Thursday, December 17, 2009

Qumu Customer Advisory Council 2009

I had the pleasure to attend Qumu’s Customer Advisory Council in late November 2009. The event was collocated with the Streaming Media West conference, and included a selected group of Qumu customers and partners. I will try to summarize the key issues discussed at this meeting.

The inflection point of enterprise video streaming seems very close. The original application for enterprise streaming was broadcasting live events, for example, executive presentations or live corporate training sessions and, similar to watching TV at home, this application is about highly produced video media that is consumed by large number of people. Now companies experiment with applications that go beyond live event replacement, for example, using video to capture information, sharing video content with other employees, and video communication. Streaming video is becoming an enterprise communication tool that puts more importance on the content’s relevance to the job rather than on production quality of the video. Similar to video conferencing, streaming video competes for mind share and for space in the employee’s workflow. Corporate users have 5 applications and a browser but no time to learn new applications, so the question remains: “How do we bring video, both streaming and real-time, to every employee in the company?”

On the business side, the current recession leads to capital expenditure constraints and enterprise customers look for alternative business models such as term license and managed service. At the same time, large enterprises have own teams of developers who want open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) so that they can customize streaming and content management solutions.

Several customer presentations described how companies use enterprise steaming and content management. Some use resolution of 320x240 pixels – this is less than the Common Intermediate Format (CIF) used in old video conferencing systems. The quality is sufficient for “talking head” applications but, if content/slides are shared, this resolution does not provide enough detail. Other enterprises use 400x300 pixels and the option to switch to higher resolution (512 x 364 was mentioned) when slides are shared.

Since many of the same companies use the latest generation of telepresence systems that provide HD 720 (1280x720 pixels) and HD 1080p (1920x1080 pixels) video, they are looking for ways to connect the telepresence and video streaming by bridging the quality gap. Some bridges between telepresence/video conferencing and content management/streaming already exist, for example, there is a close integration of Qumu Video Control Center (VCC) and the Polycom RSS 4000 recorder. The initial implementation allows VCC to access RSS 4000 periodically (the polling interval is set by the administrator), and to retrieve recorded videoconference calls. The next level of integration is based on a new Discovery Service that allows VCC to find calls that are being recorded on RSS 4000 even before the recording is complete. The benefit of that new function is that it can automatically discover live content on the portal and on-the-fly streaming without any scheduling in advance.

In its latest version, VCC is getting a new content depository user interface which allows easier posting/uploading of Employee Generated Content (EGC), similar to YouTube. But why use VCC instead of YouTube? Enterprises look for secure deployments, password-based access, defined approval workflow (what can be posted), real-time reporting (who watches what content), and customization (colors and logo). VCC meets these requirements today while additional work is planned around approval workflow. The issue with approval workflows is not technical but rather organizational. Companies have different policies and processes how to handle content posting. While reviewing a document before posting it is relatively easy and fast, watching hours of video is time consuming and inefficient. A creative approach is to allow posting in general and review only videos that have been watched by a certain number of people (let’s say 20). Automatic indexing of the video file is important function because it allows fast search and fast forward to the relevant section. While existing speech recognition technology is not good enough for full transcripts, it is great for indexing video files.

Qumu works very closely with Microsoft and delivers exceptional experience based on the MS Silverlight platform. The VCC user interface now includes a “carousel” that allows you to select programs (that is, individual recordings – Qumu uses broadcasting terminology) from a list while the “jukebox” allows you to search for a video in your library (it includes all videos that you have access to). The updated media player based on Silverlight includes layouts displaying multiple live video streams and content (slides).

Microsoft has moved the streaming function from Windows Media Server (WMS) to MS Internet Information Services (IIS), starting IIS V7. This move includes a radical change in the streaming technology. While WMS uses the Real Time Streaming Protocol (RTSP), IIS adds new technology called “smooth streaming”. Multi-bit rate video content is split into 2-second fragments and subsequently encoded. Each rate is transmitted via the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and consumed by players at the highest bit rate the network can support. The obvious benefit is that HTTP can traverse firewalls but I learned about several additional benefits. For example, WAN optimization servers have large HTTP cache that can be efficiently used for video. The alternative - create separate cache for RTSP video – requires changes in existing networks. Another great benefit is that IIS is not Windows Media specific and smooth streaming can be used for H.264 and other video file formats. As any technology, smooth streaming has some shortcomings, for example it supports only unicast, that is, point-to-point connections. Unicast is great for video-on-demand where a relatively small number of users watch the same video. Live event broadcasts however require streaming of the same video file to possibly thousands of users, and are served better by multicast technology. Multicast is supported in Windows Media Server, and this server will continue to be used for broadcasting live events. Streaming and content management applications such as Qumu VCC will continue to support WMS until the new “smooth” technology is proven and widely deployed.

The use of multiple Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), both internally and externally, is becoming the norm for enterprise customers. Traditionally, internal CDNs built behind the corporate firewalls, were used to distribute content to company-internal users, while external CDNs on the public Internet were used to distribute content to users outside the company. Qumu’s new Software as a Service (SaaS) capabilities allow enterprises to reach both internal and external audiences using connections to Akamai’s or AT&T’s Internet-based CDN’s as simultaneous publishing points to internal CDN’s. SaaS therefore allows customers to implement scalable video streaming without building out their CDNs behind the firewall. Note that even though SaaS uses external CDNs for video distribution, video content creation remains behind the firewall. For example, company-internal videoconference sessions can be recorded internally, and then streamed to internal and external parties.

The mix of internal and external users leads to the fundamental security question: How to provide appropriate video content access to employees, partners, and random external people? User authentication is critical, and the user data is typically spread over dozens of databases in the enterprise. Fortunately, most databases support the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and can be accessed by LDAP enabled applications, such as Qumu VCC. Since LDAP configurations are becoming very complex in enterprises, applications have to support numerous LDAP servers as well as Nested LDAP Groups, that is, groups that include sub-groups of entries.

In summation, Qumu’s Customer Advisory Council provided a great overview of the requirements for enterprise video streaming and series of valuable customer perspectives. I am looking forward to CAC 2010!