaded to a competitor. CDNs would specifically target Akamai customers and tell them to send traffic to their network instead of Akamai’s, the moment the customer hit their bandwidth cap with Akamai. The selling point being that the customer would not have to pay any overage fee to Akamai and would get a lower price point from the competitor as they grow their traffic. By Akamai doing away with overage pricing, that selling proposition by competitors disappears and makes it harder for them to get their foot in the door to get a slice of Akamai’s business.

With this year being marked by unpredictable traffic patterns and pressure for businesses to find savings with their IT vendors, Akamai says they have seen the strongest penetration in commerce, financial services and healthcare verticals, in adopting the no overage pricing strategy. Some may wonder why the media vertical is not called due to OTT video consumption and the reason is because most media contracts for the delivery of video and software downloads haven’t had an overage pricing component tied to them, across the industry, for many years now.

This isn’t to say that all overage type fees have disappeared completely from the CDN industry. There are cases where a customer can be hit with an additional fee if a certain percentage of their overall traffic volume, based on a specific country or region of the world, falls short of what they committed to. But that’s really a fee tied to a specific region, as opposed to overage fees that in the past were simply tied to the growth of a service. Akamai’s smart to have done away with overage pricing, more from a competitive standpoint than anything else. Some might argue Akamai is losing revenue from overages, but that’s short-sighted thinking since there is a greater opportunity to generate more revenue over time, from keeping new traffic on their network.

Recap: AT&T, Comcast, Microsoft, Akamai, Fastly, Limelight Q3 Earnings

Here’s a quick recap of what you need to know from Q3 earnings from AT&T, Comcast, Microsoft, Akamai, Fastly, and Limelight. I’ll post another roundup from Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Twitter shortly.

AT&T Q3 Earnings: Lost 590,000 premium TV subs, (37,000 of which were AT&T TV NOW subs). Grew HBO Max to 8.6M subs. A record high 357,000 AT&T Fiber net adds and 158,000 total broadband net adds.

  • Total revenue of $34.3 billion, down 3.1% year over year
  • Video revenue: $7.0 billion, down 12.2% year over year due to declines in premium and OTT subscribers and the impact of COVID-19 on commercial revenues
  • WarnerMedia revenue: $7.5 billion, down 10.0% year over year driven by declines across Warner Bros. and Home Box Office, partially offset by an increase at Turner
  • AT&T TV NOW subscribers: 37,000 net loss due to less promotional activity
  • More than 90% of all broadband subscribers on AT&T’s fiber network subscribe to speeds of 100 megabits or more. More than 2.8 million fiber subscribers have taken 1 Gb speeds
  • Total domestic HBO and HBO Max subscribers top 38 million and 57 million worldwide

Comcast Q3 Earnings: Lost 273,000 pay TV subscribers (down from 477,000 in Q2); 22 million sign ups for Peacock TV (up from 10M in Q2); Revenue of $25.5B (up from $23.7B in Q2).

  • Total High-Speed Internet Customer Net Additions Were 633,000, the Best Quarterly Result on Record
  • Premier League Viewership Reached Record Levels on Sky Sports, Including the Highest Average Season Viewership on Record for the 2019/20 Season and the Highest Daily U.K. Viewership on Record for the 2020/21 Season to Date
  • Cable Networks revenue decreased 1.3% to $2.7 billion in the third quarter of 2020, due to lower distribution revenue and advertising revenue, partially offset by higher content licensing and other revenue
  • Broadcast Television revenue increased 8.3% to $2.4 billion in the third quarter of 2020, due to higher content licensing revenue and distribution and other revenue, partially offset by lower advertising revenue

Microsoft Q3 Earnings: Revenue of $37.2B, up 12% y/o/y; Intelligent Cloud revenue of $13B, up 20% y/o/y. Office Consumer products and cloud services revenue increased 13% and Microsoft 365 Consumer subscribers increased to 45.3M.

  • LinkedIn revenue increased 16%
  • Xbox content and services revenue increased 30%
  • Surface revenue increased 37%
  • Search advertising revenue excluding traffic acquisition costs decreased 10%
  • Revenue in More Personal Computing was $11.8 billion and increased 6%

Akamai Q3 Earnings: Total revenue $793 M, up 12% y/o/y; Web Division revenue $418 M, up 8% y/o/y; Media and Carrier Division revenue $375 M, up 16% y/o/y; Cloud Security Solutions revenue $266 M, up 23% y/o/y. Full year revenue guidance of $3.164B to $3.189B for 2020.

  • U.S. revenue was $437 million, up 6% year-over-year, International revenue was $355 million, up 20% year-over-year
  • Cash from operations for the third quarter of 2020 was $402 million, or 51% of revenue. Cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities was $2.6 billion as of September 30, 2020
  • Revenue from Internet Platform Customers was $51 million, same as in Q2

Fastly Q3 Earnings: Revenue of $71M, up 42% y/o/y; GAPP operating loss of $23M; Capital expenditures of $14M, or 20% of revenue; Adjusted full-year 2020 guidance to $288.2M-$292.2M ($8M from Signal Sciences acquisition).

  • As of Q3 2020, Fastly was in 55 markets, providing access to 106 Tb/sec. of global network capacity
  • Total customer count increased to 2,047 up from 1,951 in Q2 2020
  • Total enterprise customer count of 313, up from 304 in Q2 2020
  • Average enterprise customer spend of approximately $753,000, up from $716,000 in Q2 2020
  • ended Q3 2020 with $472 million in cash, restricted cash, and investments in marketable securities
  • Compute@Edge has moved out of beta and into limited availability

Limelight Q3 Earnings: Revenue of $59.2M, up 15% year-over-year and 1.1% quarter-over-quarter. Reported a GAAP net loss of $4.0M. Leaving full-year 2020 guidance unchanged at $230M-$240M. 20 customers accounted for approximately 79% of their revenue so far this year.

Trump’s Campaign Site Defaced While Being Protected by Cloudflare: Who’s to Blame?

I have been writing for some time on how the CDN industry has been evolving to focus more on value-add services, with security being a major focus area. As Q3 2020 earnings reporting is currently underway, we have begun to hear from the public CDN companies on just how important security has become to their businesses. Despite this growth, or maybe in part because of it, it remains incredibly challenging for businesses to parse through all of the vendor assertions when making decisions around cloud security solutions. When a high-profile site is compromised, IT leaders can be even more confused about what defenses are useful, and which vendors they should partner with.

For example, just yesterday, CNN reported that Donald Trump’s campaign website had been defaced. Cloudflare Radar highlights that election sites are being actively targeted by attackers, so it is clear that there has been an increase in attack activity that could result in a compromise. What is not immediately obvious is the source of the defacement. Specifically, it is possible that attackers circumvented a web application firewall (WAF), or it could be that either credentials were leaked or a phishing scheme allowed an attacker to access the content management system.

The DNS history for donaldjtrump.com shows that Cloudflare has been hosting the site for the past 5 years, and a domain lookup confirms that Cloudflare continues to be the host. Cloudflare did not immediately comment on the topic to the press, but this would not be the first time the company’s products were compromised (if that was the root cause in this case), or that they made mistakes that led to a customer being hacked. So in an election cycle as fraught as this one, it will be interesting to hear how the company speaks to this incident. It will be more interesting to then watch how the market reacts, especially if Cloudflare stays silent. Cloudflare reports Q3 earnings on Friday October 30th November 5th and I’ll update this post if they comment.

How Sony and Microsoft Will Use Third-Party CDNs for New Console Launches

There’s been a lot of speculation on just how much Microsoft and Sony are going to rely on third-party CDNs for video downloads when both companies launch their next generation consoles in November. Here’s what I know so far and some specific changes in how downloads will be handled this year.

Sony, which does not have an in-house CDN, plans to utilize third-party CDNs including at least Akamai, CenturyLink (now called Lumen) and Limelight Networks. Other CDNs are being used, especially regionally outside the U.S., but the three companies mentioned I know are involved. What percentage of Sony’s overall traffic each CDN will get is unknown since we don’t know how many PS5 consoles will be sold, in what regions, or even how many consoles Sony is producing. We also don’t know how many games a user will buy and what percentage will be on disc versus 100% digital. The PS5 will launch on November 12th, in both a $499.99 edition and a digital only edition for $399.99

A big change with the PS5 versus the PS4 is how it handles downloads. On the PS4 you have to download the entire game. On the PS5 players will be able to choose which parts of games they want to download, for instance just the single-player version without the multiplayer data. This option is going to make some of the downloads smaller with the customization offered. At the same time, Sony has released the size of a few games and they are still large. For instance “Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales” is a 50GB download, with the “Ultimate” version of the game being 105GB in size. Based on the initial information Sony has given out, the average file size for the games they have listed is 60GB. To put that in perspective, one game download is 27x larger, from a total GB delivered standpoint, than 60 minutes of video streamed at 5Mbps.

On the Microsoft side, the company uses primarily Azure Front Door a cloud CDN platform and some third-party CDNs for some static delivery of content i.e Xbox downloads, Windows Updates. Microsoft does not disclose what traffic volumes are sent via Microsoft CDN offerings (Azure Front Door etc.) versus 3rd party offerings (Azure CDN by Verizon, Azure CDN by Akamai, etc). The new Xbox will launch on November 10th, with the Xbox Series X costing $500 (or $35 a month for 24 months) and the Xbox Series S (digital only, no 4K gaming) for $300 (or $25 a month for 24 months).

Microsoft is providing a lot of tools to game developers to help them be more efficient with download sizes. Microsoft calls it “Intelligent Delivery” and it will only download the portions of the game needed for that user’s specific setup, for instance if you have no support for 4K. One game developer, Warframe, has said that using the new tech, they plan to knock 15GB off its install size for one of their games.

Even with the newer tech, the total number of bits delivered for the downloads will still be much bigger when compared to streaming video. There is a lot of uncertainty around the impact these new consoles will have on third-party CDNs since we don’t know how many will be sold, by when and in what regions of the world. We also don’t know how many games will be sold, what size they will be and how many games will be digital only with no disc. Some of the new consoles do not support 4K, so games downloaded to those versions will also be smaller.

New console launches are positive for the CDNs involved in doing software downloads, but it’s too early to know what the overall impact will be. We need to see how well the consoles are sold and shipped, the levels of traffic they produce and what regions of the world the traffic is coming from. We also can’t use any data from the last time new consoles were released into the market as it’s just too long ago. The last console launch for Microsoft was the Xbox One S in 2016 and Xbox One X in 2017 and far too much has changed since then with regards to the overall console tech and third-party CDNs. It will be interesting to see if any of the public CDNs talk about the impact of software downloads on their Q4 revenue, if they provide any guidance for the fourth quarter. (Note: Limelight did not during it’s Q3 earnings, Akamai’s are to come on October 27th)

I will start tracing content in November when the consoles come out and collect some data from ISPs as to where they see the downloads coming from, so I’ll have more data to share in December.

Continuous Innovation Is a Competitive Strategy: Why 870 Million Monthly Users in Asia Depend on HEVC and AV1 Codec Standards

I’ve spent more than two decades in the streaming industry and the progress that many of us have witnessed, as consumers and professionals, is truly remarkable. Today, Internet-delivered video is pushing traditional broadcasters to upgrade the user-experience as consumers have learned that sometimes, as is the case with 4K, the highest quality video is often available by streaming rather than pay TV. It’s a testament to the scores of committed engineers who’ve come together to develop the underlying standards, technologies, architectures, and codecs that make it all possible.

Not only did the standards bodies need to develop the technologies and apply them, but many individuals and companies had to take a risk and adopt them. Consider where we’d be if DirecTV and the DVD Forum had not chosen MPEG-2. And it was the AVC codec standard that enabled HD video with ATSC, Blu-ray, and streaming. In turn, for the streaming industry, HEVC enabled a step function to occur in home entertainment video and streaming with 4K, HDR, and real-life colors.

As far as we’ve come, codec innovation hasn’t stalled or stopped. VVC, the successor to HEVC, is now in the wild, and the Alliance for Open Media (AOM) AV1 codec, with its powerful group of supporters like YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and others, are streaming video at bitrates that are 30%-50% less than HEVC. But, for every ecosystem that has moved through the innovation curve to sustaining technology development, the pull from entrenched legacy architectures can overwhelm even the most progressive and forward-leaning technology organizations. In this reality, five nine’s uptime and net promoter scores (NPS) become the standard that governs technology choices as consumers move from, “I can’t believe I can get the game here, even with the glitches,” to “Why did my video service go out right in the middle of the game?”

In particular, we’ve seen some media and entertainment companies in the industry pushing the pedal down hard with innovation, betting on their success if they can provide the best QoE possible. Simultaneously, there is a consistent wish in preserving legacy technology deployments and architectures, hoping to stretch the previous technology investments for another few years. The trouble with this thinking is that we are in one of the fastest moving competitive cycles the industry has ever experienced. One has to look no further than Disney, who signed up 65 million paying subscribers for their Disney+ streaming service in under 12 months. As a whole, the industry needs to embrace a spirit of continuous innovation to remain competitive with fast-moving entrants that do not see technology risk as something to be avoided but rather a competitive advantage.

It’s not that the entire industry needs an innovation “wake up call.” In my conversations with operators, vendors, and streaming services worldwide, I’ve noticed a stark contrast between video teams’ attitudes working in Asia and India, compared to the U.S. For example, Asian operators are far more likely to take some operational risk in the short term to gain a competitive advantage in the medium term. One example of Asian video services taking short term risk for a tangible benefit is the overwhelming adoption of HEVC for all content, unlike in the U.S., where HEVC is used only for UHD content. In Asia, many video services have assumed an early technology adopter stance and use advanced codecs as a competitive advantage to reduce operational cost, improve quality, and increase streaming user experience. Contrast this with leading services in the U.S. who are still mainly using the tried and true 17-year-old AVC codec even when a sufficiently high number of user devices, or their owned and controlled set-top boxes, support HEVC natively.

In the streaming industry, innovation that fosters adoption, is the surest way to compete and win. In a recent enlightening video chat I had with Zoe Liu, the co-founder of Visionular, a video encoding company with more than twenty customers in Asia and India, Zoe confirmed that almost all UGC, RTC, and premium video streaming services in Asia use HEVC; and many are in evaluation or have begun the adoption of AV1. Zoe pointed out that, “they see the bitrate savings of HEVC and now AV1 as a huge competitive driver. A new codec standard like HEVC or AV1 allows them to increase resolution while upgrading their video quality, even while the bandwidth needed stays the same or goes down. The resulting consumer experience benefit is well understood, and services are willing to do a little extra work today because the user benefits far outweigh the risk. Asian video companies’ mindset is not to adopt the latest standard is to admit that a service is not trying to be the best.”

Consumer services in Asia that have embraced advanced codec technology standards include iQIYI, Bilibili, and Huya, all NASDAQ listed companies. Far from fledgling companies, Huya is the smallest with a $6 billion market cap, while both iQIYI and Bilibili are valued at $16 billion and $16.3 billion, respectively. The business models and consumer services that these three companies offer are varied, yet, they all heavily depend on being an early adopter of video technology as a differentiation advantage. For example, iQIYI is an innovative market-leading online entertainment service operating in China with 530 million monthly active users. They are one of the largest online video platforms globally and are a member of the Alliance for Open Media (AOM) and a current user of HEVC. As an early AOMedia member, iQIYI has developed QAV1, a proprietary AV1 standard-based encoder to help them meet consumer demand for advanced technology and entertainment experiences, including UHD 4K and 8K Ultra HD.

Bilibili is the Chinese equivalent of YouTube. In the first quarter of 2020, Bilibili reported 172 million monthly active users. On August 3, 2020, Bilibili announced a strategic partnership with Riot Games, granting the video service a three-year exclusive license for live broadcasting of the League of Legend Esports global events (in Mandarin only), including the world-renowned League of Legend World Championship, Mid-Season Invitational, and All-Star Event in China. These are presumably large high profile streaming productions. Thus it says a lot to know that they are using HEVC and purport to be actively looking at AV1 and VVC.

Huya is an ultra-low latency live streaming platform that serves 168.5 million users video game footage monthly. As more than one billion people worldwide watch streamed video gameplay every month, according to GlobalWebIndex, Huya is well-positioned for growth. And this makes their choice of HEVC and AV1 all the more relevant, given that nearly half of Huya Live users are accessing the service from a mobile device. Even with HEVC hardware decoders not fully deployed across the mobile landscape, and with AV1 decode limited to software, it says a lot that Huya is willing to risk some viewers not being able to access the technology. Because of the overwhelming benefits that HEVC and AV1 can deliver to most of their users, Huya sees that early adoption of these codec standards can help them stand out against their competitors.

With consumers globally having so many choices when it comes to live and on-demand video content, and the fierce competition amongst OTT services to grab market share, video services can differentiate by taking small operational risks. The question then is what to do when a codec swap, or new technology adoption, is not as simple as cutting over to the latest and greatest standard? The value promise for most streaming services is that viewers can watch content anytime, anyplace, and anywhere. When we consider the rapid advancements in the video codec space, and with a new and “better” standard always just a few years off, video engineers and technical leaders face pressure to default to the mean of AVC. After all, the royalty situation is understood, the playback ecosystem is ubiquitous, and finding video engineers knowledgeable about x264 is relatively easy.

There is never a significant gain in business, without some sacrifice and risk. Staying the course by sticking with a legacy tech stack, I believe, could cause a video service to be unable to compete with what viewers now demand from the user-experience. After all, what do you do when your competitor can deliver higher quality video with a better streaming UX because of the lower bitrates that their technology choice enables? The answer to this dilemma is continuous innovation as a competitive strategy. When you consider that even ten years ago, Asia was nowhere close to the U.S. in video streaming capability, but is now delivering the largest streaming events ever. With 870 million monthly users in Asia relying on video standards that U.S. companies are basically dismissing as not being needed, this is a strong statement to the power of innovation and the speed that it can propel a company from non-competitive to the leader.

In the global competitive environment that we are in, and with so many entertainment options competing for our attention and time, it’s not sufficient to merely keep pace with those services that we consider to be competitors. By adopting a spirit of continuous innovation and leveraging the best solutions and technologies available, companies will be in a prime position to improve how they encode video to deliver a better experience to their users. This will put distance between those who insist on doing what’s safe, and the companies willing to move fast, not to break things, but to learn quickly to have the best possible solution.

Fastly’s Acquisition of Signal Sciences Is All About Applying Application Level Security to Edge Computing Deployments

With Fastly’s announcement of their intent to acquire web application security company Signal Sciences [see my post on the details here], it’s created some confusion in the market of what the acquisition will mean for competitors and who exactly Fastly will be competing with. I see this recent activity impacting the CDN market in three very distinct ways; increasing the criticality of and focus on security versus just bit delivery; balancing scalability and management with developer tooling; understanding the importance of the relationship between the cloud and edge compute.

As I recently wrote in another blog post, a comprehensive security solution requires DDoS mitigation, web application and API protection, protection from form jacking and Magecart style attacks, bot management capabilities, malware and ransomware protection, and the ability to manage all of these based on risk profiles versus static rules. It is only this broad-based investment over a multi-year horizon that enabled Akamai to achieve the milestone of a $1 billion annual run rate in security revenue. 

With Signal Sciences, Fastly is banking on the impact that security can have on the growth of their edge compute business, given the similar approach that both they and Signal Sciences have taken in targeting developers. Fastly and Signal Sciences have each invested to ensure their solutions can be implemented effectively in a developer-centric model, with fast on-boarding of under 30 days. Tech-savvy teams appreciate how Signal Sciences supports multiple deployment models and have made their solution available on AWS, Azure and Google Cloud marketplaces, and can be deployed as a virtual image on other IaaS platforms as well. This bodes well for helping to drive awareness with developers and to facilitate integrating Fastly’s solutions into their cloud architectures.

One challenge that Fastly will need to overcome is that they are still a new entrant in the crowded cloud security industry and as of today, they get a very small percentage of their overall revenue from their cloud security portfolio. The Signal Sciences acquisition will do little to help change that as Signal Sciences only brings 60 enterprise companies with the acquisition and had annual recurring revenue of $28 million as of June of this year. Signal Sciences will definitely help Fastly build out their cloud security product portfolio, but it will take time to do the integration once the deal is completed.

The entire deal between the two companies comes down to the idea of how important it is to apply application level security to edge computing deployments. And this idea doesn’t just relate to Fastly, but also to Cloudflare, Akamai and Amazon. To explain the idea in more detail, if you’re just running application logic like VCL or Akamai’s config language at the edge, your IP is still is still stored in centralized resources – the cloud, or the core. But if you move the entire application out to the edge, you then have to secure it at the edge. So if Fastly’s Compute@Edge product is going to be successful, it needs to have all the same security features a business would typically deploy at the core, at the edge. CDN security vendors like Fastly, Akamai, Cloudflare and others want to secure every one of their customer’s apps with a cloud WAF, but to date, these companies haven’t had an on-prem install. Getting that functionality is the main reason why Fastly is acquiring Signal Sciences, since the agent that was typically installed on-prem, now gets to run on Fastly’s Compute@Edge.

When it comes to competitors, unlike Fastly which is a cloud platform that offers a subscription-based service, Signal Sciences is an on-prem solution that monetizes via a licensing model. So from this perspective, Signal Sciences was much more of an F5 competitor versus other cloud providers in the market. Beyond licensing models, Akamai and F5 focus on enterprise customers while Cloudflare focuses on the SMB market. So Akamai, F5 and Fastly rarely see Cloudflare competing for the same deals in the market. While relatively new, the Signal Sciences web application firewall (WAF) should improve Fastly’s WAF capabilities, but it will have to be integrated into the platform to benefit from its CDN to compete with offerings from other providers. Compared to Akamai, Signal Sciences has a very small threat research team, which means that the security signals intelligence that other security providers use to differentiate their WAF rules will still take time to develop at Fastly. 

Prior to the acquisition, Fastly offered security capabilities including DDoS mitigation and WAF, but relied on partnerships with Shape, DataDome and PerimeterX for bot management. From a product perspective, Signal Sciences’ bot management capabilities are very basic and do not compare to the more sophisticated offerings from Akamai, Imperva or F5. After the acquisition, Fastly still has some work to do to execute across both the sales and product fronts of the new combined offering. A key challenge to customers is that their security teams often aren’t able to keep up with the increasing number of complex applications they need to protect. This could present a challenge as the Signal Sciences solution requires developers to code rules to account for their business logic themselves. While the solution is easy to manage via self-service tuning, manually coding rules across potentially 100s of applications will prove challenging to scale and maintain. Also, unlike other security companies, Fastly does not currently offer a managed security service or managed SOC for businesses under frequent attack, so this is a gap they may have to close.

In the coming years, every cloud and CDN vendor will increasingly align themselves to the edge and edge computing, which is already confusing today as businesses struggle to understand how cloud, CDN and edge relate to one another and how security requirements fit into the equation. Not helping the process is the fact that vendors all use the terms “edge”, “edge compute”, and “programmable edge network” interchangeably, without much in the way of definitions, use cases, or verticals they are targeting. “Edge” is a location in a network; “edge compute” is a service. They are not the same thing. This will all become more complicated before it gets simpler and I plan to do a lot of blog posts over the next 12-months explaining how edge compute services work, what type of applications are taking advantage of them, and what benefits customers are seeing. But make no mistake, there is a lot hype around “edge compute” services and the market is still in the very, very early stages, with the overall industry still figuring it out.

Fastly’s intent to acquire Signal Sciences is a very logical and positive step for Fastly to take in order to improve their security offering and show that they are investing in more robust security technology. As with all cloud security acquisitions, the multiples are very high on these deals and Fastly valued Signal Sciences at $775 million, not far off from the $1 billion F5 paid for Shape. With their intent to spend that much money, Fastly has a lot of pressure now to grow their security revenue quickly in a market dominated by Akamai. How fast they can grow and whether or not they plan to break out their security revenue for Wall Street come next year, are unknown. One thing is certain; security will continue to be a major focus as attack events make headlines and businesses push additional infrastructure into the cloud. There is enough room for multiple vendors for varying cloud security solutions, but based on revenue, everyone is playing catchup to Akamai.