You've probably heard about Netflix peering issues recently, the pissing contest between Netflix and ISPs arguing over who should pay who for what, with us poor binge-watchers caught in the crossfire. But at the heart of all the arguments is mundane yet spectacular piece of hardware. An unassuming box that holds approximately one (1) Netflix.
First, a little background. At the heart of the peering argument is something Netflix calls Open Connect. The logic goes like this: people who are watching Netflix generate a lot of traffic. It's 34 percent of the traffic on the internet in North America at peak hours, i.e. when you get home from work and flop on the couch. And when all that data has to get passed from one part of the internet to another—the places where the internet's many pipes connect—it needs a lot of room to fit through. As you might expect, these hand-off points just aren't built to handle as much traffic as Netflix generates, so the folks on either side of the junction wind up arguing about who should pay to build them up.
So ordinarily, if you flop down to watch some Netflix, you're contributing to this tidal wave of data, and you're pulling video content allllll the way across the internet through various different pipes and chokepoint and junctions, adding to the volume of emails and Skype calls and everything else. If there's just too much, it can't all get through, so either something (Netflix, usually) has to get slowed down, or someone has to pay to make bigger pipes.
Netflix's Open Connect offers another option though. The company will gladly put a box with a copy of itself—which is to say, nearly the entire catalog of its offerings—inside your friendly neighborhood ISP data center. That way, when your whole neighborhood is sitting down to watch Netflix after work, it doesn't tax the internet at large, or the hand-off points between different parts of the 'net. Instead, the deluge of data is confined to the "last mile," that last chunk of network between the local data center and your cul de sac. It saves everyone a lot of headache.
When Comcast and Netflix argue—or Verizon and Netflix argue, or Netflix and anyone argue—about Open Connect, it's these boxes that are at the heart of it. Netflix wants to hand them out for free, but Comcast and Verizon want to be paid for undertaking care and maintenance. And both Comcast and Verizon got their way, which is kind of a bummer.
But that's all politics. There's another, fascinating question to be asked here:
What's in the box??!?!
Each one of Netflix's Open Connect Appliances (OCAs) is basically a badass connected hard drive. But we're not talking in GBs of storage here. No, OCAs are measured in TB.
The most basic unit, known as a Rev. A, is a 100TB device.
How much storage is that in practical terms? According to Netflix, HD video streams use 3GB of data per hour, so if you do a little math you'll find that a 100TB device holds some 34,133 hours of HD video. That's 1,422 days, or 203 weeks or just under four years of HD video. And for all that, it's a mere 7" x 17" x 23", about the size of an old-school PC tower, and weighs just 100 pounds. Heavy, sure, but liftable. It's hard to lift four years of video; go figure.
At that's just the start. The beefier Rev. C units come in flavors that offer 120TB to 160TB, or 4.7 and 6.2 years of HD video, respectively. These bad boys are actually a little bit smaller than Rev. As, despite coming in at 18 pounds heavier.
These are the two main models outlined in Netflix's documentation for the project, and they're already pretty impressive. But when we reached out for a few more details, Netflix clued us in on a new generation of even bigger, even badder OCAs. The most recent generation holds over 200 TB of Netflix in a single box. That's about eight years of video. That's totally absurd.
It'd be a serious pain in the ass to fill up that much storage space with content, so lucky for the ISPs adopting these bad boys, each comes fully loaded with a Netflix. It's rarely—if ever—a full copy, but rather a massive chunk specifically designed for a specific country or region, depending on what's available and what's popular. Sometimes it'll even have multiple copies of the same show, if something is in crazy high demand.
According to Netflix's own documentation, "An individual appliance can oﬄoad approximately 60%-80% of content requests depending on country catalog size," but when units start working in pairs, the storage size can exceed the size of Netflix's library for a region. And when this happens, the pair will use their excess storage to double up on stuff to help deal with high demand, or to make sure that if one fails, the other still has as much content as possible.
But wait, you say. That'd be all fine and dandy if Netflix was etched in stone, but it's not! They add and remove stuff all the time! That's right, which is why most OCAs take a 7.5TB update. Every. Freaking. Day.
If you had to take a 7.5TB update on your home internet, you would be screwed. According to Ookla's Net Index, the average download speed in the United States is 18.6Mbps. So with an average connection, that 7.5TB would take you about 40 days to chew through.
Fortunately, data centers tend to have a little more speed to work with. A firehose, compared to your bendy straw. So Netflix recommends a much shorter 10-hour span (from 2AM to noon, local time) where these boxes can soak up their updates with 1.2Gbps connections. That is to say, "Google Fiber speeds."
So... can I have one?
As amazingly awesome as it would be to have your own personal Netflix stashed away in the closet in case of apocalypse or disappearing movies, you're never going to be able to get your own OCA. To start with, their numbers are fairly limited. When we asked Netflix how many of these things are out in the wild, they told us that so far there are a few thousand—that means roughly one for every 15,000 worldwide Netflix subscribers—though that number is growing. So your local data center might not even have one yet.
They're also expensive. Netflix tells us they cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 based on the particular configuration. Netflix actually does just give these away—there's no cost to ISPs who want to install them—but that's only a worthwhile investment for Netflix when they're making Netflix better (or just "usable") for thousands of customers. Considering an OCA costs the equivalent of 93-186 years of a Netflix Instant subscription (at the new $9 price), you'd basically have to be eternal for it to be worth it to Netflix.
Combined with the need for Gigabit internet and the fact that always-on OCAs draw about as much energy as a vacuum cleaner, these boxes would be overoveroverkill for anything other than perhaps a small, private island nation.
Still, it's heartening and awe-inspiring to know that these things are out there, chugging along in refrigerated rooms full of server racks, so that someday in the future, when alien archeologists are shifting through our wreckage, they stand a chance of stumbling across a little box that will present them with the same question we've all asked ourselves so many times: So, what do you wanna watch?