Beware of Streams Becoming Floods

Flood_Warning_Sign_in_Flooded_Georgia_AreaApple’s announcement this week of its upcoming iTunes Radio music streaming service, coming hot on the heels of Google’s launch of All Access, a subscription service that gives unlimited and personalized access to a huge library of songs, ought to ring an alarm bell — or at least play the streamed recording of one — for network managers.

Of course, streaming is not new — you might already know Spotify and Pandora, but there are many others, including British start-up Bloom.fm, Germany’s Aupeo!, and lots more in the US, such as Grooveshark, Turntable.fm, and 8tracks.

They all operate in slightly different ways. Some work like programmed radio stations — indeed, many real radio stations also broadcast, or ‘webcast’, over the Net — while others are curated by their users, who stream playlists to their friends. Yet more let you search by artist or recommendation, or use your existing music library to predict what else to play, and others just play you stuff and then use your feedback to work out what kind of thing you like and play you more of it — including material that will be new to you and which they hope you’ll buy.

Oh, and there’s stations for all genres, from hip-hop to classical, as well as many non-music stations, specializing in news, comedy, or sports, for example.

Personalized music streaming has had a history of ups and downs. Its uptake was limited initially by bandwidth availability (“AM quality” was the claim in the early days), and, more recently, by copyright disputes with the record companies, and by geo-locking, which uses IP look-ups to limit the service to specific countries.

Now, though, it is taking off in a big way. As well as Google’s existing Play Music library and its new All Access service (initially geo-locked to the US), Apple is reportedly boosting iTunes — which can already stream your own purchased music to you — with subscription-based personalized access to music that you haven’t actually bought yet.

The other streaming services are not standing still. For example, Spotify recently announced it was buying Fusion-IO enterprise flash storage to accelerate music delivery and equip its data centers to cope with growing demand, while webcast and radio aggregator TuneIn said it had surpassed one billion listening hours in just the first four months of 2013.

The result is that millions more users will come on board with music streaming, and because each one gets a personalized stream it can’t easily be delivered using multicast, unlike, say, a live-streamed sports event or the webcast of a live radio station.

Why might this be a problem? Well, in most cases, hopefully it won’t. Individual music streams are quite small, typically 64kbit/s or 128kbit/s for near-CD quality, although the subscription versions can be more. But there are a lot of people out in remote offices who habitually put on headphones and work to the sound of a CD or MP3 player. If they switch instead to streamed music, and if their Internet connection comes in over the WAN, it is all going to mount up.

Many times I have heard tales of network managers frustrated by poor application performance, which continues to be poor even after an expensive bandwidth upgrade. It is only when they get hold of some proper bandwidth monitoring tools — typically because they buy WAN optimization boxes which have monitoring and reporting capabilities built in — that they discover that all their bandwidth is actually going to opportunistic consumers such as audio and video streaming.

Once you know what the problem is, the solution is simple: use the WAN optimizer’s prioritization and shaping tools to ensure your business applications get served ahead of anything less important. If the users don’t like it, they can always switch from the office WiFi to their own 3G. The challenge, as ever, is in knowing that the problem is there.

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons