Buyers' Guide to Live Streaming Platforms
This buyers' guide identifies common live-streaming use cases and suggests the features to look for and the services to consider for those use cases. I'll be focusing on services that transcode for traditional adaptive bitrate (ABR) delivery via HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) or DASH and not low-latency services for WebRTC or similar technologies. If your use case is not listed (we couldn't get them all), find one that's close in scale and the required feature set.
Note that the list of services is not meant to be exhaustive, so if you're a reader, you should start with those listed and search for similar companies. If you're a service provider and your service wasn't listed, or it wasn't listed for a particular use case, please add it in the comments below.
You're a social media marketer, and you want to reach your viewers where they live: Facebook and YouTube.
Social media has undeniable appeal, and as platforms, Facebook and YouTube are undeniably robust. But using them as your primary streaming platform for mission-critical events is problematic for multiple reasons, most importantly the lack of accessible technical support. Most of the live-streaming platforms I will discuss can syndicate streams to various social media platforms, and originating your streams with a commercial service is the best strategy.
You're a broadcaster seeking live transcoding services.
You've got the content management, player, and delivery ecosystem nailed; you just want affordable high-quality transcoding and packaging. Companies to consider include AWS Elemental, Bitmovin, Microsoft Azure, Mux, StreamGuys, Wowza, and Brightcove Zencoder.
You're broadcasting a live event or series of live events for entertainment, government, or similar usage and are seeking a service for publishing and distribution.
Operationally, with most services, you send a single encoded stream from your event to the site where it's transcoded into an encoding ladder and distributed to your viewers by the service, either to the service's video player or your own. What you're paying for is access to the platform, transcoding services, and distribution of your video, which is the primary variable cost.
You should be able to originate the stream from any capture device that supports Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) output, which virtually all do. You should also be able to display the video on your own website or on a viewing page on the service, as well as syndicate to other platforms, including social media. After the event is over, the system will typically convert the stream to video on demand (VOD) for download or viewing on the service.
Most services that target this business model offer multiple plans, some monthly, some event-based. In most cases, the primary differentiators are bandwidth, viewer hours, and cost for additional bandwidth, which drops substantially with your commitment level.
What features should you look for? Here's a quick summary:
- Video—Resolution should be at least 720p, if not 1080p, with ABR support and no advertising.
- CDN—Delivery should be via a high-quality CDN, with effective delivery to wherever your viewers are located.
- Audience—The number of viewers that you can reach shouldn't be restricted, although you may have to pay for bandwidth overages on some plans.
- Player—It should be brandable and customizable, and you should be able to use a third-party player if you already have one. The supplied player should support features like social sharing, with extra credit for features like DVR.
- Target devices—The service should enable browser-based playback on computers and mobile devices. Look for mobile software development kits (SDKs) if you plan to create your own app, and give extra credit to platforms that support popular OTT devices and smart TVs.
- Monetization—Paywalls are a popular option, but advertising support is also useful if your viewer numbers get very high. The ability to accept donations can also be useful for some broadcasts.
- Security and access control—The platform should provide the ability to limit access to the video, whether via a password or private link, as well as the ability to geo-restrict and IP-restrict viewing and to prevent embedding on designated sites.
- Analytics—The platform should offer real-time viewer statistics along with location and details about the viewing platform.
- Syndication—As previously mentioned, you should be able to broadcast your stream to multiple locations, including social media platforms. Give extra credit for features like the ability to consolidate comments from all social media sites into one interface.
- Support—Preferably, you should have access to live telephone support during your broadcast, with live chat the next best option, which can be challenging since many live events occur outside of business hours. If you'll be producing at odd hours, check for 24/7 phone assistance, which is rare.
- Production help—If you're a production newbie or simply don't want to bother with setup, production, and teardown, find a supplier that can produce the event for you or suggest proven professionals in your area that do the same.
- Service Level Agreements (SLAs)—SLAs sound good but typically protect the service provider more than customers by allowing a certain amount of downtime and limiting your remedies if it happens during your live event. You're better off looking at reviews and checking with other users to determine system reliability.
Pricing is obviously a major concern. Make sure you understand what happens if your event runs longer than you expect, if the audience is larger, or if any combination thereof occurs that makes you exceed the hours or bandwidth of the selected commitment level.
Companies to consider are BoxCast, DaCast, JW Player, StreamShark, Vimeo, and Wowza Streaming Cloud.
You're a video developer seeking to integrate live video into an application.
Organizations in this class want to go beyond simple live streaming and playback; they want to integrate live streaming into an application on their website, whether for online shopping, gambling, auctioning, or the like. While most live-streaming services have application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow programmatic control over most functions, for deep integration, you need extensive developer tools beyond the API, such as SDKs for commonly used programming languages like Java and Ruby, code samples, and access to affordable consulting services. For gambling and auctioning, you also need access to low-latency HLS or DASH.
Wowza has a distinct advantage here with the Wowza Streaming Cloud, which is a GUI-based implementation of the Wowza Streaming Engine, an exceptionally strong and flexible product that powers several other live-streaming service providers. If you need to input or output to a particular format, chances are that Wowza Streaming Engine already supports it, and Wowza recently debuted a professional services arm to speed these integrations.
Companies to consider are Brightcove, JW Player, Kaltura, and Wowza Streaming Cloud.
You're a niche streamer looking for a platform that's well-featured for your particular use.
Worship-specific services are a great example. In addition to many of the features previously mentioned, they offer others like interactive Bible resources, moderated chat, and options to collect donations that may not be available in general-purpose services. Services to consider include StreamingChurch.tv, SermonCast, StreamingVideoProvider, Sunday Streams (now owned by BoxCast), ChurchStreaming, and Worship Channels. (Epiphan Video has compiled a handy list.)
There are also similar services for high school sports (MascotMedia, NFHS, Meridix), which offer sports-specific features not available on most general platforms. If you're in a niche, check if there are services that cater to it or find a general-purpose service with features essential to it. For example, BoxCast supports a scoreboard feature in its service.
You're an enterprise looking for town hall and similar broadcasts along with VOD support for onboarding, training, regulatory compliance, and knowledge retention.
In essence, you're looking for a single service that can satisfy both your live and VOD requirements and make them all work within the firewall. This means you'll want many of the features previously described but also access to single sign-on for users, the ability to access enterprise CDN functionality to efficiently deliver the video inside the firewall, and the ability to run multiple live events simultaneously. You may also want webinar-like features such as polling, chat, and live Q&A, as well as lead-generation features such as the ability to request an email address from a viewer or insert a call to action.
VOD functionality can go even deeper. Are you looking for any of the following?
- Simple YouTube-like storage and playbackof live to VOD and other videos
- The ability to create multiple levels of contributors (admin, moderator, etc.)
with different sets of rights and capabilities
- The ability to create a portal or portals by the company or division, with moderated channels and review/approval workflows
- A training portal that can track and supply user-level statistics for onboarding and regulatory compliance
All of these are possible depending on the company and the application. This category involves some of those listed previously but also opens a variety of other solutions of which live streaming is a feature as opposed to the primary service. Ease of use is critical here, since so much of the functionality will be used by employees rather than technicians. So be sure you can test the system extensively before you select it.
Companies to consider are Brightcove, DaCast, IBM Video Streaming, Kaltura, INXPO, Microsoft Stream, MediaPlatform, Panopto, Qumu, VIDIZMO, and Vimeo.
You're an organization using video for marketing, whether to help drive prospects through the sales funnel or to enhance engagement with other content.
If you're using video for marketing, your supplier needs to provide webinar-like functionality from registration through to data integration into marketing engines like Oracle Eloqua, Marketo, and HubSpot. During live events, you'll want a complete toolset for maintaining viewer interest and prospect-scoring, including polling, quizzes, chat, and similar tools. For other live streams and VODs, you'll need the ability to capture email addresses from interested viewers, plus the ability to easily insert calls to action.
Advanced features include the ability to create viewer-specific playlists powered by a recommendation engine. For sites mixing blog or article and video content, a feature like article matching, which suggests videos to display in an article by matching its title to video metadata, can help increase the number of contextually useful views of your video content (go2sm.com/articlematching).
Depending on your audience and aspirations, geographical reach may be critical here. So if you're looking to take your brand global, make sure your candidate service providers can supply that in all key markets.
Companies to consider are Brightcove, DaCast, iStreamPlanet, JW Player, and Vimeo.
You're a regional live or OTT broadcaster seeking a brandable distribution platform so you don't have to build your own.
Here, concerns switch from simple live streaming to integrating live into a potentially 24/7 multichannel structure with minimal coding required. You need true, studio-level DRM plus server-side advertising insertion that's proven to work at scale. You need full support for captions on all viewing platforms for the live event and the subsequent VOD streams. You need the ability to deliver to more devices and platforms, whether via APIs or SDKs, and a scalable low-latency solution for HLS and DASH.
Also check on the availability of HEVC/High Dynamic Range (HDR) support for both smart TVs and Apple devices. While you may pay a small premium for encoding and storage, HEVC should deliver substantial bandwidth savings.
To match the television viewing experience, you'll need 4K and HDR support and cloud-DVR functionality, plus the ability to deliver TV Everywhere. To maximize marketing, you'll need the ability to create clips and publish them to social media while the event is still ongoing.
To maximize engagement, look for a robust recommendation engine with playlists and next-up previews, plus the ability to integrate data with third-party packages like Google Analytics, Nielsen, and Comscore. To maximize QoE, you'll need the ability to integrate analytics with services like Conviva, Nice People At Work, and Mux.
A lot of service providers have these capabilities in their features tables, but you need the proven ability to deliver at scale. Your best bet here is to study the customer lists of the candidate companies as well as the features tables and find companies serving others in the market with needs and scale similar to yours.
Companies to consider are Brightcove, iStreamPlanet, JW Player, and Kaltura.
You're producing the Super Bowl and need live-streaming assistance.
If you're producing events this large, you're probably not scanning the internet looking for buyers' guides like this one. For the sake of completeness, however, I'll note that those producing these types of events need the proven ability to deliver at scale over a broad geographical area, which typically requires more than one CDN. For this reason, at this scale, it's worth talking directly to relevant CDNs that typically have the media transcoding and packaging expertise to produce the media and whose distribution costs represent the vast bulk of the overall expense of the event. Whatever the supplier, you'll be looking for advanced features like a network operating center (NOC) staffed 24/7, plus robust QoE and QoS tools.
Companies to consider are Akamai, iStreamPlanet, and Limelight Networks.
My last two pieces of advice are to check representative clients and cast a wide net. Some smaller companies like DaCast and Vimeo have very impressive customer rosters, indicating an ability to serve much more than entry-level streamers. From a positioning standpoint, find a company that serves clients like your business or where you legitimately aspire to be.
Changing platforms is challenging, so you want to choose a partner for the long term.
Second, don't fail to consider larger service providers because you feel they are too big or expensive for your current needs. Give them a chance to convince you that the features and service they deliver might be worth any extra cost involved.
There's a cost to being cutting-edge, and for low-latency live video streaming that involves learning WebRTC and accepting limited browser support.