Sunday, July 09, 2006

Start-ups find new ways to move huge data files over Internet

Mercury News

Internet video -- from episodes of ``South Park'' to videos of your friend singing karaoke to the latest Prince single -- has exploded in popularity.

But it's still harder than you might think to move video around. And the huge amount of video online is straining the Internet.

So a handful of Silicon Valley start-ups say they've got the Advil to alleviate the pain.

Some boast technology that makes it easier for consumers to send and receive video. Others say they've come up with tricks to help Internet service providers and content publishers by alleviating the load on the Internet backbone, thus saving them money on transmission costs.

The companies include Palo Alto-based Itiva, San Francisco's BitTorrent, New York's Pando, and Perenety and Kontiki, both of Sunnyvale.

Video presents new challenges for consumers and businesses alike because it creates digital files far larger than do text or music.

The overload problem is growing as more people use broadband to download movies, stream TV broadcasts or share amateur videos on sites like YouTube. San Mateo-based YouTube is moving 200 terabytes a day alone -- more than eBay, the world's largest online auction company, eBay.

And Major League Baseball games are hogging about half of the bandwidth of Akamai, which works with content providers, and says it delivers up to 20 percent of all Web traffic.

Pushing up costs

All of this leads to higher costs. Content providers have to pay Internet service providers for capacity to handle massive data transmissions. And ISPs like Comcast, AT&T and EarthLink that transport the content are squawking because video is filling up their Internet pipes and costing them money.

Indeed, the Internet overload problem is sparking debate in Washington over whether ISPs should be allowed to charge the biggest bandwidth hogs more money for access to their networks.

The U.S. streaming media market will grow to more than $7 billion a year in 2011, from $1.3 billion in 2005, according to research group Insight. A little more than half of that is expected to go to content producers, and the remainder to service providers that transmit the data.

The amount of data bytes from video streaming across the Internet is doubling every three or four months, according to industry watchers.

Some of the start-ups say they can help publishers and ISPs save money on bandwidth costs.

Perhaps the best-known is BitTorrent. Its peer-to-peer technology became the rage two years ago for sharing video for free -- though it got a reputation for spreading pirated movies around.

Its technology helps people download large files by tapping into computers of other BitTorrent users. Each of those computers -- a peer -- supplies a portion of the file, and BitTorrent's system uses its central intelligence to reassemble the pieces into the whole at the end.

Recently, BitTorrent has tried to move beyond its reputation for piracy. It has introduced more controls over content and struck a deal in May with Warner Bros. to distribute its movies and TV shows.

Producers like Warner Bros. don't have to pay as much to have their content transferred because it's distributed via people's computers on the peer-to-peer network.

But BitTorrent's technology faces difficulty moving beyond its geek loyalists. You have to download BitTorrent software, pull up a directory of what video or music is available on the network, and search for items that you'd like to download -- a complicated process for some.

Pando has tried to make things simpler for the masses. It has garnered buzz for working through e-mail: A movie or photo file can be sent to you in an e-mail, as an attachment. Pando's software on your computer connects with a Pando server, which searches for the pieces of the file from other peer computers -- saving you from doing much work.

Privacy feature

Pando allows publishers to dictate who gets to view their material -- so you can share your personal videos and photos without fear that they'll be distributed widely on the Net. Some 500,000 users have installed Pando's software over the past five months, Pando says. The company recently won $7 million in venture backing from Santa Clara chip giant Intel.

A related peer-to-peer technology is being developed by Perenety. Perenety's central server tells you when your friend has downloaded more photos or other content, and then loads them automatically onto your desktop computer -- only if your friend has set up prior permission.

Other approaches

While BitTorrent and Pando make it easier to share video files from computer to computer, other start-ups -- like Itiva -- try to lighten the load on ISPs.

Itiva allows ISPs to store pieces of the transferred files in their network's cache, a temporary storage area where data can be stored for quick access. A publisher sends its content, say a baseball game, a few times, and part of it is stored as cache. When there are new requests for the game, the data stored on cache pages gets transferred without being freshly transmitted by the producer.

By drastically reducing the number of times content is sent from the producer, Itiva frees up some of the service provider's network for other uses.

In other words, the Itiva offering claims it can save ISPs and content producers money. ``We're saving costs for everyone,'' says Michel Billard, president of Palo Alto's Itiva, who was product manager at HP for a media distribution product until last year.

The company, which just raised $7 million from founders and individual investors, is testing its product with animation studio DreamWorks, and launches formally Sept 1. Billard hopes to license his technology to large content companies like MLB, which may see Itiva as a way to avoid being hit with big bills from ISPs.