Flash and Silverlight, Together at Last

As a first step toward the long-anticipated benefits of H.264 support in both Adobe's Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight platforms, Wowza Media Systems has begun demonstrating its Wowza Media Server Pro Advanced at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas, which runs through April 23.

Wowza was one of the first companies to provide an alternative to the Flash Media Server, and currently has sold over 20,000 licenses to its products, including Wowza Media Server Pro and Wowza Media Server Pro Unlimited with MPEG-TS, the latter an H.264 server that passes High Definition H.264 MPEG transport streams through to broadcast and over-the-air (OTA) solutions, while simultaneously providing a standard-definition H.264 stream that can be delivered via RTMP to Flash players.

"We've used a show like NAB in the past to demonstrate the benefits of H.264 MPEG-TS, as it enhances a broadcaster's existing H.264 infrastructure," said David Stubenvoll, Wowza's CEO and Co-Founder, "so the first demonstrations of Advanced server at NAB are a natural fit, as broadcasters look beyond Flash-only delivery to a variety of delivery platforms."

With the Advanced version, which will be released in the second half of 2009, Wowza seeks to expand its protocol transfer capabilities beyond OTA and Flash.

"We are confident all of our customers will see immediate benefit from Wowza Media Server Pro Advanced, not just the broadcast customers," said Stubenvoll. "As the industry's first multi-protocol media streaming platform that combines Flash, Silverlight, iPhone, RTSP/RTP, and MPEG-TS compatible streaming in a single server, there are a variety of use cases for H.264 across all these platforms."

Wowza's servers do not provide encoding or transcoding; instead, relying on hardware H.264 encoders from Hai Vision and others, as well as software encoders such as Flash Media Encoder, Wowza provides a clearinghouse approach in which an H.264 stream is unbundled from a particular protocol "wrapper" and then transfered to a new protocol.

"We've been doing protocol transfer for quite some time," said Stubenvoll, "so the new server handles any H.264 content that is thrown at it - from RTP/RTSP to Adobe's RTMP and even transport streams. This allows any compatible H.264 encoder to serve a variety of platforms, without requiring the encoder to encode in every single protocol."

This reliance on external encoders also allows the Advanced server to provide Smooth Streaming, Microsoft's dynamic streaming protocol which allows multiple streams at various bitrates to be encoded in to two-second content chunks, with the server determining which stream at a particular bandwidth is best served to the end viewer. Wowza says this Smooth Streaming feature will be available for both live and on-demand content.

"While we've looked at the option of providing trans-rating within Wowza servers," said Stubenvoll, referring to the conversion of a single high-bitrate stream in to a number of lower bitrate streams," we find that most of our server customers already have multiple encoders, one for each bitrate."

When asked about the practice that some CDNs are trending toward, where virtualization is used to provide multiple servers, such as Windows Media and Flash, on the same physical box, Stubenvoll said he felt Wowza's approach was more sustainable.

"The differences of price - since one would have to have a Windows server license on the virtual machine - as well as performance are what really differentiate our Advanced server from a virtualized approach," said Stubenvoll. "Some of the CDNs pitching virtualization to their customers are themselves Wowza customers, and we think they will also see the price and performance benefits as we roll out the preview versions of Advanced in a few weeks' time."

When asked about pricing, Stubenvoll would only say that pricing will be available within a few weeks, at the time of the preview release. He mentioned the new Advanced server will be priced somewhere between the Wowza Pro server and the Wowza Media Server Pro Unlimited with MPEG-TS, which sell for $995 and $1,995, respectively.

In the meantime, Wowza has lowered the price of the MPEG-TS version and is also offering a free upgrade to anyone purchasing the Unlimited version of the server, noting in an earlier press release that "all purchases of Wowza Media Server Pro Unlimited editions after April 8, 2009 are eligible for a free upgrade to Wowza Media Server Pro Advanced."

Wowza's pricing, which was lowered shortly before Adobe announced its price drops for Flash Media Server last year, has presented a bit of a challenge for Adobe. Given Stubenvoll's comments on the pricing range for the Advanced server, at a price point below Adobe's average Flash Media Server pricing, presents another interesting challenge for Adobe.

With Wowza providing H.264 delivery alternatives beyond Flash, the question of whether Adobe will push its prices down even further, as well as Microsoft's positioning as it seeks to integrate H.264 further in to Silverlight via the Silverlight 3 beta, is a question we'll explore later this week in a Streaming Media podcast, direct from the NAB show floor.

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