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Yechiam Yemini saw it coming. The Israeli co-founder of telecom software giant Comverse, and a professor of computer science at Columbia University where he founded and directs the Distributed Computing and Communications (DCC) lab, Yemini had been a student of the Internet since before people had even heard of the term.
He recognized two divergent facts - firstly, that the Internet has limited bandwidth and secondly, that video on Internet was the wave of the future. Yemini's prediction? Internet infrastructure would not be able to keep pace with the skyrocketing volume of video data, and the information superhighway would start to clog up.
So last year he set up a company, Arootz, that aims to help clear cyberspace traffic jams by means of "multicasting" content - simultaneously streaming out the same file multiple times, instead of streaming it each time it is requested - to those users whom Arootz's algorithms assess are most likely to want it.
Yemini's prediction was spot on. The explosion of online video has brought a very real threat that the Internet will slow to an information-congested crawl. Internet service provider (ISP) networks - built to accommodate e-mail, Web surfing and occasional downloads - are having a hard time meeting the demands of users impatient to download high-speed multimedia data streams.
The supply is everywhere. Major studios, TV networks and content owners are now making available movies and TV shows directly on the Net. Missed last night's episode of 24 or The Simpsons? Check out Fox's MySpace page. Since last year, American Internet users can download hit ABC shows such as Desperate Housewives. AOL has made available both classic television and today's hits on its Web site. Over the past few months, software such as Joost and Babelgum has replaced the television with the PC, and a recent study showed that 66% of Americans watch on-line video at least once a week.
But when customers purchase Internet service, they're not purchasing unlimited bandwidth. Rather, they are purchasing the statistical probability that they will achieve their purchased rate (for example, 1.5 megabits/second) at some point in time. In reality, ISPs are selling the same bandwidth capacity to additional customers. This works fine for a web site, which is based on the sporadic sending of small bits of data at a time, but it doesn't work for video.
"Video breaks down this model, because suddenly you're asking for a continuous stream of data. Things that worked well for browsing can suddenly begin falling apart when you're talking about video streaming," said Noam Bardin the CEO of Arootz, the Netanya-based startup that Yemini founded.
That's where Yemini's research and Arootz (Hebrew for channel) come in. Utilizing the standard technique of multicasting, and standard hard drives - which are storing more and more data at rapidly falling prices - Arootz aims to allow for the much more efficient streaming of data, without requiring massive investments for Internet and content providers.
Instead of sending individual streams to each household that downloads a particular show, the Arootz technology will enable the ISP to multicast the show at far less bandwidth to the hard drives of each user.
"What multicast does is group together people based on their preferences. If I have one million people who want to watch Desperate Housewives, I have to stream a million files to a million people. Multicast allows it to stream it [for all of them] at once," Bardin explained.
The file will then be downloaded to users' hard drives or media servers, allowing them to watch whenever they want to. "We'll deliver the file once to each of your disks, and you can watch it whenever you want. But you're not going to impact the network. It still gives you the on-demand experience," he added.
"What we've done is create a technology that is going to deliver a significant amount of content to your own PC. This is possible because the cost of storage has been dropping so fast while the cost of bandwidth has been dropping much more slowly."
According to a recent article on the company in Business Week, Arootz's concept is "a bit like attaching a TiVo personal video recorder to the PC of every Internet user."
While the technology behind Arootz may sound relatively simple, it is backed up by a bunch of complex algorithms. According to Bardin, Arootz has to look not only at users' preferences, but also at factors like the network, constraints and the ability to be able to constantly optimize delivery. "If everyone wanted exactly the same [content] it would be simple," he said, "but we all want different things and that's where a lot of the complexity comes into play."
Founded in 2006 with funding from Gemini Israel Funds, Arootz began testing the technology earlier this year in Israel, and will make the service available on a trial basis beginning in September. Bardin expects American testing to begin early next year with the goal of marketing the product by the end of 2008.
Arootz plans a number of "smart" features which will make it easier for users to find the right content to watch. One feature will be to anticipate users' preferences and thus download new content based on an analysis of past performance. Another model Arootz plans to utilize allows subscribers to receive automatic downloads of specific video feeds.
Bardin estimates that all of Israel could be served with just one server farm, while the US could be covered with about 20.
When asked if he was concerned about the technology being used to facilitate illegal downloading, Bardin pointed out that Arootz would only partner with the content's legal owner. "We're deploying our technology as a managed service," he said. "We're partnering with ISPs, broadband providers and content providers."
Indeed, as the media industry begins to recognize that the best way to protect material against illegal downloading is for the legal owners to provide the material in a controlled manner over the Internet, Arootz's technology takes on ever more significance, he said.
"We see the Internet as having a very hard time in the next few years keeping up with demand. We think a bottleneck is going to occur in trying to distribute the content in a timely fashion," said Bardin, echoing Arootz founder Yemini's original prediction. "With all these new video services that are sprouting up and all this great content and great hard drives coming on-line, how is all that content going to get to all those hard drives without clogging up the Internet?"
Yemini and Arootz hope they've found at least part of the answer.