3Crowd has unveiled its master plan with the recent launch of its CrowdCache product. Previously, 3Crowd had a service called CrowdDirector, essentially load-balancing for content providers who use multiple CDNs. CrowdCache is much more interesting, and it gives life and context to the existence of CrowdDirector. CrowdCache is a small, free, Java application that you can deploy onto a server, which turns it into a CDN cache. You then use CrowdDirector, which you pay for as-a-service on a per-object-request basis, to provide all the intelligence on top of that cache. CrowdDirector handles the request routing, management, analytics, and so forth. What you get, in the end, at least in theory, is a turnkey CDN.
I consider 3Crowd to be a fourth-generation CDN. (I started writing about 4th-gen CDNs back in 2008; see my blog posts on CDN overlays and MediaMelon, on the launch of CDN aggregator Aflexi, and 4th-gen CDNs and the launch of Conviva).
To recap, first-generation CDNs use a highly distributed edge model (think: Akamai), second-generation CDNs use a somewhat more concentrated but still highly distributed model (think: Speedera), and third-generation CDNs use a megaPOP model of many fewer locations (think: Limelight and most other CDNs founded in the 2005-2008 timeframe). These are heavily capital-intensive models that require owning substantial server assets.
Fourth-generation CDNs, by contrast, represent a shift towards a more software-oriented model. These companies own limited (or even no) delivery assets themselves. Some of these are not (and will not be) so much CDNs themselves, as platforms that reside in the CDN ecosystem, or CDN enablers. Fourth-generation CDNs provide software capabilities that allow their customers to turn existing delivery assets (whether in their own data centers, in the cloud, or sometimes even on clients using peer-to-peer) into CDN infrastructure. 3Crowd fits squarely into this fourth-generation model.
3Crowd is targeting three key markets: content providers who have spare capacity in their own data centers and would like to deliver content using that capacity before they resort to their CDN; Web hosters who want to add a CDN to their service offerings; and carriers who want to build CDNs of their own.
In this last market segment, especially, 3Crowd will compete against Cisco, Juniper (via the Ankeena acquisition), Alcatel-Lucent (via the Velocix acquisition), EdgeCast, Jet-Stream, and other companies that offer CDN-building solutions.
No doubt 3Crowd will also get some do-it-yourselfers who will decide to use 3Crowd to build their own CDN using cloud IaaS from Amazon or the like. This is part of what’s generating buzz for the company now, since their “Garage Startup” package is totally free.
I also think there’s potentially an enterprise play here, for those organizations who need to deliver content both internally and externally, who could potentially use 3Crowd to deploy an eCDN internally along with an Internet CDN hosted on a cloud provider, substituting for caches from BlueCoat or the like. There are lots of additional things that 3Crowd needs to be viable in that space, but it’s an interesting thing to think about.
3Crowd has federation ambitions, which is to say: Once they have a bunch of customers using their platform, they’d like to have a marketplace in which capacity-trading can be done, and, of course, also enable more private deals for federation, something which tends to be of interest to regional carriers with local CDN ambitions, who look to federation as a way of competing with the global CDNs.
Conceptually, what 3Crowd has done is not unique. Velocix, for instance, has similar hopes with its Metro product. There is certainly plenty of competition for infrastructure for the carrier CDN market (most of the world’s carriers have woken up over the last year and realize that they need a CDN strategy of some sort, even if their ambitions do not go farther than preventing their broadband networks from being swamped by video). What 3Crowd has done that’s notable is an emphasis on having an easy-to-deploy complete integrated solution that runs on commodity infrastructure resources, and the relative sophistication of the product’s feature set.
The baseline price seemed pretty cheap to me at first, and then I did some math. At the baseline pricing for a start-up, it’s about 2 cents per 10,000 requests. If you’re doing small object delivery at 10K per file, ten thousand requests is about 100 MB of content. So 1 GB of content of 10k-file requests would cost you 20 cents. That’s not cheap, since that’s just the 3Crowd cost — you still have to supply the servers and the network bandwidth. By comparison, Rackspace Cloud Files CDN-enabled delivery via Akamai, is 18 cents per GB for the actual content delivery. Anyone doing enough volume to actually have a full CDN contract and not pushing their bits through a cloud CDN is going to see pricing a lot lower than 18 cents, too.
However, the pricing dynamics are quite different for video. if you’re doing delivery of relatively low-quality, YouTube-like social video, for instance, your average file size is probably more like 10 MB. So 10,000 requests is 100 GB of content, making the per-GB surcharge a mere $0.02 cents. This is an essentially negligible amount. Consequently, the request-based pricing model makes 3Crowd far more cost-effective as a solution for video and other large-file-centric CDNs, than it does for small object delivery.
I certainly have plenty more thoughts on this, both specific to 3Crowd, and to the 4th-gen CDN and carrier CDN evolutionary path. I’m currently working on a research note on carrier CDN strategy and implementation, so keep an eye out for it. Also, I know many of the CDN watchers who read my blog are probably now asking themselves, “What are the implications for Akamai, Limelight, and Level 3?” If you’re a Gartner client, please feel free to call and make an inquiry.