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The peculiarities of OTT delivery

Chris Wood, CTO, Spicy Mango
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In the cult Netflix Series, Stranger Things, Jim Hopper’s decision to take the direct approach to solving Hawkins’ mysteries sees him swallowed up by a network of vines in the ‘Upside Down’ and almost pay a heavy price. Similarly, service providers who try to establish direct-to-consumer capabilities typically rush to the endgame of the delivery network and will find themselves entangled in technical challenges. If you don’t get the groundwork right, stranger things happen that can ruin the user experience and cost you viewers. The good news is that it’s easily avoided.

 

Direct delivery

As the appetite for on-demand streaming increases, making the transition to deliver Over-the-Top (OTT) content direct to the consumer has become a high priority. Driven by cloud-based disruptors like Netflix and Amazon, traditional broadcasters are launching their own platforms while niche channels and service providers look to join them. But to create a seamless experience OTT delivery demands an unfamiliar skillset.

Delivering video content over the internet is tricky and manifests itself in the customer experience. Viewers expect a great user interface, a stable experience and the ability to watch what they want whenever they want, on any device. Commercial success is dictated by the ability to deliver high-quality streams on a global scale, where every region – and every device – presents its own peculiarities. Falling short with time lags or choppy video is a recipe for disengagement.

Many service providers mistakenly believe that the Content Delivery Network (CDN) is the engine room of user experience, and focus attention there. This poses significant risks to the brand experience; There’s more to delivery than designing an app and configuring the CDN. The drivers of user experience are determined far earlier in a complex process that bridges multiple players, locations and viewer-specific variables. But the monster can be tamed.

 

Taming the monster

There are four core areas that must all be optimised to deliver video, at scale, directly to the consumer.

 

#1: Platform architecture

OTT infrastructure is multi-faceted and involves multiple vendors, skillsets and technologies that all add value across the delivery chain. However, service providers often just take best practice from all their vendors and hope everything comes together in the end. Unfortunately, it rarely does. Poor, piecemeal planning leads to a suboptimal architecture and inefficiencies that reveal themselves in the user experience. These inefficiencies are magnified when providers try to scale delivery to mass audiences across multiple countries.

A good plan is best led by a technical architect and should set out the vision and map the vendors and technologies required to establish the optimal architecture. It should also outline how all the components inter-relate and provide a foundation for the processes needed to deliver the content. The best plans are proactive, adaptive and iterative – but they’re all anchored to a defined vision.

 

#2: Media preparation

In a complex world with no single encoding standard, preparing content for delivery requires a granular understanding of a range of variables; devices, screen sizes, bitrates, frame rates, sequencing and configuration. It’s highly technical and often goes beyond the skillsets of a technical architect. It requires the input of a true video expert. The slightest misalignment will inevitably lead to poor quality streams and suboptimal user experience.

 

#3: Apps and Control Planes

Applications are often designed by great software developers who are, sadly, unfamiliar with the peculiarities of video delivery and the idiosyncrasies in how users browse and view content. Simple things like the order in which components load in an app can massively impact the speed of delivery. The development of intelligent rules around aspects like pre-buffering or pre-caching content can help create a smoother experience. When apps aren’t optimised for the way your services work, it can kill the experience altogether.

Control Planes also dictate the quality of the user experience. The Control Plane sits in the background, discretely validating user entitlements, authorisation, location and licensing rights to make the app work quickly and effectively. A poorly configured Control Plane can be the Shadow Monster of video delivery, significantly delaying or interrupting the user experience. If 100,000 people hit the same server at the same time the system must go through a convoluted series of steps before serving content. The experience will lag and the viewer will become frustrated. Once again, configuring the platform to avoid delay requires specific knowhow and expertise.

 

#4: Media delivery and playback

It’s frequently assumed that the CDN is the only actor in the delivery phase and that delays in playback are entirely the CDN’s fault. However, it’s important to remember that a CDN can only start playing video once it’s had a request to do so. If that request takes too long, it’s commonly down to misaligned processes or suboptimal sequencing earlier in the delivery chain.

The CDN is the endgame of video delivery and a crucial determinant of user experience. That said, whilst its configuration undoubtedly needs optimising, it shouldn’t be your first area of focus. Taking an upside-down approach to designing OTT infrastructure will invariably mean you overlook common drivers of inefficiency – triggering user experiences that are spoilt by stranger things. To avoid them, it pays to partner with experts who know how to build successful video services in the Cloud and can help you journey to a parallel dimension. Unlike Jim Hopper, they’ll do all the groundwork and won’t leave you trapped in the reeds.


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