Netflix has a secret sauce that none of us have ever seen.
Hundreds of thousands of households across the world tuned in to Netflix’s Squid Game last month, and viewers may have taken something unusual for granted. Even while other providers battled to keep their goods stable under less demanding circumstances, Netflix didn’t fold under the extraordinary demand for the dystopian thriller that would become its most popular movie to date.
When many of us turn on our favorite streaming services, we frequently encounter a variety of enrage-inducing issues: things freeze, controls don’t work, or the service completely crashes. None of them are great, but they all appear to be a well-accepted consequence of cord-cutting. For example, Disney Plus was forced to shut down on its first day due to technical issues (and then it buckled again under demand for WandaVision).
HBO Max is so badly flawed that its own executives have confessed it’s a shambles. Even Instagram, whose Stories feature turns it into a sort of streaming service in its own right, has started notifying users when it’s down. Streaming may be aggravating.
The innards of a service, the tech underlying the app itself, are the cornerstone of any streamer’s success, and Netflix has spent the previous ten years expanding its Open Connect server network to avoid many current streaming difficulties.
It’s what allowed Netflix to deliver a lot more consistent experience than its competitors and not falter when 111 million people saw Squid Game in its first weeks on the platform.
“One of the reasons why Netflix is the market leader and has the number of subscribers that they do […] is something that pretty much everyone outside of the technical part of this industry underestimates, and that is Open Connect,” says Dan Rayburn, a media streaming expert and principal analyst with Frost & Sullivan. “How many times has Netflix’s streaming service been down in the previous ten years?”
There aren’t quite as many as HBO Max, to be sure.
“ANYONE WHO WANTS TO
IMPROVE PERFORMANCE IS
GOING TO TRY TO PUT A SERVER
AS CLOSE TO THE END USER AS
Netflix’s vice president of Open Connect, Gina Haspilaire, tells me that the company “understood that we needed to construct some degree of infrastructure technology that would handle the projected traffic that we thought success would look like.” “We were confident in our ability to succeed, and we were aware that the internet at the time was not designed to handle the volume of traffic that would be necessary internationally.”
Nobody wants to sit down to watch a movie only to have their app break or buffer for an interminable amount of time. Netflix had the insight to realize that in order to maintain a particular level of quality, it would have to develop its own distribution infrastructure.
SETTING THE HOOD TO OPEN CONNECTION
Netflix’s in-house content distribution network, Open Connect, was created expressly to transmit its TV episodes and movies. The program, which began in 2012, entails Netflix providing physical hardware to internet service providers that allow them to localize traffic.
These equipment store copies of Netflix material to relieve network congestion by reducing the number of channels through which the content must traverse before reaching the user wanting to watch it.
Because other major streaming services rely on third-party content delivery networks (CDNs) to distribute their programs, Netflix’s server network is unusual.
A request for material from an ISP must “travel via a peering point and perhaps transit four or five more networks until it gets to the origin, or the site that owns the content,” Will Law, chief architect of media engineering at Akamai, tells The Verge. This not only slows down delivery, but it also costs money because ISPs may have to pay to access that content.
Netflix transfers copies of its programming to its own servers ahead of time to prevent traffic and expenses. This also helps to keep Netflix traffic from overwhelming the network during peak streaming hours.
“We, Open Connect, bring a copy of Bridgerton to the closest point to your internet service provider — in some cases, right inside your internet service provider’s network — and that basically avoids the burden of the internet service provider having to go get it and transfer it over the internet to you,” Haspilaire tells EthioTechs.
And they’re all over the place. Netflix currently claims to have 17,000 servers in 158 countries, and the firm says it intends to continue increasing its video distribution network. Netflix prioritizes the locations of these servers depending on the number of subscribers and agreements with ISPs, according to the firm.
Law explains, “Anyone who wants to improve performance will try to put a server as close to the end user as possible.” “And by placing it there and providing information from that last mile network, it eliminates the need for traffic to traverse the rest of the internet before returning to an origin.” As a result, it relieves the strain on the internet and the peering points.”
When Open Connect first debuted a decade ago, the service began collaborating on rollout with ISPs. Netflix gives the servers to ISPs for free, and the servers are maintained by an internal reliability team that collaborates with ISP resources. According to Netflix and Akamai, the benefit to ISPs is lower costs by eliminating the requirement for them to obtain copies of material themselves.
“It’s not a great load,” Law says, “but it’s certainly a relief.” “It’s the same idea upon which Akamai was built, and it’s the same basis upon which every CDN operates. Netflix’s CDN is similar to other CDNs, with the exception that it is only dedicated to Netflix content.”
While most third-party CDNs handle various requests from multiple firms — Akamai, for example, claims to have thousands of customers — Netflix’s own CDN only does one thing: it distributes Netflix content. If a content distributor doesn’t have a CDN partnership or server network in place, there’s a lot that has to happen along the road before you can watch a movie or TV show, according to Law.
“THE REASON THAT NETFLIX HAD
TO BUILD A CDN IS BECAUSE
AMERICA’S ISPS ARE GARBAGE.”
Netflix does not reveal how much it costs to develop and operate these servers, although it claims to have invested $1 billion in Open Connect since its inception a decade ago. Because a premium and user-engaged streaming experience is central to Netflix’s whole business plan, it’s pouring mountains of cash into the CDN. For example, their whole subscription business is predicated in part on the quality of video streaming a customer desires for their content.
Netflix must also take into account the fact that America’s internet infrastructure is essentially damaged and split.
“The reason that Netflix had to build a CDN is because America’s ISPs are garbage,” Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Katharine Trendacosta tells The Verge. “And what they knew was that their customers don’t want an endlessly buffering screen or degraded quality.”
Now, not every ISP allows Netflix’s hardware in. The Verge spoke with an AT&T executive who confirmed that it still sells Netflix optimal network connections to the streamer rather than having Netflix install physical devices in its data centers. When asked about how this arrangement and others work alongside its Open Connect program, Netflix said that it views “our relationships with ISPs globally as adaptable.” A company spokesperson said the arrangement may differ based on what an ISP’s network supports, and Netflix will find other connection points to bring its titles closer to the viewer instead.
Netflix will find other connection points to bring its titles closer to the viewer, according to a company representative. The arrangement may alter depending on what an ISP’s network enables, and Netflix will find other connection points to bring its titles closer to the viewer instead.
WHY DOES IT WORK?
Netflix is mainly concerned with providing an excellent watching experience regardless of how terrible your Internet connection is.
To do this, Netflix sends three versions of each of its programs to its servers, each with a different quality level. If your ISP becomes overburdened or your connection goes down, the system will automatically switch to a lower-bitrate version of the title, allowing you to continue watching without interruption.
“We’ll adjust the content to the network’s quality, not the other way around,” Haspilaire explains. “That’s why you don’t notice when your network goes down – your streaming remains steady.” Because we can modify the version over time… so you won’t have buffering from us when your internet goes in and out.”
So, why are there three copies? As Trendacosta pointed out, the internet as we know it is completely untrustworthy. Outages, weak wifi connections, and other network disruptions may limit your ability to use the internet as needed. Netflix’s relationship with ISPs allows it to maneuver around many of these network issues.
“NOBODY IS GOING TO DISAGREE
OR ARGUE WITH NETFLIX THAT
THEY’VE BUILT A SYSTEM THAT
WORKS AT SCALE.”
Netflix pre-places this content during off-peak hours, according to Haspilaire, so it doesn’t compete with other internet traffic during peak viewing periods. Netflix claims that it forecasts what will be popular and transmits its material to servers appropriately.
“We’re not only putting stuff on all of these servers throughout the world, but we’re also putting it there ahead of time depending on what’s popular.” We’re able to place it as near as feasible under the proper server because we forecast what’s popular,” Haspilaire explains. “
Based on prime time watching hours, this pre-placing of our films and series allows us to store 100% of our repertoire locally. And that effectively removes the whole danger of service disruption.”
The videos are then shuffled among Netflix’s servers depending on what it thinks would attract the greatest attention. Open Connect features two types of servers: flash for quicker delivery and storage for up to 350 TB of data storage. Netflix will shift a popular title from storage to the flash server if it becomes popular.
“The flash server is designed to serve a larger portion of the traffic,” the company explains. “As demand for a show or film increases, our OCA is built to be dynamic by transitioning it from storage to flash to meet that demand.”
A litmus test for this 10-year-old effort was hundreds of millions of individuals huddled in their homes searching for enjoyable distractions. “The pandemic put our infrastructure, or our technology, to the test in a way that it wasn’t designed for,” Haspilaire adds. Open Connect aided Netflix in preparing for higher demand in the future.
KING OF STREAMING
One of the most important behind-the-scenes factors in Netflix’s ability to perform as effectively as it did throughout the epidemic is Open Connect. However, there are other additional factors that put Netflix ahead of its competition. One example, according to Rayburn, is Netflix’s video and audio encoding projects, while its user experience is also important. Even if Netflix has a “big edge” over competitors because of its decade-long lead, you need a rock-solid product to expand and keep a customer base, as Rayburn claims.
“No one can deny or dispute that Netflix has established a system that works at scale, and that is the most important thing that our business lacks,” Rayburn argues. “You can only achieve that many subscribers if you can provide a decent, consistent customer experience at scale.” Nobody has ever had the scale that Netflix does. “No one has that knowledge.”
To put it another way, customers must also appreciate the content that is developed on top of Netflix’s infrastructure.
Beyond ensuring that streams don’t collapse, the thought that goes into the development of Netflix’s many features is sometimes missed simply because we don’t have to think about it – they just function. Netflix, on the other hand, is continuously attempting to improve its user interface.
“We don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. When it comes to design, “we may create a product for a Western audience, but that doesn’t imply it would work in Korea or Japan,” says Steve Johnson, Netflix’s vice president of product and studio design. “As a result, we must consider the intricacies and specifics that occur in those many countries.”
As other services expand, it’s feasible, if not likely, that large streamers will look to Netflix for guidance on infrastructure and top-to-bottom business strategy. Hopefully, this will also solve the general problem of streaming material nearly everywhere else.