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How streaming media works

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The following is an excerpt from an interview Intranet Journal Content Producer Adnan Ashraf did recently with officials from the Globix Corporation, a solutions provider for Internet/Intranet-based mission-critical applications, as part of our series on streaming media. As Globix’s manager of streaming media worldwide, Dan Rayburn does business daily with the industry’s latest developments in mind.

“Instead of flying 50 people to one location to have a meeting, you basically put a live conference on the Internet and everybody just comes from their desktop, or you just push it to them.” – Dan Rayburn

IJ asked him and Live Events Manager Chris Kelly to explain the basics of streaming media functionality, and to shed some light on this technology’s potential within the corporate enterprise.

Intranet Journal: Why streaming media?

Dan Rayburn: Cost effective; you reach the most viewers that way. Advertising revenue comes about because of it; figures are out there that support sites that have streaming media, average viewer stays on longer, it gets more hits, it’s definitely a site people come back to, as far as that goes. And then there’s the business-to-business solution where instead of flying fifty people to one location to have a meeting, you basically put a live conference on the Internet and everybody just comes from their desktop, or you just push it to them. So definitely availability; it’s up for demand afterwards.

IJ: So there’s proven ROI.

DR: Immediately, there’s a return on investment. It saves a lot of money and time, and also it makes them seem like they’re in the loop in terms of technology, like they’re very technical and sophisticated.

IJ: If users continue to come back to the sites, and the sites are getting a lot of hits, and users are staying on streaming media pages longer, that would indicate the technology’s working well?

DR: Well, the technology certainly has gotten better over the years. There’s really only two players, and that’s RealPlayer and Windows MediaPlayer. Whether or not they like them, it’s a personal thing.

Chris Kelly: If they don’t have the player, you can spawn a java applet to actually play it. If they download the player after they’ve actually checked out the content, they can actually keep watching the videos and keep surfing, that way they don’t have to be on the page while they’re watching it.

DR: That’s true. It all depends on the user. Some may say it’s very easy to download. Others may find that it’s hard to configure through firewalls, which it kind of is, through firewalls, depending on which player it is, and it just depends on what you’re using it for. It’s kind of hard to say, but obviously they must like it with the millions of downloads that they do every month.

IJ: How does the streaming media process physically work for on-demand servers?

DR: Basically, it just converts the video format into a format that actually will send packets of data so that you don’t have to download the whole clip in one lump sum, so you can actually watch a movie, depending on your connection, as the data is received.

IJ: Hence, streaming.

DR: It starts to buffer.

CK: Yeah, hence streaming. Usually, there’s a three- to seven-second lag depending on your connection, between the start of the file, like if it’s a live stream, it’ll usually buffer between 5 to 10 seconds, and that way the stream won’t break.


DR: How do you take a live feed and reference the ram file?

CK: For a live feed, basically we take a traditional analog signal whether it’s a feed from a mixing board or…we usually set up some audience microphones as well to mix in some of the ambient sounds of the room to give the user a feel that they’re actually at the event. And then that goes into dedicated encode units that we bring with us on-site that actually transfer the analog signal into the streaming format, and we also have built-in ISDN modems, these are all very high-end machines to keep the clearest signal possible, and we send it back to our data center using a dedicated ISDN line, and that data center has the monstrosity of bandwidth to get it out to the users.

DR: And then how do you reference it?

CK: And then on the site, the site we make, usually there’s either an ASX or RAM file which are the MicroSoft and Real file formats. It’s just a text file that actually spawns either the plug-in, the java applet, or the player from the user’s browser. The ram file will tell Netscape [Navigator] to launch the player and it has a direct location of where the streaming media file is depending on whether the live file is on the same server as the Web site that’s hosting it, or it’s from a completely different location, it’s completely transparent to the user.

IJ: What sorts of content are you streaming?

DR: Everything from music to medical to corporate events, really anything.

CK: A CEO addressing his affiliate offices in other countries, usually a lot of the times it’s live or archived so that the timezone difference is eliminated. The workers can tune in when they get to work.

IJ: I’d heard about a link that allowed a London-based surgeon to demonstrate a highly specialized procedure to a team watching in New York. Do you know anything about that?

DR: No. It’s possible. They do some of that now. It’s kind of like distance learning. From most of that stuff, where it’s that high quality, it’s usally like an ATM frame-relay.

CK: It’s usually a high end videoconferencing system. It’s not traditional streaming media.

DR: It’s not usually done through the Internet. It’s more very specialized. It goes just to that user. They are doing that out there. That’ll come about more as the bandwidth gets better.

IJ: Is the Web the ideal context for streaming media?

CK: I think it’s the other way around. I think streaming media is the ideal content for the Web. The Web is just very static without streaming media, whether it’s music or audio or jazz, whatever it may be. It’s not much different than going and looking in a book. So adding all the interaction, making it interactive is ideal.

DR: I think as the interactive portion of television starts going more toward the Web, it will be ideal for users at home pointing to streaming content from the Web, but I think it will be the main way that it’s delivered.

IJ: Do you agree with RealNetworks, Inc.’s CEO Rob Glaser when he suggests that television is going to migrate to the Web?

DR: Yes. Eventually. It’s further off though than people think. [It will be] two to three years before we really start to see something good, but even then, who knows if the technology will be adapted? Mini CD’s aren’t, neither is laser disc … My point is that just because something is cool or better doesn’t mean it will catch on right away. It will, but we’ll see how long from now. It WILL be interesting and open up a whole new business model…as well as confuse a lot of traditional broadcast companies.

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