STILL A TOUGH SELL?
Given these and other potential benefits, it might seem as if streaming capabilities are indispensable to today's enterprise. But streaming was just finding its place when the business downturn took hold, and in most organizations, it hadn't yet made the transition from add-on to essential. With layoffs and cost-cutting the rule of the day, investment in new initiatives—even those that promise long-term cost savings—can be a tough sell. Thus, the underlying issues that have slowed realization of streaming's potential are themselves being addressed more slowly. Nonetheless, work continues on many fronts.
"There have not been any breakthroughs," Dias says. "The technology has largely made incremental gains. The primary limitation in most Fortune 1000 situations is still the PC configuration. There are significant numbers of desktops that are not multimedia-enabled—no speakers or sound card. We expect that this situation will be largely remedied as the technology is refreshed in the next two years with OS upgrades."
Dias adds that overall the networking landscape has improved quite dramatically for enterprise applications. "Many organizations have available bandwidth both on the LAN and on the WAN, and have implemented structured and switched topologies to manage traffic and congestion."
Not all observers, however, take such a sanguine view, particularly with regard to video, the most demanding of streamed media. "Corporations are frequently discovering that the infrastructure of their corporate network is insufficient or ill-suited to the distribution of streaming video," Nann says, "hence, requiring network overhauls by their IT departments to handle it. This is a problem even within single locations, and may be even worse over WANs. I've heard of companies that needed to have everyone log out of their email software just to free up enough network resources to do a streaming media presentation."
Nann believes that newer codecs (compression/decompression algorithms) and formats on the horizon will help alleviate the problem by delivering high-quality video with lower bandwidth requirements. Steffen Frech, a developer at San Francisco's Pilot Video, where corporate video production projects include online streaming presentations, shares this view.
"The delivery of most streaming video," Frech says, "is based on the three major media players: QuickTime, RealPlayer, and Windows Media. Each player has its advantages and disadvantages, but the codecs are constantly being improved to further compress video streams while maintaining a high level of visual quality. Real just announced their new Real Video 9, which appears promising. And Sorenson 3 improved the compression of video for QuickTime."
While competition between codec vendors has led to impressive progress in a few short years, compression is only one area of development in the effort to address the bandwidth issue. "The bottlenecks to wide-scale streaming deployment,"says Eric Kraieski, vice president of marketing at Vividon in Sudbury, Massachusetts, "have more to do with the ability for the Internet infrastructure to efficiently scale to meet increased streaming consumption while assuring the highest QoS and interoperability."
Kraieski explains that in a distributed network, each remote location will be limited in the total number of concurrent users based on LAN and WAN bandwidth capacity. "Even a 100Mbps Ethernet LAN could easily support hundreds of simultaneous streaming videos at 300Kbps each," he says. "But a WAN cannot, and adding more capacity becomes cost-prohibitive in a WAN environment."
Kraieski says that the simple way to alleviate this bottleneck is by installing streaming edge servers within each enterprise location. "Using this technology, eachunique stream is only pulled over the WAN once and is then replicated locally as necessary to support all employees or students. So last-mile WAN bottlenecks are eliminated." Vividon's own SDA line is a remotely manageable streaming cache delivery system designed for just such applications.
Paul Summers, CEO of VitalStream in Irvine, California, agrees with Kraieski that in a typical corporate environment, there is throughput available on the LAN, but a bottleneck on the Internet connection. Summers, however, endorses a different response to this imbalance. "At some point, it makes a lot of sense for the corporate user to pick a content delivery network that can add a secure point of presence [POP] inside their own network. This is a new concept, but for broadband access it makes a lot of sense," he says. "You can let local users securely connect across your own bandwidth, and remote users can connect via an Internet-based stream on a separate network."
This type of service is one of many that VitalStream offers to facilitate IP-delivered media for corporate clients. "The biggest advancements are at the service companies that have built solutions around the core technologies," Summers says. He points to MediaConsole, the company's own Web-based application that enables customers to remotely control and digitally broadcast their streaming content. "We offer customers the ability to concentrate on the creation and marketing of content, while relying on us for the electronic distribution functions."
In addition to distribution issues, Wong says it's important to consider the storage device from which streamed media begins its trip to the end-user. "Many storage solutions today were built 5, 10, even 15 years ago," she says, "when rich content was insignificant. Rich media is not being treated any differently from text, email, or other non-rich files. A successful streaming implementation must address rich content storage."
With that in mind, Isilon Systems has developed what Wong calls "the industry's first network storage solution that is optimized to handle content-driven applications, such as streaming media." According to Wong, the company's key technological differentiation is in "building data distribution and redundancy directly into our distributed file system. The technology was developed from the ground up to address large, read-intensive files that require extremely high throughput and scalability."
A complementary strategy is to reduce the demand on storage systems by minimizing the number of large media files that are stored. "If access is occasional," says David Heppe, vice president of marketing and business development at Telestream in Nevada City, California, "media can be transcoded into streaming media formats on-demand, so that the streaming servers are not being populated with multiple versions of the original content."
Telestream's supports this capability in its FlipFactory automated multiformat transcoders. "FlipFactory On-Demand can be used to store one high-resolution master and create streaming files on-demand, as requested by users," Heppe says. "Or FlipFactory Publish can be used to automatically generate multiple streaming formats and bit-rates and then automatically deliver the output files to streaming servers."