Confusion Reigns Supreme with Online Movie and TV Streaming Services. Consumers are the losers.

Confusion           caution-mass-confusion  220px-Aereo_logo netflix-appletv   streamingmedia

Recent shifts in technology due to the Internet have destroyed the profitability of several industries including the newspaper and music businesses. The next business that will be made over by technology is television. The profitability of owning TV networks is being undermined by digital video recorders, internet-enabled on-demand viewing, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and piracy/theft.  In this post, I’m going to list many if not all of these choices currently available to you and me – and there are WAY TOO MANY. And a lot of amateur content is taking up an increasing portion of a viewers’ time online and on mobile/tablet devices. You Tube has how many new original channels?  I mean unless you’ve got absolutely nothing to do 24hrs a day other than veg in front of a computer and or TV, you can’t ingest even 10% of this content.

Consumption of network and cable content is taking place in ways that allow viewers to circumvent high monthly cable bills, avoid watching commercials, or both. The new Barry Diller backed ‘Aereo’ – https://www.aereo.com/ will indeed disrupt cable and pay-tv as never before. Every single one of these changes represents a move to a revenue model that is less profitable than the one currently enjoyed by the TV networks. It is simply a matter of time before the revenue and profitability of the major networks begins to fall seriously erode.

342529-nimbletv

Consumers are awash with the plethora choices of streaming movie services, VOD and TV/time shifting programming (between 30 to 40 and counting). There are so many choices that I defy anyone to tell me exactly what they are buying and what each of them offer, specifically how tey are different. Anand Subramanian of startup NimbleTV was even more blunt. “There’s content everywhere. It’s a mess. It’s a total mess for consumers.”

Hollywood-sign-900Hollywood releases maybe 10-12 ‘big’ picture events every year and all of the releases are timed by Holidays (Thanksgiving/Christmas, July 4th, Memorial Day, Halloween, and Labor Day weekends). Independent movies are released around these times and are scattered throughout the year.  Years back when DVD’s were released, those releases in the stores reinforced the theatrical releases with a barrage of marketing. You saw the same big pictures being marketed again in 6-9 months after the theaters. So, when you went to Blockbuster you had a ‘a-ha’ moment. You’d say, oh yeah, I remember that movie, I missed it at the theaters and you would rent it. It was pretty clear what you saw,  what you missed and what you wanted to see again. Then, HBO and Showtime would re-market the same movies in their PAY-TV window approximately 10-12 months after the theaters.  They’d remain there for 24-36 months sometimes even longer.

dx4zdi1spq0olohforey    showtime

When Pay-TV was in its heyday, there was a ‘pay’ content war between HBO and Showtime. Some studios had exclusives with HBO, some with Showtime. To the average consumer, this didn’t mean all too much.  No one wanted to watch a Paramount movie, they wanted to see ‘Fatal Attraction’.  Maybe with the exception of which pay-tv service had Disney movies (if you had kids).  Now, that doesn’t really matter too much as kids watch gobs of shows on basic, Nick Jr., etc.  Over the years, HBO got wise and supplemented its schedule with well produced original programming and still is. Showtime followed with its original programming and both duked it out with Sports, specifically Boxing.

Time shift forward, now it’s a war between Netflix and HBO.

121007064534-amazon-prime-resize-horizontal-gallery    Hulu-Plus  shop-itunes-store-column-browser

Its not HBO and Showtime, but Netflix – http://goo.gl/0N2No . And its not only Netflix, it Amazon Prime, Hulu plus, iTunes and a myriad of other streaming offerings.  I’ve compiled a list below. But the bottom line is how does anyone really understand what they are buying? If you subscribe to Netflix, can I see Disney movies? Will I get mega-hit from Universal like Jurassic Park, Les Miserables, and Despicable Me Part 2? Or do I need to subscribe to several streaming services? And, which ones?

And down the road very soon Barry Diller’s back Aereo TV will expand to 22 cities – https://www.aereo.com/. Why is this disruptive if it only offers ABC, CBS and NBC as the primary driver of the service? (more on this later).

abc_logo nbc-primetime-schedule CBS

Here is the list ( I hope I’ve got most included). I’ll admit I am confused as everyone else and I’m not going to buy or subscribe to more than one service especially when I don’t even know that if I do, I’ve essentially duplicated the movies and content I’ve subscribed to.

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Hallmark Instant Streaming – coming Spring 2013

Amazon Prime Instant Video – The Prime Instant Video library consists of over 30,000 movies and TV episodes, which can be watched via any device the streaming service is available on, including the Kindle Fire, iOS devices, Roku, Xbox 360, PS3, and the Wii U.

iTunes

Netflix

Redbox Instant (Verizon)

Redbox in Stores – Physical DVD rentals

Roku

Boxee

CinemaNow – Best Buy’s service plus

Hulu +  – Hulu now has more than 430 content partners, offering over 60,000 TV episodes, 2,300 TV series, and 50,000 hours of total video

NimbleTV – Just like Aereo (Barry Diller venture)

Motive TV – Like Nimble and Aereo from the U.K. heading to the US

Aereo – Just like Nimble TV

Ultraviolet – Studio driven answer. Welcome to DRM land.

Bigstar.tv

Crackle – SONY/Columbia Pictures

Vudu

RedBox (physical rental)

Kaleidescape

Sony Pictures Gift Store – more SONY choices

Flixster – Gateway to itunes, amazon and vudu

IndieFlix

Popcornflix

Cable Operators VOD library ( Time-Warner 4,000 movies + Comcast, Cox, etc.)

OnDemand via cable

Microsoft’s X-Box – a Gateway to Netflix + others.

Comcast’s Xfinity – Over 10,000 VOD movies (lots of NBC/Universal content)

Starz Play

Encore Play

MoviePlex Play –  Starz Play currently offers approximately 400 film and TV titles, including 300 movies and 100 episodes of Starz original series. Encore Play offers about 900 monthly selections, while MoviePlex provides access to 200 more movies every month.

AvailTVN_LogoAvail-TVN’s View Now – ViewNow’s library of movie content includes titles from both major and independent studios, which can be delivered in MPEG-2 and MPEG-4, as well as a range of adaptive bitrate (ABR) formats, to traditional set-tops as well as internet-connected devices like PCs, smartphones, and tablets. In addition to multiplatform rights, Avail-TVN says ViewNow includes download rights on a large number of titles.

M-GoM-Go – new app that elegantly streamlines all of your media together in one place including movies, music, TV and more. Formed in 2011, M-GO is a dynamic well-funded startup sprung from the cooperation of Technicolor and DreamWorks Animation. The M-GO app will be available for download for free on all major operating systems. M-GO is preloaded on 2012 Samsung and Vizio Smart TV and Blu-ray players as well as Intel Ultrabooks, totaling up to 30 million installed devices.

Watch ESPN is now available on Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Kindle Fire HD devices. Free to download via the Amazon Appstore, the TV Everywhere app offers access to live sports and channel programming from ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN3, as well as ESPN Goal Line/Buzzer Beater when in season. As is the case with other WatchESPN editions as well as other TV Everywhere services, to access the content the viewer needs to first have ESPN in their TV subscription package. In conjunction with announcing the Kindle Fire app release, ESPN also revealed some end-of-the-year numbers on how WatchESPN is faring in terms of distribution and availability. The sports network says that total downloads for the WatchESPN app, which is now available in the App Store, Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore, more than doubled in 2012. It’s now available in 46 million households nationwide as six of the top 10 cable distributors also provide access to the service.

epix-hd-logo1EPIX plans to launch a streaming app for the PlayStation 3 during the first quarter of 2013, followed by an app for the portable PlayStation Vita console sometime in the spring. The apps will offer more than 3,000 titles, including blockbusters such as The Hunger Games, Thor, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, as well as EPIX’s lineup of original programming, which features music concert, comedy, and sports events. The apps will be available to PlayStation Network members in the US as a free download. Users will need to authenticate their EPIX TV subscription in order to watch the content.

Now about Aereo.  One of the things we all get cable for whether you realize it or not is to receive the 3 main Broadcast Networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. These are on basic cable in 100% of all cable systems nationwide. And basic cable costs at least $ 50-70 a month and 9 times out of 10 its bundled with pay-TV and a phone land line along with internet access bringing your bill to over $ 100 a month.  And generally, one has a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription (or another streaming movie service).  There are 2 kinds of camps here or cable subscribers, one with kids and the others without kids. For the people without kids, Aereo + 1 streaming movie service (unless you are a sports nut and MUST have ESPN) would be sufficient. You’d have local broadcast TV and all the movies you could watch/stream. What else do you really need (unless you must watch ‘Honey Boo-Boo’ and then I can’t help you). For the families with kids, this is slightly age dependent. Its hard when you have toddlers NOT to want to get several of Viacom’s Kids channels or Disney’s kids channels (Nick, Nick Jr., Disney Channel, Disney Jr., etc. )  If you have older kids, teens etc. a movie streaming service with Hulu + might suffice.  For those without kids, Aereo + a movie streaming service will drastically cut your bill. Aereo I believe will charge about $ 9.00 a month, no subscription or early termination fee (take that Cox, Comcast, Time-Warner and Fios). Maybe with Amazon Prime or Netflix and your looking at under $ 20.00 a month. Yes, you will need internet access so add another $40-60.00 a month depending on your need for speed. But its definitely less than the typical bundled services. If you don’t think that Aereo has Pay-TV in its crosshairs, you’re crazy. We shall see how this unfolds as it winds its way through the courts. Yes, Aereo is being sued by the broadcasters and others, but it’s also rolling out its service nationwide this spring. I am signing up to see what its like – but it seems like an idea whose time has arrived

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The End of An Era – Music Companies, ‘cloud’ services and the ISP’s are laughing all the way to the Bank, courtesy of you and me!

Amazon’s Cloud Drive, Google’s BetaMusic, iTunes upcoming ‘cloud’ offering, current subscription based music ‘cloud’ services and music ‘lockers’ ( eMusic, Spotify, Rhapsody, Thumbplay Music, mSpot, MP3Tunes, and others) are all similar in many ways.

There are slight differences in the cost and the amount of storage for free that you get initially. After that, users will find the old fashioned way we now store and playback music might in fact have been the best and most cost efficient after all.

Today, we all have mp3’s or m4p’s (iTunes) stored somewhere on our computers or in an external hard drive or both. We have our iPod and other devices to playback these files. Load up a playlist and take them with you. Soon, the above mentioned services will offer us the ability to ship all or some of our music collection to what effectively is a hard drive outside our house or computer – essentially letting them live ‘over there’ or wherever that service lives, be it Amazon, Google or Apple. Load up a playlist and playback the music just as we do now.

A few things will change however that will drastically alter not how or what we listen to but what it will cost us to listen to what we now playback for free. And the changes are subtle but substantial. And these changes are all designed to generate money, a lot of it, for 3 separate entities; the music cloud service of your choice, the music companies and your local ISP.

What has been an essentially free activity for all of us (creating and playing back music on our device of choice locally), will now very quickly become an expensive one, remotely. The change has been slowly evolving – with the ISP’s like Comcast, Time-Warner and others that supply us leading the way. They have all decided to ‘cap’ and meter our bandwidth usage under various tiered plans. Just like we get our water and electricity usage metered, so will our ‘internet’ usage.

And that’s old news – I’m not telling you anything you have not already heard before. Soon, we will keenly be aware of how much data we will be using monthly. And now, the new music ‘cloud’ offerings will present us with tiered pricing plans to store our music monthly as well. You might have 10 gigs of music (which is NOT a heck of a lot, personally) today that you want to store on Google’s Beta Music Cloud Drive ( they are just being used as one example). For me, I’ve got a ton more than that and I add to that monthly. So initially, I’ll choose a plan for 10 gigs, but I am 100% sure over time, I will eventually double that.

In addition to those charges I want to turn on my ‘cloud’ player and listen to some tunes being played back at my home, through my PC piped into my speakers in the house. Well that used to be free when I loaded up my player locally on my PC. Now with my house being metered, here’s a rough idea of what I could be faced with.

1GB streamed per month = a little more than half an hour of music per day
3GB streamed per month = about 2 hours of music per day
5GB streamed per month = about 3.1 hours of music per day

For music aficionados, that is not a lot of time spent listening to my music. Now mind you, I don’t have to use a cloud service to listen locally – I can continue doing what I do now. But that also means I’ve got to keep a duplicate set of files. And it does not include any bandwidth for any other activities on the Internet during the month I engage in. If you have a iPhone or other device that plays back music, sure you can stream your collection from that same cloud service, but wait, there’s a data cap on your phone too. But wait, there’s more. The new Chrome notebook offers a plan too when you are NOT connected to WiFi – and it’s not cheap:

• Free 100MB per month (what you get with the first two years of ownership under the current plan): 1 hour and 45 minutes of music playback for an entire month
• $10 for an unlimited day pass: listen all day
• $20 for 1GB of data in a given month: a little over half hour of music per day
• $35 for 3GB of data in a given month: nearly two hours of music per day
• $50 for 5GB of data in a given month: a little over three hours of music per day

All of this cost and metering does not include monthly cloud ‘subscription’ costs. Put it all together and you might be looking at some heavy fees every month that you don’t currently pay storing and playing back your music collection locally or playing back on the road through your iPhone, etc.

Now I am a big cloud advocate – there are some big advantages clearly in storing your collection outside of your house. The biggest single advantage I can think of is a disaster – and they DO happen. Replacing a 60gig collection is not only time consuming and expensive but just go and try to remember what was in your collection of say 40,000 songs – good luck! This alone is reason enough to consider storing your collection remotely. Other disadvantages include getting the songs up there to start and you don’t want to move the collection once you are there. Ever try moving 60gigs quickly – there is no quickly. So choose your service very carefully!

While all of these new music services sound great and offer us new and improved ways to listen to our music, I can’t help wondering if one day a few years back the ISP’s and the music industry got together in one big Hotel room and figured this out as a way to get back all of the lost revenue that the ‘Napster’, ‘Kaaza’ and ‘Limewire’ era sucked out of them. Maybe they will get the last laugh after all. Here’s a better one – how would a Netflix for example, replicate a ‘cloud’ locker storage scenario for movies I might purchase? Could it? Just think of THAT cloud storage plan!! Ouch!

The Great Chaos Monkey!

Apr 25, 2011
Working with the Chaos Monkey

Late last year, the Netflix Tech Blog wrote about five lessons they learned moving to Amazon Web Services. AWS is, of course, the preeminent provider of so-called “cloud computing”, so this can essentially be read as key advice for any website considering a move to the cloud. And it’s great advice, too. Here’s the one bit that struck me as most essential:

We’ve sometimes referred to the Netflix software architecture in AWS as our Rambo Architecture. Each system has to be able to succeed, no matter what, even all on its own. We’re designing each distributed system to expect and tolerate failure from other systems on which it depends.

If our recommendations system is down, we degrade the quality of our responses to our customers, but we still respond. We’ll show popular titles instead of personalized picks. If our search system is intolerably slow, streaming should still work perfectly fine.

One of the first systems our engineers built in AWS is called the Chaos Monkey. The Chaos Monkey’s job is to randomly kill instances and services within our architecture. If we aren’t constantly testing our ability to succeed despite failure, then it isn’t likely to work when it matters most – in the event of an unexpected outage.

Which, let’s face it, seems like insane advice at first glance. I’m not sure many companies even understand why this would be a good idea, much less have the guts to attempt it. Raise your hand if where you work, someone deployed a daemon or service that randomly kills servers and processes in your server farm.

Now raise your other hand if that person is still employed by your company.

Who in their right mind would willingly choose to work with a Chaos Monkey?

Angry-monkey-family-guy

Sometimes you don’t get a choice; the Chaos Monkey chooses you. At Stack Exchange, we struggled for months with a bizarre problem. Every few days, one of the servers in the Oregon web farm would simply stop responding to all external network requests. No reason, no rationale, and no recovery except for a slow, excruciating shutdown sequence requiring the server to bluescreen before it would reboot.

We spent months — literally months — chasing this problem down. We walked the list of everything we could think of to solve it, and then some:

swapping network ports
replacing network cables
a different switch
multiple versions of the network driver
tweaking OS and driver level network settings
simplifying our network configuration and removing TProxy for more traditional X-FORWARDED-FOR
switching virtualization providers
changing our TCP/IP host model
getting Kernel hotfixes and applying them
involving high-level vendor support teams
some other stuff that I’ve now forgotten because I blacked out from the pain

At one point in this saga our team almost came to blows because we were so frustrated. (Well, as close to “blows” as a remote team can get over Skype, but you know what I mean.) Can you blame us? Every few days, one of our servers — no telling which one — would randomly wink off the network. The Chaos Monkey strikes again!

Even in our time of greatest frustration, I realized that there was a positive side to all this:

Where we had one server performing an essential function, we switched to two.
If we didn’t have a sensible fallback for something, we created one.
We removed dependencies all over the place, paring down to the absolute minimum we required to run.
We implemented workarounds to stay running at all times, even when services we previously considered essential were suddenly no longer available.

Every week that went by, we made our system a tiny bit more redundant, because we had to. Despite the ongoing pain, it became clear that Chaos Monkey was actually doing us a big favor by forcing us to become extremely resilient. Not tomorrow, not someday, not at some indeterminate “we’ll get to it eventually” point in the future, but right now where it hurts.
Now, none of this is new news; our problem is long since solved, and the Netflix Tech Blog article I’m referring to was posted last year. I’ve been meaning to write about it, but I’ve been a little busy. Maybe the timing is prophetic; AWS had a huge multi-day outage last week, which took several major websites down, along with a constellation of smaller sites.

Notably absent from that list of affected AWS sites? Netflix.

When you work with the Chaos Monkey, you quickly learn that everything happens for a reason. Except for those things which happen completely randomly. And that’s why, even though it sounds crazy, the best way to avoid failure is to fail constantly.

Guest Post by Jeff Atwood

Amazon’s EC2 ‘cloud’ outage is just a minor bump in major right road.

By now you’ve heard about Amazon’s EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) cloud service failure, or perhaps felt it. If you use Foursquare or read Reddit, use or Quora (among other services or websites) you no doubt felt the impact.

On 4.21 at 1:48am PDT. Quora even had a fun ‘down’ message: “We’d point fingers, but we wouldn’t be where we are today without EC2.” And this YouTube video:

Lew Moorman, chief strategy officer of Rackspace, said it best “It was the computing equivalent of an airplane crash. It is a major episode with widespread damage”. But airline travel, he noted, “is still safer than traveling in a car” — analogous to cloud computing being safer than data centers run by individual companies.

The fact remains, the cloud model is rapidly gaining popularity as a way for companies to outsource computing chores to avoid the costs and headaches of running their own data centers — simply tap in, over the Web, to computer processing and storage without owning the machines or operating software.

Consumers don’t realize that there are a host of sites that base a majority of their ‘up-time’ on cloud services, including Hotmail and Netflix to name just a few. Netflix was not affected by the recent outage because Netflix has taken full advantage of Amazon Web Services’ redundant cloud architecture (which is NOT inexpensive).

Industry analysts said the troubles would prompt many companies to reconsider relying on remote computers beyond their control. And while discussions surrounding that might happen in the next several weeks, in the long-term cloud computing will continue and thrive and evolve into what most industry experts and others already know it to be – a necessary and valued component of doing any kind of business or having any sort of web presence on the Internet. The truth is, every day many more companies around the globe experience ‘outages’ that take their services and sometimes web site down for hours. Added all together, they add up for far more lost time, money and engineering resources that Amazon’s interruption last week.

This round, the companies that were hit hardest by the Amazon interruption were start-ups who are focused on moving fast in pursuit of growth, and who are less likely to pay for extensive backup and recovery services or secondary redundancy in another data center (or Amazon’s redundant cloud architecture).

One of the things that most people are not aware of is that Amazon has an SLA (service level agreement) which is one of the weakest cloud compute SLA of any competing public cloud compute services, even though its uptime is actually very good. Most providers offer 99.99% or better, with many offering 100%, evaluated monthly, with service credit capping at 100% of that monthly bill. Amazon offers 99.95%, evaluated yearly, capping at 10% of that bill, and requires that at least two availability zones within a region be unavailable. Therefore, companies MUST take this into consideration when choosing a vendor as how it relates to what they do on the internet. Taking a secondary, back-up approach can close some of those holes, but it can get mighty expensive. Amazon’s EC2 pricing overall reflects this type of SLA and the ‘human’ support is not included — because of this aspect it can give a 10% to 20% uplift to the price, and it is geared primarily toward the very technically knowledgeable. Amazon is a cloud IaaS-focused (infrastructure-as-a-service) vendor with a very pure vision of highly automated, inexpensive, commodity infrastructure, bought without any commitment to a contract. Amazon is a thought leader; it is extraordinarily innovative, exceptionally agile and very responsive to the market.

That being said, the recent Verizon acquisition of Terremark should put most Tier 1 vendors on their toes including Amazon. Terremark offers colocation, managed hosting (including utility hosting on its Infinistructure platform), developer-centric public cloud IaaS (vCloud Express) and enterprise-class cloud IaaS (Enterprise Cloud). It is a close VMware partner (VMware is one of its investors), and is generally first to market with VMware-based solutions. It is a certified vCloud Datacenter provider. Some of Terremark’s perceived weak spots can and should now be addressed by the merger between the 2 service offerings, in particular the added personnel to better deliver on customer service and satisfaction (stretched thin’ has been the compliant). Now that it has a substantially bigger war chest from its parent Verizon and Verizon’s exceptional network worldwide (remember Uunet), it can take on and adapt more bleeding edge technologies, which it has done in the past, but has not been able to do so most recently.

Combinations like this will likely increase in this space over time as other vendors realize that 2 can be better than one. The devil is always in the details and the trick here is for company cultures to be merged efficiently with a clear and concise plan laid out for both sets of employees. The last thing you need are internal employees to wonder who is going to be replying to the same RFP (request for proposal) to any particular vendor moving forward. Strong, well thought out details by upper management should avoid these pitfalls for the most part, however, it can be pretty tricky to implement.

Long story short – I’d still bet heavily on the long-term success of this business. It’s a smart, cost efficient and labor efficient business model needed for most start-ups, mid-size and Enterprise clients. The days of sending your IT guys into a cage to update the companies software with numerous discs and software patches hoping that it doesn’t disrupt the companies servers should be long gone.

Cloudy With NO Chance of Meatballs for $24.95

Someone over at Sony must be watching too many 3 Stooges episodes late at night to think up a promotion like this.

What a terrible value for consumers. I guess their DVD outlets complained so instead of changing their thinking they upped the 24hr. ‘rental’ price. Yes, that’s right. If you’ve got a Sony Bravia TV you too can rent ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ for the incredibly fair price of $ 24.95 for a 24 hour term. Don’t everyone rush at once. And, those renters will be proud to know that they got to see the film BEFORE their friends got it on DVD….ooooohhh. Sony thinks that there’s a rush to see THIS film 28 days before you can see it or buy it on DVD (Jan 4th, 2010) for less than $24.95 and own the plastic disc and box? I feel really sorry for the suckers who rent it on Jan. 3rd, 2010 the day before its DVD release. If they wait just 24 more hours they can OWN it for less.

Sony, why not offer consumers something of value? Netflix list of 20 Sony films for free? 3-6 month pass to EpixHD online? Something on iTunes? Anything? This is ridiculous.

Michael Jackson is a test. He is only a test of the emergency broadcast system

Guest post – Dean Takahashi – 6/25/09

emergency

The Internet was built to withstand nuclear attack. That was why it was built in the ’60s in the first place, as a communications system with redundancy built in so that the military could communicate even if one of the nodes went down.

We saw some of that happen today, as news of Michael Jackson’s death spread like wildfire through the Internet. TMZ.com got the scoop about Jackson being sent to the hospital. But the site went down from the surge of traffic. The LA Times reported he was in a coma, but then that site went down too. The LA Times managed to report that Jackson was dead, and then everyone else started buzzing about it. Twitter went down. Keynote Systems, which measures web site performance, said that the following sites all slowed significantly: ABC, AOL, LA Times, CNN Money and CBS. Starting at 230 pm PST, the average load time for a news site slowed from 4 seconds to 9 seconds.

abomb

This is not supposed to happen. More than a decade ago, when I was writing about computer servers and Sun Microsystems was advertising itself as “We’re the dot in dotcom,” the hardware vendors were all talking about “utility computing.” Carly Fiorina, then the chief executive of HP, touted “adaptive computing,” where software would automatically route traffic from one overloaded server to another. Sun called its version of utility computing “N1,” after the code name for a project that aimed at rebalancing server loads on the fly. IBM, meanwhile, operated on a vision that it called “on demand.”

These visions were great and they all made sense based on an understanding of traffic as a flow of data. Companies such as Akamai set up networks to deliver video in real time for events, such as Victoria’s Secret’s annual lingerie show on the web. In years past, Victoria’s Secret had lots of trouble keeping a site up. But now it’s not as hard. Akamai sets up server centers around the country to feed video to users as needed. But now we’re talking the need to update in micro-seconds.

Servers have gotten better at being multi-headed beasts, especially with the arrival of hardware innovations such as low-power processors and chips with multiple cores, or processing engines, on a single chip. Virtualization software from VMware and others has arrived. That allows a server to split itself into two or three or more machines, just like the old mainframe computers, which had to do tasks in batches by necessity. Each instance of the server can handle a computing task, like fetching a web page from memory and sending it back to the user that requested it. Servers have become like hydras, doing all sorts of these trivial computing tasks at the same time.

And yet networks still buckle under the weight of traffic when something like today’s events shakes the whole world. Mobile networks are particularly weak, as AT&T’s activation problems related to the launch of the iPhone 3G S showed. In some ways, the servers worked today. As one site went down, another picked up the torch. But the transitions were rocky. The promise of utility computing is that you will be able to switch on and off server capacity as if you were switching on and off your lights.

And that leads me to consider the future. As tragic as Michael Jackson’s death is, it’s only a small taste of what would happen in a true calamity. If the servers go down, how are we going to get our Gmail or Yahoo Mail? Who will be there to listen when we collectively Tweet for help? What will we do if the emergency plan is stored on the network?

It’s a wake-up call for the web, and for those who are building its infrastructure and plumbing for it.

(Dean writes for http://venturebeat.com/)

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