Five Questions: Shopping for Video Hosting

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Today, every organization is a media company whether they realize it or not. When it comes to video, most companies already produce and distribute a wide range of content via internal and external distribution channels. Each company that delivers this video through the web, by way of a service provider or content distribution network, expects to receive a certain level of quality. That quality, which can be defined by many factors, should be discussed in detail with the provider before you sign a contract. Since no two providers seem to name and sell their services in the same way, here is a list of the five most important questions you’ll want to ask when evaluating any provider.

1. What exactly does the service provider support in the way of delivery?
The word "streaming" is very broad these days and means many things to many people. Some service providers use it to sell and promote their services when, in fact, they don’t offer delivery from a media server, but rather deliver everything via progressive download from a web server (which isn’t streaming). In many cases, this will work, but if you will require actual streaming or a combination of the two, you’ll want to make sure the provider can support it. One way to tell is to ask to see a sample clip of something live. If the stream you are watching is live, then you know it’s coming off of a media server that has been set up to stream. Also make sure to ask about the protocol being used to stream. I see a lot of service providers claiming to offer Flash Video streaming when it is really Flash Video delivered via progressive download. If they are doing streaming from a Flash Media Server, it has to be delivered via the RTMP protocol. If it isn’t, then it’s not streaming.

2. What formats does the service provider support?
When it comes to providers, some support all of the formats, some support some of the formats, and some only one of the formats. Rarely does any one provider support streaming of content in Windows Media, Flash, QuickTime, and Real formats. While it may seem odd that they don’t support all of the formats, there may be a logical explanation. If a provider is only going after a specific vertical or industry, for instance the webcasting space, chances are they don’t yet support Flash Video, since the Flash Video platform is not yet used frequently for live streaming delivery. Or a provider may not support a particular format because the format provider will not allow them to unless they are certified and licensed to do so. Providers should be upfront and honest about what they support today and what they may support down the road. On Microsoft’s and Adobe’s websites, you can see who is certified to provide delivery services in both of their formats.

Microsoft’s certified partners list is located on two pages:
www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/forpros/service_provider/hosting/default.aspx
www.microsoft.com/windows/windowsmedia/forpros/service_provider/hosting/premier.aspx

Adobe’s certified partners page is located at:
http://www.adobe.com/products/flashmediaserver/fvss/

If a service provider says they support the Windows Media or Flash streaming services and are not listed on the website, chances are they use a third party and are private-labeling the service offering.

3. How are you compensated for network outages?
No matter what you are told, all networks have outages. While most networks offer a 99.9% uptime guarantee, streaming media service level agreements (SLAs) typically do not go into detail as to what exactly is guaranteed. They may only be guaranteeing that the server is up 99.9% of the time, not that the network will be. Service level agreements are typically very generic when it comes to streaming media delivery services. The most important question to ask is how are you compensated due to an outage of the network or any portion of its hardware that affects you. Most providers will put down in writing how they will compensate you monetarily should they have outages that last a certain length of time or happen with a certain frequency. You can also have the SLA amended to allow you to cancel your contract without early termination fees should the service provider have a long outage or have outages frequently.

4. What cities are the streaming media servers located in?
Nearly all service providers promote themselves as being global, but everyone has a different opinion on what global means. Global is traditionally classified as a provider who has multiple streaming servers located in North America, Europe, and Asia. Many providers say they are global or have a map on their website that shows a lot of pretty colors connecting a lot of cities, but many times those cities do not have a server and are just peering locations. While it is nearly impossible to get actual numbers from providers, and since many of the numbers they do provide are useless or not relevant, just ask what cities the servers are located in.

Don’t rely on the numbers they throw out there. I’ll use Akamai as an example, since their sales pitch consists heavily of telling customers they have 20,000-plus servers. While I do not doubt that number, it’s useless unless you know what percentage of them are streaming servers as opposed to web servers. Of that percentage, which servers are just for the Windows Media format, and of that percentage, how many are for live streaming versus on-demand? That 20,000 number is a lot smaller at the end of the equation. Bottom line: Ask what cities the servers are in and what formats those servers support. Keep in mind that bigger is not always better. It’s about choosing the right provider based on the type of content you have, where it needs to be delivered, and what specific needs you have based on your business model.

5. What kind of detailed reporting statistics do you offer?
Reporting is one of the most important elements, and you need to investigate it thoroughly. If you have no way to accurately measure the delivery of your content, then how can you show a return on investment, especially if you are delivering your content for marketing and promotional purposes?

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