Tuesday, 7 February 2012

White Paper Preview: Technologies for Internet TV

I am working together with a friend on a joint white paper covering popular technologies around Internet TV. We've been working with this on & off for a good few months, in between work, balancing family needs and what little spare time we have.  The idea is to share our skills & experiences through white papers, thus attracting offers for consulting...I'm releasing this very draft work in progress to act as a motivator for us to actually finish this white paper in 2012:

If you stumble across this post and are interested in this topic, please get in touch.


General Overview of IPTV Technologies, covering Online Portals with media consumption via PC, Internet Streaming technologies, Client implementation (PC, STB, TabletPC), Open Source tools & Home Networking

Increasingly Telcos and Broadcast operators are looking into increasing their revenue generation stream by providing multiple mechanisms for customers to consume entertainment content over the Internet. These businesses usually decide that the achievement of this objective can be realised by having a web (or online on-demand) presence by creating a platform for delivering content over the Internet.

The road to success lies in solving a multitude of issues in a variety of domains including marketing, sales, legal, and technical. This white paper focuses on the technology choices and challenges for implementation, providing a discussion point around a high-level, simplistic solution intended to highlight the challenges these businesses face when creating the solutions.

So from the construct that a business decides to have a online presence and wishes to provide a entertainment video streaming solution to augment the bottom line the following issues needs to be resolved:
  • Rights to Content for distribution
  • Marketing the solution against other vendors
  • Technical solution to implement the portal and distribution mechanism
  • Support for customers
Rights to Content for distribution
This is key to the success of the project: If the telco is unwilling to acquire the right mix of content based on its targeted subscriber base the project is likely to fail.
The fundamental issue impacting this area is getting the content providers to allow distribution of the content over the Internet in the background of security concerns where it seems nothing is safe to hacking attacks on the Internet. Content providers look for assurance that their content will not be compromised and redistributed without them realising revenue.

This usually requires utilising a Digital Rights Management (DRM) solution into the product where the content provider feels satisfied that the protection mechanism is secure enough for them to use the solution.

Choosing a DRM solution is an an activity that involves thorough planning right at the outset from designing the architecture, as this is a fundamental component to the system architecture, from back-end distribution to consumption on the end-consumer device. A number of DRM-solutions exist in the marketplace, this paper will focus on the popular (not necessarily most secure) solutions including Microsoft Windows Media DRM, Apple Streaming DRM, NDS Secure VG DRM, …

Marketing of solution against other vendors

Since businesses need to differentiate in the competition space, focus is made on a variety of factors such as price, product features (integration with devices, social networks, widgets etc) and type of content (niche versus premium) amongst others.
Companies with existing Portal solutions (TODO: Give example references) generally adopt a common theme of marketing, specifically centred around on-demand, instant access to content, variety of content, consumer freedom to choose to watch “whatever you want, whenever you want, on any device, anywhere”. Of course this is music to the consumer’s ears but the proof of the pudding lies in the actual implementation - and to realise this marketing objective is to overcome a number of tough technical challenges as we’ll focus later in this paper.

Technical solution to implement the portal and distribution mechanism

The technical challenges in relation to the above two is a simpler problem to resolve and relates to creating the platform, infrastructure, know-how of a wide variety of issues that encompass the following areas:
  • Online Portal
  • Subscriber Management
  • Payment System
  • Content Management including Acquisition, Processing and Distribution
  • Content Consumption by devices
  • Support Systems
  • Regional Infrastructure

Online Portal

This is the gateway into the offering by the business; the user experience greatly drives the success or failure of the system. The Online Portal must provide features for:
  • authenticating the user;
  • managing the user’s profile;
  • billing information;
  • social network integration;
  • allow searching for content; and
  • placement of  recommended content for the user based on their previous usage; and
  • YouTube-style features to allow the user to follow trends and watch what other users of the system are watching, have recommended / commented upon etc. In essence this is the public face of the content management system which is integrated with the billing system and distribution system.

This is an intensive area requiring expertise in creating a very usable interface for all types of users. Along with this, the main feature is to allow consumption of the content and is typically based around using a Flash Player (TODO Reference to Flash) providing a compelling experience in comparison to the user’s TV.
There is a tremendous amount of integration work required, typically focused on:
  • adaptation of the user experience across all web-browser platforms
  • the content player that renders the content based on the format of the content
  • what audio/video players are available
  • what devices are required to be supported
  • what features are to be supported such as the protocol for delivery of content
  • support for degradation of video quality as the bandwidth available to the user fluctuates based on usage pattern in the user’s home;
  • the bandwidth available to the user;
  • the pathway between the source of the content on the Internet and the user’s consumption device.
  • Additionally other features including the DRM technology dictates how the interaction occurs.

We shall aim to discuss each of the above points in further detail in future sections.

Subscriber Management

This domain needs to be well understood by the business model. It broadly encompasses the following areas:
  • uniquely identifying the user, the device (including the limitations of distribution profiles) being used for consumption;
  • business model restrictions based on subscription tier, promotions, discounts, billing information etc;
  • the management system integrates with the online portal in addition to the content management system as well as the payment system to realise the revenue.

Payment System
This is typically a legacy or third party system that the operator utilises and integration of this to the online system needs to occur.
<TODO add more info>

Content Management including Acquisition, Processing and Distribution
This is a significant aspect of setting up the process flow and delivery chain for content consumption by the operator. Depending on the investment, an operator budgets for the solution that need to be defined encompassing the following:
  • Setting up infrastructure to acquire content from diverse content providers
  • Automating the ingest of content in to the system
  • Preparing the content for consumption of the variety of devices the platform is intending to support, ensuring that the correct DRM aspects are catered for each type of end user device
  • Managing the content through its life cycle which may entail marketing aspects such as promotions
  • Delivering the content through a variety of delivery mechanisms requiring integration with third party vendors

Content Acquisition

This area involves a plethora of decisions that need to be made about the content and how it becomes available on the platform and ultimately how it gets delivered. Issues to resolve include:
  • What format the content (audio, video) is provided in by the content provider?
  • What metadata is required for presenting to the user on the online portal or during playback and how that is transformed from the input all the way to the point of consumption?
  • Whether encoding services (software and or hardware) are required to transcode the content to the end device format?
  • Whether features such as adaptive bitrate streaming is required?
  • Whether support for live, restart, catch-up, on-demand playback of content is required?
  • What third parties to select and what level of integration is required?
  • What licensing issues resolve with content owners?
  • What licensing is required for encoding to different device formats?

Content Processing

Once the content has been ingested into the platform, decisions around the following areas need to be resolved that include:
  • What is the life-cycle of the content?
  • What promotion mechanisms are required?
  • What DRM(s) need to be applied and what business models will be applicable?
  • How is the content encrypted (dictated by the DRM(s) in use)?
  • How will the variety of DRM(s) work seamlessly as the user begins consuming content from a variety of devices?
  • What extra metadata needs to be added to support different types of playback and interactivity during consumption?
  • What support is required by the systems administrators to manage outages and issues with the process flow during deployment?

Content Distribution

Once the content is available for distribution it needs to be made available for consumption over a variety of mechanisms; issues that needs resolution include:
  • Protocol for delivery on the network (RTP, RTSP, HTTP, RTPM)
  • CDN (Content Delivery Network) support dependent on protocol choice
  • Commissioning of hardware resources to serve content to devices
  • Integration with DRM system(s)

Content Consumption by devices

Dependent on the number of devices being supported a large amount of effort is used in integrating the Content Player in to the OS (Operating System) framework of the end-device. This entails a variety of issues:
  • Choice of devices (PCs, Macs, Tablets, Smartphones, Set-Top-Box, SmartTVs)
  • Player Usage (such as Flash/Silverlight/QuickTime/Windows Media Player/Custom) of player using bespoke or open source software (typically involves providing plug-ins for web browsers on desktop (Windows/OSX/Linux) platforms and integrating to the mobile / tablet devices OS framework
  • Integration and maintaining integrity of DRM(s) on devices
  • Fine-tuning user experience of UI and play-back
  • Supporting integration between devices via UPnP (Universal Plug & Play) and DLNA (Digital Network Living Alliance) to support download and play-back between devices

Support for customers

This area revolves around trouble-shooting, resolving issues due to plurality of devices and the versions of software they run and creating baselines for the operator to know what issues cause outages and rectifying them.

Infrastructure capacity

A successful provisioning an online content portal with capacity for multiple device streaming to the home relies on fundamental components of infrastructure support being in place. Not only does the business need to ensure that it can deal with system loading (hundreds of thousands of subscribers accessing the content simultaneously; protection from attackers intent on crippling the service through denial of service attacks) but more importantly the business would have carried out an analysis covering the following areas:
  • Number of subscribers with online access, i.e. able to access the Internet?
  • Intended delivery mechanism for streaming (xDSL, WiFi, 3G, etc)
  • Solutions for supporting a number of different delivery profiles
  • Regulatory compliance - what relationships or conditions are in place to allow/prevent delivery of content over third-party networks (e.g. not all ISPs will allow traffic through)
  • Content Delivery Networks - is enough infrastructure in place to support the demand (Edge servers, etc)
  • Reliability of the underlying delivery network?

Infrastructure and Regulatory concerns might not be an urgent topic to address if the business is operating in a developed country where access to Internet is now considered a basic utility, but for other parts of the world, especially the Indian/African countries, Internet adoption and underlying network infrastructure has not reached the maturity levels as say, compared with countries like the United Kingdom/Germany where there is a high penetration of cable supplying xDSL for instance.  In South Africa for example, xDSL is not the main player of Internet connectivity, instead 3G WiFi is the dominant player - and for such markets, the business must therefore have a solution that meets the variety of access mechanisms in front of the user.

<TODO Examplae Case Study>

We’ll now walk though a general architectural overview of the components in and end-to-end system, assuming the required infrastructure exists...

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