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21 July 2022

Panelists back cloud behemoths in CDN-flavored sustainability debate

Faultline’s Sustainability in Media and Technology webinar this week – the first of a two-parter – discussed the power struggles (figuratively and in wattage terms) in content delivery networks and cloud workflows.

While the hour-long debate with representatives from Blackbird, Cerberus Tech, Greening of Streaming, and Velocix only scratched the surface of environmental challenges for video streaming businesses, our collective mission was vindicated as the chat tab reverberated with calls from the audience to continue conservational conversations.

Highlights from the panel include Velocix admitting it would be open to working with fierce CDN rival Akamai on energy-reduction projects. Panelists also sided with the cloud computing titans which are apparently getting much better at sharing ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) data – while Faultline called for the likes of AWS, Google and Microsoft to get much faster at reporting on something as time-sensitive as climate change.

Beef was also settled with Blackbird, following our criticism of the cloud editing vendor’s recent antics, and we even gleaned opinions on where all these vendors stand on joining Greening of Streaming, the non-profit flagbearer for more sustainable engineering practices.

You can sign-up to view the full recording here, or keep reading for digestible nuggets.

Velocix’s Jon Anderson, CDN Product Manager, admits that the mounting pressure on CDN providers to reduce energy consumption in the face of rising streaming media consumption will – eventually – get the industry to a point where there is less waste.

But how does Velocix plan on getting to this point?

Putting feelers out into the market, Anderson’s take is that idle resources – those that are often necessary in terms of building a CDN for peak utilization – is not what the market requires. Instead, people want to see data-driven advances in content delivery that allow for robust routing protocols in multi-tenant and multi-CDN architectures that maximize resources. “If we accomplish those goals, we get to a place that aligns with sustainability initiatives,” commented Anderson.

Mention of the S-word – standards – usually summons a standing ovation from video technologists, but for Anderson – as a product person – the idea of standardized architectures in CDNs is not even on the radar.

“Getting to a standardized architecture would be a challenge for us. I think there is room for debate on that front in terms of the benefits and drawbacks of that approach,” added Anderson.

Having a standardized analytics systems is something more suited to Velocix’s business, which Anderson believes would be a benefit to everyone. Standardized analytics would allow the likes of Velocix to compare apples to apples, instead or oranges, in terms of how it delivers content against delivery mechanisms – and also to compare in-house energy consumption in consistent ways to others in the field.

Of course, we cannot talk about Velocix without mentioning Open Caching and the solid work being churned out of the Streaming Video Alliance (SVA).

Anderson praised the Open Caching set of standards for helping to drive the industry towards a more sustainable model, figuring out ways of maximizing CDN resources by reducing the number of idle resources.

With Open Caching still under construction, Velocix doesn’t currently have any data to point to specifically to prove that Open Caching is a more environmentally friendly approach than other methods of maximizing CDN efficiencies – rather than just shifting power consumption elsewhere in the chain. Hopefully the SVA and the service providers invested in Open Caching – like Disney and Verizon – will have some data to share sooner rather than later.

On the topic of getting problems out of sight and out of mind, there is no hiding from the anti-greenwashing rulebook of Greening of Streaming and its founder Dom Robinson, who has a beady eye on people working in video compression coming out with big claims about releasing AI-based encoding techniques that are 30% more green, for example, when the reality is often that the energy is just kicked down the road.

“We have to challenge that, as it may not be the case – which is exactly what Greening of Streaming stands for,” emphasized Robinson.

Faultline attempted on a number of occasions to tease some data out of Robinson from the vaults of Greening of Streaming’s working groups.

While member identities are protected, we learned that one working group has been challenged to measure across live distribution workflows, picking major sports events and measuring energy variants between zero, peak, and zero again. Curiously, early data has shown nearly no variance in energy consumption, Robinson revealed.

A “complex minefield” is how Robinson described the data situation, particularly around shared infrastructure – host machines sitting on host networks, for instance. Robinson’s take on the evolution of this is data attribution, which creates a linear relationship between bandwidth, data traffic, and energy – and so in principle this translates to less traffic, less data, and more green.

“This has underpinned a lot of models emerging around high volumes of data transfer – essentially streaming CDN models,” noted Robinson.

Faultline has been openly critical of the patchy sustainability promises from the big cloud infrastructure providers, which have shown reluctance to commit to concrete goals and are allergic to accountability, so it was fascinating to peak behind the scenes and learn that all four panelists believe the cloud providers are setting the bar for ESG reports.

Robinson stressed the importance of being scientific with criticism and to avoid being too heavy-handed with companies in pushing for more sustainable business models.

“You have to translate energy bills into something that’s meaningful to each company,” he explained, as a perfect segue to reveal that Greening of Streaming is expecting a PO soon from the cloud guys. This new membership would mean looking at “huge datasets” – which is going to be a “big gamechanger,” according to Robinson.

As you can tell, this was a CDN-centric webinar, but the presence of live IP video distribution platform provider Cerberus Tech, an unfamiliar name on the pages of Faultline, was still felt.

The company’s Head of Operations, Chris Perkiss, highlighted the difficulties in driving sustainability when operating a multi-cloud approach. Everyone likes to think of IP or cloud-based workflows as more sustainable, as it removes so much hardware from the equation, but the reality is that all these virtual machines running somewhere are still having an environmental impact.

Cerberus’ own energy consumption is a misty scenario, according to Perkiss – an honest assessment that few other vendors are willing to admit.

“I’m pleased that cloud providers are putting data out that allows you to see your impact on the use of infrastructure,” said Perkiss. “But it would be useful if they presented data in the same way. This helps us in the long-run to drill into the data and give customers choices. Getting this into our development pipeline is where we’re at.”

Being expert in the cloud, Blackbird CEO Ian McDonough agrees that some level of alignment is required in how to present data – which is no coincidence given that Blackbird is the closest of the three vendors to becoming an official Greening of Streaming member. Expect an announcement imminently.

McDonough came to the defense of Blackbird’s recent recruitment of an Olympic gold medalist in sailing, Hannah Mills, to endorse a whitepaper on decarbonizing cloud workflows, referencing a survey that found sportspeople ranked as top influencers on people reading scientific data, while actual scientists came out last.

While this is clearly a consumer survey rooted in the toxicity of social media, not one targeted at technology leadership (which is where it should be), McDonough claims the celebrity backing has done exactly as intended – generating a lot of attention (aka sales).

Faultline still believes money would be better spent collaborating with other technology suppliers, but – ultimately – we cannot forget that the nature of business is to drive profits – and Blackbird is doing just that while raising awareness around climate change.

One thing we can all agree on is that if we can get technology leaders from all corners of the video ecosystem to lay down their weapons and coalesce around a common goal, it would arguably be the industry’s greatest ever achievement.

Challenge everything.