Revenue Stream

With enterprises, houses of worship and just about everybody else streaming video, there are ample opportunities for integrators – at least those that know what they’re getting into. Tim Kridel investigates.

Barack Obama’s inauguration was historic in at least one respect: With roughly 7.7 million simultaneous streams, it shattered worldwide records for online video viewing. For enterprise IT managers and CIOs, it also was a crash course – literally, in some cases – on the potential and perils of streaming.

“People started to think: What kind of infrastructure do I need to do this? What do I need to do to protect my infrastructure?” says Erik Herz, video services director at VBrick Systems, which makes streaming infrastructure. “CNN was flooded by calls from schools and corporations asking how to cache the video and protect their network. They knew that lots of people were going to be watching this, and they were worried that their network was going to get overloaded.”

For AV integrators, that spells opportunity. Between high-profile Webcasts that employees watch en masse and video Webinars that companies want to broadcast to potential customers, IT departments increasingly are looking for ways to handle inbound and outbound streaming gracefully and cost-effectively.

“Within the enterprise, there is a lot of user-generated content,” says Israel Drori, CEO of Zixi, a streaming vendor. “The IT department is facing a significant challenge of how to manage it.”

Video everywhere

Streaming vendors say they’re seeing strong growth in a wide variety of verticals, including general enterprise, houses of worship, government, health care and education. (For a look at how municipalities are using streaming, see “Electronic Democracy” in the December 2007 issue of InAVate at

One common reason is cost: Streaming over an IP network, whether it’s a private local area network (LAN) or the Internet, often is less expensive than buying TV airtime or leasing a satellite link. Take hospitals, where the goal might be to connect pathology in one wing with the operating rooms in another.

“Traditionally they’ve laid down fibre and baseband video says Peter Maag, senior vice president of marketing and business development at HaiVision Systems. “But it’s really inflexible and expensive to do that. The medical integration companies have indicated that just by replacing traditional AV technology with network video, they’re saving 50 percent of the capital equipment charges. Once they get the video onto the network, they start thinking, ‘Oh, we can do this and that.’”

For example, if it’s a university-owned hospital, the next step might be to link the operating rooms with classrooms or auditoriums so it’s easier to demonstrate surgical techniques to dozens of medical students at a clip. It’s here that knowledge of a specific vertical can be a plus because it enables integrators to identify immediate and future applications – including ones that the client might not be aware of – and then incorporate them into the bid and design. The more suggestions that an integrator can offer, the more value it has in the client’s eyes, and the easier it is to justify any price premium.

Sports is another growth market for streaming, vendors say. For example, although major professional teams typically have lucrative TV contracts, they often want to deliver more content – such as in-depth coach interviews – than a broadcast station or cable operator can handle. If the fan base is rabid enough, streaming those exclusives from the team Web site also can be a revenue opportunity.

There a similar opportunities among less-well-known teams, such as minor-league franchises and those at small colleges. For them, TV distribution may be prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable, making streaming their best or only option for reaching fans. Even high school teams may be able to make a business case for streaming if they have a devoted following among alumni and parents.

“They’re using these products so grandma and grandpa can watch it from across the country,” says Jeff Kopang, vice president of marketing at ViewCast. “Sports has always been big, and it’s getting bigger for us.”

Yet another growth market is houses of worship. One application is using streaming to connect satellite venues, so that a service can be held live across all locations, instead of being delivered to the adjunct facilities hours later on DVD. Another application is streaming services live to homebound members, as well as providing archives.

vBrick is one vendor targeting the house of worship market. It’s partnered with The Church Online, a U.S.-based organisation that resells vBrick products as part of a turnkey package that includes network backhaul and a portal, all aimed at helping houses of worship get into streaming quickly and cost-effectively.

New Life for Old Assets

For some companies, another motivation for streaming is that it’s a way to do more at an incremental cost. For example, a house of worship could use streaming to provide access to sermons and services that it archives anyway, with the benefit of being able to reach people who are unwilling or unable to attend in person.

Or a sports franchise could stream past games to serve and grow its fan base, especially if it doesn’t have a TV contract, as is the case for many minor leagues and smaller colleges. Some charge for that content, so it’s a new revenue stream. There are plenty of other examples in verticals ranging from general enterprise to media companies.

“They’re all becoming better and better candidates even as the economy contracts in that many of them have assets that they want to get more value out of,” says Dave Frederick, senior director for storage at Omneon. “We call it ‘re-purposing it for a reason.’ It’s a tremendous opportunity. For people already creating content, it’s a no-brainer to re-purpose that and get it to additional audiences.”

Streaming also can be a way for companies to reduce travel costs. For example, after an acquisition, instead of bringing the other company’s employees in for days or weeks of on-site training, the acquiring company could stream its archive of product videos for viewing at their existing facilities. If the acquired company has a lot of regional offices, the savings on travel alone may be enough to make a business case for deploying streaming.

IT Skills Required

Streaming also is yet another example of how AV and IT are converging. But it’s not a market where integrators can simply parachute in and start grabbing business.

Instead, AV integrators either need to add IT skills or partner with companies that have them in order to be successful in the streaming market. Those skills are key for working with the client’s IT department, which may have security concerns about allowing video to pass in and out of a LAN. IT skills also are helpful for avoiding and troubleshooting problems such as firewalls that block video.

“Security in terms of firewall or virtual private networks (VPNs) can be overcome by making the right configuration decisions, [such as] placing the distribution platform inside the LAN environment,” says Wim van Dijk, sales manager at Streamit.

Besides general IT knowledge, it also helps to understand the nuances of a client’s network, such as how it’s configured. For example, the client might want to move large video files only during times when its LAN is lightly used, to avoid conflicts with other applications, such as voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

“Should bandwidth be limited or only be available during night times, the device should switch to store and forward mode: downloading the content, playlists and job schedule to its internal HCSD memory card,” van Dijk says.

Integrators also need to make clients aware of a Catch-22: As the number of viewers increases, so does the amount of bandwidth used by the company doing the streaming. When that happens, potential downsides include a network that bogs down or crashes because it can’t support so many simultaneous streams or a big bill from the bandwidth provider. Hence the value of an integrator that knows about traffic management and planning, or that has an IT partner to help with those tasks during the design stage.

Staying flexible and user-friendly

Another success factor is anticipating how and where the client will stream – even if the client itself doesn’t fully understand its options. All of that affects the choice of platform and system design.

For example, although a house of worship might say it wants to stream video for viewing on PCs, in the future it might also want to stream to mobile phones, and to a cable operator’s headend for distribution to TVs. It’s easier and less expensive to do all of that if the integrator steers the client toward a platform that can encode and send multiple, simultaneous streams, each with a different resolution and bit rate to match the abilities of its destination device. The expensive alternatives include deploying a new platform or hand-encoding each stream for each type of device.

“When I’ve talked with integrators, they think, ‘We’re going to sell streaming servers, and how they get the content in there is their business,’” says Omneon’s Frederick. “Well, that’s one of the hardest things to solve: how to get that content into a reliable format in an automated way so they don’t have to spend a lot of labour and have it be accurate and high quality.”

Some vendors partner with integrators to offer that kind of expertise.

“We would act as a co-consultant with the systems integrator and advise on the correct package to accommodate the formats that the customer wants to deal with, the volume [of video traffic], how automated the process is,” Frederick says. “We act almost as a subcontractor.”

Another nuance is metadata, which is basically information about what’s in a stream. By collecting metadata when content is created, it’s easier later on for the end user to find, for example, all of a church’s sermons about charity or all of a company’s analyst presentations about a particular product. That makes the stream more user-friendly, which in turn increases the likelihood that it will be viewed – the whole reason for streaming in the first place.

“Metadata inserted with the video is critical in order to elegantly retrieve the most appropriate information,” says HaiVision’s Maag. “Otherwise, you’re wading through terabytes of information to find what you need.”

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