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How to Choose a Live Streaming Schema

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What platforms can I reach? Most LSSPs can deliver to computers and mobile devices, but what about OTT platforms? For example, does the service make your streams accessible via a Roku channel, or would you have to create the channel itself? It’s one thing to create a stream that can play on a Smart TV; it’s quite another to supply the channel to actually deliver the stream to the viewer.

What production/encoding services are available? Some service providers offer full audio/video and encoding production capabilities to customers who don’t want to undertake a particular event on their own. This can be an attractive option if you’ve got a mission-critical event coming up and want to ensure that your production team has lots of experience producing live streaming events.

How does the service fit into my VOD distribution schema? If you’re using Brightcove, Kaltura, or another OVP for VOD delivery, check to see if it also provides live event streaming. If it does, you can use the same player, and all live events will automatically be available for VOD delivery within a few minutes after completion. Similarly, if you are using an enterprise YouTube system, you should strongly consider using Ustream as your live streaming platform. If you don’t currently use an external OVP, consider a service such as DaCast or Ustream that offers VOD delivery as well as live.

How flexible is the system? Some producers want to hand over the entire streaming workflow to the service provider. Others want to use their own player, or deliver via their own content delivery network. DaCast lets you use a third-party player, as does Wowza Streaming Cloud, which in general offers more configuration options than most other services. Both services also let you drive the system via an application programming interface (API) as well as a GUI.

What options do I have for DRM, security, or captioning? Different organizations will have different requirements for security or DRM. For example, you might want to limit the embedding of the live event to certain domains, or password-protect the event. Closed captions are a requirement for some organizations, and producing and delivering them can be complicated. Not all services offer these options at all service levels, so if these are important, check their availability early in the selection process.

That’s it for LSSPs; let’s move on to the second category.

Cloud Transcoding/Packaging Providers

Profile: Video is integral to your organization, and you have most of the live streaming infrastructure in place. You’re just looking for a cloud transcoding/ packaging service provider to plug into your workflow.

Best match: A range of providers supply primarily encoding/transcoding services (Bitcodin, Zencoder) or encoding services available within a much broader array of functionality (Akamai, Elemental Cloud, Microsoft Azure, Limelight, Wowza Streaming Engine, Wowza Streaming Cloud).

Microsoft Azure

Microsoft Azure can supply encoding and format conversion and a whole lot more. 

DIY or PaaS? The first decision is whether to install and manage your own cloud transcoder/packager or use one of the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings listed above. The advantage of installing your own transcoder is that it’s generally cheaper. Specifically, you can lease a full version of the Wowza Streaming Engine for $65/month, and you’ll pay less than $2/hour for machine time. This gives you the ability to ingest one live stream and transcode to multiple outputs in multiple ABR packages. If you’re streaming many hours per month, and you have the technical resources to set up and manage your own private cloud encoder, you might find this solution much more affordable than the PaaS route. Another option is Elemental Delta, which is available as an appliance for in-house installation or through the Elemental Cloud as a service.

If you decide to go the PaaS route, you should ask the following questions.

Can it meet my technical requirements? Basic transcoding and ABR packaging is straightforward for most providers. However, if you have exotic captioning, DRM, or monetization needs, get these on the table early because not all cloud providers can handle them.

How does it fit into my overall workflow? Consider your entire live streaming encoding and delivery workflow when choosing a transcoding provider. For example, if you are delivering your video via Akamai or Limelight, ask these CDNs about their transcoding and packaging services. Similarly, if you are building your streaming workflow in the cloud, check with your cloud provider. In this regard, Microsoft has done a fabulous job migrating its industrial-strength Windows Media capabilities to the Azure cloud and has multiple live transcoding and packaging options. Now that Amazon has purchased Elemental Technologies, we’ll likely see Amazon’s live transcoding capabilities quickly become much more robust.

Akamai live transcoding

Akamai offers live transcoding and packaging, as does Limelight. 

How much help is available? Piecing together a live streaming workflow is complicated, particularly when you’re working on a new platform or with a new transcoding and packaging tool. So investigate options for consulting, both direct from the supplier and via third parties. Also inquire into support policies. Many vendors don’t provide telephone support until you reach a certain threshold, which is a big limitation if you have a critical problem and don’t meet their criteria for phone support. If you can’t meet these thresholds, you might be better off working with a smaller provider who can guarantee the level of responsiveness that you require.

What’s it going to cost? You’ll find very significant price differences here, and comparing pricing will take a lot of work, as some providers charge by the hour, and others charge by GBs of video input and output. To estimate pricing for those who charge by the GB, you’ll need to know the specific bandwidth of each file in your adaptive groups, and make those always fun bits to bytes computations.

If you have unusual needs, such as 24/7 pricing, bring these up early, because some suppliers offer special pricing, and others have very relevant restrictions, such as Zencoder’s 26-hour stream duration limit. Microsoft Azure offers special pricing of $0.99/hour for packaging-only services. In contrast, transcoding and packaging together cost $39.99/hour.

While this sounds aggressive compared to Zencoder’s $7/hour pricing (after the first 50 at $10/ hour), Azure’s price includes the input stream and all output streams, while Zencoder’s is $7 for each input and output stream, double if the stream is HD. Variations like these ensure that you’ll have to spend lots of time in Excel or Google Sheets to compute apples-to-apples pricing comparisons.

This article appears in the 2016 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook.

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