A smart way to download dumb videos

Israeli start-up develops system to alleviate burden of video downloads

Peer App 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Peer App 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Home, sweet home - at last. You've had a rough day at work, then some shopping (it would have to be Thursday, of course), then the kids - but finally you get a little "you" time. It's time to unwind in front of your PC and let the computer entertain you a little. And so you surf to your favorite dumb video site, and click on a likely looking link - something about a wedgie contest. Looks promising! But what's this? You've clicked, and clicked again - but nothing's happening. All you get is that round clock cursor, with your browser saying "connecting." Minutes pass by, but still nothing happens - and you give up, forced to try and have some fun with the latest Nigerian bank account e-mail messages in your in-box. So what happened? You may have very well been "shaped," as in being subject to a traffic shaping policy your ISP has decided to implement - because they can. Actually, they're not trying to be mean, and they don't personally have anything against wedgie videos. But at times like this, such as when everyone comes home Thursday night and wants to watch dumb videos, the network can get choked by all the streaming video being downloaded to customers. A choked system won't do anyone any good at all, and may even cause the system to crash. So, to spare the many, your ISP has decided to do a little triage - and the first connections to be dumped are the requests for streaming video, the biggest and heaviest type of request ISPs have to fulfill. Understandable it is - but it's just not fair. If you check your contract with the ISP, you probably won't find anything about traffic shaping policies. Certainly it was news to customers of US service provider Comcast (http://tinyurl.com/2ljdzm), who filed a suit against the company (http://tinyurl.com/2c6l6a) for deceptive advertising practices. Users of the system who were trying to download video files via BitTorrent networks noticed that things weren't running as quickly as they were supposed to, for the connection download speed they were paying for. Definitive tests (http://tinyurl.com/yspzer) proved that Comcast was shaping, and in the process hurting traffic not just for video files, but for actual productive enterprise network applications, such as Lotus Notes. Comcast has in recent days pledged to stop the practice (http://tinyurl.com/33pu2x), allowing traffic to flow in a "protocol agnostic" manner that would ignore the type of download when regulating traffic. On the one hand, an ISP has to think of all customers, and can't take a chance that the network will go down. But customers don't like unpleasant surprises - and they certainly aren't going to pay more for the privilege of downloading certain types of files, or for the ISP to expand bandwidth. It almost seems like a no-win situation for Comcast. But there is a solution out there - courtesy of Israeli start-up PeerApp, which has developed a system whereby ISPs can take the heavy burden of video downloading off their network - and onto a video cache server, which operates very much like the traditional Web cache server. Instead of making direct connections to servers across the globe in order to download pages, Web browsers fetch cached copies of updated Web pages from cache servers. PeerApp can pull off the same trick for video downloads, according to PeerApp CFO Yossi Hazan. "Today, about 60% of ISP traffic is dedicated to video streaming and downloading, including from sources like YouTube, file sharing, and streaming personal or proprietary video," he says. "With PeerApp, downloading of heavy files is diffused, with cached files fetched by customers off the main network. Traffic flows more smoothly for all customers, and customers downloading video get their files more quickly." The quality of streaming video is better, too, as there are far fewer "gaps" interrupting the flow of the video due to slow downloading of segments, Hazan says. The ISP is happy, and the customer is happy. And the content owner is happy, too - because PeerApp looks out for their interests, too. PeerApp keeps an eye out on who is requesting a download, and whether they have permission to do so. "What is unique about PeerApp is that we keep a live link between the customer's computer and the content owners," Hazan says. "In order to access a file on a network where PeerApp is installed, a customer must agree to the terms of service for the originating Web site." Another benefit of this aspect of PeerApp's product is to enable content owners to make use of what may be the most efficient method of file downloading - peer to peer connections, where users on a network access packets of a file from others on the network, diffusing the download traffic so that it becomes almost negligible as far as individual customers are concerned. While P2P, especially BitTorrent protocol files, have a "bad" reputation as something only pirates and content thieves use, many legitimate P2P services have started distributing licensed video. PeerApp's unique video caching system preserves whatever security or digital rights rules were established by the Web site offering the file, Hazan says. So, just how good is PeerApp's technology? Good enough for Pando, which handles the downloads of streaming video on the NBC.com Web site. PeerApp has teamed up with them to ensure that viewers watching episodes on the site get to see them with almost zero network interference. "PeerApp is perfect for streaming video because it's so fast," says Hazan. "A file that usually takes over six hours to download to your PC will arrive in six minutes - a factor of sixty times faster," he says. With technology like that, PeerApp is not likely to remain a mere start-up much longer.