Intel – It’s About Getting The Right Kind Of Fast At The Edge

Disclaimer: I recently attended Storage Field Day 22.  Some expenses were paid for by Tech Field Day. There is no requirement for me to blog about any of the content presented and I am not compensated in any way for my time at the event.  Some materials presented were discussed under NDA and don’t form part of my blog posts, but could influence future discussions.

Intel recently presented at Storage Field Day 22. You can see videos of the presentation here, and download my rough notes from here.

 

The Problem

A lot of countries have used lockdowns as a way to combat the community transmission of COVID-19. Apparently, this has led to an uptick in the consumption of streaming media services. If you’re somewhat familiar with streaming media services, you’ll understand that your favourite episode of Hogan’s Heroes isn’t being delivered from a giant storage device sitting in the bowels of your streaming media provider’s data centre. Instead, it’s invariably being delivered to your device from a content delivery network (CDN) device.

 

Content Delivery What?

CDNs are not a new concept. The idea is that you have a bunch of web servers geographically distributed delivering content to users who are also geographically distributed. Think of it as a way to cache things closer to your end users. There are many reasons why this can be a good idea. Your content will load faster for users if it resides on servers in roughly the same area as them. Your bandwidth costs are generally a bit cheaper, as you’re not transmitting as much data from your core all the way out to the end user. Instead, those end users are getting the content from something close to them. You can potentially also deliver more versions of content (in terms of resolution) easily. It can also be beneficial in terms of resiliency and availability – an outage on one part of your network, say in Palo Alto, doesn’t need to necessarily impact end users living in Sydney. Cloudflare does a fair bit with CDNs, and there’s a great overview of the technology here.

 

Isn’t All Content Delivery The Same?

Not really. As Intel covered in its Storage Field Day presentation, there are some differences with the performance requirements of video on demand and live-linear streaming CDN solutions.

Live-Linear Edge Cache

Live-linear video streaming is similar to the broadcast model used in television. It’s basically programming content streamed 24/7, rather than stuff that the user has to search for. Several minutes of content are typically cached to accommodate out-of-sync users and pause / rewind activities. You can read a good explanation of live-linear streaming here.

[image courtesy of Intel]

In the example above, Intel Optane PMem was used to address the needs of live-linear streaming.

  • Live-linear workloads consume a lot of memory capacity to maintain a short-lived video buffer.
  • Intel Optane PMem is less expensive than DRAM.
  • Intel Optane PMem has extremely high endurance, to handle frequent overwrite.
  • Flexible deployment options – Memory Mode or App-Direct, consuming zero drive slots.

With this solution they were able to achieve better channel and stream density per server than with DRAM-based solutions.

Video on Demand (VoD)

VoD providers typically offer a large library of content allowing users to view it at any time (e.g. Netflix and Disney+). VoD servers are a little different to live-linear streaming CDNs. They:

  • Typically require large capacity and drive fanout for performance / failure domains; and
  • Have a read-intensive workload, with typically large IOs.

[image courtesy of Intel]

 

Thoughts and Further Reading

I first encountered the magic of CDNs years ago when working in a data centre that hosted some Akamai infrastructure. Windows Server updates were super zippy, and it actually saved me from having to spend a lot of time standing in the cold aisle. Fast forward about 15 years, and CDNs are being used for all kinds of content delivery on the web. With whatever the heck this is is in terms of the new normal, folks are putting more and more strain on those CDNs by streaming high-quality, high-bandwidth TV and movie titles into their homes (except in backwards places like Australia). As a result, content providers are constantly searching for ways to tweak the throughput of these CDNs to serve more and more customers, and deliver more bandwidth to those users.

I’ve barely skimmed the surface of how CDNs help providers deliver content more effectively to end users. What I did find interesting about this presentation was that it reinforced the idea that different workloads require different infrastructure solutions to deliver the right outcomes. It sounds simple when I say it like this, but I guess I’ve thought about streaming video CDNs as being roughly the same all over the place. Clearly they aren’t, and it’s not just a matter of jamming some SSDs in one RU servers and hoping that your content will be delivered faster to punters. It’s important to understand that Intel Optane PMem and Intel Optane 3D NAND can give you different results depending on what you’re trying to do, with PMem arguably giving you better value for money (per GB) than DRAM. There are some great papers on this topic available on the Intel website. You can read more here and here.

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