The challenges of going Over The Top: what about the infrastructure?

Authored by Damien Lucas, Co-Founder and CTO

In this previous article, we looked at how OTT is changing the game for content producers, delivery networks and ISPs, from a business stand point. Here, let’s share a perspective on the impacts of OTT from a technical point of view. What challenges will the players in this new field face when planning and developing their infrastructure?
To make things simple, let’s break down these challenges into four main aspects.

4 challenges of building an OTT infrastructure

1. Making content compatible with all devices

In the early years, IPTV service providers faced limited device compatibility issues. They streamed content to a proprietary set-top box installed in each customer’s home. One media format, one playback device: problem solved.
With the development of OTT and multiscreen TV, content distribution networks are required to deliver multiple versions of the same piece, to be compatible with a wide variety of devices (set-top boxes, connected TVs, laptops, smartphones, game consoles, etc.). Each has its own media format, video resolution and DRM provisions.

This is why content producers or distribution networks will need to select a packager and origin server that will be able to generate on-the-fly all the required media streams for all devices, from every piece of original video content made available to viewers. They will also need to regularly updated the packager to keep track of, and maintain total compatibility with, the new formats available.

2. Addressing storage issues

Storage is a central concern for all OTT operators. Thankfully, a number of technologies are available to streamline and optimise the storage of literally millions of hours of content.

The most interesting is just-in-time packaging. As a viewer submits a request for a given media file, this feature lets the origin server package a relevant version on-the-fly, to match the user’s playback device. This eliminates the need to produce copies for all playback devices beforehand, freeing up the storage infrastructure. However, a corresponding cache technology maintains copies of the most requested files on servers close to large concentrations of users, to keep bandwidth usage under control. The system automatically strikes the right balance between storage and bandwidth efficiency. Experience shows that it usually caches files for no more than a few minutes, even for very popular content.

3. Offering best-in-class quality of experience

Quality of experience goes beyond serving the relevant video resolution and DRM scheme to user devices. It also includes managing multilingual content, as well as subtitles, even in non-Latin alphabets. Legal concerns could also be relevant, in every region where the service is to be deployed. As an example, content distributed to Florida must allow messages to interrupt the video, in case of a hurricane alert. OTT operators building their distribution infrastructure will therefore need to select the relevant technologies that provide for all these aspects.

4. Giving a sense of scale

Scalability is one of the most crucial considerations in developing a robust OTT infrastructure. Indeed, TV content distributed over IPTV networks today requires one individual stream for every single viewer. This applies even when users are watching the same program. When millions of homes are watching a live sports event, millions of streams still need to be sent over the network. Operators will therefore need to disseminate cache resources across their network to make sure files and live streams are available, close to where large numbers of viewers are located. Also defined as CDN (content delivery network), this part of the infrastructure is where content availability and latency issues will arise when resources are insufficient to match the number of viewers. This is why a relevant network capacity planning feature built into the CDN will be helpful to monitor network traffic and plan any required capacity increase ahead of time.

Overall, the players in the emerging OTT arena will need to select proven infrastructure components, that come with the adequate tools and technologies to find the right balance between operational cost efficiency in the one hand, and network effectiveness and customer satisfaction in the other. In other words, technologies that will help them reach the sweet spot of OTT distribution.

 

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