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The Forecast for 2016 Is Mostly Cloudy With a Chance of Streaming

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Without simplifying an incredibly complex discussion, one I’ve found myself in over the past few months while doing research on both CSAI and server-side ad insertion (SSAI), let’s just say that there’s a trend in the industry to consider cloud-based SSAI for a number of media consumption devices and delivery consumption models.

One reason for this trend toward SSAI is the perception that ad blocking tools can block almost all ads inserted into a desktop video player. This is only partially true, and has as much to do with the way that a desktop video player is designed (dual-player versus single-player) as it does with the way that the advertisement is called from a remote ad server to be played back.

Still, there are valid reasons to consider an SSAI approach, and since cloud-based SSAI works quite well, expect the trend to continue. The recent move by Apple to allow an integrated ad blocking methodology in its iOS 9 operating system for iPhone and iPad devices could very well tip the scales in favor of SSAI over CSAI, with cloud-based ad delivery as the clear winner for mobile devices. CSAI will hold its own on the desktop, but the workflows to deliver ads to the desktop will invariably also shift toward cloud-based delivery.

Multiplatform Delivery

Far and away, in survey after survey, the primary reason to use an online video service is the need to deliver to multiple devices, each with its own specific quirks and media formatting needs.

To do so in an enterprise setting, which may be limited to only a dozen different approved devices, is challenging enough. But to deliver a quality video experience to the masses, complete with security and content protection schemes intact, almost begs for cloud-based delivery.

Once the exclusive realm of broadcasters and premium OTT providers, cloud-based delivery is now in use by enterprise customers, religious institutions, and educational institutions. A recent Streaming Media/Unisphere survey on hosted video services, sponsored by Brightcove, highlighted this trend.

We asked survey takers to rate the critical features and services they need from an online video platform, or hosted video solutions provider, in order to be able to publish and monetize their content. Responses were from content owners as well as forward-thinking educational institutions and enterprises.

Far and away, the highest-ranked response was a multidevice delivery capability, chosen by 21 percent of overall respondents from this multiple-choice question. The next most important feature was player speed (load time) at 19 percent, followed by strong analytics, adaptive bitrate, requirements, and global delivery.

Multidevice delivery requires repackaging of encoded content, much of which is delivered via RTSP or RTMP streaming protocols, into smaller segments of video which are delivered to the end user via traditional web (HTTP) protocols. In between the encoding and delivery, as mentioned above, may be the need to transcode, transrate, and visually optimize the video.

Even the repackaging comes in various adaptive bitrate flavors, from Apple’s HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) to Adobe’s HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS) or even the newer MPEG standard Dynamic Adaptive Streaming via HTTP (DASH). And not all HLS segmentations are created equal, as many mobile devices fare better with smaller segment lengths.

That is what makes cloud-based delivery so appealing. To do all these various steps well would require a significant investment in server hardware and software, with many servers sitting idle if a particular format wanes in popularity. A cloud-based delivery solution, based on AWS or Azure instances, though, can be spun up on an as-needed basis, with limited capital expenditure (capex) and only as-needed operating expenditure (opex) when demand for particular content increases.

Beyond the seemingly unlimited processing, though, an additional trend is occurring in cloud-based delivery: ease of use. Wowza’s journey with its Wowza Streaming Engine software might illustrate this trend.

The company started out selling only perpetual licenses of its Wowza Streaming Engine media server, and then quickly added the ability to use on-demand cloud instances (starting on Amazon Web Services) a few years ago. The move to offer a cloud-based version of the Wowza Streaming Engine was targeted at those customers who either did not want to purchase a perpetual license and maintain their own hardware, or who had a rapid opex need for a few extra server instances to meet peak demand. Wowza later added a monthly subscription license that provided cloud-like opex for the software, whether it was deployed onsite or in the cloud.

Wowza then added a browser-based graphical user interface (GUI), simplifying streaming for IT admins of any level. This resonated with their customers and encouraged the company to move toward a new option: a seamlessly scaling, easy-to-use service built on its Wowza Streaming Engine that could be configured and launched by a nontechnical user. 

This offering, called Wowza Streaming Cloud, still uses a cloud-based infrastructure. But rather than requiring a knowledge of the Wowza Streaming Engine and how to launch cloud instances, the managed cloud service provides a step-by-step walkthrough from encoding to player selection to live event launch. And if there’s a strong interest in the live event, Wowza Streaming Cloud scales out delivery via a global CDN without manual intervention.

In other words, it’s a cloud-based solution with a seamless ease-of-use component that allows Wowza to expand its customer base in a way that would not have been possible without the cloud delivery option.

Wowza’s not alone in this trend, and I expect to see a number of companies beef up their user experience (UX) and cloud-based GUIs over the next 6 months. After all, if the cloud is more painful to use than a traditional desktop-or server-based acquisition, content preparation, or media delivery tool, that means online video providers and OTT services are letting revenue slip through their fingers like just so many raindrops.

Analytics and Security

A discussion of cloud-based delivery wouldn’t be complete without a quick discussion on analytics and security. After all, what good is seamless delivery if the number of viewers can’t be tracked and content cannot be secured?

The security aspect still needs quite a bit of work. Live-linear content in particular requires significant security infrastructure, given the timeliness of the content, which makes it a target for those who want to view live sports or breaking news. Another area of concern, when it comes to enterprise, is the lack of bring-your-own device (BYOD) policies within enterprise, many of which lag behind the number of employer-provided devices that attempt to access competition-sensitive data on an enterprise network.

The forecast for analytics, though, is much brighter. Not only are granular reports on viewer consumption a norm in the cloud-based delivery ecosystem, but the continued advancements of advertising beaconing for server-side ad insertion continue to be refined to present a more accurate picture of video ad consumption. In addition, the use of meta-analytics, such as those provided by the OVPs themselves (Brightcove, Kaltura, Ooyala, etc.) as well as network providers and third-party analysis firms (Cedexis, Level 3, and Verizon) offer an insight into more than just the player statistics. In the case of Cedexis, the company’s Radar offering shows overall trends in media delivery on to specific global networks. This means the premium content owner can spend more time dealing with the business decisions around this data rather than having to maintain an in-house technical stable of global analytics workhorses.

Conclusion

As mentioned at the outset, the trend toward cloud-based delivery is accelerating, and this “weather report” of these trends only gives the highlights of what’s occurring in today’s streaming industry.

From advanced acquisition/contribution workflows to content preparation and ad insertion for final end-user video delivery, cloud infrastructures are being pushed along by a jetstream of seemingly unlimited computing power and emerging ease-of-use approaches. These make the cloud as appealing as the in-house server when it comes to balancing OpEx and CapEx requirements.

This article appears in the November/December 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Mostly Cloudy.” 

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