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A Closer Look at Streaming Servers

Nov 16, 2012 12:05 PM, By Jan Ozer

Understanding the options

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Olympic video delivered to the iPad via Microsoft's cloud-based Windows Azure Media Services.

Microsoft IIS Media Services 4

Microsoft’s Internet Information Services (IIS) for Windows Server is a general-purpose web server with extensions such as IIS Media Services for video delivery functions, including Smooth Streaming and throttled progressive downloads of common media formats. Recognizing that most video producers must reach both a desktop platform and iOS devices with live and on-demand adaptive streaming, Microsoft added transmuxing capabilities to IIS Media Services 4. Specifically, IIS Media Services 4 can transmux incoming Smooth Streaming fragments into Apple iOS-compatible streams with AES-128 encryption, if desired. The server can also configure an HTML5 page for use in playing the streams in Apple Safari.

If you’ve already purchased Windows Server, the Smooth Streaming functionality is free, though obviously it’s of little use if you need to reach desktop platforms other than Silverlight or other Smooth Streaming-compatible players.

Microsoft recently released a preview release of the cloud-based Windows Azure Media Services that was used to deliver video from the London Olympics to a range of players, including Silverlight, iOS, Android, and Flash, the last via a custom software development kit produced by a Microsoft partner.

RealNetworks’ Helix Universal Server

RealNetworks was the first major streaming-related brand, though it fell from prominence in the early ‘00s. Since then, the company has retooled its Helix Media Server into a general purpose platform that provides legacy support for existing RealNetworks and Windows Media shops, plus transmuxing of H.264/AAC content for delivery to Flash, QuickTime, Silverlight, Blackberry, Symbian, and iOS devices. Helix Media Server also supports HTTP Live streaming to iOS devices and QuickTime X.

RealNetworks offers Helix in three configurations: Helix Server Standard, which supports a handful of clients and formats, including Flash Dynamic Streaming; Helix Universal Media Server, which adds non-adaptive Windows Media, 3GPP, and Apple iOS delivery; and the Helix Universal Media Server for Mobile, which adds adaptive bitrate streaming to iOS and 3GPP devices. Helix Server Standard costs $999, and the company doesn’t publish prices for the two more highly featured servers. As with Microsoft and Adobe, Helix supports multiple target platforms by transmuxing an incoming stream, and in the case of iOS devices, using AES-128 encryption, if desired.

However, RealNetworks doesn’t support Flash encryption via RTMPE and RTMPTE, doesn’t support applications like Flash-based video chat, and can’t distribute video to the Flash Player using multicast or peer-to-peer. If legacy support for RealNetworks files is a priority, Helix is your natural choice. Beyond this, RealNetworks offers very broad support for a range of devices in both single- and adaptive-bitrate streams.

Wowza media server powers

Wowza Media Server 3

Wowza Media Systems is the company that pioneered the transmux process, which the company implemented as its H.264 everywhere features in Wowza Media Server 2. Wowza currently offers a traditional perpetual license for $995, or you can license a single instance for a month for $55, or for a day for $5, which is ideal for live events.

Wowza was initially designed as a low cost alternative for Flash streaming, so it provides very broad-based Flash distribution and supports most, if not all, of the protocols supported by Adobe’s own server family. However, while Wowza can provide some of the interactivity features enabled by Adobe’s Flash Media Interactive Server, the server can’t push multicast streams to the Flash Player or implement peer-to-peer delivery to the Flash Player within the enterprise. Fortunately, for enterprise live streaming, Wowza delivers live streams using both standard HTTP caching infrastructures for unicast streams to most any player and canonical RTP multicast for delivery to Silverlight players.

In addition to Flash, Wowza can also transmux an incoming stream for distribution to iOS (with AES-128 encryption), Smooth Streaming players such as Silverlight and QuickTime/3GPP, and is the only server that can distribute H.264-encoded packets in an MPEG-2 Transport stream for playback on IPTV devices.

At press time, Wowza announced Wowza Media Server 3.5, which includes on-the-fly encryption for live and on-demand content and several additional forms of security. Also new is closed captioning support, with the ability to transmux captions as necessary for each target platform, and integration with the Silverlight Multicast Player, enabling multicast streaming of MPEG-TS files to any Silverlight desktops.

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