Content Delivery Gets Smart

By Henry Baltazar  |  Posted 2002-03-11

Content Delivery Gets Smart

Intelligent content delivery systems are expected to gain prominence during the next few years as the key technology for powering distance learning and document management systems, as well as the Internet content caching market.

Center-to-edge content delivery systems—the next step in intelligent delivery—are emerging now, offering complete packages that encompass both software and hardware and, thus, better manageability. These systems will be most appealing to organizations that have a single data creation point (at the "center") and must spread content all the way out to the edges of the network, such as global companies with distance learning requirements.

eWeek Labs tested one such scheme, Network Appliance Inc.s Center-to-Edge Solution, which became available earlier this year. We found that the company has taken advantage of the strong software in its appliances to make its hardware/software combination more manageable. For example, using the snapshot capabilities of the NetApp Filers and cache units, the process of content distribution becomes more intelligent because the NetApp hardware is smart enough to send only file changes (as opposed to whole files) when a change is made to a file.

Key Components

Key Components

NetApps center-to-edge components leverage the companys enterprise-class caching and storage hardware with powerful content management software to deliver content throughout the network (see story, "Software Is Difference").

Although we tested a number of software components within the package, we found that NetApps Center-to-Edge content delivery package revolves around two applications: ContentDirector 2.0 and ContentReporter 2.1.1.

We also looked at NetApps Data Fabric Manager 1.1 software, which costs $19,400 for as many as five managed appliances and allows centralized installation and management of appliances from a single management point.

Although Data Fabric Manager isnt essential to the Center-to-Edge Solution, since it doesnt contribute to the packages content delivery and reporting, it does provide streamlined management capabilities that make the entire system more attractive.

The $40,000 ContentDirector application is the key ingredient in the hardware/software mix because it handles the task of distributing content throughout a network. The software proved to be up to the job in tests: Using ContentDirectors GUI, we easily created content distribution tasks, and we used its scheduling capabilities to automate delivery of content to caches.

ContentDirector supports IP multicast, which should help IT managers keep network traffic to a minimum when content is replicated throughout their networks.

In addition to painlessly scheduling content delivery across the test network, we used ContentDirectors built-in security functions to easily prevent users from accessing presentations before their scheduled release time, even if the cache was already populated with the newest presentations.

ContentReporter 2.1.1 (priced at $20,000 for the core application and $1,500 per managed device) is a reporting tool that provides IT managers with important information about performance issues such as bandwidth utilization and errors. ContentReporter is ideal for ISPs and other service organizations because it can show where resources are in the most demand, as well as whom to bill for usage, although it might be overkill for some sites.

Using ContentReporter, we could track which URLs on our intranet servers were requested most and determine which users consumed the most Internet resources—an important statistic for billing.

How It Works

How It Works

To test-drive the NetApp Center-to-Edge Solution, we ran Presenter Inc.s iPresentation Suite e-learning program as the content creation application on a streaming media server. iPresentation Suite allows users to create online presentations with slides and voice narrations that can be published to an intranet site and provides content-on-demand functionality.

NAIs center-to-edge solution

After creating a slide show using iPresentation Suite on a Windows 2000 server, we stored the content on a NetApp F840 Filer, which acted as the primary data storage repository at our "center" site (see diagram).

We used NetApps software to manage and store content: ContentDirector determined where the content would be stored and how it would be managed, and ContentReporter monitored and reported how the system was operating.

Using ContentDirector running on an Intel Corp.-based server, we scheduled a cache update job to populate our NetApp C6100 caching unit at the edge of the test network with the newly created presentations. We ran a Windows 2000 desktop as a client at the edge site. ContentReporter enabled us to verify that when a request for cached content was sent, the content we received came from the edge cache unit and not the filer unit at the center. The arrangement worked without a hitch in our tests.

Edging Toward Flexibility

Edging Toward Flexibility

As it stands now, center-to-edge systems are an effective way to push content through a network from a single point of creation. However, advances are in the works that will allow vendors to offer more flexible content delivery for approximately the same cost.

Intelligent content distribution

Bidirectional systems, which allow authorized users to create and distribute content from anywhere on a network, rather than from a single locale, will make for more flexible schemesn (see diagram). These systems will likely hold the greatest initial appeal for companies with large-scale collaboration needs, including news-gathering agencies and organizations that must pipe lectures, presentations or training content to a far-flung clientele.

The price of these systems will probably be comparable to those of center-to-edge setups: Theyll be expensive to implement and maintain, but once installed, will enable organizations to save on travel costs and conserve bandwidth (since content only goes over expensive WANs once).

Future versions of ContentDirector (slated for release later this year) will support bidirectional content distribution, allowing users to create and publish content from multiple locations.

Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar is at

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