Promenade, a music & technology blog, penned by Eoghan O'Neill.


How Radiohead really delivered 'In Rainbows'

Oct 16

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007  RssIcon

Suffering from how-Radiohead-have-utterly-changed-the-music-industry fatigue yet? Yeah, me too. Despite this I have one final blog entry relating to the release of 'In Rainbows'. It'll be the last one from me, I swear.

Packet Exchange I wrapped up my 'Radiohead in smooth download shocker' blog entry last week hoping that techie details of how Radiohead delivered the album would be released so that other acts in a similar position could at least go about a similar venture in an informed way. The details I was hoping for? They are at last out.

This weekend some fascinating (well, fascinating to a saddo wanna-be geek like me) information emerged about the infrastructure used to deliver 'In Rainbows' last week. If you downloaded it on its release date you probably saw the MP3s, despite my fears of a meltdown, coming at you really, really fast. To be honest I was baffled at how they managed to do it, but there was no denying they had pulled it off in style. Now we know how.

Cutting to the chase Radiohead - as I hoped - brought in some proper guns to help deliver the album. They tapped the services of PacketExchange, a UK-based company who basically have a global infrastructure in place that allowed Radiohead to (wait for it - we are concentrating aren't we?) bypass the public internet.

It took me a while to wrap my head around this but basically it means that when you clicked on the link to download 'In Rainbows' your request was sent over the internet to Radiohead's server but (still concentrating?) the ZIP file containing the MP3s was not sent back to you via the internet. If it had been sent via the internet the ZIP file would, in order to get to you, have been routed through any number of 'routers' on the public internet that direct traffic to its final destination. In the developed world these routers (imagine them as traffic lights at a junction) are usually quite robust and nifty but they can get 'clogged' with extreme surge events (such as 10s of thousands of fans suddenly trying to simultaneously download a 48 MB ZIP file from a single server). To overcome this potential meltdown-of-part-of-the-public-internet scenario Radiohead did a very smart thing: they bypassed the whole damn internet. As you do, like.

In real terms the full 'journey' of the ZIP file from Radiohead to fans took place on an extremely fast, private global network owned / managed by these PacketExchange guys (see it as a dedicated highway with traffic going in only one direction and with no junctions). Only at the last possible moment (i.e. when the 48MB file was within relative spitting distance of your internet connection) did the ZIP file leave the private network and hop on the internet to complete the last virtual mile of its journey to your PC. Yes, yes, I have simplified it all a bit but, in essence this is what happened. A simple idea, but very, very smart.

It is only now clear to me that what happened last week - very fast, problem free, digital delivery of a brand new album by a major artist to 100s of thousands of fans on a single day without any record company support - was not a once off. There is now no doubt that any established act in a similar contract-free position as Radiohead (stand up Trent Reznor and, er, Oasis) now have no excuses to digitally distribute their future recordings - and to do so competently - with all this knowledge on the table.

May they just tip their hats to Radiohead in recognition of their mother-of-all proof-of-concepts for music downloading. They have turned into reality something that probably started out as nothing more than an idea scribbled on the back of a beer mat.

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5 comment(s) so far...


how wierd. I would have thought that shipping a 48MB ZIP file to thousands of customers is pretty well-understood nowadays!

In particular, there's no need for the packets to be sent *from* a Radiohead-owned server -- since everyone's downloading the same ZIP file, you can simply distribute one copy to hundreds of servers in advance, and people then download from those mirrors. This is the "Content Distribution Network" model as used by Akamai, Cachefly etc.

ps: interesting to see that is totally failing to keep up with *its* load... I got a stack of ASP errors ;)

By Justin Mason on   Monday, October 15, 2007

Re: How Radiohead really delivered 'In Rainbows'

Justin, shipping a 48MB file to thousands of customers in any instant is well understood by many experts but, no length of understanding is enough if the right infrastructure is not in place, and it was not clear in the days leading up to the release if Radiohead had this in place. Mirroring is indeed one established practice/solution but not one that Radiohead appear to have chosen to put in place for this release. Their decision to go with a "private pipe", so to speak, for delivery of the album was an interesting one and not one that I expected. (BTW the site seems to be back in error-free action now...)

By eoghan on   Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Re: How Radiohead really delivered 'In Rainbows'


By starbelgrade on   Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Re: How Radiohead really delivered 'In Rainbows'

It's a very clever way of doing it really. Perhaps it just proves that they really have re-invented the wheel with In Rainbows?

By Idiot Kid on   Tuesday, October 16, 2007

on the other hand

Heh. Actually, it looks like Radiohead *are* using a CDN to deliver 'In Rainbows', after all, according to this post:

By Justin on   Monday, October 22, 2007

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