3 reasons why edge will change video streaming

Video streaming is putting huge strains on networks and the content delivery value chain. The current situation is calling for far more flexible solutions. Key questions we answer in this article are how edge impacts video streaming from an environmental, financial and user experience perspective.

Introducing the role of edge in video streaming

With the general population spending most of their time at home due to COVID-19, total internet traffic has increased exponentially. ETSCOUT, a provider of network and application performance monitoring tools, measured 25-35% increase in worldwide internet traffic during March 2020. 

Video conferencing, streaming and remote collaboration tools all contributed to the increase in total traffic. Video overall accounts for 80% of total trafficThis represents a steep increase from 2005, when it was just 10%. However, such a noticeable increase raises concerns; the rise in networking and data centre use poses environmental and economic challenges. Besides, the user experience can worsen (e.g. longer buffering) as high bandwidth data congests the network. As there is very little chance that this trend will reverse over the next few years, we have to find some alternatives. This is where edge comes in. 

Edge computingis described as physical computing infrastructure that is positioned on the spectrum between the device and the hyperscale cloud, supporting various applications. The fast-growing importance of edge is becoming more visible thanks to its numerous benefits, such as reduced latency and faster real-time data processing and analysis 

However, a key topic at the moment is its (positive) impact on video streaming. As we can see in the diagram, with video streaming, edge reduces the distance between end-users and the data centre (i.e. where the data is stored). In this way, edge can address the ever-increasing amount of data being processed and transported, resulting in a lower strain on the environment, reduced costs, and improved user experience. The key question of how and what the scale of this impact is will be explored in the following sections.

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Figure 1: Distance from data centres to end-users 

edge video streaming

1) Sustainability and video streaming? How edge can make streaming greener 

Although energy consumption from transport has fallen during the lockdown period, that from internet usage has increased. It is common knowledge that emissions from transport are a significantly higher contributor to world emissions, but it has been proven that the information and communication technology ecosystem represents over 2% of global emissions. This puts it on the same pedestal as the aviation industry. Conservative studies predict this will increase to 8% by 2030, however some experts warn of the possibility of an increase to 20% by 2030.  

Within ICTa large contributor is the network and the movement of data along it. Reducing the amount of data that needs to traverse the network and shortening the journey will provide a more sustainable model when transporting data – hence, the role of edge compute. As the table shows, that intense workloads with limited need for data transport could be processed on end-devices; however, workloads that are more intense in data transported would be best placed closer to the edge of the network. There is a potential for substantial savings, according to the model introduced in Eriksson’s article, where he states that in terms of energy consumption, the model could save around 2-5% of global electricity consumption by 2030.  

Figure 2: Portion of kWh coming from data transport depending on the placement

edge video streaming

2) Edge can help with cost reduction if correctly deployed  

Transport of data represents not just an environmental burden but also a financial one, as the cost of data transport is already significantThis poses a question related to the wider context of the optimal use of computing assets, balanced with network assets. In terms of which part of the process is the most costly, there is a consistent opinion that last-mile access and first aggregation are usually more costly than any other process, which is made worse due to low utilisation and a lack of economies of scale. 

Figure 3: Data Transfer Costs

edge video streaming

To reduce the cost of these processes, edge computing can be deployed to avoid using the last mile network unnecessarily caching content deeper in the network, so each stream does not need to travel the full length of the (access) network.

3) User experiences continue to improve as content is cached closer to the end-user

With traditional content delivery mechanisms used for streaming, centralised infrastructure is inflexible. It cannot adapt to the fast-changing number of viewers in different geographical areas. This results in congestion, leading to increased latency, which affects video quality and creates network lag. 

With edge, the content delivery network provider is able to distribute streams to edge services, which are geographically closer to users. It allows content providers to be more agile and scale up when needed and manage traffic in such a manner that it reduces physical distance.  

Although this shows some improvements in terms of stream quality (e.g. streaming experience that is free from network lag, untimely buffering or inaccessibility), the impact of the edge does not end there. Edge computing will not only allow content providers to optimise one-way video streamingbut create an environment to allow for the growth of rich, interactive experiences. For example, it would enable the viewer to access real-time statistics during their favourite sports event by ingesting and analysing data in real-time. 

Given the unprecedented growth of data from video streaming, which is not going to stop within the foreseeable future, there is an urgent need to find solutions which do not affect users experience while addressing pressing issues such as sustainability or finance. Edge computing seems to be one of those solutions that will mature in the upcoming years. 

Author: Lenka Elekova, Consultant at STL Partners, specialising in edge computing and 5G topics.

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