by CIO Staff

A New Look at Content Delivery Networks

Apr 24, 20066 mins
Data Center

By Jim Leach

Not since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1450s has there been such a quantum leap in our ability to produce, distribute, archive and retrieve content. 

Movable type made it possible for books and newspapers that once were handwritten and available only to a few monarchs and monks to be mass produced and distributed broadly and inexpensively.  Today, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds and millions of websites are causing a similar shift in our production and consumption of media that includes text, audio, video and graphics. 

Technology is enabling “content for the common man,” and business models are emerging to allow people to write their blogs, download podcasts and view video feeds on demand. Traditional IT strategies based on telecommunications, servers, storage and cybersecurity need to be reworked to support these new business strategies.

It’s Time to Replace Your Old CDN

IT professionals and some dotcom investors probably know of content delivery networks, or CDNs, which emerged in the dotcom boom to help website graphics download faster. Investors flocked to CDN companies such as Akamai and Sandpiper, and stock prices soared. As we all know, the dotcom boom turned into a bust and most CDN companies closed up shop, filed for bankruptcy or were purchased. 

But the CDN concept was a good one. CDNs connected hundreds of servers and storage devices over the Internet. A website’s graphics-heavy content was stored on those servers. When a user in, say, London opened a website running on a server in Los Angeles, the text downloaded from L.A., but the graphics downloaded from a CDN server closest to the user in the United Kingdom. Smart software kept the whole CDN system running by providing load balancing and backup between all the servers as well as traffic management, so the content loads from the closest point to the user and there is synchronization between all the data. The end result was a faster, better website.

The problem was that these early CDNs made sense financially only for huge, graphics-intensive sites like Amazon, eBay and Victoria’s Secret. You could afford a CDN only if you were a big player. In this new era of content for the common man, we need to update the CDN model. It’s time for the content delivery network to become the media distribution utility.

 Why You Need a New Acronym: CDN Becomes the MDU

The last thing the information technology industry needs is another TLA (three letter acronym), but let’s take a moment to break down the traditional CDN and discuss the need for an MDU.

Content becomes media. Ten years ago, most digital content was text. Today, technology has made it possible for everyone to be a creator and publisher of rich media content that includes graphics, audio and video. In the old days, you went on vacation and wrote a postcard. A few years later, you replaced the postcard with an e-mail from an Internet cafe. Now you use your mobile phone to take a picture and record your voice. You send the file instantly over a global network, and it is received over a broadband connection at home.

 Delivery becomes distribution. We all remember the days when the Internet was unreliable and would experience big dips in performance depending on the way traffic was flowing. You needed a CDN to make sure your content was delivered successfully. Those days are over. The Internet works. Now, as media creation explodes, the challenge is no longer to guarantee its delivery, but rather to distribute the content to a broad global community. In this environment, you need websites that build these communities and Web-based workflow tools that support collaboration on content creation, global production, digital rights management, archiving, search and retrieval.

Network becomes utility. Networks continue to be important to the distribution of digital media, but they’re not enough. Content incubators are funding the development of new business models for monetizing content. These content start-ups need servers to run their applications, storage devices to archive their content, firewalls to secure their assets and a network to connect to their audience. These businesses need high performance, but cannot afford the up-front cost of buying server farms and the ongoing expense of managing these devices. They need to be able to scale up their IT systems easily–in small, incremental bytes, not big chunks–as demand for their content grows. CDNs need to be recast to provide on-demand access to the server cycles, storage capacity, network bandwidth, and security systems needed to support the creation and rapid growth of content businesses.

 Your Content Is a Hit. Now What?

Whether you are a content startup or a media baron, it’s time to take a look at how your IT systems are aligned with your business strategy. 

In almost all cases, it doesn’t make sense for you to build and manage your own media distribution utility. You can rely on a number of established suppliers of managed and outsourced IT services. It’s time to engage them. Challenge your traditional CDN provider to deliver a broader set of network-based services that include an end-to-end IT infrastructure of servers, storage, network and security. Find out from your digital rights management and media production software vendors if they plan to offer their software as a service that you can buy on a per-seat basis. Finally, talk with your hosting provider about whether it can bundle CDN and security services as part of an end-to-end solution.

There has never been a more exciting time to be part of the media industry. New business models are emerging every day, resulting in winners and losers. Technology has made start-up costs small, barriers to entry low and rapid growth a possibility. All you need is a good idea.

Jim Leach has 22 years of experience bringing to market IT solutions for business. He is a vice president at SAVVIS, a global provider of managed and outsourced IT services. He can be reached at