Not All Enterprise Video Delivery Systems Are Created Equal
There is no shortage of delivery technologies intended to handle bandwidth-intensive traffic like video, and in particular, live video. For enterprise IT professionals, trying to meet expectations that all videos will be available at acceptable quality all the time across all platforms isn’t easy.
So, what is best for your enterprise? Like most important questions, the answer depends on your needs. What works for one application may not work well for another.
Three video delivery technologies have emerged over the years that offer the most potential for supporting various applications:
- Hardware caches and stream repeaters
- Peer-assisted delivery
Hardware Caches and Stream Repeaters
These devices were initially intended to improve performance for web pages and lightweight transactions, and delivering video is not their primary purpose. Using hardware caches and stream repeaters involves deploying multiple hardware devices at judicious locations around the enterprise to cache on-demand video or repeat live video streams for end-users near the devices.
Caches that are suitable for on-demand video services need a lot of fast, local storage. Video on demand (VOD) also requires repeaters capable of receiving and echoing a number of differing types of live streaming protocols. That could create challenges for global, heterogeneous corporations. Supporting both live and on-demand video requires devices capable of both or the installation of multiple devices at each location.
This can also be a pricey venture. It scales poorly in cases where the company has many locations of varying sizes and connectivity, or where user populations are changing, since the devices are sized and placed to match the needs of a location and are not readily changed or redeployed. Eventually you end up with smaller offices not being served—the irony is that the people in these offices need the communication the most.
This technology uses devices already spread throughout an enterprise network as opposed to hardware caching that relies on deploying additional purpose-built devices: switches, routers, and gateways. Most of these have the built-in ability to forward a single incoming data stream to many downstream devices at once. Think of it as the way radio is broadcast.
And similar to repeaters used with hardware caches, multicast avoids sending the same stream from the source individually to each end-user. This allows the enterprise to conserve bandwidth on shared links.
That’s a positive for this technology. Multicast is an effective way to reduce bandwidth use when delivering high-quality live video to a large audience, such as a CEO all-employee broadcast, all while reducing significantly the load to both the server and the network.
But there are limitations. It turns out there are many ways to configure multicast. The entire configuration has to be correct and synchronized at every involved server, device, and end-user machine for the multicast to succeed.
Then there’s the issue of video playback technology. Each end-user machine must be capable of receiving multicast streams, and that usually takes the form of vendor-specific applications that may not be compatible or even available across all end-user devices.
For all its promise as a fast, ubiquitous, efficient video transport for the enterprise, very few companies succeed in employing multicast as a video delivery technology. Multicast is not well-suited for environments looking to solve bandwidth problems related to video-on-demand.
Somewhat like multicast, peer-assisted delivery makes use of existing infrastructure to provide efficient video delivery across the enterprise, recruiting available resources on end-user machines to build a distributed edge cache and stream-repeating server farm. A small software agent is installed on end-user machines, enabling them to participate in an emergent grid-like delivery network.
There are several interesting advantages to this approach. Only end-user software needs to be deployed, no hardware, and this is generally substantially faster and cheaper than geographically-dispersed hardware deployments. This also allows the system to be easily upgraded to handle new protocols and other changing needs. The central controllers are typically hosted and managed by the vendor, with some vendors offering a private cloud option.
Peer-assisted delivery systems are naturally self-scaling. The more end-users wanting to watch a piece of content, the more devices there will be available to serve the content to them. Some implementations take advantage of the fact that there is a smart agent on each user machine and provide additional delivery services such as content subscriptions with background delivery or distribution of other content types. Peer-assisted delivery technology enables the full range of diverse enterprise video use cases including one-to-many live broadcasting, live and on-demand HR training, digital signage and 360-degree video to name a few.
Enterprise networks will likely see substantial changes in the years to come, many of which will have direct impact on video delivery services. They include the following:
- Cloud-hosted services
- Software-defined networking (SDN)
- Software-defined enterprise content delivery networks (SD ECDN)
An ever-increasing number of end-user devices in the enterprise connect into the company's network over Wi-Fi. This follows naturally from the increased power of mobile devices and laptops and the increased mobility of the workforce. However, this trend comes with complications, notably the way in which bandwidth is provisioned and shared on wireless networks.
Technologies such as multicast that may help with applications such as video can be severely constrained in typical Wi-Fi deployments. Some software-defined peer-assisted approaches can mitigate these concerns, largely because of their distributed adaptivity.
The idea behind Web Real-Time Communications, or simply, WebRTC is to enable real-time, point-to-point communications sessions including voice and video from within a web browser natively, without requiring plug-ins.
WebRTC is still new with few actual applications in production. Currently, only a limited number of browsers support WebRTC. Notably, two don’t: Internet Explorer & Safari. These browsers dominate enterprise deployments, and even then there are compatibility concerns as the standard is still maturing.
The promise of WebRTC is in real-time sessions between individual users. In a corporate contact center, for example, an agent may be able to establish an audio or video session with a customer who is visiting its support site for a video chat. But at this stage it is strictly one-to-one, not one-to-many, and only for real-time sessions, such as videoconferencing. There’s no support for video on demand or bandwidth management features to deal with performance issues.
Some vendors are exploring attempts at one-to-many applications built on WebRTC that rely on sparsely supported features, but the viability of these is yet to be established.
While WebRTC is certainly a technology that bears watching, it is not yet a viable solution for all enterprise video use cases on a large scale.
More and more solutions are being offered to the enterprise from services that are hosted on external clouds, such as Amazon's AWS and Microsoft's Azure. This is a natural consequence of the astounding growth of cloud services, offering economical, largely frictionless, highly scalable hosting infrastructures.
All these externally hosted services come to end-users across the enterprise's internet gateways. That means these alternatives can present wildly different traffic patterns for IT to manage and accommodate.
This also presents a distinct challenge for some video delivery approaches, notably multicast, increasing the complexity of establishing multicast networks across these gateways to almost unmanageable proportions.
SDN, or software-defined networking, is hailed by many as a revolutionary approach to the way large networks are deployed and managed within an enterprise. SDN is a sensible move towards making all of the management and control of network infrastructure fully software-based.
Software-defined enterprise content delivery networks are designed to work as efficient, economical content delivery systems within corporate networks.
Software-defined ECDNs bring a level of control, flexibility and adaptivity. The technology tends to have architectures similar to SDN, with central controllers orchestrating distributed and diverse delivery assets, providing a common API for full programmability.
Current SD ECDN implementations build themselves around a peer-assisted delivery core, capitalizing on its software-based nature and adaptability as well as its many clear advantages as a video delivery technology.
To afford the required security, the best peer-assisted systems build their delivery network on a multi-level, PKI-based security framework that eliminates attack vulnerabilities, provide point-to-point and at-rest encryption, validate signatures on data from arbitrary nodes and implement identity-based content access-control.
Further, having agents on all the end-user machines that are in touch with a central controller provides the basis for deep, centralized control over the delivery network, a signature attribute of SD systems. This allows IT to put in place delivery and resource-utilization policies that match the performance and impact tradeoffs they wish to make and makes it easy to change and adapt these dynamically as needs dictate.
These are intelligent agents, able to handle multiple delivery modalities, maximizing performance for live events, spreading the caching load for libraries of on-demand content, and politely soaking up idle bandwidth for background subscription deliveries.
IT has been dealing with a dizzying array of video delivery technologies long enough, grappling with how best to serve a diverse user base. While there are positives to all the systems, the SD ECDN model is the technology that brings sanity to the enterprise video environment, along with a new level of performance and control that end users and IT alike will appreciate.
This is a vendor-contributed article. Streaming Media accepts articles contributed by vendors based solely on the value of insight and information they offer to our readers.
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