It’s no secret that within the enterprise, video files are large and bandwidth-intensive. With this in mind, the growing need to stream both live and on demand video over corporate networks can - and often does - have a negative impact on network performance and user experience. Flawless delivery of video across the enterprise requires a sophisticated combination of behind-the-scenes technologies.
Here is an overview of these technologies, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.
But first . . . Why is video distribution important?
Although the vast majority of end users will never know whether their video is being delivered via Unicast, Caching, Multicast or some other method, the video distribution technology being used has a significant impact on overall user experience and engagement. In fact, studies have shown that viewers will abandon a video if their content doesn’t stream within 2 seconds and after only a few seconds, you can lose a quarter of your audience.
What are the most common video distribution technologies?
There are six primary video distribution technologies in use within the enterprise today—and each plays an important role within its specific use case and network environment. Additionally, because large companies typically support multiple use cases across the enterprise, most will require a combination of two or more distribution technologies.
Technology #1: Unicast
Unicast distribution is the simplest form of streaming video within an enterprise, i.e. sending video from a single media server directly to a single recipient.
Unicast Pros and Cons – Unicast is a simple, mature and reliable technology requiring minimal configuration and is also supported natively by most network devices. However, establishing a single and dedicated stream for each user causes significant network load when viewing volume is high. To use Unicast successfully in high-volume environments, most companies will be required to deploy Edge Servers at key sites to ensure video is served as locally as possible.
Technology #2: Caching
Caching is a technique that involves storing on demand video content on multiple servers (called Media or Edge Servers) across the network - meaning Caching only applies to on demand video and not live video. When a video is requested by a user, it is automatically stored locally on an Edge Server so that other users in that region or network area may access it.
Caching Pros and Cons – Caching video content on Edge Servers greatly reduces the number of times a single video asset is pulled across a WAN, which both accelerates video delivery and reduces bandwidth usage. But on the flip side, Caching requires the added expense of additional infrastructure.
Technology #3: Multicast
Multicast involves streaming live video from a Source Media Server to a group of secondary hosts or recipients on a network. A good analogy would be a radio broadcast - the server simply “broadcasts” a video signal and whoever wants to tune in may do so.
Multicast Pros and Cons – The biggest advantage of multicast is that it minimises WAN traffic because requests for video assets are not being sent across the network. While this is a key advantage, Multicast is only applicable to live video and requires significant additional management resources. Multicast also requires Multicast-enabled network equipment, browser plugins in most cases and is often not supported by Wi-Fi networks or mobile devices.
Technology #4: Peer-to-Peer (P2P)
Peer-to-peer distribution allows devices on the network, like two employee laptops for example, to connect and share video directly from one to the other. P2P is gaining momentum in the enterprise as of late with the emergence of WebRTC, which allows video to be shared directly between browsers without apps or plugins.
Peer-to-Peer Pros and Cons – Peer-to-Peer can significantly minimise WAN traffic, because the video asset is being streamed from a peer instead of a Source Video Server. P2P is also especially useful in companies with many branch offices, where it is impractical to deploy Edge Servers at each location. However, Peer-to-Peer configurations may still require software and storage on each peer device, and may not include native support for mobile viewing.
Technology #5: External CDN
External Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) such as Akamai, Amazon CloudFront, Level 3, and Cloudflare are paid services that utilise the internet to deliver video. While not a distribution technology in and of itself, an external CDN can be beneficial as part of the distribution mix in certain use cases.
External CDN Pros and Cons – External CDNs allow organisations to offload video traffic from an internal network and can be a great way to deliver video to remote users on VPN connections or in branch offices with local internet connections. But as with any external connection, companies must ensure that security requirements are met and deal with internet gateway infrastructure and configuration requirements for branch offices and VPN access.
Technology #6: Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)
VDI is a technology used by many large enterprises to give mobile and thin client devices a centrally controlled set of applications and data - such as a Citrix solution - and therefore a standardised end-user experience. VDI environments are notoriously challenging to provide acceptable video to users at scale, due to the inherent performance limitations in virtualised computing.
VDI Pros and Cons – VDI optimisation allows companies to offload video traffic from the Citrix server to an Edge Server, which not only dramatically minimises WAN traffic but also makes “desktop equivalent video” possible for thin client and mobile devices. However, there is one significant caveat: VDI environments are complex and the solution provider must be experienced in delivering VDI video solutions at scale.
There are multiple types of video distribution technologies and, while it might seem overwhelming to choose one or more of them for your environment, you can simplify the process by checking out some real-world examples and case studies and also by getting help designing your video network.
A well-designed network - one that saves costs and delivers a great user experience - begins with everyone on the team understanding the technical challenges and strategic objectives of the organisation.
Paul Herdman, Vice President, EMEA, Qumu
Image Credit: Photographee.eu / Shutterstock