How Netflix is revolutionizing cloud computing just so you can watch 'Teen Mom' on your phone

The on-demand movie company is doing way, way more for cloud computing than you might know.

Credit: Photo by João Alff/Flickr

You know Netflix has it hard, right? Maybe you do, but you don't know how hard it is to keep you entertained. Not until you know about Chaos Kong.

You have read about how hard Netflix must fight to hold onto the rights to stream movies and television shows, while Hollywood would rather lease them out to hotels and on-demand cable streams and other lucrative but dead-end venues. You know about their misstep with trying to break off DVDs-by-mail into a separate company. And, yeah, you can guess that they have to have some pretty, pretttttty smart network engineers working on those servers.

But read Bloomberg Businessweek's truly enthralling piece on how Netflix runs, and you will really know what it's like to be the Big Red Movie Firm. Since you don't have time to read those 3,700 words right now, I will provide some highlights.

The best description of bandwidth I have ever read

The first paragraph of Bloomberg's piece is just great.

On a normal weeknight, Netflix (NFLX) accounts for almost a third of all Internet traffic entering North American homes. That’s more than YouTube, Hulu, (AMZN), HBO Go, iTunes, and BitTorrent combined. Traffic to Netflix usually peaks at around 10 p.m. in each time zone, at which point a chart of Internet consumption looks like a python that swallowed a cow. By midnight Pacific time, streaming volume falls off dramatically.

How your video sausage gets made

More than 1,000 types of devices can stream Netflix videos. To keep Netflix feeling like magic, that means Netflix must customize video streams as much as possible for each kind of device. You click "Play," and Netflix figures out, in less time than it takes me to type this next comma, what kind of device you're using, which of its server spaces is closest to you, and what kind of bandwidth it can expect from the connection. And then it sends you one of more than 100 customized versions of the content you asked for.

Oh, and if you and a bunch of your buddies in the same town all start watching Netflix's new Hemlock Grove, Netflix will move those hundreds of versions over to flash (solid-state) memory on the server closest to you, just so you get that slightly faster experience. Seriously.

They are literally inventing entire new fields of computer science to serve your movies

netflix_title_cluster.jpgPhoto by chef_ele/Flickr
"The similarities between 5000 movies as found by an algorithm used for the Netflix Prize."

Netflix had to approach Amazon and its Web Services arm cautiously when it made its move into the cloud—it was going to be a big project, and Amazon had its own digital video services to sell. But Amazon agreed, and ever since, Netflix has been Amazon's biggest customer, collaborator, and innovator.

“We’re using Amazon more efficiently than the retail arm of Amazon is,” says Adrian Cockcroft, Netflix’s cloud architect. “We’re pretty sure about that.”

What kind of efficiency and tools, you ask?

Netflix has become best known for its so-called Simian Army, a facetiously named set of applications that test the resilience of its systems. Chaos Monkey, for instance, simulates small outages by randomly turning services off, while Chaos Kong takes down an entire data center.

And it's not just web services that benefit.

Companies such as EBay (EBAY) and Intel (INTC) have started using (Netflix's) products with their own cloud computing systems, as did the Obama campaign during the last election. Scott VanDenPlas, who managed much of the (Obama) campaign’s infrastructure, points to a Netflix software tool called Asgard. It’s a system management application that finds groups of servers and outfits them with all the software needed to do a specific job, performing work in seconds that would require a programmer hours or days.

Netflix's CEO will guinea pig viewing devices for you

No viewing experience is too niche for even the highest-level Netflix employee to care about. Witness CEO Reed Hasting's toolkit:

For one month, (Hastings will) only use products made by Apple (AAPL), and the next he’s on to phones, tablets, and laptops running Windows. May is Google month, and Hastings has one of the company’s touchscreen Chromebook Pixel laptops. “I just keep it rotating,” he says.

Again: read the whole thing, when you get a chance. In the meantime, think about how all this experimentation and infrastructure building and traffic routing and server optimization was not built by government think tanks or a Bell-Labs-like group, but by a company that wants to serve you Adventure Time as quickly as possible.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon