Video Out: Serve it Up: A Guide to Streaming Video Servers

Imagine it: almost everybody able to broadcast their videos to the world over the Internet, all for roughly the price of basic cable television service. Communications experts predict that in the not-too-distant future we’ll all have very fast, inexpensive Internet connections piping millions of bits of information per second into our homes. This means that we’ll soon be able to send and receive data at speeds fast enough for television-quality digital video. It’s inevitable; it’ll be here soon.

If you’re like most, however, soon just isn’t soon enough. You’d like to get involved in the streaming video scene right now, even though the viewing conditions aren’t as good as they might be in a year or two. That’s why we’ve decided to focus this month’s Video Out column on the topic of putting your videos onto the Internet with streaming video technology–not soon, but today.

In past On Ramps, now Video Out, we’ve talked about the major players in the Internet streaming market place–which, at this point, consist primarily of Microsoft’s NetShow and RealNetworks’ RealMedia families of products. This month, we’ll be covering the next logical step: getting your video on the Internet where the whole world can see it with a minimum of hassle or expense. All it takes is a little bit of willingness on your part (and possibly a small amount of money) to make your videos available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Keeping it Simple

Before you begin thinking about ways to offer your video on the Web, consider your audience. How much traffic do you honestly expect to have on your site? If you don’t think your video will be viewed by more than a hundred or so visitors a day, then consider offering your streaming video through the same local ISP (Internet Service Provider) that you’d use to host personal or business Web pages. Most local ISPs are capable of handling a single stream of video, delivered through the same HTTP (Hypertext Transport Protocol) protocol that serves their Web pages. Because of technical limitations with the way HTTP handles data, this means that your video playback will probably be slower and more jerky than video served from a commercial streaming video server. However, it might be just the ticket for those video hobbyists who want to share their videos with family members or friends. It’s also a good way for small businesses or nonprofit organizations to offer short promotional video clips or slide shows to potential customers.

Linking your video to your site is a fairly simple procedure. For RealMedia content, the easiest way is to use RealProducer G2 (available for a free download from www.real.com) to insert links that play the video that’s embedded in your Web page. Other software packages (like Vivo’s) allow you to create a simple link within the document that’s just like a link to any other page, but with the streaming player loading into a separate window. Manufacturers of streaming video encoding software know that it’s in their best interest to make the entire streaming video process simple, so you can expect this part of the process to get easier in time.

If you’re after a larger audience than your local ISP can handle, then you’ll have to pay more attention to performance issues. You’ll need to be able to serve multiple streams simultaneously at the best possible quality. For that, you’ll need access to a dedicated streaming video server.

What’s a Streaming Video Server?

In a nutshell, a streaming video server is a computer that’s designed to provide streaming video services, whether it’s hooked up to the Internet or just a small local area network. Streaming video servers require more computing muscle than your basic everyday Web server. They usually employ one of the more efficient streaming video protocols and server software for enhanced playback quality. They often use multiple hard disk arrays set up in a RAID 0 configuration for maximum speed–in other words, many hard drives operating at the same time for super-fast playback speeds. Some of the larger ones consist of many computers working in tandem for increased processing power.

Today, a growing number of companies provide streaming video server space. If your current ISP doesn’t allow you to serve streaming video on your Web site, then you can either change ISPs or keep your Web pages with the same ISP and serve your video from a different ISP that offers streaming video service.

Some ISPs are planning to offer streaming video services free of charge for a limited time. Geocities, a popular provider of free Web hosting services, has recently signed an agreement with Real Networks to provide free streaming video hosting to all who have free Web pages on Geocities. RealNetworks will provide the RealSystem G2 streaming video servers to host the content, and Geocities will provide its usual free Web hosting services, which include a very simple way for Internet beginners to launch a Web site without having to learn the complexities of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). This provides an easy and quick way to post your video on the Internet with a minimum of technical knowledge required on the customer’s part. Once the trial period ends, users will be required to sign up for Geocities’ premium Web hosting services: GeoPlus (currently $5 a month) or GeoShops for businesses ($25 a month) to retain access to streaming video and audio services.

As with most Internet-based technologies, fees and capabilities of streaming video hosting services vary widely. Remember: the faster the speed of your connection, the better the quality of the video. On the low-priced end, Videodome (www.videodome.com) offers VDOLive streaming video services for up to 5 minutes of 28.8 kilobit-per-second video for $30 a month (up to 25 simultaneous streams possible).

Other services, like Broadcast.com, aim at providing video for potentially massive audiences. Because they deal in high-volume streaming services, their prices are higher. Broadcast.com offers both Microsoft NetShow and RealSystem G2 streaming; the company has a policy against publication of its streaming video hosting prices, so call them at (800) 342-8346 if you’re interested in using their services. Streaming video service rates are likely to be in a state of flux, so be sure to check prices often if you’re interested in purchasing some streaming video time.

Applications

Remember, if you’re going the low-budget route, you’ll have to keep the video clips short, and in any case, you’ll want to choose subjects that are easy to view on a tiny screen at only a few frames per second. For now, that is–until that fabled high-speed Internet service becomes a reality.

In a future Video Out, we’ll discuss digital video encoding services–companies that specialize in the process of digitizing and encoding your video for streaming on the Internet. For those who have a large volume of video, these services provide an easy, convenient way to get the job done. All you have to do is send them your tape, and in a few days they’ll set you up with a link you can put on your Web page.

Until then, those of you who already have your own ISP and a way to digitize video have no more excuses. Start streaming!

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