The Sponsors Perspective: Reaching OTT At Scale - Pitfalls And Opportunities

OTT delivery continues to expand to meet the relentless growing consumer demand. This trend shows no chance of abating and technologists are continually looking to innovation to scale infrastructures accordingly. In this sponsors perspective, Ryan Nicometo, SVP of Product for Vecima, presents the OTT Scale – Maturity Quadrant to help decision makers clearly see the potential technical challenges and opportunities to meet the demands of OTT delivery.

This article was first published as part of Essential Guide: Hybrid CDN

OTT On The Rise

OTT video consumption continues to grow, and quickly. In January 2020, Conviva reported global streaming volumes in 2019 were 58% higher than 2018. In February 2020 the Streaming Video Alliance stated over 80% of consumers are streaming more video than they did three years ago. And over the last 6 months, major media companies have made big announcements about new OTT service launches that are significantly more ambitious compared to previous efforts.

OTT is growing fast, but despite the many Exabytes of content already being delivered annually, we’re only at a relatively early stage of adoption. As more and more people shift to OTT consumption, what we currently measure as hours of online video viewing per person per year will become hours per person per day, just as traditional TV viewing has been.  

The world’s largest OTT Operators like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV, and Sling TV have reached “scale” already. But what does it mean to achieve this milestone? Once you get there is your service static and unchanging, or is there still work to be done? The answer depends on how you got there.

Vecima has created an OTT Scale - Maturity Quadrant to describe the relationship between Scale and Service Maturity. Using the model, decision-makers can clearly see the potential technical challenges and opportunities along the path towards an industry leading service. 

Figure 1.  OTT Scale – Maturity Quadrant.

Figure 1. OTT Scale – Maturity Quadrant.

Ready For Launch

In the early stages of growth, platform stability issues need to be resolved, from back office systems required for authentication, billing, etc. to the Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) themselves to handle the high number of requests. We’ve all seen the headlines about CDN platforms performing badly under the load of a large audience.

Thundering Herd is an issue created when a large number of simultaneous requests for the same content, which is common in live events like sports and news, savvy operators will want to avoid – fail on this and your audience cannot grow. Connection Induced Rebuffering Ratio (CIRR), is a metric of stream delivery quality – fail on this and your audience will either leave or complain.

The end-game is to reach the At-Scale, Leading OTT Service position. In this environment, the quality of content and the ability to meet consumer needs is paramount. Netflix holds this position on a global basis but is being hotly pursued by the rest of the field and has many local in-country competitors.

Growing Up

Once you’ve successfully launched an OTT service, the next step is either growing the number of subscribers or maturing your offering by adding additional services.

Some key service offerings include:

  • Time Shifted TV (TSTV) – adding high-performance recording and storage capabilities to allow linear/live pause, rewind, restart and look-back functionality. This service is typically offered for live content only and is not available on many OTT services today, however, is commonly found on competitive platforms for cable and telco operators. TSTV requires an investment in high-performance storage infrastructure.
  • Ultra-Low Latency – reaching levels of < 5-8 seconds of visual latency from Encoder to Client is the goal to bring OTT services in line with cable, IPTV and satellite delivery. This requires deep integration in the Encoder-Storage-Origin-Cache-Player chain to handle sub-second fragment sizes. Working within the established HLS and DASH standards is important to maintain a scalable, open platform.
  • Targeted Ads – personalizing the video content with targeted advertising enhances the user experience while also driving incremental revenue opportunities for the OTT provider. The video edge provides the integration point (“glue”) between the consumer knowledge held in the back office and the ad campaign information held in the ad decision system. In addition to caching linear or VoD content, the video edge leverages the existing edge-based manifest re-writing process to provide a dynamic and scalable solution for audiences of any size.
  • Cloud DVR – for parity with set-top-box services, cloud DVR allows OTT customers to record and keep linear/live content. Normally a service provider offers an amount of storage capacity to their customers, and manages content recordings and total usage optimizations in a central or regional storage cluster. For many OTT Operators this may be a nice-to-have feature while for others it will differentiate them from their competition. To deploy Cloud DVR requires scale-out, high-performance storage that can stream content from fast storage while cost-effectively archiving content which will played at some point in the future.

All these features require investment in the Content Delivery Platform, either in new capacity or in new integrations. At Vecima, we anticipate that OTT operators moving towards fully mature, business impacting service will make these investments in infrastructure for the maximum financial return. The OTT pioneers have led the way so far and proven these types of offerings are not only compelling to users, but ultimately profitable for their organizations.

Crawl, Skip Walk, Run

How a platform will scale is often an afterthought to many system designs. It is usually more important to just get something delivered quickly. Quite naturally, it is difficult to see scaling issues until they appear. But by starting with a platform that is actually designed to operate at significant scale, it is possible to avoid a big growing pain down the road.

In the lower-right quadrant of figure one, a relatively immature OTT service can reach high scale by having the right content and a cost structure attractive to users. Imagine a scenario where the creator of the highest value content in the world prices their offering low compared to competition. Or imagine a household -name broadcaster offers exclusive programming, plus linear channels and VOD content on its OTT platform. You would expect a high take rate. If that content creator doesn’t have their own infrastructure, they’ll need to use cloud based computing and public CDNs to distribute their content.

It is under this set of conditions that OPEX Costs can quickly become a challenge. Leveraging infrastructure from various cloud and public CDN providers comes at usually a high cost. There are several examples of these cost models being poorly understood, which led to business cases not working out the way they were planned to.

As a way to reduce OPEX costs, the Edge Caching component of the Content Delivery Platform is the key. Deploying Edge Caches inside ISP networks is already common amongst the largest OTT Operators. This strategy helps relieve backbone network traffic, and therefore OPEX costs from public CDN providers. It can enable a change from OPEX to CAPEX if desired. And adjusting the standard pay-per-GB model for CDN services to a more predictable pay-per-Gbps model is attractive to large OTT Operators.

Importantly for delivering OTT at scale, the Edge Cache can enable closer ISP Partnerships. ISPs share the consumer with the OTT Operator, so there is mutual benefit in serving them well. By deploying caches closer to the consumer in collaboration with ISPs, there is also a nice side benefit of latency reduction for live services.

High Scale, High Maturity

Time Shifted TV, Cloud DVR, and even high consumption rates of On Demand all can drive massive amounts of Storage Input / Output (I/O) workload on an OTT provider’s platform. This amount of I/O can break public clouds and privately deployed storage clusters alike.

The storage platform has to handle high-volume recording, storing, and streaming, across a wide range of content and client devices. Starting with a platform that is designed and proven to scale makes sense in order to avoid a major content migration just as the OTT service reaches high scale.

The Vecima Advantage

At Vecima we think that OTT Operators will, over time, need to take full control over the full Content Delivery Platform. While we don’t expect OTT operators will look like traditional cable and IPTV operators that build their own networks, we expect OTT operators to take a high level of control over the full content delivery platform to optimize the experience of their audience. We expect them to build end-to-end content delivery platforms – a network of streaming, storage and monitoring servers – that optimise the performance, cost and business efficiency of serving content to their audiences.

Regardless of which quadrant you find yourself in, Vecima has products and services that can help you avoid the challenges we’ve highlighted here, and others.

Figure 2.  The Vecima Content Delivery Platform.

Figure 2. The Vecima Content Delivery Platform.

Build or Buy?

When the decision has been made to insource portions of your OTT offering, “build or buy” is the next decision. As an experienced CDN product development company, we obviously believe there are more benefits to buying than building. By buying the right platform that has been proven to scale, OTT Operators can avoid the inevitable pitfalls of developing a platform for themselves. Partnering with the right technology partner should yield faster and more cost-effective results. If you’re considering building your own OTT platform, you really should talk with us before embarking on this journey.

The End Game

If content is King and content distribution is Queen, then the Content Delivery Platform can be a major differentiator for an OTT service. Its performance, features and cost will heavily influence your customer satisfaction, brand reputation, and profitability.

It is easy to see content delivery platforms as a commodity, and arguably some of the underlying technology is. But how that technology is deployed, configured, developed, and how it scales and performs under pressure, are not commoditized at all. We are moving into a space where the industry hasn’t been before – OTT at scale. Choosing the right technology, founded on a strategy of achieving scale with least risk, is going to be one of the most important influencers of success.

Vecima stands at the ready to assist your organization in planning, growing, maturing, or scaling your OTT service.

Ryan Nicometo, SVP of Product, Vecima

Ryan Nicometo, SVP of Product, Vecima

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