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CDNs Offer More Than a Quick Byte
Nowadays, CDNs are jazzing up their menus with value-added services such as transcoding, content management, and monetization. Want fries with that?
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Things continue to get easier for companies and organizations of all sizes looking to distribute their video online. That’s because content delivery networks (CDNs) are offering a wider array of value-added services to assist with managing, transcoding, and monetizing video in addition to the very important task of distributing that video reliably to viewers, wherever they may be.

The same way that options that used to cost more on a car -- such as power steering, windows, and locks -- have now become standard, many CDNs are offering new tools to all of their customers. By the same token, the selection of services varies from network to network, so just like shopping for a car, it’s important for CDN customers to have a handle on their business priorities.

According to Jason Thibeault (right), senior director of marketing strategy at Limelight Networks, “Small and medium size businesses are exploring CDNs, [and] the conversation is happening around scale, reach, and availability.”

He continues, “It used to be that we just delivered their bits as fast as possible. Now it’s a platform for helping them deliver a more engaging presence.” Thibeault calls it the “second layer,” which, for Limelight, is its Orchestrate suite of tools, including analytics and cloud storage. “We integrated our cloud storage with our edge,” he says. “We can store videos next to the cache. The hop is so close to the original request, we can reduce the middle-mile latency.”

CDNs are offering better interfaces and integration, clearer analytics, and even helping customers develop apps. The following two companies are happy CDN customers that are benefiting from that value-add.

Analytics Help Deliver a Library of Zen

Jason Riley is the director of web technologies for Boulder, Colo.-based Gaiam, which provides goods and services for healthy lifestyles. The company has been an active producer of original video content for years, first distributed on DVD and now via its Gaiam TV online service, which launched in 2012. Riley describes the service as “Netflix for the Gaiam customer, focused on yoga, fitness and spirituality.” It’s available on computers, set-top boxes such as Roku and Apple TV, connected TVs and Blu-ray Players, game consoles, and mobile devices.

All of Gaiam’s content has digital rights that vary based on a subscriber’s location, so rights management with geolocation was a top requirement for launching Gaiam TV. Then, of course, the company wanted to reach customers on as many devices as possible. Gaiam had begun building the service using Microsoft Silverlight. Then the company quickly found it also needed to deliver HLS for HTML5 as well as Flash Access as the number of supported devices grew. This made it necessary to manage a wide selection of renditions, each in 22 bitrates.

Riley says Gaiam turned to Akamai in order to support this growing stable of playback types. Gaiam was already managing its own transcoding and had built its own continuous billing system in-house. What Gaiam liked about Akamai’s offering was the Sola Media Solutions interface, particularly Sola analytics.

“Sola analytics is about making sure our customers see what kind of quality is being delivered,” explains Kurt Michel (right), Akamai’s senior product marketing manager. Sola has three modules: audience analytics, a quality-of-service monitor with real-time capability, and a new view diagnostic that allows a customer to view “what a player has seen for the last 60 days,” with visual indicators for what kind of quality the viewer received each day.

“This would let customer service people get a snapshot if a customer were to call into a support center with issues on pay-per-view or video on demand,” Michel continues. “You can combine this data with other analytics and start to make correlations.”

“That interface is amazing,” Riley says, “what you can see in real-time or going and looking at a viewer’s history for the past 30, 60, or 90 days, [seeing] all the hops they’re going through to retrieve their data.” He says Gaiam also uses the Sola interface for managing its renditions. “It’s nice to be able to get it all through one interface. Not having to have multiple windows or multiple logins was useful, too.”

Gaiam has been producing original video content for years, but when it began publishing to set- top boxes and other devices, it needed help with video formats, bitrates, and digital rights management.

Michel explains that “it’s an overall family of services and capabilities under the Sola interface.” SOLA Sphere is Akamai’s storage capability in the cloud, “a big part of what we are known for,” Michel notes. Then, SOLA Vision encompasses many other value-added services “that adapt content, [through] transcoding and transmuxing. A customer can pretty much take their master file in a single format and upload to a net storage watch folder, [and] we’ll automatically create the renditions and quality rates of the file.” Akamai will automatically put it in the customer’s storage system, along with the publication URL. Michel adds, “[W]hen someone wants to watch it we’ll reformat [and] transmux on the fly to reach iOS devices.”

While Gaiam currently manages its own transcoding and renditions, Riley says that “in the future it’s a possibility” that it will use SOLA Vision for that purpose.

International TV via Apps and Dongles

NexTv is an Australia-based, pay-TV platform offering international live programming packages to multicultural people in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. According to president and CEO Mark P. Lobwein, “[W]e’ve been operating for eight years. Our primary market was satellite delivery to cable head-ends.”

The company has since expanded to stream channels to set-top boxes, computers and mobile devices. “It wasn’t that we were smarter, it’s that there was a demand for it. Now people can get exactly what they want without having to go to cable operators, satellite and so forth,” says Lobwein.

The company was approached by a South African broadcaster looking to distribute programming to Australia and New Zealand online. “Our client wanted to start off as a fulltime 24 hour channel,” explains Lobwein. But then, “[T]hey said the economy changed and a lot of people are getting streaming.” So NexTv suggested pursuing a video-on-demand strategy, and then the client wanted to deliver directly to televisions.

NexTv’s primary services are live 24-hour streams, and the company was accustomed to working with multiple CDNs to deliver this content globally. When his company started pursuing the video on demand (VOD) strategy Lobwein says, “[W]e realized that Tulix specialized in pay-per-view.”