The (Small) Business of Streaming Media

For all the benefits of streaming media and Web delivery of rich media content, very few businesses—large or small—successfully use tracking tools to monitor the effectiveness of their distributed content. Hit rates and viewership on the Web will typically be significantly lower than for traditional mediums, but targeted responses and demographic tracking will conversely be significantly higher. The Web can provide an effective marketing bargain for small businesses only if used with granular visit-and-response measurement tools that are not available for traditional marketing or advertising mediums such as television, radio, or newspapers.

Roll Your Own
For the adventurous (or frugal, as the case may be), low- or no-cost streaming servers now have the capability to handle select or even multiple file formats. Three of the better-known projects are Real’s HelixServer, VideoLAN’s VLC, and Unreal Streaming Technologies’ Media Server.

HelixServer is an open-source project based on the Helix DNA architecture, although a commercial license is also available (and required for Real Audio, Real Video, and Helix DRM—digital rights management—modules). Up until the most recent branch (version 11.0), Helix could be hosted on a non-server Windows machine, as well as FreeBSD and AIX. Under version 11.0, the server now requires Linux 2.6, Solaris 9/10, Red Hat Enterprise, or—for Windows users—Windows Server 2003, which may put Helix’s total cost of ownership out of reach for the average small business.

VideoLAN’s VLC (the acronym comes from its early player-only incarnation, the VideoLAN Client) is also available under an open-source license and takes a unique approach. VLC is primarily used as a video player but also has transcoding capabilities, which, in essence, allow users to change both formats or codecs as well as the data rate at which a video file can be delivered and serve them up to other viewers (albeit at a lower quality for lower data rates). VideoLAN provides an overview on their Web site of how to turn any VLC-equipped machine (with the exception of the PDA version) into a video server.

Unreal Streaming Technologies has taken a balanced approach with its Media Server. The company notes that "existing media servers, such as Microsoft and RealNetworks servers, are expensive and difficult to install and operate." To counteract that approach, UST notes that Media Server "is the result of our work aimed to provide a powerful, reliable, secure, and completely free multimedia delivery system." The popularity of the Unreal Media Server for commercial uses, though, has led Unreal, upon release of its version 4.0 Media Server, to modify its licensing agreement to strike a balance that benefits small businesses.

"While we want to keep Unreal Media Server available and free for home users and small businesses, we require larger companies that heavily use our product to purchase a license for unlimited version," the company’s Web site notes. "The free version of Unreal Media Server has a limitation of 15 concurrent connections. This is more than enough for home and small business networks, therefore most of the users are not affected by this limitation."

Tips and Tricks
When asked about the "why and wherefore" of small business streaming, each company interviewed gave several pointers.

Todd Loewenstein of Arcostream noted, first and foremost, that small business really doesn’t differ in its needs from its larger comrades."Small companies have many of the same needs for streaming as larger companies—things like marketing, product info, and customer contact," says Loewenstein. "But these small business don’t have the capital expenditure that larger companies do that build out their own server farms."

Loewenstein noted that, while the average small business customer consumes approximately $1,000 of services per month just like other customers, the sales cycle with small customers is shorter "since they don’t need budgetary approval like a big company does." This suggests that a small company might press for a lower price in return for a significantly shortened sales cycle; the decision, however, is completely up to the CDN, as all CDN representatives say they have to balance lower fees with equal or higher education and training for small customers versus their larger customers.

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