It’s no secret that within the enterprise, video files are large and bandwidth-intensive. The growing need to stream both live and on-demand video over corporate networks can – and often does – have a negative impact on network performance and user experience. Flawless delivery of video across the enterprise requires a sophisticated combination of behind-the-scenes technologies.
Here is an overview of these technologies, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Why video distribution is important
Although most end users will never know whether their video is being delivered via unicast, caching, multicast, or some other method, video distribution technology has a significant impact on overall user experience and engagement. In fact, studies have shown that viewers will abandon a video if their content doesn’t stream within two seconds. After only a few seconds, you can lose a quarter of your audience.
The most common video distribution technologies
There are six primary video distribution technologies in use within the enterprise today, and each plays an important role within its specific use case and network environment. Additionally, because large companies typically support multiple use cases across the enterprise, most will require a combination of two or more distribution technologies.
Technology #1: Unicast
Unicast distribution – sending video from a single media server directly to a single recipient – is the simplest form of streaming video within an enterprise.
Unicast pros and cons – Unicast is a simple, mature, and reliable technology requiring minimal configuration and is also supported natively by most network devices. However, establishing a single and dedicated stream for each user causes significant network load when viewing volume is high. To use unicast successfully in high-volume environments, most companies will be required to deploy edge servers at key sites to ensure that video is served as locally as possible.
Technology #2: Caching
Caching is a technique that involves storing on-demand video content on multiple servers (called media or edge servers) across the network – meaning that caching applies only to on-demand video and not live video. When a video is requested by a user, it is automatically stored locally on an edge server so that other users in that region or network area may access it.
Caching pros and cons – Caching video content on edge servers greatly reduces the number of times a single video asset is pulled across a WAN, which both accelerates video delivery and reduces bandwidth usage. But on the flipside, caching requires the added expense of additional infrastructure.
Technology #3: Multicast
Multicast involves streaming live video from a source media server to a group of secondary hosts or recipients on a network. A good analogy would be a radio broadcast: the server simply “broadcasts” a video signal and whoever wants to tune in may do so.
Multicast pros and cons – The biggest advantage of multicast is that it minimizes WAN traffic because requests for video assets are not being sent across the network. While this is a key advantage, multicast is applicable only to live video and requires significant additional management resources. Multicast also requires multicast-enabled network equipment, browser plugins (in most cases), and is often not supported by WiFi networks or mobile devices.
Technology #4: Peer-to-peer
Peer-to-peer (P2P) distribution allows devices on the network (e.g., two employee laptops) to connect and share video directly from one to the other. P2P is gaining momentum in the enterprise with the emergence of WebRTC, which allows video to be shared directly between browsers without apps or plugins.
Peer-to-peer pros and cons – Peer-to-peer can significantly minimize WAN traffic, because the video asset is being streamed from a peer instead of a source-video server. P2P is also especially useful in companies with many branch offices, where it is impractical to deploy edge servers at each location. However, peer-to-peer configurations may still require software and storage on each peer device and may not include native support for mobile viewing.
Technology #5: External content delivery networks
External content delivery networks (CDNs) such as Akamai, Amazon CloudFront, Level 3, and Cloudflare are paid services that use the Internet to deliver video. While not a distribution technology in and of itself, an external CDN can be beneficial as part of the distribution mix in certain use cases.
External CDN pros and cons – External CDNs allow organizations to offload video traffic from an internal network and can be a great way to deliver video to remote users on VPN connections or in branch offices with local Internet connections. But as with any external connection, companies must ensure that security requirements are met and deal with Internet gateway infrastructure and configuration requirements for branch offices and VPN access.
Technology #6: Virtual desktop infrastructure
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a technology used by many large enterprises to give mobile and thin-client devices a centrally controlled set of applications and data – such as a Citrix solution – and therefore a standardized end-user experience. VDI environments are notoriously challenging to provide acceptable video to users at scale due to the inherent performance limitations in virtualized computing.
VDI pros and cons – VDI optimization allows companies to offload video traffic from the Citrix server to an edge server, which not only dramatically minimizes WAN traffic but also makes “desktop-equivalent video” possible for thin-client and mobile devices. However, there is one significant caveat: VDI environments are complex and the solution provider must be experienced in delivering VDI video solutions at scale.
A well-designed network
While it might seem overwhelming to choose one or more video-distribution technologies for your environment, you can simplify the process by checking out some real-world examples and case studies and by getting help designing your video network.
A well-designed network – one that saves costs and delivers a great user experience – begins with everyone on the team understanding the technical challenges and strategic objectives.
For more about enterprise video communications, read “Crisis Communication: The Power Of Video In Uncertain Times.”