Streaming Vendor News Recap For The Week Of March 23rd

Here’s a recap of all the announcements from streaming media vendors that I saw for the week of March 23rd. Lots of news leading up to NAB. A note to vendors, please stop with the silly “world’s first” langauge. Four releases this week used that phrase which is nothing more than marketing language. It’s not a term that customers care about or one that resonates with them.

Report: 29% Of Viewers Abandon Videos When They Encounter Quality Problems

A new consumer survey report from Conviva titled “How Consumers Judge Their Viewing Experience: The Business Implications of Sub-Par OTT Service” highlights the importance of video experience now that OTT has become a part of everyone’s everyday life. The report, which is based on the responses of 750 viewers ages 26-34, shows that 75% will abandon a sub-par video experience in 4 minutes or less. The worse news for content owners is that one in three are willing to jump amongst content owners if they’re not getting what they came for. Data also shows that 29% of users will close the video and try a different app/platform/website when they encounter a poor video experience.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.06.38 PMSomewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the report shows that these viewers are more sophisticated in their judgments than we might be inclined to give them credit for. They clearly understand that a good experience isn’t just about avoiding buffering, but that it also includes a quick start to the content (what we call frustration time), and demands a good-looking picture.  For cord-cutters especially – and this particular survey sample is looking at a generation that almost certainly were watching on their parents’ cable subscription very recently – this is important, because they’re comparing what they watch both to other Internet services, and to the TV itself.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.06.17 PMThe survey says that nearly half of them lose brand loyalty as soon as they get a bad experience. Whether that really plays out in real-time is debatable, but if it’s even half as bad as that, it’s a wake-up call for everyone: the quality of your video experience better compare favorably to the competition, or trouble could quickly ensue.

If there’s one big takeaway, it’s that holding the interest of today’s OTT viewers is hard, and getting harder. The proliferation of devices and platforms to be supported continues to accelerate, and the variation in quality between ISPs and CDNs is undeniable – and may be indecipherable, as it shifts and changes on practically a minute-to-minute basis. The survey shows respondents placing blame across the whole ecosystem when they get a lousy experience, but that’s small comfort to a provider whose expensive content is being abandoned.

Note: Conviva also publishes a very detailed report that measures the technical problems with streaming video when it comes to re-buffering, slow video startup, low-resolution and their impact on the viewer experience.

Pandora CIO To Keynote Infrastructure Event: Learn How They Have Scaled 50X In Eight Years

steve-ginsberg-headshot-smallI’m pleased to announce that Steve Ginsberg, CIO at Pandora has been added to the speaker lineup at our Content Delivery Summit, taking place May 11th in NYC. Partnering with Product Engineering, the Technical Operations team at Pandora has built and extended an efficient, resilient, high-volume architecture to keep the music playing, scaling it 50X in eight years. As our keynote speaker, Steve will share elements of design and insights from building the platform that brings music to millions. He’ll join Mike Dunkle from Valve’s network operations and infrastructure group as our two confirmed keynote speakers for the event.

Now in its seventh year, the Content Delivery Summit is the place to meet those who are building out some of the largest public and private CDN deployments to date. The summit also covers other web acceleration technologies including dynamic content delivery, transparent caching, app acceleration, QoS measurement, front-end optimization, mobile content acceleration and more. You can register for the event using the discount code of DR100 and get an all access ticket for only $395 if you register before April 11th.

Ustream’s Software-Defined CDN Could Become A Bandwidth Exchange For Live Broadcasters

Ustream_Logo_2013Ustream has developed a reputation for its ability to host some of the world’s largest streaming events via their HD broadcast video platform. The company hosted more than 1 million concurrent viewers and 8 million total viewers during the launch of Sony’s Playstation 4 and regularly hosts 70 million viewers per month. And, while it is enough of a challenge to scale to accommodate a large audience when the size is predictable, it is even more difficult to scale fast when the audience size is unpredictable.

As a result of these problems, Ustream decided to create a unique solution that is the result of seven years of development – a technology Ustream calls Software Defined CDN or SD-CDN. If Ustream takes what they have built and offers it to anyone, as a stand-alone service, customers would then be able to buy live delivery services from what is essentially a bandwidth exchange. This would be a very interesting model because to date, there is no easy way for large content owners to buy from multiple CDNs, without going and doing a contract with each CDN individually.

One proven aspect of Ustream’s platform is that it can scale for audiences that start quickly, accelerate quickly and then leave once the live event is over. Large audiences like these bring several challenges:

  • The sheer amount of bandwidth needed often requires using more than one CDN provider to cover all viewers in all parts of the globe
  • It’s important to ensuring a high-quality stream with as little buffering as possible and HD quality playback for each viewer no matter what device they are on or where they are globally
  • Handle the bandwidth and quality needs in the most cost-efficient way possible. While it is always possible to add additional servers or CDN capacity to accommodate the peak usage pattern, this often means during times of lower usage that extra capacity is wasted.

Ustream’s SD-CDN includes the following properties:

  • Ability to scale automatically without manual provisioning of resources, dynamically adding and removing edges and providers on the fly as needed.
  • Ability to leverage a combination of edge resources, which include: CDN providers, transit lines, peering and ad-hoc edges, including those located inside an ISP’s network on inside a private network (for example an enterprise network). A new edge resource can be registered and serving traffic in less than a minute.
  • Ability to flexibility and instantly route traffic amongst any of the above listed sources based on a combination of rules to maximize resiliency, quality and cost.
  • Built-in monitoring to evaluate the performance of and efficacy of the competing sources on a global scale or down to the individual viewer.
  • Ability to tweak business logic in real time if scale, quality or cost are jeopardized by changing conditions.

Ustream’s SD-CDN works by deploying a software layer that transmits, receives and processes metadata between the sources of video content (streaming servers, CDN edges, transit lines, ad-hoc edges) and the destination of the video content – end user viewing devices. Each Ustream player that is deployed has a connection called the Ustream Media Server connection (UMS) which sends back real-time data each second. This creates an enormous amount of data, as each connected player (even if they are not yet playing or have already stopped playing video content) is sending back real-time data about the status of that client. This connection is a two-way connection, so it is used to deliver messages in both directions. For example, the player reports back to the SD-CDN its IP address and logic can be triggered based on that, such as whether a viewer is in a restricted country or not.

This same connection can be used to carry data about whether or not that player is buffering. This data is all processed at a few geographically distributed locations to ensure redundancy and analyzed in real-time using proprietary algorithms so that it can be interpreted. The algorithms contained in the SD-CDN central servers look at things like if a player is buffering, is it just a single viewing client, or is there a pattern of buffering in a specific region? Since switching between sources can occur on the level of a single client, then an isolated issue can be addressed in a client side switch, thanks to the SD-CDN. But if a large number of client-side switches are being reported back to the SD-CDN, then the SD-CDN can make a large-scale switch to completely disable a certain CDN provider or an ad-hoc edge if necessary.

Since the SD-CDN includes monitoring capabilities, the automatic logic can always be overridden or augmented by real-time monitoring at Ustream’s NOC. A network operations expert can spot a pattern not picked up automatically by the algorithms and use the interface of the SD-CDN to have instant control of the entire system. Over time, as new patterns emerge, they are added to automatic recognition algorithms of the SD-CDN.

The SD-CDN is particularly interesting and useful when looked at in concert with Ustream’s other streaming technologies. Ustream offers a cloud transcoding service so you can send a single high-bitrate HD stream and Ustream generates the lower bitrate and resolution versions of the stream from the original stream. When these versions are created, there are time synchronization markers added as metadata in the stream. This is important for switching between bitrates on a single player from a single source to ensure the stream content does not jump or skip back in time, but these markers also become relevant so that via the SD-CDN, the Ustream player can actually perform a seamless switch between streams coming from two completely different sources.

Ustream’s delivery platform can adapt to provide the best possible quality for each viewer or to make changes on a larger scale to pre-empt an issue before the viewing client reports it. In addition, a major function of the SD-CDN is the ability to manage traffic across a network of CDN providers, transit lines, peering and ad-hoc edges based on the cost considerations of carrying traffic of a given volume at any given time.

For those familiar with CDN pricing and contracts ( a typical situation is that a content provider is expected to predict in advance the amount of usage they will have on a monthly basis and to sign a long-term contract based on that. It is typically a use it or lose it proposition, whereby overestimating usage will result in sunk cost with no ROI, and underestimating usage can lead to steep overage fees. In addition, the provider is incentivized by way of scaled discounts to commit to a larger package because the unit economics become more appealing by buying in bulk.

The rules of this game make it a tricky proposition for any content provider wanting to maximize the value of their investment in a third-party CDN service. This is one of the key advantages that Ustream’s SD-CDN can provide. For several months, Ustream has been able to utilize third-party CDN services at a flat 95/5 usage pattern. This results in an optimal ROI in the contracts Ustream has with third-party CDN and transit providers. This cost savings can then be passed on to viewers, which is one of the reasons Ustream can offer the same scale and quality of delivery as many leading CDNs, even at lower costs.

While Ustream has used this solution extensively for delivery of video content, the company says what they have built is content-type agnostic and can be put to work for any kind of HTTP traffic, such as gaming or any Web-based application acceleration. Ustream is currently using their Software-Defined CDN to control all of its video content and is considering offering the solution as a stand-alone service for others with similar needs. If Ustream starts selling their platform as a stand-alone delivery service, it would be an interesting disruption in the market.

Most third-party CDNs aren’t experts when it comes to the entire ecosystem of live events. They can handle the delivery, but a lot more goes into a live event than just delivering the bits. This is why companies like Ustream, Livestream, Twitch and others who specialize in live broadcasting have all built their own live broadcast platforms. If Ustream can take what they have built and offer it to anyone, customers would then be able to buy live delivery services from what is essentially a brokerage exchange. This would be a new way of buying live delivery services, from multiple CDNs, all based on a specific quality of delivery tied to the time of day. The company hasn’t officially said they will offer it as a product yet, but did tell me they are looking into it. If they launch it as a stand-alone service in the market, it’s a very unique proposition and one I think they could have success at.

Streaming Vendor News Recap For The Week Of March 16th

Here’s a recap of all the announcements from streaming media vendors that I saw for the week of March 16th. I’ll try to do a better job of regurally creating this list at the end of each week: