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Streaming Servers 2012: New Features, New Opportunities

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During last week's Video Infrastructure Summit, held in conjunction with Streaming Media Europe, I had yet another opportunity to host an annual panel looking at the state of applications, including streaming servers and platforms. Representatives from five companies—AdobeAneviaCodeShopMicrosoft, and RealNetworks—shared insights into their products and applications.

The panelists had four questions to answer, and each company contributed equally to the discussion.

What's New in Streaming Servers?

The first question centered on what has changed on each server platform in the past year, since our last panel in October 2011. Adobe's Steve Allison led off with an obvious one: Adobe has dropped the word Flash from its media server products, which are now referred to as Adobe Media Server. This reflects the reality, according to Allison, of the move towards MPEG DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP) as well as the move to HTML 5-based players.

Tristan Leteurtre, one of the co-founder of Anevia, said his company works with various enterprises and organizations that want to use each of the various streaming server products represented on the panel. He said the biggest change seen over the past year has been the accelerating number of requests for DASH and the total lack of interest in WebM.

"VP8, or WebM, died this year," said Leteurtre. "Everyone wants DASH which is now included in many RFPs, especially DASH using H.264 and fragmented MP4 files."

CodeShop's Arjen Wagenaar said his company spent the last year trying to support as many output formats as possible, as well as focusing on all the digital rights management (DRM) schemes that are required across a variety of platforms. Wagenaar said his company supports four of the five DRM schemes designated in the Common Encryption Scheme for UltraViolet and DASH.

Microsoft's Alex Zambelli said Microsoft has seen a rapid shift in the last year, thanks to both the deprecation of Windows Media Server and the advent of Windows Azure.

"Microsoft's flagship server is now IIS," said Zambelli, referring to the internet web caching server from Microsoft that competes against the open-source Apache server. "We've also updated IIS Media Services to focus on TV services, added DRM key rotation and are making a big move from on-premise to the cloud with Windows Azure."

One core example of the momentum behind Azure is the fact that Expression Encoder will now primarily be a cloud-based service rather than an on-premise product. Zambelli went as far as to say that the desktop version of Expression Encoder would receive maintenance updates but that "product enhancement in the cloud" will be the new norm.

"Encoding and origin service and PlayReady are also all going cloud," said Zambelli, noting that a preview of Azure media services—the final version of on-demand services—will be available later this year.

Finally, Real's David Smith dropped a bit of a bombshell, alluding to RealNetworks Helix Universal Server v15, which we'll cover in a separate article.

"Helix is a media delivery platform, end to end," said Smith, "from our SDK for Android to our current DASH implementations of MPEG2 Transport Stream and MP4. We have DASH fully in place and ready to go, including testing with a number of encoders, for anyone who is serious about rolling out DASH today."

New Features, New Opportunities

The second question asked panelists to discuss what new business opportunities exist based on each platform's expanded features. A number of opportunities were mentioned, which can be viewed as part of the upcoming on-demand streaming of the session, but here are just a few highlights:

Microsoft: The move to the cloud offers lower cost and greater scalability. The idea of a platform as a service (PaaS) with Azure will first resonate with high-volume encoding clients and then move to lower volume clients.

CodeShop: Opportunities exist when DRM can be moved to the edge, and the combination of the common file format (CFF) and encryption scheme (CES) makes it easy to change the DRM system. CodeShop says they are targeting catchup services and music concerts / pay-per-view content.

RealNetworks: Seeing opportunities in DASH / HbbTV and Multiple-DRM requirements. While there is no apparent Real Broadcast Network (RBN) cloud play—interesting, given Real's early forays into OVP and cloud services—Real sees a cloud deployment on Amazon's Web Services (AWS) as a key opportunity.

Adobe: Adobe also sees AWS cloud opportunities, and has simplified its pricing to help content owners and producers make the move to cloud-based encoding, transcoding, and serving. Adobe also sees an opportunity to move DRM "down the stack" to the encoders. Finally, it sees the battle-tested use of origin caches on a pull model, such as those used by the BBC during the summer Olympic Games, is better than 'push' origin caches, in part because it allows for proper ad-insertion and improved ad-targeting.

Barriers to Adopting MPEG DASH

Panelists were also asked about the impact of DASH ratification, to which they unanimously agreed the biggest limiter was availability of DASH-compliant players for any or all live / on-demand profiles. Anevia's Leteurtre noted that there are at least eight different DASH profiles, which makes the choice of profiles supported in first-generation DASH players a difficult choice. We'll touch on that more in a separate article.

What's Next in Streaming Servers?

Finally, the panelists were asked about features most often requested that aren't yet in their server products. We've had very candid answers to this question in years past, and this year was no exception.

Microsoft's Zambelli led off by noting that the implementation of DASH on the server, via Azure, would allow Microsoft to add in much-requested options for on-the-fly encryption. Zambelli said Microsoft will be starting with PlayReady and then possibly adding other CES DRM schemes.

Both CodeShop and RealNetworks said that subtitling is a consistent request, one that each company is pursuing. Real's Smith said that standards would help, much like SMIL had been a standard in years past for timed-text, and Code-Shop's Wagenaar said that a review of the disparate standards—such as 608, 708, and even QuickTime timed-text—would help move the industry forward.

Adobe's Allison said that dynamic re-encoding is an oft-requested feature that the company is working on, and Anevia's Leteurte rounded out the answers by saying that his company if focusing on building "a consistent model that is simpler to use" when it comes to players and apps. Given Leteurtre's role for nearly a decade as the product manager for the popular VLC player, we look forward to seeing what a good measure of disciplined coding and user interface experience can add to the overall industry movement towards DASH.

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