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Choosing Live Distribution Options

Feb 13, 2012 11:23 AM, By Jan Ozer

The pros and cons.


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Who does what in live streaming.

You have four basic options when it comes to streaming live events: host your own streaming server, either locally or in the cloud; choose a live streaming hosting provider such as Powerstream or Streaming Media Hosting, which supplies access to a streaming server; sign on with a traditional online video platform provider (OVP) like Brightcove or Kaltura who has expanded to offer live streaming; or engage a live streaming service provider (LSSP) like Livestream or Ustream. In this article, I’ll discuss the pros and cons of all four approaches so you can make the best decision for your organization.

Know The Roles

When evaluating these alternatives, it’s helpful to break the elements of a live streaming event into the distinct “roles” delineated in the table above. The first role, of course, is server purchase, installation, hosting, and administration. All live events need a streaming server. If you host your own server, you’re in charge of all those elements, so you’ll need technical resources on staff to handle these tasks. Self-hosting locally means providing a physical server and the associated costs, which you can offload by hosting in the cloud.

Service providers assume all functions of this role. While expenses such as server cost and technical staff are built into their charges, these are spread over multiple customers and may be cheaper than self-hosting. If you plan to broadcast 24/7, you’re essentially in the live streaming business, and it may make sense to host your own server. At the other end of the spectrum, if you plan to broadcast one or two events a month, one of the other options is probably a better choice.

Production

The production role involves multiple elements, including the purchase of camera, audio and lighting gear, the purchase and installation of hardware and/or software encoders, as well as transmission gear if the outbound bandwidth at the site isn’t sufficient to deliver the compressed live streams to the Internet. The production role also includes the staffing required to drive all this fancy equipment.

If you’re self-hosting your live event, you’re in charge of production. Whereas you can hire outsiders, you’ll have to ensure that they have the requisite experience producing live events. The same holds true for most live streaming hosting providers and online video platforms, which typically don’t have inhouse production teams. In contrast, the largest LSSPs either have inhouse production teams or experienced third-party contractors knowledgeable in live event production.

Player And Landing-Page Creation

To watch your live event, viewers will navigate to a landing page and watch from a player. If you’re hosting your own server, or using a hosting provider, you’re in charge of creating both the landing page and player, which typically means technical resources that can program in Flash. For a simple player in a window, this shouldn’t be much of a problem, even if you have to bring in outside resources—though even this minimum level of player creation is complicated if you plan to support one or more mobile platforms.

More importantly, a simple player in a window is a pretty sterile environment for a live event. The trend in live event production has been toward players that simulate “being there” as much as possible. For consumer-focused events, like concerts or festivals, typically this means access to live chat via Twitter, Facebook, or other facility, and perhaps the ability to upload images or even videos from the event. In a business or educational environment, this could mean the ability to issues polls or quizzes, as well as chat. All events benefit from ratings and an opportunity for audience feedback in a comments section. In addition, for many events you want the broadest possible distribution, which means the ability to embed the player in other websites, or on Facebook and/or Twitter. These types of features would be expensive for occasional broadcasters to reproduce, which is why many such broadcasters migrate towards OVPs and LSSPs. The latter requires an LSSP, since typically LSSPs have more evolved social-media-related features in their players than OVPs.

Platform Support

Most live event producers want to reach the widest possible audience, including desktop and mobile-based players. Those hosting their own server will find that most of the options available for purchase—Adobe Flash Media Server, Real Networks Helix Server, or the Wowza Media Server—can repurpose Flash-encoded video to iOS and Android devices. However, this adds a level of expertise you as server host may not have in house.

In contrast, all three classes of service providers should be able to distribute your Flash-encoded video to multiple mobile platforms, and provide templates and/or encoding specifications to help you produce streams that play on all target platforms.

Distribution

If you’re rolling your own system, you’re in charge of distribution as well, both externally and internally if you’re targeting internal viewers. If you’re serving even relatively few external viewers from your own server, you need massive pipes to the Internet, a co-located server, or a server installed in the cloud. As simultaneous viewers increase, you may also need a content delivery network (CDN) to ensure a high quality of service to all viewers.

This is an area where all three classes of service providers can help. All will have relationships with CDNs for external delivery; once the live video stream is transmitted to their streaming servers, they’re in charge of delivering the video to the end user. Some OVPs can also optimize delivery within the enterprise using technologies like peer-to-peer delivery on the corporate LAN.

Eyeballs

For B2C producers seeking additional viewers to watch an event, LSSPs offer the benefit of massive numbers of viewers and various programs to market to them. If it’s eyeballs you need, this is the place to be.



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