The three faces of enterprise streaming media
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
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
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