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Getting close to the edge

Lars Larsson, CEO at Varnish Software details why CDNs are key to meeting consumers’ expectations of 5G

There has long been significant hype around 5G and the possibilities it can bring to businesses and consumers, but 2020 saw that interest grow to new levels. The technology has been something the general public have been aware of for some time, however, it is the launch of new flagship handsets from consumer technology giants that is driving the latest wave of hype around 5G.

Discount the conspiracy theories linking the technology to the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll see that the largest search volumes associated with 5G are related to those premium handsets. Indeed, the week of Apple’s iPhone 12 launch saw a significant spike in searches for 5G, refuelling the hype-train, with promises of how 5G will improve video streaming as well as a host of other applications.

But, even if they’re equipped with the latest 5G capable mobile devices, consumers won’t experience ‘real’ 5G streaming for a while, as networks aren’t sufficiently developed and standalone 5G is still in the works.

Currently, almost all the 5G commercial networks are ‘non-stand-alone’ (NSA), meaning they are reliant on the operator’s existing 4G core infrastructure, and don’t yet support the full span of 5G performance capabilities. Therefore, in reality, the biggest benefit to those that have got on-board early with 5G is its enhanced speed.

With that, video/game streaming will likely be the first area to really benefit – in a similar way to the launch of 4G – with content shops already starting to market themselves on the 5G experience they can deliver.

Delivering on demand

One of the main draws of 5G networks is the ability to support many more devices simultaneously than 4G, as well as being able to offer higher bandwidth and reduced latency. Once full stand-alone (SA) 5G networks are more commonplace, this will be more noticeable, but it means that more people will be able to simultaneously stream high resolution video content. 

Here, quality of experience is key. Consumers have high expectations after years of hype, so streaming providers need to ensure they are delivering experiences in line with the premium prices people have paid for the privilege of their services and the devices capable of accessing them.

For streaming services, getting the quality of experience right isn’t just about the IP, it’s about ensuring content loads quickly, doesn’t buffer, and streams in the highest possible resolution. This is as much about the providers content delivery network (CDN) as it is the consumer’s connectivity.  

Popular content, such as Disney Plus’s The Mandalorian, will have huge numbers of people all trying to access the latest episodes as soon as they become available on the platform. With such large numbers of people trying to stream that content at the same time, and potentially in 4K, bottlenecks at the server hosting that content can appear quickly, causing lag, buffering, or even failure to load content at all. 

This has always been an issue for streaming, no matter the resolution or connectivity type, however the higher the resolution the larger the file sizes involved, and with 5G the number of devices accessing content concurrently can increase dramatically too – putting greater strain on the origin server.

To tackle this, streaming providers need to work with CDN providers. Together they are able to build systems that allow multiple cached copies of popular content to be hosted on servers closer to their users at the very edges of the network. This not only reduces the bottleneck on the origin server, by spreading the load across multiple locations, but in locating content much closer to the users, the time it takes for those servers to respond to user requests is significantly reduced too.

Placing this caching layer close to the edge of the network to reduce latency and increase the number of devices that can stream content concurrently is critical to providing the optimal quality of experience.

A new virtual reality

Traditional CDNs however, will face significant pressure to keep up with 5G as it rolls out. True, real-time content distribution will necessitate the storage of significant volumes of content at the edge of the network.

A new breed of virtual content delivery networks (vCDNs), is now helping streaming providers future proof their networks and prepare to usher in an era of true 5G experiences.

Tightly integrated with the network infrastructure and utilising edge cloud data centres, rather than the more traditional data centre sites, these vCDNs make the most of the inherently different architectures of 5G networks, compared to their predecessors. This means they can more easily be built in urban areas much closer to where the user density is highest, and as such allowing providers to locate their cached content where it will have the greatest impact on backhaul and latency.  

These highly elastic, cloud-native vCDNs can handle much higher densities than traditional equivalents, meaning use cases that have historically been difficult to service, such as those needed in stadiums and city centres, are now able to see sub-millisecond cache response times, with zero lag or buffering.

As 5G networks continue to roll out, the demand for streaming higher resolution content on an ever increasing number of devices will increase. Streaming content providers’ quality of experience will become ever more dependent on their CDNs and how effectively they utilise the network edge. It is here that the next streaming battle will be won.