Cringely weighs in on multicast push

Rohit Khare (
Tue, 10 Jun 1997 21:29:57 -0400

Recently, the Real Cringely pontificated on the problems with push, how
mcast might just solve them, but there are too many engg roadblocks. He
thinks some smart-aleck entrant will yet upset TIBCO, PointCast, etc,
and make mcast work where it currently cannot.

"The published research on multicasting also depends on algorithms that
do not scale well. While it is presently possible to do multicasting
within a subnet -- say to several thousand workstations on a campus --
conventional wisdom says that multicasting to the entire Internet is
not feasible."

I refrain from comment for a moment, just to hear what some FoRKees
might think first.


I've fallen and I can't get up! Why Web pages like this one won't be a
business success without new technology.

By Robert X. Cringely

So you found my Web page! Maybe a friend told you about it.
Maybe you heard me plug it on some radio or TV show. Maybe you are an
old friend from my InfoWorld days who has been looking every week for
my second coming. Now if I write something you find interesting, you
just might bookmark this page. And if I am not only interesting, but
very, very lucky, you might come back to that bookmark every week.
This is no way to build a media empire, believe me.
The Web magazine, of which this page is a minimalist
example, is a very difficult business proposition. Sure, it looks good
on the outside, with no printing, postage, paper, or returns. But on
the inside, we see the potentially fatal flaw in the current Webzine
economics: it isn't a subscriber medium. That's why very few web
magazines make money. And with the likelihood that Web advertising
won't reach break-even for another two to three years, most of the Web
publications you read now aren't likely to survive.
Read on to learn not only why this is the case, but also
how the problem is likely to be solved.
While the Internet offers a way to reach millions of
potential readers, the nature of the Net to this point has been that
those subscribers must be reached one at a time. This is point-to-point
communication and it works well for electronic mail, but poorly for
publishing electronic magazines or sending any large binary file to
large groups of recipients.
The trend among would-be Internet publishers has been to
hire experts to help them on technical issues. These experts tend to be
Internet experts, not publishing experts, and the solutions they offer
don't fit well with the traditional publishing business model, relying
on point-to-point techniques.
The Internet distribution model publishers seem to be
following most closely approximates a newsstand. The reader has to find
the publisher's Web server and ask for the magazine every time it is
published. Readers have to remember to look for the magazine, rather
than have it automatically delivered to them on a regular schedule.
Sounds like newsstand sales, and of course this kind of distribution
has always been a problem for advertisers. This is why Playboy
(primarily a subscription publication) has always been more profitable
than Penthouse (primarily a newsstand publication).
This distinction between subscriber and newsstand
distribution could be the difference between making a profit and making
a loss for most Web magazines. And that's the difference between life
and death. Turning a Web magazine from newsstand to subscription allows
an immediate 50-100 percent increase in ad rates. Better still, the
circulation can be audited, which appeals to advertisers. As a would-be
media mogul, I like that.
The common thinking among Internet businesspeople is that
the advertisers will just have to learn a new way of behaving and
accept this browsing model. Publishers fear they'll starve to death
before that learning process is complete.
The way to turn your web magazine from a financial loser to
a financial winner, then, is to PUSH it out to subscribers. That
explains the current frenzy of push technologies, because some sort of
push is necessary for this part of the Internet to succeed.
But there are lost of push technologies and some of them --
some of the most popular, in fact -- aren't suitable for sending a big
magazine out over the wire every week. Pointcast, for example, is lousy
for this application. That's because Pointcast would send a copy to you
and then a copy to me and then a separate copy to each of the many
thousands of subscribers. And since each of these subscribers would be
expecting their copy on Monday morning, the Net would be flooded and
chaos would reign.
Nope, we need something better. We need a technology that
can send one copy of the magazine out to be shared by every reader.
It's called multicasting.
The Internet architects, in their infinite wisdom, included
in their original design a facility called multicasting that is hardly
ever used. Multicasting is sending a signal, or in this case a file,
from a single workstation to the Internet as a whole. One file goes
everywhere and is literally grabbed by qualified subscribers as it
passes by.
While multicasting was never envisioned as a method of
publishing Internet magazines, it is perfectly suited to that task. The
fact that the academic side of the house (the Internet) never needed
any such thing and has not bothered with a cohesive set of standards on
the subject does not mean that the capability is not there, rather it
was one of the initial Internet design requirements.
The original purpose of the Internet was to make sure that
in the case of thermonuclear war, the e-mail would go through. This did
not mean that the Pentagon would send out a DEFCON alert to Ft. Meade
and another to Ft. Monmouth and another to Patrick AFB and another to
Carswell AFB, but one message to everybody -- a multicast. It also
meant that Cheyenne Mountain could send a single message and have it go
to every SAC base and nowhere else, which is how one would use
multicasting to reach a specific group of subscribers.
There is an entire class of approximately 15,000 Class D
Internet addresses set aside for multicasting, though rarely used.
With multicasting, a magazine can be published by sending a
single copy from a Class D address to a specific Internet region, say,
North America. So from a single PC, one copy of an electronic magazine
can be sent to all of North America.
Multicasting is a completely different form of distribution
ideally suited to Internet magazine publishing. It is very network
efficient and offers guaranteed delivery. It was made possible by the
fundamental design of the Internet, but to this point has not been
effectively implemented. Many Internet routers do not yet fully support
multicasting, and this is the major problem facing multicast push
There are also some technical problems to be solved for
multicast. For one thing, most of the research to date on multicasting
has been aimed at distributing multimedia information to large groups
of recipients right now. The best example of this is Mbone, the
Multimedia Backbone that uses multicasting to deliver sound and video
across the Internet. Mbone demands large amounts of network bandwidth
to keep megabytes of video data synchronized in near real-time. Mbone
is very impolite. Distributing a magazine, however, requires a version
of multicasting that is polite, that makes room for other traffic on
the Net. As long as the magazine is there in the morning when
subscribers turn on their computers, it's there on time.
The published research on multicasting also depends on
algorithms that do not scale well. While it is presently possible to do
multicasting within a subnet -- say to several thousand workstations on
a campus -- conventional wisdom says that multicasting to the entire
Internet is not feasible.
Baloney. With traditional magazine publishers currently
losing about $300 million per year on their webzines, there is an
enormous business opportunity. Some joker will solve the technical
problems with multicast distribution shortly, then this column will
appear unbidden to torment you forevermore.