Software-Defined CDNs: Scale and Quality at a Savings

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Ustream has earned a reputation for being able to accommodate some of the world’s largest streaming events with as many as 1 million concurrent viewers and 14 million total viewers during large events and regularly hosts 70 million viewers per month. And, while that alone is impressive, what’s more interesting is that Ustream has developed technology that meet the needs when audiences start quickly, grow quickly and then leave once the live event is over.

Enormous audiences like these bring with them several challenges.

  1. The need to use more than one CDN provider to cover all viewers in all parts of the world
  2. The need to ensure HD quality playback for each individual viewer, with as little buffering as possible, regardless of where they are or what type of device they’re using
  3. The ability to do both of the above without breaking the bank. While it is always possible to add additional servers or CDN capacity to accommodate the peak usage pattern, that extra capacity is wasted during times of lower usage.

The solution for these problems has been seven years in the making at Ustream. It’s a unique technology we call Software Defined CDN, or SD-CDN. This blog from online video “voice of the industry” analyst and blogger, Dan Rayburn speculates on the possibilities of this technology platform as a stand-alone service or bandwidth exchange. The edited excerpts below from Rayburn’s blog provide more specifics details.

What Is the SD-CDN?

Ustream’s SD-CDN offers:

  1. The ability to scale automatically without manual provisioning of resources, dynamically adding and removing edges and providers as needed
  2. The ability to leverage a combination of edge resources — including CDN providers, transit lines, and peering and ad-hoc edges — including those located inside an ISP’s network on inside a private network (such as an enterprise network). A new edge resource can be registered and serving traffic in less than one minute.
  3. The ability to flexibly and instantly route traffic among any of these sources based on a combination of rules to maximize resilience, quality and cost
  4. Built-in monitoring to evaluate the performance and efficacy of competing sources — on a global scale or down to the individual viewer
  5. The ability to tweak business logic in real time if scale, quality or cost is jeopardized by changing conditions.

How Does the SD-CDN work?

The SD-CDN works by deploying a software layer that transmits, receives and processes metadata between sources of video content (streaming servers, CDN edges, transit lines, ad-hoc edges) and destinations (end-user viewing devices).

Each Ustream player that is deployed has a connection called the Ustream Media Server connection (UMS), which sends back real-time data each second. This creates an enormous amount of data, as each connected player is sending back-real time status updates — even if it is not yet playing or has stopped playing the video content.

This connection delivers messages in both directions. For example, the player reports back its IP address to the SD-CDN, and logic can be triggered based on that data (such as whether the viewer is in a restricted country or not). The same connection can be used to deliver data about whether or not that player is buffering.

This data is all processed at a few geographically distributed locations (to ensure redundancy) and is analyzed in real time using proprietary. The algorithms contained in the SD-CDN central servers look at things like whether a player is buffering and whether it is affecting just one client or if there is a pattern of buffering in a specific region.

Since switching between sources can occur on the level of a single client, the SD/CDN can address an isolated issue with a client side switch. But if a large number of client-side switches are being reported, then the SD-CDN can make a large-scale switch to completely disable a certain CDN provider or a certain ad-hoc edge if necessary.

In addition, since the SD-CDN includes monitoring capabilities, the automatic logic can always be overridden or augmented by real-time monitoring at Ustream’s Network Operations Center (NOC). A network operations expert can spot a pattern not picked up automatically by the algorithms and use the interface of the SD-CDN to take instant control of the entire system. Over time, as new patterns emerge, they are added to the SD-CDN’s automatic recognition algorithms.

The SD-CDN is particularly beneficial when used in concert with Ustream’s other streaming technologies. For example, Ustream offers a cloud transcoding service that allows users to send a single high-bitrate HD stream. Ustream generates lower bitrate and lower resolution versions of the stream; when these versions are created, time synchronization markers are added as metadata in the stream. This is important for switching between bitrates on a single player from a single source, to ensure the stream content does not jump or skip back in time, but these markers also allow the Ustream player to actually perform a seamless switch between streams coming from two completely different sources.

The SD-CDN can adapt to provide the best possible quality for each individual viewer or to make changes on a larger scale that pre-empt an issue before the viewing client reports it. In addition, the SD-CDN can manage traffic across a network of CDN providers, transit lines, peering and ad-hoc edges based on the cost considerations of carrying traffic of a given volume at any given time.

If you’re familiar with CDN pricing and contracts (if not, you might find this page helpful), you’ll recall that content providers are expected to predict in advance the amount of usage they will have on a monthly basis and to sign a long-term contract based on those predictions. It is typically a “use it or lose it” proposition, whereby overestimating usage will result in sunk cost with no ROI, and underestimating usage can lead to steep overage fees.

In addition, the content provider is incentivized by way of scaled discounts to commit to a larger package because unit economics become more appealing when buying in bulk. The rules of this game make it a tricky proposition for any content provider wanting to maximize the value of its investment in a third-party CDN service.

This is one of the key advantages the SD-CDN can provide. This is one of the key advantages that Ustream’s SD-CDN can provide. For several months, Ustream has been able to utilize third-party CDN services at a flat 95/5 usage pattern. This results in an optimal ROI in the contracts Ustream has with third-party CDN and transit providers. This cost savings can then be passed on to viewers, which is one of the reasons Ustream is able to offer the same scale and quality of delivery as many leading CDNs, even at lower costs.

The Future of the SD-CDN

While Ustream has used this solution extensively for delivery of video content, it is in fact content type–agnostic and can be put to work for any kind of HTTP traffic, such as gaming or any Web-based application acceleration. Ustream is currently using the SD-CDN to control all of its video content and is considering offering the solution as a stand-alone service for others with similar needs.

The Politics of Mobile Streaming

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Live mobile broadcasting was one of the hottest topics at last week’s South by Southwest event. And while live video — even mobile live video — is nothing new, conversations around its applications are springing up in several sectors, including politics.

Some pundits are holding up the latest mobile streaming video apps as political game-changers as the 2016 election season approaches. Are they right?

Not quite, says Matt Browner Hamlin in a recent article on Medium. Smart campaigners have actually been leveraging the power of live video streaming since the very beginning. Hamlin goes on to describe how he, as deputy Internet director for Christopher Dodd’s campaign way back in in 2007, Ustreamed speeches and Q&A sessions:

People following the presidential primary were able to engage in the same dialogue with a candidate as residents of the early states. Using UStream’s embedded chat functionality, as well as monitoring comments on the sites where our streams were embedded, we were able to bring in questions from people across the country into Dodd’s Q&A sessions with voters in New Hampshire and caucus-goers in Iowa.

Read the rest of Hamlin’s article here.

Ustream: Mobile Since 2009

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If you kept up with some of the discussions at South by Southwest (SXSW) this past week, you surely noticed a lot of buzz around live streaming video from mobile devices. And while some are talking about mobile streaming like it’s cutting-edge stuff, you might be surprised to learn that Ustream has been doing this for years.

Back in 2009, Ustream introduced the world’s first mobile app capable of streaming live video from the iPhone to the Internet. Almost six years later, it seems the rest of the world is finally catching up.

Since its introduction, Ustream Live Broadcaster has seen more than 15 million downloads and last year, Ustream delivered more than 75 million mobile live broadcasts.

In a recent conversation with Will Oremus of Slate magazine, Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable shared that he isn’t surprised by the sudden success of other mobile apps, nor is he worried.

And yes, he thinks casual mobile live streaming is here to stay. “It’s a different thing, like Vine versus YouTube,” he said of the difference between Meerkat and Ustream. In his view, Meerkat will bring attention to live streaming and lower the barrier to people creating videos themselves, and that will benefit the whole sector. Between the coming 5G mobile data networks and cameras that can shoot 1080p video, he said, “there are a lot of very natural forces that are pushing this industry toward an explosion.”

Not that Ustream is resting on its laurels. Earlier this week, Ustream opened its live mobile broadcasting SDK and APIs to the public, allowing any company to build a Meerkat-like or other creative live video solution and to leverage Ustream’s live video platform for immediate scalability. TechCrunch’s Kyle Russell broke the news for Ustream in this article which was shared and gained enough traction for the SDK to land on new tech product sharing site Product Hunt and gain upvotes from around the world. Click here to cast your vote. The APIs and SDK will be free for developers to use in creating and testing their applications.

So while a couple tiny startups ride the media wave from SXSW, we’ll continue to innovate on the proven, technology platform that started it all. As noted in last week’s NPR All Tech Considered article by Tajha Chappallet-Lanier, we’re delivering video solutions highly tailored to the needs of marketers, executives, HR professionals, and professional broadcasters. And, we’ll adding powerful, enterprise-class features like security, SD-CDN, eCDN and SSO that enable organizations to use business-ready video solutions.

Net Neutrality and Ustream, CEO Brad Hunstable on Bloomberg “Market Makers”

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Today, the FCC voted on the issue of net neutrality. A 317-page proposal put forth by Tom Wheeler, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, detailed plans that reclassifies the Internet as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. (Previous “classification” dates back to 2002 when the FCC ruled that cable modem “broadband” services for Internet access be were an “Information Source.”)

Passed by a 3:2 vote by party line, the proposal gives the FCC some regulation authority over ISPs and sets some ground rules with the purpose of providing an open, level playing field for anyone accessing or broadcasting legal content via the Internet.

The proposal put forth is based on input by millions of voices from the public, the White House, and numerous expert testimonials from this past year and even earlier.

This morning, Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable, discussed this hotly debated, politically charged topic on Bloomberg TV’s “Market Makers” with co-hosts Stephanie Ruhle and Matt Miller along with Bloomberg’s Washington DC correspondent, Peter Cook. You can view the program below.

In a nutshell, Brad noted how the Internet is like a new country being formed and that the passage of the plan by the FCC is a good first step in the right direction to creating the initial “bill of rights,” so to speak, in protecting the openness of the Internet and making sure all bits and bytes are treated equal. He noted how the openness of the Internet enabled the creation of Ustream and the company’s continued innovation. Brad also pointed out how the real area needing more openness, more competition, is in the last mile of connection to the consumer where often the viewer has two, one or even no choice of ISP.

The vote today, arguably the biggest of the FCC in a decade, is just another step in the evolution of the Internet and the rules used to guide consumers and companies alike in how to keep this incredible resource open to all and available for innovation. And, just like a new country, the Internet will continue to change how we live, work, play and communicate. Ustream will continue to monitor this topic and any others that might impact our commitment to innovation and delivering the most scalable, reliable, high-quality video communications solution.

Super Bowl Highlights Need for Scalable Streaming

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When the New England Patriots squared off against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIV, more than 1.3 million people experienced the event through NBC’s live streaming video — a 50 percent increase over last year’s online viewership.

According to NBC’s press release, the stream also set Super Bowl records for average viewers per minute (800,000), concurrent users (1.3 million) and total minutes (213 million).

While it was an impressive achievement for live streaming video, it was not without its challenges. As the game progressed, the overwhelming demand resulted in some online viewers experiencing time delays and other technical difficulties.

“NBC is great at streaming live events,” Ustream CTO Gyula Feher told The Daily Dot in an interview regarding the event. “They were the first to stream the Super Bowl in 2012. And, the Super Bowl is the ‘Everest’ of live events: Let’s remember that Super Bowl XLVIII was the most watched television event ever. It’s likely that the peak load on the NBC livestream was similarly record-breaking.”

One of the biggest challenges in streaming a live event, however, is anticipating the bandwidth required, which can vary dramatically from one minute to the next. For example, during Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference, the streams of keynote speeches by CEO Mark Benioff and Hilary Clinton drew record-setting audiences.

One way Ustream has addressed this challenge of being able to scale and anticipate required bandwidth is through a unique technology we developed called Software Defined content delivery network (CDN), or SD-CDN.

SD-CDN provides the ability to scale automatically without manual provisioning of resources, dynamically adding and removing edges and providers as demand requires. The system can leverage a combination of edge resources (e.g. CDN providers, transit lines, peering and ad-hoc edges, etc.) and instantly route traffic among those sources as needed. A built-in monitoring system evaluates in real time the performance and efficacy of each source and can make automatic adjustments as changing conditions require.

What does all this mean for the individual viewer? The best possible quality from beginning to end — and the ability to pre-empt issues that could disrupt the viewing experience.

Now that’s what we call a big win.

Learn about the best solution for your big event here.

Ustream Launches New Live Video Platform for Secure Internal Communications

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Ustream Align with enterprise-grade security gives businesses confidence for engaging, powerful, employee communications

Today we officially launched Ustream Align, the easiest and most scalable video platform with enterprise-grade security.  Designed specifically for internal communications, Ustream Align allows organizations to engage employees around the globe. Viewers can watch securely on any device, inside a company office or in the field. Ustream Align is built on Ustream’s world-class, award-winning online video platform recognized for reliability and scalability by millions of users.

According to a recent Dale Carnegie research study, companies with engaged employees outperform the competition by as much as 202 percent, yet currently only 29 percent are engaged.

Brad Hunstable, Ustream CEO stated, “We conducted a study last month and found that nearly 72 percent of employees don’t fully understand their company’s strategy.  Video, especially live, is a powerful way to engage and communicate with a broad audience in a way that helps create a greater understanding and alignment with corporate goals. However, in the ‘bring your own device’ world of work, security is a top concern. Ustream Align provides an easy, secure and highly scalable platform to reach key corporate stakeholders on any device at any time.”

Ustream Align is the ideal, one-to-many live video platform to securely stream all-hands, board and shareholder meetings; customer, employee and accreditation trainings; executive presentations; product previews and events to internal audiences ranging from small groups to large global teams.

“More than 50 percent of our customers were already adapting our existing platform for internal communications,” said David Gibbons, vice president of marketing, Ustream. “With corporate security continuing to increase in importance—and the recent attack on Sony is a prime example—our customers were requesting enhanced security functionality to protect their internal communications.”

Visit Ustream Align to get more details on the new platform’s enterprise grade security, scalability and ease-of-use.

Is 2015 “The Year of Video?”

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When that famous ball dropped in Times Square to mark the start of 2015, millions of viewers around the world had access to the event thanks to Ustream’s six-hour live streaming broadcast. It was a most appropriate beginning to what Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable is calling “The Year of Video.”

“I think 2015 will be the year of video,” Hunstable recently told the International Business Times, “so it’s sort of fitting that we bring this into the new year with this really interactive, really HD, high-quality New Year’s Eve presentation.”

So what is driving this surging interest in live streaming video? One word: business.

“The business model for Ustream has been traditionally advertising,” Hunstable said, “but what’s interesting is over the past few years we’ve really doubled down our efforts to become a SAAS [Software-as-a-Service] company. We’ll license and sell our technology to media companies and enterprises that need really powerful and highly scalable video solutions.” (Read the full article here.)

Hunstable echoed those same sentiments when he spoke with SiliconANGLE at IBM Impact 2014:

“If you look at where the growth is happening in video — most people don’t realize this — most of the growth in this next wave is going to happen within the enterprise … The enterprise is a tremendous opportunity, and what you’re going to see coming from Ustream, we’re going to continue to provide really robust solutions that solve the needs of these organizations for productivity, transparency, to connect with consumers and their employees in deeper ways … Every corporation today is a media company.”

The data supports Hunstable’s assertions: According to a recent study by The Aberdeen Group, 95 percent of Best-in-Class marketers are using video as part of their content marketing mix.

So, will 2015 be “The Year of Video?” We think so!

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Brad Hunstable to ReadWrite: “Video can really relay passion better than any medium”

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Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable recently sat down with Stephanie Chan of the tech news site ReadWrite to share the story of Ustream, what the company is like today, and where it — and live streaming video in general — is going. (Read the full article here)

Some of our favorite excerpts:brad-hunstable-readwrite

ReadWrite: What were you like growing up?

Brad Hunstable: I was definitely more of a hacker as a kid. As a pre-teen, I coded and built a Bulletin Board Service (BBS – the Internet before there was an Internet) in Texas. […] It certainly was not “cool” to be a programmer back then and the many times I was called ”geek” were not terms of endearment.
***

RWCan you tell me what Ustream is like today? 

BH: Ustream is one of the largest video solutions on the Web, and we are primarily focused on enterprises. We want to help businesses communicate more effectively with their two most important constituents— customers and their employees.

***

RW: Livestreaming has recently come into the media forefront with Amazon’s acquisition of livestream video gaming site, Twitch. What does this mean for the current state of livestream video?

BH: […] Video is reaching a point where it’s really becoming a foundation piece of the Internet. By 2017, according to Cisco, it will be 55% of the Internet’s traffic. It’s incredible. We did a Sony Playstation 4 launch a couple months ago, and it was 2% of the Internet’s traffic.

***

RW: What’s next for you and Ustream?

BH: I’m a big believer that there’s going to be a company that can be a video layer across enterprise. Everything I’m doing today in terms of our product is really about helping businesses be more transparent to their customers, more transparent to their employees. We help them use video to build those relationships.

To read more of Brad’s insights, check out the full interview here.

Veteran Support Group, Oscar Mike Foundation, Named as Latest ‘Ustream for Change’ Honoree

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September 4, 2014 – SAN FRANCISCO — Ustream, the world’s leading live video platform, today announced veteran-focused non-profit, Oscar Mike Foundation, as the newest recipient of a ‘Ustream for Change’ award. As part of the honor, Ustream will provide Oscar Mike a complimentary license to the Ustream Enterprise Pro Broadcasting product for a period of three months, allowing the organization to put a public spotlight on the challenges and opportunities facing veterans, with topics including living with post-traumatic stress, adapting to life after combat injury and the impact on spouses and caregivers.  Oscar Mike’s series of live video discussions is titled the “After Action Panel” and can be found at  Ustream Channel, http://www.ustream.tv/AfterActionPanel Broadcasts will begin on Saturday, September 13, with the first episode covering veterans’ personal struggles with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). The panel will feature a landmark gathering of veterans representing every major conflict in the nation’s history back to World War II. “As a West Point graduate, I’m thrilled the Ustream for Change panel chose to recognize the sacrifice and dedication of our Veterans,” said Brad Hunstable, CEO and founder of Ustream. “Live video takes audience experience to the next level and so we are proud that our technology can help further bring veteran support to life for these heroes.” Launched at the start of 2014, ‘Ustream for Change’ is a philanthropic program that seeks to advance Ustream’s mission of empowering businesses and societies to be more transparent and productive through the innovative use of video. The program was originally inspired by three Ukrainian citizen journalists, whose coverage of events in Kiev captured the attention of more than 50 million viewers across the globe. More than 400 applications from every continent have been submitted since launch, with causes spanning education, civil rights, politics, and evangelism sectors.  For more information on Ustream for Change, visit http://www.ustream.tv/our-company/change “We are excited to partner with Ustream to bring these important topics more prominently into the national consciousness,” added Noah Currier, Oscar Mike president and founder. “Veterans have always made amazing sacrifices for their countries during active service. Using video to share experiences assists this process, and platforms like Ustream allow us to do this with the reach and impact of a global media organization.” Live video series for veterans will kick off Sept 13 with representatives from every major conflict since WWII   About Oscar Mike Oscar Mike exists to assist and promote disabled Veterans. The term “Oscar Mike” comes from military radio jargon used on the front lines, and translates to staying “On the Move”. Being Oscar Mike means being active, staying positive and living life to its absolute fullest. The Oscar Mike Foundation helps to rehabilitate disabled veterans and individuals through participation in high-energy extreme sporting events. A registered 501c3 non-profit organization, The Oscar Mike Foundation is comprised of a group of Veterans, athletes, artists and individuals from all walks of life who view disabilities not as roadblocks, but as challenges to own and overcome.