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Assembling an Affordable Streaming Solution

No streaming solution will be 100% perfect or suited to all of your needs, and they're changing week by week as the streaming world grows and develops. But asking these questions should put you well on the way to picking the right streaming solution for you.

Streaming solutions have come a long way since we started sending video over dedicated phone lines and then the internet. Back in the day, a streaming appliance was a very expensive, dedicated piece of hardware that compressed and uploaded video to a specific server. Operating it required a dedicated technician, as well as special data lines—typically ISDN or T1 lines—to accommodate the massive amounts of data to be transferred.

Businesses saw that they could save tens of thousands of dollars on travel by installing use-specific systems, such as Polycom’s. Executives could meet “face to face” thousands of miles apart, and companies could present interactive seminars to groups around the world. Distance learning became part of this as well.

But all of these systems were closed, designed to work only with their own hardware on both ends of the pipe. And that pipe used either dedicated high-speed lines made specifically for this purpose, or the nascent internet. Fast-forward a decade or so, and the LTE speed on your cell phone blows away what we used to have. Wi-Fi is everywhere, but now everyone is using it, all the time. The challenge now is to make sure other users don’t choke up the pipe at the venue where you’re trying to stream.

One element that has become much easier to acquire, install, and operate is the hardware needed to produce a quality stream. Standards now enable you to use that piece of hardware to send video to different content delivery networks (CDNs) that are competing to provide that delivery service for you. Delivery options range from free services such as YouTube and Facebook to more business-directed services that let you go “white label” and completely brand the service as your own. Worldwide delivery has become the easy part.

The appliance that does the compression no longer requires advanced compression knowledge or networking expertise to operate. These days, for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, anyone can get a dedicated streaming appliance that takes in one or more video signals, compresses an outgoing signal to your settings, and sends it where you want it to go. That’s the simple version.

You can go battery-operated, you can have dual streams from one device, you can record internally, or you can use the device to initiate recording at the server. Some systems even let you grab a clip from a stream (or a local recording of the stream) and send it to social media while the live event is still being streamed from that same device. The choices available now can be overwhelming.

Choosing the Right System

To narrow down the choices and find the streaming appliance best suited to your needs, here are several key questions to ask:

• How much money do you have to invest in this device?
• Does it need to be portable or battery-operated?
• What streaming needs do you have? Size, frame rate, data rate, number of streams?
• Does it need to record? Internal, external, or server recording? Program feed or isolated?
• Does it need to provide video mixing, video playback, titling, graphics, etc.?
• How will it connect to your cameras? HDMI? HD-SDI?
• Do you require conversion, scaling, or connectivity with noncamera computer inputs such as VGA or SDI?

Generally, the lower the cost, the less capable a streaming appliance is. Processing power and capability cost dollars to implement. At the most basic, you might get a 720p stream and a mid-level bitrate to one CDN.

Pay a little more, and you step up to units that offer Full HD streaming, higher bitrates, internal recording, and dual streams to two different destinations.

Mix in the capability of a computer with software designed for streaming and you leverage the capabilities in the computer, which you may already have, saving the cost of similarly capable hardware. The software may give you the ability to mix different cameras, apply a title or graphics to the video, play back prerecorded video clips loaded onto the computer, record internally, and stream the video out to a CDN.

Lastly, you have high-end, purpose-built systems designed to do all this specifically for the purpose of streaming. These systems are also very well adapted to broadcast production, able to function as part of the event itself in the same room, or broadcast on TV.

Let’s walk through some of the choices available today in each of these tiers of streaming solutions.