CYBERSPACE—The first thing mainstream reporters want to know about the adult industry is how big it is, but they only want the answer in dollars (or inches). In terms of sheer magnitude, however, there exist several other metrics that can provide a viable assessment of porn's reach, if you will. According to data compiled by ExtremeTech, for example, porn as seen through the lens of bandwidth usage and traffic generation is a globally dominant player, demanding as great or greater a percentage of the internet as anyone else but Google and God. (Actually, let me get back to you on God.) It's a compelling if incomplete picture of an entertainment industry's global digital interaction with consumers of its content.
The intent by the ExtremeTech writer, Sebastian Anthony, was to go deeper than the usual analysis employed by most media outlets—meaning more than skin deep and based on actual work. "While page views are a fine starting point, they only tell you that X porn site is more popular than Y non-porn site," he wrote. "Four billion page views sure sounds like a lot, but it’s only when you factor in what those porn surfers are actually doing that the size and scale of adult websites truly comes into focus."
The article thus precedes to an analytic breakdown of the scale of porn sites relative to their non-pornographic cousins with a focus on the today's mega-porn sites, the massively trafficked porn tubes. A handful of sites are mentioned in the article—including xVideo and YouPorn—as prime examples of these traffic and data consuming monsters, which have come to dwarf most traditional porn sites, past and present. Calculations based on these sites appear to have been extrapolated by the author in his quest to determine the scale of the industry's overall bandwidth and data usage, based on some set variables.
"When you stream porn, assuming a low resolution of 480×200, you’re looking at around 100 kilobytes per second—which, over 15 minutes, is around 90 megabytes," calculated Anthony. "Then you need to multiply 90 megabytes by the number of monthly visits—which is around 350 million for xVideos. This comes to around 29 petabytes of data transferred every month, or 50 gigabytes per second. To put this into comparison, your home internet connection is probably capable of transferring a couple of megabytes per second, which is about 25,000 times smaller.
"In short," he concluded, "porn sites cope with astronomical amounts of data. The only sites that really come close in term of raw bandwidth are YouTube or Hulu, but even then YouPorn is something like six times larger than Hulu."
The article also takes a detailed look at the infrastructure needed to stream this much video while also providing a superior experience. "Actual hardware requirements are almost impossible to derive (they’re not publicized), but in the case of a large porn site we’re probably talking about racks of quad-CPU servers, gigabit switches, and load balancers," writes Anthony. "Software-wise, most large porn sites will use a very-high-throughput database such as Redis to store and serve videos, and a light-weight HTTP server like Nginx to serve up the web pages.
"There are only so many ways of coping with this much traffic," he concludes. "You set up your own data center, rent a few racks in a very large data center, or use a cloud provider like Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure." The first option is used by many of the largest adult companies.
Anthony was also able to get YouPorn to provide him with "some real-world facts and figures," which appear to support the thesis of the article that "there are dozens of porn sites on the scale of YouPorn, and hundreds that are the size of ExtremeTech or your favorite news site. It’s probably not unrealistic to say that porn makes up 30 percent of the total data transferred across the internet."
YouTube's output alone is difficult to comprehend. "At peak time, YouPorn serves 4000 pages per second, equating to burst traffic in the region of 100 gigabytes per second...," writes Anthony. "This is equivalent to transferring more than 10 dual-layer DVDs every second."
It's all rather overwhelming and humbling, in the way that numbers generated by these kinds of platforms tend to be. And yet, it's still an incomplete picture of the industry nut just in terms of the numbers and percentages presented but also the relationship of those numbers to the health of the industry (though, to be fair, the intent of the article was not to assess the industry's economy.)
But the fact remains that the analysis fails to calculate in the many vagaries of the business models underlying the massive traffic and data transfers that are generated by these mega-porn sites, and also appears to ignore the massive amounts of porn delivered illegally on Torrents, lockers and other peer-to-peer platforms that still bedevil the legitimate industry. The article also makes a few questionable assertions as to the average amount of time spent on porn sites and the number of mega-sites driving that much traffic or data.
We ran the article by an IT expert who works in the industry—and thus is understandably loathe to self-identify—who thought the article got it half right. The math used to calculate bandwidth requirements is "way off," he said, but the estimates of data transfer amounts seem "okay." That's just one non-scientific evaluation by someone who does this for a living, so while it is hardly serves as a definitive denunciation of the results, it does give an indication of the complexity of the analysis being attempted in good faith by ExtremeTech.
We also asked one of the industry's more accomplished smarty-pants, Pink Visual Minister of Sarcasm Q, to give his assessment of the article's overall accuracy.
"While I think the article does an admirable job of 'trying' to assess the size of the online sector of the adult industry," he said, "it is plagued by some flawed and simplistic assumptions. One is that there are dozens of sites the size of YouPorn, a supposition that seems to inform the article's projected average as to the amount of data each site stores, as well.
"The article is better than most," he conceded, "but it still suffers from having to make evaluations based on uncertain data, and from trying to project from one site's data to arrive at a meaningful conclusion regarding an industry composed almost entirely of privately-held corporate entities. In short, there's really no good way to arrive at the sort of aggregate figures the article endeavors to provide."
That, of course, has not stopped any number of people over the years from trying to guesstimate porn's global girth, with the inevitable result that the media repeats ad nauseam stats that claim accurate estimates of the size of an industry that is, how shall we say, resistant to an accurate accounting. That may also happen with this admirable attempt, which actually seems to both over- and under-estimate the reality of the situation. It's nice to be seen as a player, but the real world difficulty in truly nailing this puppy down is perhaps the main reason why, after ten years of being asked the same question, I generally tell inquiring reporters to take these numbers with many grains of salt.