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The tech behind streaming media

The number of high-profile streaming media services is on the rise, which means more choices for consumers. Content service providers must have the right technologies in place to meet expectations and remain competitive. Here's what they're up against.

You can't walk down the street nowadays without bumping into folks who are streaming media to their phones. Be it music, movies, a Facebook video, or a YouTube how-to explainer, data is constantly flowing to millions of devices at every moment of the day. The willingness of consumers to pay for this content was clearly a major motivator in Disney's recent decision to pull its content from Netflix in preparation for a massive upgrade to its content delivery plans.

This move shouldn’t come as a huge shock to anyone. Disney signaled that it wanted its own content delivery network when it spent $1.6 billion to purchase the majority investment in BAMtech at the beginning of August. BAMtech was originally the streaming media service for MLB.TV, and Disney was looking for ways to revive its flagging ESPN networks. BAMtech is also the streaming service for the NHL and, most important from Disney’s perspective, HBO. This means the service has the experience to stream the meat and potatoes of Disney's video content.

The Disney announcement also signals a sea change in the streaming media world. Whereas the current streaming model tends to direct consumers to major players such as Netflix or Hulu, the emerging model is one of individual channels allowing consumers to select media streams based on their own interests.

There are already dozens, if not hundreds, of potential streaming channels for consumers to select from—just look at the streaming video catalog on any Roku-equipped device. Many of the channels found on your cable TV already offer a free phone app that allows you to stream or download some percentage of their catalog. Yet, there are few high-profile channels other than HBO, Showtime, and a few of the other traditional premium cable add-on services.

So the stage is set for an explosion in the number of high-profile streaming media services. Little discussed is what lies under the hood. The technologies that allow the deployment of large-scale content delivery networks have become more easily acquired and much less complicated to equip and deploy. When Netflix went to the length of deploying hardware appliances at ISP POPs, we saw the first large-scale commercial use of edge networks and data centers.

To enable reliable service delivery, Netflix designed and built a custom content delivery system that allowed a reduction in the backhaul needed to provide a good experience for the end user. No one wants to watch a movie that doesn’t stream smoothly and at the resolution they choose. Nor do ISPs want to be paying for expensive connectivity back to a central video repository. So by developing and deploying hardware appliances that cache and stream data from the POP and limit the amount of data that needs to be moved from its cloud hosting service, Netflix reduced its overall operational expenses.

With high-speed Internet connectivity available over both cable and fiber, plus 4G cellular wireless connectivity exceeding 20 Mbps and with 5G plans for hitting 100 Mbps, the content service providers (CSP) are looking at higher performance storage and compute to install at their POPs and edge data centers. CSPs know they need to build their delivery services for peak usage, which means supporting real-time video of concerts, sporting events, election coverage, and the like.

As Paul Larbey, head of Nokia's IP video division, says, “With streaming over IP, you have to maintain broadcast-quality experience.”

Consumers are quickly turned off by services that are difficult to set up and configure or don't provide a consistent and enjoyable viewing experience. They expect a broadcast TV-quality experience at a minimum and are often willing to pay extra for HD or 4K-resolution video on their devices. To retain customers, CSPs need to provide back-end services that never damage the end user's experience. 

In 2016, there were already over 100 streaming media services available in the U.S. alone. This means that consumers have choices. If they don’t have a good experience with service A, they will rapidly move on to service B.

To deliver the right experience, CSPs have started to implement hardware solutions with performance levels that were previously the realm of dedicated high-performance computing. They need fast, reliable, dense storage and compute resources, not only to stream requested content, but also to serve advertising from both cloud-based platforms and matching on-prem solutions that have seamless management and allow the deployment and delivery of content in any service area.

"To meet the technical challenges of these new content creation, delivery, and distribution models, M&E firms find themselves virtualizing nearly every function and service in their operation," says Dan Lakey, worldwide entertainment and media domain leader at HPE. "By virtualizing video workloads, media and entertainment firms reduce time to market, cost of ownership, and delivery risk, while enabling new revenue opportunities powered by analytics and automated service delivery."

In short, the successful CSP needs to find the most effective and efficient way to meet the expectations of the consumer. And do it now.

Next-gen streaming media technology: Lessons for leaders

  • The focus is on the user experience.
  • Monetizing requires the ability to seamlessly insert advertisements and match promotions to user interests.
  • High-quality content delivery is key—anytime, anywhere.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.