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Planning for Streaming Media

Whether it's an extension of videoconferencing or an IPTV-based in-house video network, streaming media is now essential to many AV installations. How do you go about choosing a platform? 5/30/2011 11:03 PM Eastern

Planning for Streaming Media

Whether it's an extension of videoconferencing or an IPTV-based in-house video network, streaming media is now essential to many AV installations. How do you go about choosing a platform?

Pick just about any form of enterprise communications—digital signage, training, collaboration—and if it doesn't already involve video, it will soon. So says a recent Gartner Group survey, whose respondents expect their video usage to more than double in external communications and digital signage.

"YouTube has created an appetite," says Ted Gessesse, VBrick System's Online Streaming Service (VBOSS) product manager.

It's a trend that highlights why streaming video skills are increasingly important for AV pros. Besides needing IT and networking skills, success also requires understanding streaming's unique characteristics and how they determine what to look for when comparing one vendor's streaming solution to another's.

For example, there are myriad ways that end users consume video. Thanks to the proliferation of broadband cellular networks and tablets such as the iPad, it's increasingly likely that many streams will be going over a wireless connection and out to a handheld device. So one thing to look for when comparing different vendors' streaming products is how they handle situations when, say, some viewers are using a desktop PC on a corporate LAN, while others are watching on an Android tablet from a café Wi-Fi hot spot, and still others are on an iPhone over cellular.

Moreover, the Apple iPhone and iPad can't handle Flash, while Windows Media doesn't work well on other handheld devices. These kinds of variables must be front-of-mind when determining the platform that best supports a client's video end points.

"You need to be able to support to the full contingent of devices because that's where your audience is," says Dave Stoner, CEO of ViewCast, which makes Niagra streaming media appliances and encoders for delivering video to broadband networks and mobile devices in multiple formats, resolutions, and bit rates. "The whole idea of this technology is to reach people where they are."

MANAGING BANDWIDTH

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When multiple users—or devices, in the case of digital signage—tune into a stream, and each one's network connection is at a different speed, the platform shouldn't throttle down the video quality to the lowest common denominator.

"We have sensors that look at the connection you're coming in on to offer you the right kind of video," says VBrick's Gessesse. "You don't have to do just 150kbps because you're limited to what iPhone users can handle."

It's helpful if the platform also can make adjustments on the fly in order to ensure the best possible viewing experience as conditions change. "So if my bandwidth drops or my device's CPU gets busy with some other application, it will drop back in the stream I'm receiving and pick one that's a lower bit rate so the user experience can be maintained at the level that the customer expects," Stoner says.



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Planning for Streaming Media

Whether it's an extension of videoconferencing or an IPTV-based in-house video network, streaming media is now essential to many AV installations. How do you go about choosing a platform?

Streaming also shouldn't overload the wide-area network (WAN) connection going into the client's facility. Suppose the client wants to produce training and human resources videos at one office and then stream them out to several regional offices around the country. The WAN connection point would become a bottleneck if dozens of employees in each regional office were to get their own stream straight from that office.

BurstPoint Networks avoids that problem by offering what it calls relatively inexpensive "delivery nodes" for the clients' regional offices. Those nodes grab a single copy of each stream from the head office, for example, and then each regional office can multicast them over its LAN.

"It's incredibly efficient, and you get scale," says Tom Racca, BurstPoint president and CEO. "We do tens of thousands by doing that. Can you imagine 100 people trying to go out of one T1 line to watch an HD video?"

BurstPoint recently joined national AV systems integrator AVI-SPL's partner program. AVI-SPL is now offering the BurstPoint Video Communication Platform, which can be deployed as a standalone solution or leveraged to take advantage of previous customer investments in technologies such as videoconferencing and telepresence.

The streaming platform itself also needs to be scalable. Ideally it should have enough head room—in terms of ports and processing power—to be able to accommodate growth. That's because once clients experience the benefits of using streaming video on a daily basis, they typically wind up doing more with it than they had originally planned.

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"It's surprising how many platforms can't cope with large traffic demands, especially geographically diverse content," says Phil Jackson, Front Porch Digital chief marketing officer. Front Porch Digital has made its name developing solutions that digitize, store, manage, and distribute video content. In 2008, the company bought SAMMA Systems, which makes systems that automatically migrate video tape archives to digital formats.

But no matter what the user's needs are, it's often difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons to determine which product meets those needs. It's important to look beyond a manufacturer's specifications and scrutinize the assumptions behind those numbers, including how those assumptions jibe with the user's applications.

"Customers want us to be able to say, 'You can encode this many streams,' " says ViewCast's Stoner. "That depends. What bit rate? What frame rate? What resolution? What preprocessing? There's a whole raft of questions that have to be asked.

"The reality is that if you want to know whether a particular system has the capacity to do what you want, you need to test the scenario that you're defining."

FEEDING THE BEAST

Content creation and management are also key considerations when choosing streaming platforms. For example, if the client already has a videoconferencing suite, it can double as a production studio—provided that the streaming platform can interface with it. In other cases, the client might want to use Web cams or even smartphone cameras. According to research firm Interactive Media Strategies, nine out of 10 companies that use videoconferencing say they also have online video solutions.

"Think about what's already there," says BurstPoint's Racca. "Not every vendor has the ability to integrate with videoconferencing systems." In May, BurstPoint rolled out what it calls Conference Point for integrating traditional videoconferencing solutions with online streaming systems. The company said that Conference Point supports up to six simultaneous standard-definition live-streaming sessions, two 720p high-definition sessions, or a combination of HD and SD sessions.

Once it exists, the content has to be managed. For example, the client might want to give only certain employees, departments, or offices the ability to publish or access content. In that case, the streaming platform might have to interface with an LDAP server or whatever piece of infrastructure that the company already uses for IT rights and privileges.

Some verticals will have additional requirements. For example, colleges and universities might want to be able to restrict access to only those people who have registered for a course, rather than all enrolled students. In the legal market, the ability to encrypt video depositions might be a requirement.

Other clients might want the ability to track who's watching what and for how long, as in the case of compliance videos. Although streaming might be thought of as strictly a one-way medium, platforms often support a back channel. The client could use the back channel to support quizzes that confirm that viewers were actually paying attention during the video.

The ability to track viewing also helps determine when content is getting stale and needs to be refreshed. For some clients, that can be just as important as video quality and bandwidth.

"That's going to tell me a lot about the use cases, not just the bits going through," Racca says. "Is it still popular? Is everyone who needs to see it for compliance purposes viewing it?"

Finally, enterprises may want to put the power of video publishing on users' desktops. Cisco Systems Digital Media Suite includes a solution called Show and Share that pulls in user-generated video content while also controlling access. VBrick just came out with its Rich Media Desktop, which extends the company's streaming platform so that individual users can publish video from their computers for live or on-demand streaming.

Of course, with that much video flowing through the pipes, your client may need bigger pipes. AV–IT convergence anyone?



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