Phil Edholm Interview With Tony Zhao
The world of mobility is becoming a critical part of most of most communications solutions, however, in much of the world, especially Asia, mobile devices are the internet. I think it is interesting to look to how new technology companies are addressing the challenges in delivering real time services in those markets. I had the opportunity last week to sit down with Tony Zhao, the CEO of Agora Inc., a new Communications as a Service (CaaS) company headquartered in Palo Alto, California with an R&D center in Shanghai, China. I thought this was a timely interview with the upcoming Real Time Web Solutions conference in Beijing less than a month away (Nov 10-11). Also, Tony is in a unique position to talk to the transformations that web communications will drive, especially in Asian markets.
Tony was the first VoIP and video communications engineer at WebEx (now part of Cisco) where he introduced voice and video capabilities into the WebEx web conferencing platform. Following this, Tony was CTO at YY.com, which is a $3B+ NASDAQ-quoted social, gaming and entertainment company running on top of a real time audio/video communications platform over the public Internet. At YY, Tony supported over 400 billion VoIP minutes a year of person-to-person real-time communications, mostly group sessions between many users. Tony founded Agora in January 2014, and Agora has since received $25.9 million in funding (see News).
Agora is a new company in the web communications space, what is your vision for the company?
Our vision is to provide ubiquitous real time communication, with audio and video, everywhere for any device, browser or anyone with an Internet connection. To achieve this, Agora is providing a global Communications as a Service (CaaS) product designed for the best Quality of Experience (QoE) and easy integration. For mobile and web developers it will be the easiest way to embed audio/video real time communication features into their application or website.
We believe that reliable global communications with high QoE requires network innovation “in the middle.” Our 65+ data centers around the world create a virtual overlay network on top of public Internet that optimizes routing and transmission for real-time communications sessions. We are compatible with WebRTC standards but also provide extra support including a powerful real time communication backbone made up of our 65+ datacenters. Our proprietary routing algorithms running inside those data centers support the QoE assurance required for WebRTC applications. Agora also provides enhanced SDKs and codecs for iOS and Android mobile devices.
What problems do you see that Agora is addressing?
As just mentioned, the big problem for easy hassle-free embedding of real-time communications within Internet-based applications is the lack of Quality of Experience (QoE). Application developers want to embed communications directly into their mobile and web applications, and emerging technologies like WebRTC are allowing them to do this. However, while WebRTC provides standard APIs, protocols and media codecs it leaves the network connectivity up to you – or up to whatever happens on the general Internet!
If connections are unreliable, voices keep cutting out, and video images break up, then people using these applications will not use these real-time capabilities. This will slow down market adoption. A lot of early work has looked at browser-to-browser connections over reasonable networks; however this isn’t the real world. The future of communications between applications will be mobile dominated using varying-quality 3G, 4G or WiFi connections and will often be between countries with Internet challenges and bottlenecks. The Internet has no “quality of service” – so how can we optimize real-time communications to handle these often poor, but expected, conditions?
Agora has invested heavily into two things to solve those issues. The most important one is to build a virtual overlay network optimized for real time communication. We also spend significant amount of engineering resources in mobile technologies, embedded in our iOS and Android SDKs, which deal with network variability in the “last mobile mile.” This includes work from device-specific echo cancellation to efficient error resilience in codecs to retransmission optimizations. Then we shorten the “last mobile mile” by having our global data centers in many countries.
Once the communications reach an Agora node then we apply automated routing, re-routing and transmission optimizations to keep the communications flowing to their destination within milliseconds. So this is a real-time optimized virtual network running on top of the general Internet. We take advantage of Internet cost dynamics but add quality of experience optimizations that use the Internet as effectively as possible. The result is high quality and cost-effective end-to-end global Communications as a Service.
How has your technology been developed?
We have built the core technology ourselves – which is all software-based running as SDKs on mobile devices and as server components running in the cloud across our global data centers. The server components create an application level Quality of Service for all audio/video data transmission and thus form a virtual overlay real time communication network in order to ensure the best quality for each real-time session. Global management and good “DevOps” are key skills we also brought to this solution.
We are integrating with WebRTC standards to allow easy integration into our network from WebRTC-supporting web-browsers and applications. Our CaaS solution also incorporates capabilities like support for sessions with up to 2000 voice users and we will be introducing approaches for large-group sharing of video interactions.
Who else is addressing these issues?
Traditionally, of course, telecommunication carriers have provided global connections between countries – but these are very expensive. The Internet has since provided a vast open network across which incredible volumes of text, pictures, sound and video is travelling every minute. On top of this, new standards like WebRTC for real-time communications have emerged and there are a range of companies from Google and Intel down to many startups providing WebRTC technologies and services. But there are not many of these investing in optimizing the global network connectivity between application clients – mobile devices and web browsers. This is Agora’s focus – a global CaaS deeply optimized to increase the quality of real-time communications sessions.
Is your major market focus Asia or North America/Europe?
We have a global focus, our CaaS network is global and anyone in the world can access and sign up for our services. That said, we have initially focused our sales and marketing investments in North America where we are targeting organizations and developers building mobile and web applications. As we build our customer base we expect over time to expand our presence in Europe and rest of the world.
What is Agora doing for the Real Time Web Solutions conference in Beijing (November 10-11)?
As a company with a large engineering team in China we want to do our bit to significantly increase the awareness and understanding of new real time technologies, and especially WebRTC, among Chinese developers. We know WebRTC is the future and the whole WebRTC industry is eager to see how developers in China can contribute to the growth of the industry. We are honored to be working with TMC, the world's leading business-to-business and integrated marketing media company who run the leading WebRTC conference in the U.S., as a co-producer for the first such conference in Asia. The Real Time Web Solutions conference (Chinese website) will be a great opportunity for both developers and business people to hear from real-time and WebRTC experts and from Chinese companies already leveraging real-time technologies.
In addition, Agora is publishing the first Chinese translation of the best technical book on WebRTC (link), written by the experts Dr. Alan Johnston and Dr. Dan Burnett. This will make WebRTC much more accessible to the large Chinese speaking developer community globally. The book will be available at the Beijing conference.