Serverless Streaming: The Best of Both Worlds

Okay, you’ve created your masterpiece, and you want to publish it to the Web so your Aunt Gertie in Tallahassee can watch it. You’re thinking about creating a streaming media file, so she can watch it without having to wait for a download. But streaming media doesn’t have great quality, especially on slower connections, and publishing streaming media means finding a host with a streaming media server.

If you create a downloadable media file, you could make it as high quality as you want, but the file could end up being huge. That means a long download time for poor Aunt Gertie, not to mention a long upload time for you.



The Serverless Alternative

There is another alternative, one that walks the middle ground between streaming and downloading, yet is clearly very different from them both. Serverless streaming has been around a while, taking a little time to get up to speed, with the notable exception of VivoActive, from the now deceased Vivo Software. Real Networks bought Vivo in 1998, and allowed it to die, some believe because Real recognized it as being serious competition.

After the untimely demise of Vivo, we didn’t see much in the way of serverless streaming until the release of QuickTime 4. When Apple released the last version of QuickTime, they included the ability for quick viewing, which means viewing while the QuickTime file continues to download. Version 5 is in its second public beta release at press time and should be in its final release by the time you read this.

QuickTime’s primary drawback is the old slow connection problem. If you’re on a slow connection, then your computer cannot download the file as fast as you can view it. So you end up trying to watch the file a frame at a time, as it arrives, which can be an extremely frustrating experience.

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High Speed and Quality, Too

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could create a single, high-quality file that Aunt Gertie could watch over her 28.8Kbps connection, while your brother Charlie, with a T-1 (1.5Mbps), would see the same file with much better quality. Better yet, wouldn’t it be really neat if Aunt Gertie could not only view the low-res version that her connection speed demands, but that the full, high-quality file would download while she browsed the Internet? Then she could watch the high-quality version after it downloaded, having seen the low-res version immediately, as a serverless stream – really the best of both worlds.

This wish list may seem fantastic, but it is already a reality, with Indeo 5 and, to some extent, QuickTime 5. The Ligos Corporation, which has acquired licenses to develop and distribute Indeo video and audio codecs from Intel, is brewing a revolution in media delivery. While the rest of us have been sweating over multiple streaming files (one for 28.8, another for 56.6, yet another for ISDN, maybe a couple of others still for broadband connections) or boring our friends and relatives to death with huge download files, Ligos has been building the medium for anybody to use anytime for anything.

With Indeo 5, when you encode your video, you choose multiple layers, each with a different frame rate, resolution and even color depth. Then, as your viewers download, they receive the layer with the highest quality that "fits" in their respective connections. If their connection speed does not allow the best quality that your file has to offer, they can relax, because after they view their "stepped-down" version, the remainder of the file will continue to download. Then they can watch your video with just as high quality as someone with a very high-speed connection.



How it Works

Let’s pause for a moment to discuss just how Internet video works. The World Wide Web is actually a global network of computers, which we call servers, because they serve various kinds of data. Whenever you go online and browse the Web, your computer is acting as a client, making requests of various servers for data. That data may be text, animation, still images, audio or video.

Each time you click on a link, your computer requests data from the appropriate server. With download-and-play video, clicking on a link causes your computer to request the file from the server on which it resides. You would then see a dialog box asking you where you want to save the file on your computer. Then, the file is sent across the Internet from the server to your computer, being transported in little chunks, called packets. Download-and-play files arrive in a stream, too. However, they cannot play until the whole file is completely downloaded.

Streaming media also arrives in packets. The difference is that your streaming media client plays them as they arrive. In other words, all file transfers on the Internet are "streamed" in the sense that they are transported as a stream of packets. What distinguishes streaming media is not the method of its transport but rather the way its packets are handled upon arrival. Streaming media clients play the arriving packets almost at once (a few seconds’ worth are buffered on your computer during playback, in case of minor interruptions). Traditional download-and-play files have to build the entire program on the local drive before playback can begin.

"Serverless" streaming doesn’t do away with the server computer, but rather the streaming server software that creates the stream. In serverless streaming, such as Ligos’ Indeo, you are still dealing with a download-and-play file. The difference is that you may view a "preview" of the file at the maximum quality that your connection will allow. After the entire file has downloaded (which will be longer than the playback of your "preview"), you may then play the file at full quality. This solution is not only the best of both worlds; it also eliminates the need for a specially equipped streaming server to act as a host for your clips.



How it’s Done

The first thing you need is your completed video file, edited and ready to go. The next thing you need is either the latest Indeo Progressive Download Publisher Tool (from www.ligos.com) or the latest QuickTime Publisher (from www.apple.com/quicktime). While each product has its own interface, both will take your file and create a new one – whether you have an .avi (for Indeo) or an .mov (for QuickTime) – and make it ready for posting.

The Indeo Progressive Download Publisher Tool will ask you to specify the number of quality "layers" you want in your completed file, as well as the quality level for each layer. The QuickTime Publisher has a few options to set as well, mostly having to do with embedded information, such as hyperlinks in the video itself. It may take you a little bit of fiddling before you get the correct combination for your specific video.

When you have the finished file, then you must upload it to your host’s computer. Your host can give you specific instructions, but in general, you are simply doing the reverse of a download. You select the file and identify where on your Web site the media file should go. Many hosts have simple, step-by-step instructions to walk you through the whole process. Others may only have an FTP site to offer you; this is an important consideration when you decide to select a host for your videos.

Once your file has been uploaded, your friends and family can download (and view) it. And you can bask in the warm glow of stardom, as people begin to visit your site in droves to watch your video masterpiece.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.