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Netflix recently made headlines for moving its physical infrastructure out from its own purview, and almost completely into the realm of AWS. This is a notable move for a company that relies on streaming hosted content to its customers. In fact, Dropbox, a company with a relatively similar business model, actually made waves in the tech industry for doing the opposite—bringing most of its hosting infrastructure in physical data centers under its own roof.

For Dropbox—and many other cloud-oriented companies—the move made sense. Moving from a public cloud to a private cloud results in a massive cost-savings, as it happens. Netflix, then, is the outlier. As it happens, however, Netflix actually retains significant physical infrastructure of its own, comprising a robust content delivery network. Researchers have now mapped this network for the first time, and what they found reveals interesting truths about the realities of the internet in 2016.

What Does the Netflix CDN Look Like?

First, here’s a brief summary of how Netflix’s CDN—known internally as Open Connect—actually works. It’s true that all of the infrastructure that handles things like billing, customer support, the application frontend, and the algorithm that recommends viewing choices have all been ported over to AWS. A significant part of what we know as Netflix, however, still takes the form of infrastructure that’s under the company’s direct control.

All of Netflix’s content—its TV shows, movies, documentaries, and whatnot—is mirrored within its Open Connect CDN. These actually take the form of physical appliances, stuffed with up to 280 terabytes of storage. Any time someone clicks on a movie title, one of these boxes, situated at a proximate location, will begin serving that content.

No More Reliance on ISPs?

Here’s where things start getting interesting. Most of these Open Connect boxes, especially the ones within the US, are hosted within IXPs. On the face of it, this looks like an unusual choice. IXPs stand for Internet Connection Points. They don’t take the form of massive core data centers provided by ISPs like Comcast and Time Warner. Rather, they’re smaller data centers, usually operated by third parties, which serve cities and municipalities instead of entire regions.

One would think that the massive data centers operated by traditional ISPs would be the only logical choice for a video content company hoping to serve hundreds of millions of Americans. Maybe ISP data centers would have been the ideal choice—but Netflix had a problem. From the original paper, “[ISPs] publicly refused to deploy Netflix servers and instead insisted on signing paid peering contracts with Netflix.”

A New Path Forward for Video Content Providers

ISPs public quarrels with Netflix are no secret—remember that the streaming video company was literally forced to pay Comcast in order to stop them from throttling their content. By switching to IXPs, Netflix not only avoids expensive arguments with monolithic providers, it’s actually discovered an extremely viable workaround. Although IXPs typically require more Open Connect CDN servers per site than ISP data centers, it’s still cheaper to host them at those sites, and they serve content just as well.

In an era where fractional delays in serving content can lead to declines in revenue, it seems like big ISPs have content providers by the nose. Netflix, however, just proved this assumption wrong. By using IXPs instead, Netflix now shows a new path forward for other providers to bypass ISPs, without sacrificing on costs or customer satisfaction. For more on how content delivery can change your business for the better, check out our white paper, The Performance of Web Applications.

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