Live Webcasting Solutions Buyer's Guide

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Many of you who are browsing the articles and advertisements in this issue have been in the online video business for a long time. Perhaps most of you got started in the last century. Drop yourself back into the '90s, and you may remember the postage stamp-sized video with that cool little spinning pinwheel, letting you know that something called buffering was taking place, but you still might get to see something eventually. Viewers coming over to the online world from a lifetime of viewing television had no idea what buffering was, and they didn't care, because most of them wouldn't wait for the video as they were trying to surf the net.

Why should they wait for that video? There was more compelling content and a much higher quality viewing experience from the couch. The pipes were too small, the encoding too complicated, the tool sets too hard to use-and there wasn't much in the way of monetization to compel anyone to take the leap into online video. I'm not sure the "M" word even existed in the last century. The idea of attempting a live online video event was just crazy talk among a bunch of misguided geeks with too much time on their hands-and we owe them more than we could have ever imagined.

There is a television station in Norway named TV 2 that is producing 6Mbps live streams over broadband for its viewers. The NFL and NBC put together Sunday Night Football Extra online, in HD, with five view-selectable camera choices, picture-in-picture, and full DVR control. Most of what I'm talking about in this article is better simply described as "live." All live, all the time, and with the technologies to make it a compelling viewing experience. And there are a growing number of companies providing the software and hardware ecosystems to make it happen. Digital Rapids, Sonic Foundry, Inlet Technologies, Adobe, Microsoft, Go-Live, Telestream, Livestream, Ustream, and a myriad of others have robust solutions that can get you live online if you are a big three-letter news and entertainment network targeting multiple screens or a small college or high school showing this week's home game. So let's look at some of the hardware and software solutions that will give you a feel for what's out there and that might just make your live streaming a bit easier.

I was talking with John Bishop, co-founder and senior vice president of products and business development at Inlet Technologies, about the hardware-based side of live. Inlet had a vision that video could look better than postage-stamp size and could achieve broadcastlike quality over broadband. Many are familiar with Inlet's Spinnaker live streaming appliances. Its products have been adopted by large news and entertainment networks; it's also one of the technologies behind NBC's coverage of the last Olympic Winter Games, Major League Baseball, and live 3D online coverage of the 2010 Masters Golf Tournament. It's interesting that Inlet's Spinnaker appliance does not use any proprietary hardware because, as Bishop explained, "Spinnaker is a ‘software-enabled' hardware appliance. We still see the rate of change in the broadband and mobile video space as phenomenally fast, and we want to have a software approach that allows us to respond to the ever changing market demands." And those market demands are growing as everyone is streaming to multiple screens as the next iPhone, Android device, or iPad comes to market.

Adaptive Live Streaming Solutions

The distinction between hardware and software solutions appears to be blurring; very often, the state-of-the-art software from so-called traditional software companies is incorporated into hardware appliances. This is evidenced by the fact that Adobe HTTP Dynamic Streaming and Microsoft Smooth Streaming are both integral pieces of delivery from hardware appliances. It is these adaptive bitrate technologies from Adobe and Microsoft that have made a tremendous positive impact on streaming in the past few years.

While a technical explanation of adaptive bitrate is available from many sources, Bishop noted, "Customers need to know that adaptive bitrate is not a sandbox technology. It is deployed at some of the largest data centers in the world. If customers are using a streaming solution circa 2005, they are so far behind the curve that they are almost using an inferior product."

Adobe has done some of the largest live events ever delivered on the web using Flash, including President Barack Obama's inauguration, Michael Jackson's funeral, and World Cup Soccer with ESPN. In order to sustain growth and to make sure that the internet continues to be a place where people can build business models around streaming, Adobe invested in HTTP delivery. As Kevin Towes, senior product manager at Adobe, states, "With HTTP delivery, customers can leverage the benefits it offers such as ability to reach through a CDN with much greater capacity and the ultimate promise of lower cost of delivery."

Adaptive bitrate technology is also becoming a key component of live multicast delivery. Succinctly, while traditional streaming is a one-to-one relationship between the server and the client player, multicast clients subscribe to the same multicast IP and receive the same stream. This clearly results in bandwidth savings but has always presented hurdles in network configuration and infrastructure expense.

Towes added that one of the key challenges has been to deliver a high-quality video experience within the enterprise without potentially disrupting core network services such as email and voice, while at the same time reducing the network infrastructure required to deliver that experience. Adobe addressed the issue by fusing together IP multicast and application-level multicast that it uses with the peer-to-peer functionality and multicast capabilities introduced in Flash Player 10.1. This effectively permits enterprise users who have the ability to consume multicast to help those who aren't able to consume a multicast stream experience the same view while realizing the bandwidth savings.

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