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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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Other Basics

Beyond reaching your target viewers, you should also consider the source of your stream. For example, if you’ll be transmuxing an MPEG-2 transport stream from a satellite or similar source, it’s best if your server can simply input the live stream. Wowza Media Server can, while the other servers will require additional hardware, software, or both.

While it’s not unusual to purchase a separate standalone computer to host a streaming server, you should also check operating system support early in the purchasing process. Microsoft’s Windows-only IIS is the most limited, while the Adobe family of servers supports both Windows Server 2008 and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. RealNetwork’s Helix runs on Windows and Red Hat Linux, plus Oracle Solaris, while Wowza runs on Windows, Linux, Solaris, Unix, and Mac OS X. If Infrastructure-as-a-service cloud-based operation is the goal, you can directly license all streaming servers except Helix on the Amazon EC2 cloud platform. With Helix, you would have to create your own Cloud platform on EC2 using one of the compatible operating systems and install the product separately. Microsoft and Wowza will also support Platform-as-a-Service streaming from the newly announced Windows Azure Media Services, if your client prefers the Microsoft cloud platform.

Other Features

Beyond basics, there are a few other features worth considering when choosing a streaming server. In this regard, Wowza has done the best job differentiating its product from the other offerings.

Specifically, with Wowza Media Server 3.0, Wowza debuted a plug-in architecture that allows the company to enhance the base product offering with several very useful enhancements, most notably, the Wowza Transcoder and nDVR AddOns. The Wowza Transcoder AddOn allows the server to accept an incoming stream in MPEG-2 or H.264 format and re-encode the stream for single or adaptive delivery.

In a broadcast environment, the Transcoder could input an MPEG-2 encoded stream from a satellite or similar source, and transcode the stream to H.264 for delivery to Flash, iOS, or any other of the supported target platforms. In a live production, the Transcoder could input a single, high-quality H.264 stream and produce multiple output streams for adaptive streaming to any of the supported target platforms. This latter application is exceptionally useful in many live event scenarios, where outbound bandwidth is a significant limitation and onsite encoding costs are a constant concern. For example, for an event shot and distributed in HD, producing the necessary adaptive streams might require multiple encoders and 5Mbps to 7Mbps outbound bandwidth. With the Transcoder plug-in, a single encoder could produce a compact 720p stream that might require 2.5Mbps to 3Mbps outbound bandwidth.

Once the stream gets to the server, the Transcoder plug-in creates the adaptive streams in realtime, avoiding the outbound bandwidth logjam and reducing onsite encoding costs. Single license pricing for the Transcoder AddOn is $1,495 for a perpetual license, $30 per channel for a monthly license, and $3 per channel for a daily license.

The other noteworthy Wowza plug-in is the Wowza nDVR AddOn, which is currently in beta. While most streaming servers offer some DVR functionality, typically you have to configure the DVR differently for each target platform. In contrast, Wowza nDVR creates a single content cache that’s accessed by clients viewing via Flash HTTP Dynamic Streaming, Microsoft Smooth Streaming, and Apple HLS clients. This reduces the on-server cache and setup complexity. Single license pricing for the nDVR AddOn is $495 for a perpetual license, $20 for a monthly license, and $2 for a daily license.

Overall, Adobe’s unique strengths lie in the ability to efficiently distribute video within an enterprise, as well as comprehensive support for all Adobe protocols and DRM technologies, with its newest server offering significant protection for iOS delivery as well. Microsoft’s IIS server is an inexpensive mechanism for adding iOS clients to an existing Silverlight distribution system, but can only publish progressive download files to Flash clients. RealNetworks’ Helix Server offers very good format support, but it doesn’t support all major adaptive bitrate streaming protocols or Flash interactivity, which could be limiting. Finally, Wowza Media Server is a cost effective and very broad-based multi-client distribution solution with a flexible plug-in architecture that enables and simplifies many user and business scenarios.

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