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7.5.2 Near Video on Demand

Having k users getting the same movie puts essentially the same load on the server as having them getting k different movies. However, with a small change in the model, great performance gains are possible. The problem with video on demand is that users can start streaming a movie at an arbitrary moment, so if there are 100 users all starting to watch some new movie at about 8 P.M., chances are that no two will start at exactly the same instant so they cannot share a stream. The change that makes optimization possible is to tell all users that movies only start on the hour and every (for example) 5 minutes thereafter. Thus if a user wants to see a movie at 8:02, he will have to wait until 8:05.

The gain here is that for a 2-hour movie, only 24 streams are needed, no matter how many customers there are. As shown in Fig. 7-2, the first stream starts at 8:00. At 8:05, when the first stream is at frame 9000, stream 2 starts. At 8:10, when the first stream is at frame 18,000 and stream 2 is at frame 9000, stream 3 starts, and so on up to stream 24, which starts at 9:55. At 10:00, stream 1 terminates and starts all over with frame 0. This scheme is called near video on demand because the video does not quite start on demand, but shortly thereafter.

Figure 7-2 Near video on demand has a new stream starting at regular intervals, in this example every 5 minutes (9000 frames).

The key parameter here is how often a stream starts. If one starts every 2 minutes, 60 streams will be needed for a two-hour movie, but the maximum waiting time to start watching will be 2 minutes. The operator has to decide how long people are willing to wait because the longer they are willing to wait, the more efficient the system, and the more movies can be shown at once. An alternative strategy is to also have a no-wait option, in which case a new stream is started on the spot, but to charge more for instant startup.

In a sense, video on demand is like using a taxi: you call it and it comes. Near video on demand is like using a bus: it has a fixed schedule and you have to wait for the next one. But mass transit only makes sense if there is a mass. In midtown Manhattan, a bus that runs every 5 minutes can count on picking up at least a few riders. A bus traveling on the back roads of Wyoming might be empty nearly all the time. Similarly, starting the latest Steven Spielberg release might attract enough customers to warrant starting a new stream every 5 minutes, but for Gone with the Wind it might be better to simply offer it on a demand basis.

With near video on demand, users do not have VCR controls. No user can pause a movie to make a trip to the kitchen. The best that can be done is upon returning from the kitchen, to drop back to a stream that started later, thereby repeating a few minutes of material.

Actually, there is another model for near video on demand as well. Instead of announcing in advance that some specific movie will start every 5 minutes, people can order movies whenever they want to. Every 5 minutes, the system sees which movies have been ordered and starts those. With this approach, a movie may start at 8:00, 8:10, 8:15, and 8:25, but not at the intermediate times, depending on demand. As a result, streams with no viewers are not transmitted, saving disk bandwidth, memory, and network capacity. On the other hand, attacking the freezer is now a bit of a gamble as there is no guarantee that there is another stream running 5 minutes behind the one the viewer was watching. Of course, the operator can provide an option for the user to display a list of all concurrent streams, but most people think their TV remote controls have more than enough buttons already and are not likely to enthusiastically welcome a few more.

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