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How to Find the Right Vendor for Any Streaming Video Project

Streaming video started as a simple video in a window, usually preceded by a long download. Now, it's evolved into a complicated mass of application-specific services and products in categories that didn't exist even a few short years ago. This makes finding the right product or service provider a daunting task.

To help bring clarity to the video marketplace, this article presents a classification of available services and products in the most relevant product categories. In each, we'll briefly describe the category and how it's different from other categories, then identify some of the major players. Figure 1 shows the categories we'll cover.

Figure 1. Categories covered in this article. Image from mind mapping provider Mindomo.
Figure 1. Categories covered in this article. Image from mind mapping provider Mindomo.

Some caveats: The categories here are the ones most important to the broadest range of businesses. Also, the company listings are not meant to be exhaustive. Service providers that weren't listed are welcome to leave a comment at the end.

External Distribution—Video-on-Demand (VOD)

Service providers in this class deliver videos files (as opposed to live streams) to viewers outside the company. Anyone who has ever uploaded a file to YouTube understands that this involves four main functions: media management, player creation, video delivery, and analytics. All the companies shown in Figure 2 perform these functions, with companies lower in the figure adding additional capabilities discussed below.

Figure 2. External distribution—video-on-demand files.
Figure 2. External distribution—video-on-demand files.

User-generated content (UGC) sites like YouTube and Vimeo are popular video repositories, and a great way to reach additional eyeballs. Like all UGC sites, they let you embed videos on your own web pages. Even if you use other service providers for the bulk of your on-site videos, publishing them on YouTube is a great idea for most companies.

When to consider an online video provider (OVP) over a UGC site? As video moves from brand awareness to lead generation and customer acquisition, you need more tactical capabilities. Fully leveraging the opportunities video provides requires more features than UGC sites can offer.

  • Marketing features, like the ability to add a clickable call-to-action or collect email addresses before viewing.

  • Presentation capabilities: the ability to eliminate third-party branding and customize the player to match your website.

  • Control: to control where your videos appear and where they don't.

  • Monetization features: the ability to display ads or collect pay-per-view charges.

  • Security features: the ability to add digital rights management (DRM) protection to your videos.

  • Integration: the ability to integrate the platform with content management systems, digital asset management systems, and advertising servers.

  • Encoding flexibility: the ability to create and apply your own encoding presets.

  • Support: the ability to get a live person on the phone in case of problems.

  • Superior analytics: such as individual viewership analytics or other custom reports that you can integrate into marketing automation programs.

  • Superior deliverability: some organizations block YouTube and other UGC sites.

The OVP market has evolved into the big three—Brightcove, Ooyala, and Kaltura—which cater equally to broadcast and corporate sites, plus smaller vendors like Wistia, which is notable for its marketing-oriented features. Also worth mentioning is Ustream, the live streaming service provider beefing up its media management capabilities to serve as a general-purpose OVP.

For large needs, there's an additional class of service provider to consider. The Platform has a number of high-profile broadcaster clients, and MLB Advanced Media broadcasts for the NHL, PGA Tour, NBA, NASCAR, Time, Inc, and HBO. The big three OVPs play in this space, as do content delivery networks (CDN) Akamai and Limelight.

External Distribution—Live

Service providers in this class ingest live streams and distribute them to viewers outside the business. The free option is YouTube Live, a highly usable, well-designed product offering that automatically converts the live event to VOD content on YouTube after it's complete. However competent, YouTube lacks the one feature producers of mission-critical events absolutely require: telephone support. Live support, superior player customization, and monetization options are the primary reason most live event producers move to the next class.

Figure 3. External distribution—live videos.
Figure 3. External distribution—live videos.

Ustream and Livestream are the most popular options for small event broadcasters, unless you're broadcasting games, in which case Twitch is it. Several OVPs, including Brightcove and Kaltura, offer live production capabilities that are a natural choice for their existing customers. Service providers focused on large media companies or events include iStreamPlanet, the Platform, and MLB Advanced Media.

Enterprise Distribution

Service providers in this class distribute video within the enterprise. Where distribution outside the enterprise is about quality of experience, reach, and affordability, distribution inside the enterprise is about content moderation, security, and integration with learning management systems. As shown in Figure 4, there are two major categories, both essential to knowledge capture and management.

Figure 4. Knowledge management tools within the enterprise.
Figure 4. Knowledge management tools within the enterprise.

Lecture capture/ webcasting systems let companies deliver internal webcasts using their own network resources or with technologies such as multicasting. Most lecture capture/ webcasting vendors allow presentations that include video, PowerPoint, polling, Q&A, and even quizzes. After the event, these systems convert the live feed into an on-demand file integrated into a media asset management system.

Enterprise YouTubes serve a similar function, but for video created or captured from a wide variety of sources, such as presentations, screen cams, or webcams. The idea here is dissemination and reuse, leveraging video as a form of self-expression and communication within the enterprise.

Webinar Providers

Webinar providers typically offer externally-focused, one-to-many services, with features for capturing contact information and pre- and post-event communications with registrants and attendees. Presentations are typically rich, with live video, PowerPoint, screen sharing, polling, quizzes, VOD clips, and viewer downloads.

Figure 5. Webinar providers
Figure 5. Webinar providers

We're including Google Hangouts as a free option, though it offers few of the functions described above. It's good for basic screen-shares, with one-to-many distribution via YouTube.

When webinars first became available, they were high-touch experiences with lots of handholding throughout the process, and extensive options such as the ability to broadcast speakers from multiple locations, or to multicast the presentation over an internal network. These services came at a price, however, and the typical webinar cost $1,500 or more, out of range for many small companies.

Then, service providers like Cisco (WebEx) and Citrix (GoToWebinar) entered the fray, with bargain-basement priced self-serve products. Most high-touch vendors responded with less-expensive, self-serve products. For example, OnStream's high-touch product is VisualWebcaster, while Onstream Webinars competes with Cisco and WebEx.

Conferencing Providers

Figure 6. Conferencing providers.
Figure 6. Conferencing providers.

Conferencing systems enable multiple people to participate in meetings. These systems share many features with webinars, but focus on enabling multiple webcam participants and offering tools like screen sharing and whiteboards. There's less focus on lead generation.

Figure 7. Components necessary to develop your own video distribution system.
Figure 7. Components necessary to develop your own video distribution system.

Many webinar providers also offering conferencing or meeting products, as shown in Figure 6, though Adobe Connect and Microsoft Skype for Business compete primarily in the conferencing space. Google Hangouts is a free option here, as well, although with prices starting at $19 per month for more functionality, most companies should step up to one of the paid products.

If your company wants to develop its own live or VOD streaming capabilities, you'll need to pull together functionality from a range of services, as shown in Figure 7.

Media Servers

Figure 8. Media servers provide a valuable transmuxing function.
Figure 8. Media servers provide a valuable transmuxing function.

Media servers were originally developed to manage the flow of video content to video players, which required a continual dialog between server and player. Now that most distribution technologies are HTTP-based, this communication is no longer required. Today, media servers perform a valuable media conversion function called transmuxing, which converts a stream in one format, say Apple's HTTP Live Streaming (HLS), to another, say Adobe's Dynamic Streaming over HTTP (HDS). This allows streaming producers to create one stream (or set of streams) that's dynamically converted to multiple playback technologies.

Wowza invented transmuxing, and seems to have the largest market share of all standalone products. However, CDNs such as Akamai and Limelight have built this functionality into their distribution platform, which may eliminate the need for a standalone media server.

Off-the-Shelf Players

For companies developing their own live or VOD system, creating the player can be the most challenging part. To streamline this process, a number of off-the-shelf players are available as development starting points, including the JW Player, which, according to the company's website. is used on over two million sites. Dash.js is the free and open source option for developers creating HTML5-based video distribution.

Figure 9. Off-the-shelf player vendors can jumpstart development.
Figure 9. Off-the-shelf player vendors can jumpstart development.

Companies in this category have expanded their services to provide free base product offerings. For example, JW Player offers a complete OVP, which encodes, manages, and delivers video to the JW Player. Similarly, Bitmovin offers both cloud encoding and live cloud transcoding with presets customized for the required formats.

Cloud Encoding Vendors

Video can't be distributed until it's compressed. While you can compress video with a familiar range of on-premises tools, cloud encoding services make sense for video stored in and distributed from the cloud. The three primary cloud-only vendors are shown in Figure 10. While all three vendors encode VOD files, Zencoder is currently the only one that enables live stream transcoding.

Figure 10. The two classes of cloud encoding vendors.
Figure 10. The two classes of cloud encoding vendors.

Traditional encoding companies have migrated their products to the cloud. Elemental Technologies has taken the lead here with a robust product offering that supplements on-premises encoding performed via Elemental's hardware, and also stands on its own. Harmonic and Telestream also have cloud-based services.

Content Delivery Networks (CDN)

Figure 11. The top seven content delivery networks for video delivery.
Figure 11. The top seven content delivery networks for video delivery.

Content delivery networks were first launched to distribute content faster and more efficiently than websites could using their own internet connections. Many CDNs, notably Akamai and Limelight, have expanded their services to include all of the functions performed by OVPs, including encoding, media management, player creation, and, of course, distribution. With Azure, Microsoft offers a broad range of capabilities, including encoding, transmuxing, and delivery.

In December 2013, Streaming Media's Dan Rayburn wrote that seven CDNs "control the vast majority of all video delivered over the internet, sold as a service." These are the companies listed in Figure 11.

DIgital Rights Management (DRM) Vendors

Figure 12. Digital rights management vendors.
Figure 12. Digital rights management vendors.

The final category is for those distributing premium video. In the past, companies that deployed digital rights management (DRM) used one or two technologies. With the move to the Encrypted Media Extensions for HTML5, it appears that companies wishing to support all relevant browsers and platforms will have to support four or more DRMs.

This makes it less likely that even large companies will create their own infrastructures, and more likely that they will license DRM from vendors such as those shown in Figure 12.

Jan Ozer's article first appeared on OnlineVideo.net

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