Streaming Media Trickles into the Enterprise
Only a few years back, corporations like Cisco and Procter & Gamble painstakingly put together elaborate streaming media systems for their own use. In stark contrast, during the current era of company budget-slashing, multimedia isn't exactly a mission-critical IT priority for most organizations. At the same time, though, demands for streaming video and audio are more rampant than ever inside many departments. When a streaming media project rears its head, network managers and other administrators usually get called upon for advice, if not for actual implementation.
Against today's overall backdrop of financial uncertainty, end users' interest in streaming media stands out vividly. During panel discussions at the recent Streaming Media show in New York City, a number of attendees pointed to streaming media deployments at their workplaces, either imminent or already underway.
Speakers outlined streaming media initiatives within the Department of Defense (DoD), NASA, Bank of America, New York University (NYU), Ford Motor Company, Phillips Medical Systems, Columbia University, and the National Institute of Health (NIH), to name a few.
The DoD, for example, is now launching a streaming video application among 20,000 military health care pros, including medical directors and clinical consultants. The application will supply 35 hours of training about smallpox vaccinations, according to Jeff McCormack, Ph.D., chief knowledge officer at DigiScript.
On the government side, streaming media is being driven partly by the Federal Streaming Alliance, a new initiative for sharing streaming content among federal agencies.
Corporate Training and Distance Learning
One attendee at the Streaming Media conference, who works for New York State's higher education arm, said his organization is thinking about streaming media for distance learning. Others went to New York City to explore corporate training or marketing apps.
"We don't even know where to start, though," noted a showgoer from a large corporation, echoing a widespread concern.
Full-scale enterprise deployments of streaming video require expertise across a range of disciplines, including video production, storage, caching, digital asset management, signal distribution, and encoding, which is a process for converting audio or video into small, digitized packets for network transmission.
"Most of today's implementations, however, are small pilots or departmental applications," according to Michael Hoch, research director for Internet Infastructure at the Aberdeen Group. "Typically, departments are paying for the deployments out of LOB (line of business) budgets. IT, though, is the one that's making the buying decisions," the analyst adds.
Network managers, for instance, might consult the CIO and departmental staff on bandwidth issues, or about which hardware or software codecs to buy.
Hoch sees departmental projects as corporate investments that can be leveraged by IT in the future, when budgets loosen up enough for wider streaming deployments.
Streaming implementations are changing in another way, too. "More companies are deciding to outsource some aspects of streaming media. Still, they are doing some of the work themselves," says Dan Rayburn of Streaming Media.Inc.
At the same time, more options are becoming available to organizations on both the product and services sides.
Yet what pieces of a project are outsourced -- and which are done inhouse -- varies considerably from one implementation to the next. According to Rayburn, many organizations are turning to specialized systems integrators for help in making these choices.
To Host or Not to Host?
Generally speaking, video streaming is more difficult than audio streaming. In turn, live video streaming is harder to accomplish than prerecorded Webcasts, also known as video-on-demand (VoD).
Depending on the type of content and the size of the audience, organizations can choose among self-hosting, third-party hosting, or split hosting options. In self-hosting, the organization hosts all of the content -- the launch site as well as the streaming content. Self-hosting can work out well for VoD implementations, analysts say.
For live streaming broadcasts, however, third-party or split hosting is often the preferred method for keeping the video and audio flowing more smoothly. In split hosting, the organization hosts the launch site only, redirecting requests for streaming content to a third-party server. In third-party hosting, the provider hosts the launch site and content alike.
"Live streaming doesn't necessarily add anything, though. In fact, VoD makes more sense for many applications. With VoD, you can pre-position a video on everyone's desk, so they can view it at their own convenience," observes Danny Sapir, CIO of Bandwiz, makers of the DistributeIt bandwidth management product.
Encoding -- Software or Hardware?
Streaming media entails three main steps: encoding, serving, and playback. Videoservers from vendors like Microsoft, RealNetworks, and Apple come with integrated software codecs for compressing and encoding source files. Videoservers are typically used with Web servers, which store and deliver the launch site data.
Most videoservers now enable multicasting, too, for spreading out the streaming media content load over multiple videoservers. Another advantage of multicasting? You can deliver selected content to designated groups of users.
Regardless of which platform you're using, there's probably a videoserver out there for you. Videoservers from RealNetworks and Apple supply extensive crossplatform support. RealNetworks' Helix Universal Server, for instance, will run on Windows NT/2000, Linux 2.2, Free BSD, Compaq Tru 64, Sun Solaris, HP-UX, or IBM AIX.
A free version of the Helix server, available for download over the Web, provides basic functionality. For more demanding applications, RealNetworks also sells Standard, Enterprise, Internet, and Mobile editions. Helix Universal Gateway, a product targeted at service providers, combines an Internet server with an integrated media cache for lowered bandwidth consumption.
For its part, Apple produces both QuickTime Streaming Server for the Mac OS X server platform and Darwin Streaming Server, an offering available in Linux, Solaris, and Windows NT/2000 flavors. Moreover, Darwin is billed as an open source server, tweakable for additional platforms, too, simply by modifying a few platform-specific source files.
As an alternative to software video servers, some vendors sell hardware-based encoders. Traditionally, software codecs have been better at handling lower bit rates, a particular advantage on lower-speed or highly congested networks. Hardware encoders, on the other hand, have tended to be a better choice in situations where video quality is a more important concern than bandwidth consumption.
VBrick Systems lets you make your own choice between hardware and software products. Ituner, a maker of Linux-based hardware encoders, recently started breaking down the media encoding, decoding, and server functions into separate boxes for even faster performance.
On the client end of the equation, PC-based media players from companies like Real Networks and Microsoft first buffer, or store, the digitized streaming media packets in the PC's computer memory. The packets are then decoded for desktop playback.
Live or On Demand?
Live video Webcasts can be daunting, indeed. High-end broadcasts typically require a switching system, with separate inputs for video sources such as cameras and video decks; integrated titling and character generation; and full input-selection, switching, and dissolve capabilities.
VoD, on the other hand, has traditionally called for the use of nonlinear-digital editing software -- such as Adobe Premiere or Apple Final Cut Pro -- for saving files in streaming formats. Tools like Adobe After Effects have then been used for titles and special effects. More third-party tools have come into the picture for integrating "interactive" features such as chat windows and polling.
Meanwhile, though, Microsoft and RealNetworks are now selling video production software meant to work with their own respective media servers. Outside of their production capabilities, these products are starting to include manageability functions such as bandwidth simulation, the ability to save encoding settings in job files, and server-side playlists for hands-free multimedia playback.
Wanted -- Better Tools for Content Creation
Even so, Microsoft Producer, in particular, is "inaccessible" to many users, according to Aberdeen's Hoch. "Many of the enterprise bandwidth issues surrounding streaming media are now being solved. A bigger need is for easy-to-use content creation tools," the analyst argues.
Some simplified tools, though, are finally emerging. Serious Magic's Visual Communicator is a template-based, drag-and-drop software program for creating either streaming video or PowerPoint presentations. Serious Magic now has dozens of enterprise customers for Visual Communicator, including Hertz, ExxonMobile, UCLA, and Princeton University.
Altuit Inc., an enterprise software developer, turned to Visual Communicator after repeatedly signing on outside production houses for video projects. From these outsourcing forays, Altuit CEO Chipp Walters said he's "seen first-hand how difficult, expensive, and time consulting it can be to get truly professional results."
Walters claims he was able to produce a quick video only an hour after opening the Visual Communicator software. Soon afterward, Altruit used the product to create a video for one of its clients -- a Texas-based corporation -- in less than a day.
Hosting Services Doing More
Third-party hosters typically combine hosting with use of their own content delivery networks (CDNs). CDNs use very high-bandwidth technologies -- including broadband, cable, and satellite -- for Internet-based content transport.
Since the dot com boom went bust a few years ago, the ranks of CDNs have been dwindling. On the other hand, many of the surviving CDNs have been adding useful new features over the past year or so.
Mirror Image Internet recently added edge caching of dynamic content for speedier delivery, and Akamai has been working with IBM on application processing at the edge. Meanwhile, Speedera is reportedly beefing up its security, and Limelight Networks recently became the first CDN to perform an end-to-end MPEG-4 broadcast.
In deciding on an outside service provider, organizations should weigh cost against capabilities, including the provider's geographic range of coverage, Rayburn suggests.
"Cost may be important, but it isn't everything," says Rayburn. "If you're not planning to distribute content to Europe or Asia, you might not need a global provider like Akamai."
Outsourcing Video Production
Meanwhile, more outsourcing options are becoming available for third-party production, too. Magix, a German-based maker of content creation tools, recently produced a streaming media Web site for T-Mobile. "We'd be open to doing something like that for other companies, too," says Carol Soper, director of brand management at Magix. Magix also sells Media Manager, an integrated suite for gathering, sorting, and sharing digital media files.
Top-end outsourcers of video production run the gamut from giants like Hewlett-Packard to smaller production houses such as JHT and TKO.
Alternatively, many companies are hiring Web conferencing specialists such as WebEx and Microsoft's recently purchased Placeware to handle both the production and broadcasting of streaming media content. Ford Motor Company is one Placeware customer, for instance.
Avoiding Bandwidth Snares
Many analysts view streaming media as much more feasible in enterprise deployments than on public-facing Internet sites, because administrators have greater control over distribution, storage, and playback mechanisms.
Still, though, the bursty nature of streaming media dictates careful bandwidth planning. Bandwidth distribution plans should consider the nature of the content, as well as total audience size, numbers of simultaneous viewers, and other enterprise apps that might be contending for bandwidth, experts say.
Tools from companies like Packeteer, Radiance, and Bandwiz are doing much to ease congestion on enterprise networks, according to some analysts. Aberdeen's Hoch points to a number of tools for managed delivery that feature automated policies for bandwidth usage and delivery scheduling, for instance.
Packeteer sells its PacketShaper software in separate Enterprise and ISP editions. Moreover, beyond its previous uses with streaming media, PacketShaper is now being used to help manage videoconferencing-over-IP through a recently unveiled deal between Packeteer and Polycom.
Bandwiz's DistributeIt comes with built-in algorithms for determining the most efficient delivery methods, according to Sapir. Administrators can schedule content for off-peak delivery if they want. Under DistributeIt's grid-based delivery system, content is delivered to only one machine per site. The content is then mirrored on the server for sharing among all end users attached to the LAN.
Also Needed -- Better Reporting and SLAs
At the same time, content management or digital asset management systems are becoming widely available for enterprise implementations. "Many of these systems, though, lack really good reporting tools," contends Rayburn.
Asset management can be augmented with reporting from products like WebTrends or MediaReports. WebTrends' reports can tell you how long it's taking for your streaming media to start, users' average viewing and connection speeds, and the relative popularity of various media streams, for instance.
Meanwhile, vendors like Keynote produce service level agreement (SLA) reporting tools and services for third-party hosters and their customers.
"The attitude of too many hosters today, though, is still, 'Let's make this SLA agreement as confusing as we can," according to Rayburn.
Streaming media deployments are hardly for the faint of heart. Like it or not, though, video Webcasts are trickling their way toward your organization. Especially if you're looking at more than a departmental implementation, your best bet is to team up with the right kind of systems integrator, to help you decide which aspects of streaming media -- if any -- should be left to third parties.