The three faces of enterprise streaming media

ITworld.com –

I've recently been helping companies design complete streaming media systems to deliver information to their employees, partners, and customers. These systems must produce content, manage it, get it to end users, and then support the viewer's experience in some way (play the frames of video in sequence, for example). In the process, I've learned a few lessons that may save you some heartache.

Make (business) sense of streaming

If those involved in a project understand the value proposition of their investment early in the deployment, the whole project has a greater likelihood of success. Such an understanding is easiest when the proponents are businesspeople facing real business challenges (as opposed to technologists with an itch or a mandate from above). The business managers have to make a solid business case, first to get the support of the content creators and network managers, then to get resources from senior management to support an ongoing investment.

A popular application for streaming media is the support of new product launches. You've probably seen a company introduce its product, trot out a few satisfied customers, then attempt to charge up a sales force to take the product to market. Companies with national or global markets can justify this in short order.

There are hundreds of other business uses for streaming media as well. I recently analyzed a deployment that paid for itself solely on the basis of retaining attorneys in a firm.

This said, without a set of feedback mechanisms and activity tracking and reporting systems for the servers, most streaming media managers will never know the precise impact of their system. Every streaming media deployment needs to include a software component with which it can measure user access and interact with users by offering incentives, tests, or contests.

If you are looking for a killer solution for this part of your deployment, keep looking. Streaming media asset monitoring and reporting systems are relatively primitive today.

Begin with high-quality content

You've heard this a million times, but it bears repeating: invest appropriate resources and attention in the content-creation system. Storyboard the video before capturing the first element. Use only high-quality video cameras. Pay special attention to the acoustics of the room in which you are taping.

If you don't prepare adequately, if the raw audio or video fails to meet your quality expectations or isn't edited by professionals to include titles and transitions, the whole solution is of limited use.

The content-creation system is also where you need to decide what media file format to make available to the end user. Choosing just one of the three leading file formats (Windows Media Technologies from Microsoft, Real System from Real Networks, or QuickTime from Apple) can be difficult, so many companies hedge their bets and offer users a choice of two.

If you're going to offer more than one or two dozen videos, you'll probably need to catalogue them and manage the catalogue. Content indexing, which makes your streaming files searchable, requires an extra step in the content-creation system and generates databases that you need to keep track of and back up. But creating such an index pays off handsomely for all but the smallest sites.

Deliver it to the user

Pay attention to the network for distributing streaming media. These networks account for more than half of the total acquisition cost and between one- and two-thirds of the ongoing operational cost of the average streaming media package.

Network architects have to decide where and when to locate the content acquisition and creation systems, where to store content, how to secure it, and what priority the streams can have on the network. Putting caching appliances in remote offices can alleviate some costs associated with network transport from a centralized operations center to remote locations, but can introduce new questions, such as when to replicate content or how to control access remotely.

Another set of questions revolves around server throughput and the bandwidth that a streaming media network requires. Although you can calculate this based on the average number of concurrent users you expect and the data rate of the streams, the glib answer remains: streaming media needs as much throughput and bandwidth as you can give it.

Frameworks have a place

Though it helps to think of these three aspects of the systems separately, all of them need to work in tandem and feed one another users and content continuously. When the content fails to appeal to users, that information needs to get into the hands of the content producers immediately. When a segment of the network is too costly to upgrade for streaming media, users on that segment shouldn't be allowed to access the content.

Streaming media is here to stay. Over time, most of today's challenges will be simplified. But don't worry -- you can count on new technology to bring new levels of difficulty.

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