How to Choose a Live Streaming Platform
If you’re trying to stream live over the internet you have a dizzying array of options and service providers. In this buyer’s guide, we’ll categorize these providers, tell you which category you should consider, and how to choose between vendors within a category.
Jumping right in, Figure 1 breaks live streaming platforms and services into four categories. Here’s a brief description of each:
- Free social media services. These are free services offered by Facebook, YouTube, and other providers.
- Standalone paid services. These are services that primarily stream live video for a fee, supplying encoding, players, delivery, and other features. Prominent examples include Livestream, BoxCast, Vzaar, and StreamShark.
- Platforms. These are providers that perform live streaming as a component of a larger service offering. These include the most prominent online video platforms (OVPs) like Brightcove, Kaltura, and Ooyala, and other providers like DaCast, JWPlayer, and IBM Cloud Video (formerly Ustream).
- Developer products. These are providers that offer developer-oriented products for integrating live streaming into custom applications. Examples include Bitmovin, Microsoft Azure, Softvelum (Nimble Streamer), and Wowza.
Figure 1. Categories of live streaming platforms and services.
As always, the lines around the edges get blurry for some companies who could claim membership in two or more categories. In addition, these company references are meant as examples, not as an exhaustive list; if your company isn’t listed, feel free to add a mention in the comments.
Not addressed in this article are turnkey platforms for OTT providers like those supplied MLBAM, Verizon Digital Media Services, Anvato, and iStreamPlanet. Our focus is primarily on companies seeking to produce their own live streams; not to become their own Netflix competitor.
Free Social Media Live Streaming Services
While it’s simple to paint all companies in this category with a broad social media brush, the most prominent duo, Facebook Live and YouTube Live are really quite different. Facebook Live is a service that gets your video out to your Facebook audience, and should be considered by all companies with a significant Facebook presence, even if you use a different service to deliver videos internally or to other viewers. In contrast, YouTube Live provides a service much like companies in the next category, though if you want your video to end up on YouTube, streaming live via YouTube Live makes sense.
Both services input your live stream, transcode to multiple adaptive streams, and deliver to a wide range of browsers and devices. Note that you don’t have to choose between this category and the others, or even between Facebook Live and YouTube Live. Many platforms in other classes enable streaming to either service or both. If not, you can use a service like Switchboard Cloud to stream to multiple social media channels and one or more paid services.
Services in this class work best when targeting viewers within the respective social media channels. However, they don’t offer technical support, which is scary for mission-critical events. You often grant rights to your content to the social media platform, and you can’t control the ads or other content placed near your videos. Lack of digital rights management and monetization options are another reason that many producers eschew these free providers in favor of a for-fee service.
Standalone Paid Live Streaming Services
Companies in this category primarily provide standalone live streaming services, inputting a live stream and outputting encoded video, and supplying both player and delivery services. All services in this category allow you to embed the video onto your own blog or website, and many also play the video on a page within the platform. After the event is over, your videos will be made available for VOD viewing and/or download.
These services are primarily utilized via a relatively simple user interface easily accessible to non-technical users, and may or may not offer a comprehensive application programming interface (API). If you’re looking for advanced features like automation via an API, large-scale VOD delivery, advanced content management, or other features like an enterprise YouTube, you should jump to the next category.
Here are a range of options to consider when comparing services in this category.
- Cost. Most services offer multiple plans tied to features and access to technical support. Some charge for outbound bandwidth, some don’t. Check the minimum service plan needed for your videos to be encoded for adaptive delivery, since that’s a must-have feature.
- Supported players and devices. All services should support browser-based computer playback as well as iOS and Android devices via an HTML5-based player. Only a few can reach OTT devices like Apple TV and Roku, or smart TVs, or offer software development kits (SDKs) so you can create your own mobile apps.
- Player customizability and white-label player. Check if you can customize the player for presentation on your own website, and which plan you need to choose to substitute your brand for the service provider’s in the player (called a white-label player).
- Monetization options. Some providers in this class provide per-pay-view or subscription options.
- Digital rights management and other content protection. Most services in this class won’t supply true DRM, which is necessary for premium content. However, you should be able to restrict embedding to designated sites, and geographically restrict where your video is viewed.
- Does the site deliver viewers? Some services providers, most notably LiveStream, are destination spots for viewers seeking content. Others simply provide the service, not the eyeballs.
- Social media support. Can the service stream to social media platforms? If so, which ones, and how many?
- Analytics.What reporting does the service provider supply, and at what service levels?
- Custom hardware or software encoders. All services can accept streams from third-party encoders; some also provide software or hardware encoders specific to the platform that simplifies getting connected, particularly for non-technical users.
- Genre-specific site. If you’re producing a specific genre of videos, like house of worship or high school sports, look for a genre-specific service for this market. These sites may offer features important for serving your target audience that aren’t generally available.
The services in this category should provide most or all of the features listed above. Beyond these, each company or type of company provides a unique range of other features accessible via a comprehensive user interface likely augmented by an extensive API.
For example, multiple vendors like Brightcove, JWPlayer, Kaltura, and Ooyala are full-service online video platforms (OVPs) that have added live streaming to their on-demand content management and delivery service. This makes them great choices for those companies seeking a comprehensive solution for both live and VOD. Obviously, if you’re currently using an OVP for your on-demand videos and are seeking to add live streaming, start by checking if your OVP supports live.
Other features to consider include:
- API .How comprehensive and accessible is the company’s API?
- Format support. Advanced format support will be a hot button issue over the next twelve to eighteen months. As an example, JWPlayer currently deploys VP9-encoded video to supported endpoints, which reduces the bandwidth and cost of these streams, and improves the quality of experience. Many streaming producers will want to add HEVC to their HLS streams over the next few months to achieve the same benefits, and the Alliance for Open Media’s AV1 codec should start to become relevant by early 2019. So understand which formats the service currently supports and plans to support in the future.
- Digital rights management (DRM). If you’re distributing content that must be protected, you’ll need to understand how the service provider will deploy multiple DRM technologies to reach all of your target platforms.
- Platform support. The service must support all platforms that you intend to distribute to, either directly or via software development kits (SDK).
- Monetization options. Beyond pay-per-vue or subscription, if advertising is supported, check whether the ads are delivered via server-side or client-side insertion. Server side is generally smoother and less susceptible to ad blockers.
- Content recommendation engines. Even for internal services, features like recommendation engines present relevant videos to potential users, increasing engagement and the utility of your content.
- Internal delivery capabilities. If you’ll be distributing video inside the enterprise, check for features like an enterprise CDN that can help lighten the load on your internal WANs and LANs.
- Enterprise YouTube functionality. Enterprise YouTubes are internal platforms for distributing video to employees, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders, simplifying the sharing and monitoring of video consumption.
Live Streaming Developer Products
In the previous categories, most users chose a single provider for soup-to-nuts transcoding and delivery with all components and services like player and CDN supplied by that provider. In contrast, providers in this category offer a range of functions that plug into a custom-built live delivery system assembled by the developer. As an example, the Wowza Streaming Engine primarily provides transcoding capabilities, and many users deploy Wowza with players and content delivery networks that they independently select and deploy.
The primary reason to consider services in this category is cost; essentially you’re trading the comfort of a fully bundled and integrated system for individually cheaper prices for encoding and delivery. Accordingly, ascertaining the overall cost of the transcoding or other component is a primary focus.
Unfortunately, transcoding cost can be difficult to compute because you have to include the cost of the cloud instance required to run the transcoding software. Obviously, transcoding efficiency, which varies from product to product, is a major factor. That is, if the monthly cost of product A is 50% less than product B, but requires twice as many cloud instances to support your transcoding load, product A is actually much more expensive. When choosing products in this class, assume that you’ll have to perform comparative encodes to gauge encoding efficiency and determine cost, both for comparing services within this class, but also to bundled services. While not important for an occasional live performance, these cost differences can be striking for services running high-volume 24/7 transcoding.
Beyond cost, consider where you want to deploy the software. Some services are available only for SaaS deployment in the cloud, while others can be purchased or leased to install in your own cloud or container-based computing infrastructure. If DRM is an issue, check whether the provider has an established integration with your DRM provider.
Consider the scope of services offered by the vendor. For example, Microsoft Azure is in this class, and can supply everything from encoding to delivery on an a la carte basis. This lets you pick and choose the desired platform components with the assurance that they should work well together, which you don’t get when piecing together components from disparate third-party vendors.
Most producers seeking products in this class are also seeking advanced features, like the ability to mix H.264 and HEVC streams for HLS delivery, distribute VP9 encoded video, or produce low latency video for specialized applications like bidding, betting, and voting. High dynamic range (HDR) video is also an issue for some producers. So, start by checking whether a vendor can supply these needs before computing overall cost and considering more general capabilities.
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