Streaming media goes mainstream

Many companies have deployed streaming media for at least a few applications, but The Boeing Co. in Seattle thrives on it. At Boeing, it's possible to see Web-based video of rocket launches or to hear streaming Web audio of quarterly reports. And many of the aerospace company's 198,000 workers worldwide also have access to video, audio and slide presentation training materials over Boeing's internal network.

Boeing has made streaming media part of its IT architecture, say company officials. "With streaming, it's easier to express human emotion and make things easy to explain," says Dave Weitz, a senior communications manager.

The use of streaming media for corporate applications is taking off. About one-third of the 1,000 largest companies in the U.S. are using streaming Web-based media significantly, and half of them will be by 2003, says Lou Latham, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

"It's not complex, and it's not expensive" to provide streaming media to either internal users or external customers or partners, Latham says. But if a company sets up streaming feeds improperly, especially to fussy consumers on a Web site, it can become "an annoyance . . . and it will turn users off the whole process, and they won't use it anymore," he says.

IT managers face several challenges in creating and implementing streaming media. These include deciding what to outsource, knowing how to create content that's optimized for streaming, making sure internal streaming doesn't overwhelm network capacity and setting end-user expectations for streaming media quality.

Basic technology components for streaming media include video/audio servers to compress and encode digital images for streaming and a delivery network with sufficient bandwidth to accommodate the stream without interruption. End users also need to have PCs equipped with audio and video player software. Both RealPlayer Plus from market leader RealNetworks Inc. in Seattle and Windows Media Player from Microsoft Corp. are freely available.

Boeing has three years' experience with streaming audio and video and has discovered that for external Internet users, it's faster, "easier and far cheaper" to hire a content delivery network provider, says Weitz.

Such services typically cost US$5,000 to $10,000 per event, analysts say, depending on the audience size, although several users say they pay a fraction of that amount if they use the service regularly.

"The majority of enterprises have hosted Web content themselves in the past when it was text and HTML, but when you start talking about a site with a lot of streaming media, you see a lot more outsourcing," says Michael Galleli, a consultant at KPMG Consulting Inc. in Los Angeles.

Boeing uses server software from RealNetworks to stream programs to internal and external users via the Web. Each user must have RealPlayer software to view and hear the programs.

Video and audio streaming have gained steam in the past two years as internal networks have increased bandwidth and as Internet access through high-speed cable modem and Digital Subscriber Line connections has become more common, analysts say. However, these technologies aren't as fast as advertised, Latham says, and companies must stream content to accommodate different connection speeds.

For outside users, Boeing encodes streams to be received by users with connections of 28K bit/sec., 56K bit/sec. or 200K bit/sec.

Latham argues though some disagree that 100K bit/sec is the slowest video stream to have acceptable quality. Users coming in over slower dial-up Internet connections are likely to experience jerky video and audio synchronization problems.

Charles Schwab & Co. in San Francisco produced its first live video webcast for active traders around the world in February and opted to use the content delivery services of Akamai Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., which piped Schwab data to video servers around the world, says Tracy Behler, director of e-communications media at Schwab.

"We figured we're not the streaming experts," Behler says, noting that it took plenty of hard work by Schwab staffers to produce a good webcast. "The biggest thing we learned is it . . . takes an army to produce a quality program, with setting up the crew, picking the set and developing the right content."

UBS Warburg has been streaming video and audio from its morning analyst briefings since 1998 and recently began serving institutional investment managers in the U.S., says Imdad Hussain, head of technology for equities electronic marketing at the London-based firm.

UBS records the sessions with an automatic video camera, but London-based Raw Communications provides the servers that stream media over a satellite network provided by Loral CyberStar in Rockville, Md. "We could have done part of this ourselves, but we're an investment bank and not a streaming video provider," Hussain says.

Overall, outsourcing streaming is easier and cheaper, according to David Rader, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. in New York, who points out that once the content is created, there is a per-event cost and little else.

By contrast, costs for in-house efforts can reach $50,000 for a basic setup that includes a streaming server, a live encoder and a camera, Rader says.

For companies streaming over internal networks, bandwidth is another concern. To support streaming to internal desktops, Boeing uses a single RealSystem server, Weitz says. Because simultaneous usage by 198,000 workers would clog its networks though, the company doesn't make live Internet-streamed video announcements available internally.

Instead, Boeing records such events and stores them on a server for on-demand use later. Mindful of the bandwidth limitations of its 10G bit/sec. 10Base-T LAN and T3 WAN connections, Boeing has restricted the system to 400 concurrent sessions. That seems to work out without network downtime because workers want to see announcements at different times, Weitz says. Workers still want to see live material though, so the company is in the midst of upgrading to a multicasting system where multiple distributed servers will stream content simultaneously and with greater bandwidth efficiency.

Boeing also faces another, more basic, obstacle to providing streaming media to internal users: The company has many older PCs that don't have sound cards or speakers, especially on the factory floor.

Aside from the basics of setting up a streaming infrastructure, IT managers must face the fact that Web video quality, while acceptable, is inferior to television-based video, Weitz says. And even if the Web video is high quality and the picture isn't jerky, it's still difficult to perceive cuts and fades in video shots as they would appear on television. This means you can't effectively put a TV commercial on a Web stream, he says.

Boeing usually provides internal users a streaming video window that's about 3 by 5 in., or one-fourth the full monitor size, but full-screen video is possible. Internal users receive streams at 200K bit/sec., which provides a good quality stream, Weitz says.

Still, he says, "We have learned that people have a hard time with quality and they expect the same quality of TV, which of course they don't get." And, he adds, "More employees and outsiders are expecting our streaming content and the more that people hear of it, the more they demand it."

Tips for Better Streaming

Consider hiring a content delivery network service provider for streaming to external users, especially if you're providing live streams.

Don't underestimate the work and time involved in scripting, editing and producing video for streaming. Design streaming media to accommodate users with low (28.8K bit/sec.) bandwidth.

For internal streaming, ensure that routers are set to support streaming functions and that the routers give streaming media priority.

Set up a dedicated server, either Windows 2000 or a RealNetworks server, for streaming video and audio content.

Set user expectations that streaming video will be of significantly lower quality than a standard video viewed on a television.

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