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Akamai and Microsoft Attempt to Stream HD Smoothly

In 2006, when the Microsoft Windows Media Services (WMS) charter was picked up by the Internet Information Services (IIS) group, the concept of large-scale HD streaming was still a ways in the future. Today, at the Digital Hollywood show, though, Akamai announced it would be one of Microsoft’s first customers for a new IIS 7.0 Web server technology named Smooth Streaming.

"We've seen firsthand the growing demand for HD online content among our customer base," said Tim Napoleon, chief strategist, digital media at Akamai, as part of the company’s press release announcing its use of the IIS technology for adaptive streaming of HD content.

The companies are jointly demonstrating the creation of HD web video files at the Digital Hollywood Conference, held through Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif. They will use Microsoft Expression Encoder 2 Service Pack 1, which supports IIS Smooth Streaming, to showcase how to create content for use with the new technology and Akamai’s upcoming service.

While a beta release of the Akamai AdaptiveEdge Streaming for Microsoft Silverlight service is scheduled to be available in early 2009, the company already knows where it’s focusing the service: it wants to "bring a solution with HD scale to media companies worldwide."

A showcase site, www.smoothhd.com, has been set up to showcase how instantly accessible streaming with little or no buffering is possible for HD streaming. According to Microsoft, the Smooth Streaming web server technology is designed to give consumers instant start-up times and no buffering "by adapting the quality of the video stream in real time based upon changing connectivity speed."

I tested the site this morning on a Sony VAIO Core 2 Duo 2GHz machine with a 3Mbps connection. Despite having a computer and data connection well above the recommended minimums, views of the content on the Smooth HD site this morning were less than satisfactory, with significant buffering. The content also took several seconds after each cut to stabilize and yield close to HD quality delivery after each stream started up (and after some transitions), so we’ll monitor the progress of this beta technology over the next few weeks to see if HD content delivery quality improves. (Performance was slightly better on an Intel Mac Min 1.5 GHz Core Solo with a 16Mbps connection, although most of the videos still suffered from frequent brief but noticeable stuttering.)

Dan Rayburn addresses some of the larger issues around Smooth Streaming and HD content in general on his blog today.

"In a broadcast model, typically the experience is consistent across 100 percent of the viewing audience," Napoleon said in the press release. "The challenge is that capabilities in the online world vary greatly for each user. Adaptive streaming allows the video to adjust to the audience, maximizing each user's experience. We believe that this technology, combined with an open video player solution that embraces existing development and ad standards, will allow us to offer the scale and reach needed to grow the business of online video."

Microsoft’s introduction of the IIS 7.0 Smooth Streaming technology blurs the lines between traditional Windows Media Services streaming and HTTP delivery via IIS. The company notes that content delivery networks can benefit from "unprecedented network scalability using distributed HTTP-based Web servers" which may entice some of the more traditional CDNs that haven’t gotten into streaming video but who already do a sizeable amount of HTTP object delivery or progressive downloads.

"Smooth Streaming is an evolution of proven Silverlight technology that has powered global online events," said Scott Guthrie, corporate vice president of the .NET Developer Division at Microsoft. "Our objective has always been to provide a platform that enables next-generation media experiences on the Web."

Learning from its largest Silverlight streaming delivery even to date, the 2008 Summer Olympics, Microsoft notes that "Smooth Streaming is the productization of technology first used by Microsoft to deliver on-demand video for NBCOlympics.com."

While Silverlight can seamlessly switch between the streams at different bandwidths that Smooth Streaming can dynamically deliver based on its detection of the user’s current network environment, a bit of extra work is needed to prepare content for adaptive or multi-bitrate delivery.

"Using a future update to Expression Encoder 2, you will simply encode several quality levels of a specific piece of content," a Microsoft posting about Smooth Streaming notes, adding that "each media quality level is encoded as its own complete file . . . Once IIS receives a request for media, it creates virtual chunks from each video file and delivers the best content possible to the end user."

The technology, based on information on the www.iis.net/media site, appears to build on the Bit Rate Throttling technology already resident in IIS 7.0, but Chris Knowlton at Microsoft dispelled that notion."Smooth Streaming is a totally separate feature, and is not built on Bit Rate Throttling," said Knowlton, Senior Program Manager with Microsoft's IIS team. "Unlike a progressive download, which just requests that the whole media file be downloaded at once, a client using Smooth Streaming just requests upcoming two-second segments as it needs them."The two-second segments Knowlton refers to are the "chunking" mentioned in the Microsoft and Akamai's press releases and technical data."The bi-directional stream switching (not throttling) is fully a function of the Smooth Streaming logic on the client," added Knowlton. "It constantly switches down and up to make use of available bandwidth. When the video you are watching goes from soft focus to sharp, it has just switched up to a higher bit rate."Most systems in the past that have attempted multi-bitrate delivery only downgraded to the next lowest quality, rather than upgrading the video quality if a user suddenly has more connectivity. So Microsoft's Smooth Streaming - which starts out fuzzy in the first two seconds to gauge the initial bandwidth level - appears to handle bi-directional quite well.

[Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly assigned Bit Rate Throttling and Smooth Streaming as symbiotic technologies that worked together, but in fact they are discrete technologies for progressive download and streaming, respectively.]Tim Siglin (writer at braintrustdigital.com) writes and consults on digital media business models and "go-to-market" strategies. He is chairman of Braintrust Digital, a digital media production company, and co-founder of consulting firm Transitions, Inc.

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