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Tech Savvy: A local cached stash of streaming favorites - Netflix server cuts CTC's web traffic nearly in half

CTC Technology Manager Ryan Rosenwald points out the Netflix server at Consolidated Telecommunications Co. in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 3
CTC Technology Manager Ryan Rosenwald (left) and CTC Marketing Manager Andy Isackson talk about the dedicated Netflix server at CTC in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 3
A red server holds cached Netflix favorites for faster streaming service at Consolidated Telecommunications Co. in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch3 / 3

If you've ever peeled yourself off the couch, seemingly emerging from a time warp, when Netflix asks if you're still watching—this one's for you.

So enthralled is the Netflix-viewing public with the company's instantly available programming, Brainerd area-based Consolidated Telecommunications Co. has in its arsenal a server meant just for storing the most popular Netflix offerings. The server, branded in Netflix red, stands out in a wall of black and gray. Within it are cached versions of the top 2,000 shows and movies offered by the streaming service—meaning the content has less distance to travel, loads faster and can even continue to play in the event of an internet outage for CTC's customers, according to employees Andy Isackson and Ryan Rosenwald.

Earlier this year the pair showed off the server responsible for nearly halving the gigabytes of data pumping through the digital pipelines to support CTC customers' online habits.

"It's so much traffic that we've been able to save on our overall impact of our entire network by having this caching server in there, because we don't have so many people streaming and downloading from our entire network at one time," Isackson, CTC marketing manager, said. "It's kind of a neat little server in the fact that not only does it cache the most popular stuff, but it saves on overall overhead costs because the network infrastructure isn't taking quite the hit from people streaming so much on it."

It isn't only CTC and its customers benefiting from local storage of Netflix's most popular content. Netflix benefits as well, Rosenwald said, because it reduces the bandwidth strain on the company's primary hubs. Netflix fully supports the little red guy at no cost to CTC.

Here's how it works: each morning at 2 a.m.—a time when Netflix traffic is nearing its lowest—the streaming giant refreshes the server with its most popular content of the day. This download process takes about three hours, with occasional minor tweaks throughout the day through the afternoon. By then, the server is shored up and ready to bring viewing pleasure to thousands of CTC users when bandwidth peaks, unsurprisingly after dinnertime.

Isackson and Rosenwald said the company has watched over the last decade as the portion of its bandwidth dedicated to streaming has grown, with most recent figures showing Netflix alone accounts for 42 percent of it. While the growth correlated with the increased availability of online streaming services, Isackson noted the local impact of installing more fiber in the ground to deliver higher speeds meant streaming became more accessible to more people. At one time, it might have only been possible to stream to one TV in any given home—but fiber meant two or three TVs could be streaming simultaneously.

"As we grew our network, the Netflix traffic went up with it," Isackson said. "If you give people the pipe, they'll stream."

The introduction of streaming in high-definition also increased the load on CTC's system, Isackson said, making the caching server all the more helpful. The next challenge for the telecommunications company will be the rise of 4K, Isackson said, and whether Netflix and other streaming services will begin to offer content using the higher resolution.

The name 4K, according to CNET, refers to the roughly 4,000 pixels along the horizontal side of a screen, meaning it's four times the resolution of 1080p TVs.

If United Kingdom-based newspaper The Guardian has it right, this is the year when 4K will really hit the big time, and the minds at CTC are plotting what that might mean for the network. Add in virtual and augmented reality, and the potential bandwidth required to support those emerging technologies grows exponentially.

Isackson said streaming in HD requires a 10-megabyte connection, while 4K would require 20-25 megabytes. Add in a VR headset streaming 4K content 360 degrees, and things get complicated fast. Just one headset could require as much as a 100-megabyte connection.

"It's going to be in schools, and kids are going to be using it for learning before we know it," Isackson said. "Those are the things we watch for to make sure we have the capacity in the network."

While the fiber itself can handle the load—in fact, "we've never even scratched the surface of what fiber optics can deliver for speed or capacity," Isackson said—it's the other equipment used to deliver high-speed internet that will require replacement.

"I think it's more so staying ahead of the game," Rosenwald said. "If you're ahead of that curve, that equipment costs a lot of money unless you can hold off a couple years, and then the cost substantially comes down."

Just a short jaunt a little further down the road is the potential for 8K content. The CES show in January in Las Vegas showcased TVs as large as 80 inches sporting the even higher resolution of 8K.

Netflix isn't the only company seeking to benefit from caching servers. About six months after CTC installed its Netflix server, one managed by Google—supporting YouTube content—moved into the CTC server room. Google manages its video stash a little differently than Netflix, continuously updating its most popular content throughout the day. Rosenwald said it's possible the next company to provide a caching server could be Amazon as more people use the streaming service offered by the online retail giant.

FACTBOX

Streaming—"a technology used to deliver content to computers and mobile devices over the internet. Streaming transmits data — usually audio and video, but increasingly other kinds as well — as a continuous flow, which allows the recipients to begin to watch or listen almost immediately," Lifewire. Previously, items were often downloaded and then could be used in the case of a game or watched in the case of a movie, with the data stored on the users device. With storage space often an issue, streaming allows users to access data right away, without waiting for a download and data is automatically deleted after it is used. Streaming, also called livestreaming, requires a fast internet connection.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

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