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Four steps to taming the content delivery monster

By John Griffiths, VP marketing, Spicy Mango

OTT is everywhere. With service providers such as Amazon Prime and Netflix showing no signs of disappearing anytime soon, and Disney releasing an OTT service in 2019, it seems the future of on-demand TV is already here.

When it comes to content delivery, creating an OTT infrastructure that provides effective direct-to-consumer capabilities is, unfortunately, easier said than done. Service providers often underestimate the technical challenges and dive straight into developing apps and user interfaces, sidelining the technical stuff until later on in the process. It’s great to have back catalogues of movies, viral shows and the hottest series, but if the content doesn’t load, is continuously buffering or doesn’t resume from where you left off, what’s the point in having the content in the first place? Ultimately, if service providers don’t get the groundwork right, they risk losing viewers.

Today, user experience is everything. But the main issue for many service providers is that they believe the content delivery network (CDN) is the engine room of user experience, so they focus their attentions there. But it’s the wrong way of going about things; 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. It’s a monster. But it can be tamed.

Here are four steps that must 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. With so many actors in the process, it’s important to map everything out up front. Often, however, service providers don’t ‘own’ the process but instead take best practice from all their vendors and hope everything comes together in the end. Unfortunately, it rarely does. Poorly conceived, piecemeal planning generally leads to 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 will set out the vision and map the vendors and technologies required to establish the optimal architecture. Best led by a technical architect, it will outline how all the components inter-relate and provide a foundation for the processes needed to (quite literally) deliver the vision. The roadmap doesn’t need to be set in stone, but it does need to be in place from the beginning. The best plans are proactive, adaptive and iterative – but they’re all anchored to a defined vision.

2. Media preparation

This is central to the user experience. Building on the roadmap, media preparation is about understanding and optimising the various technical components required to deliver high-quality video at scale. 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

The foundation for building effective applications is, once again, enshrined in the roadmap. Unfortunately, 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. Conversely, 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. However, a poorly configured control plane can play havoc with content delivery – delaying or interrupting the user experience. For example, if 100,000 people hit the same server at the same time – and, each time, the system must go through a convoluted series of steps before serving content – the experience will lag and the viewer will become frustrated. That spinning wheel on the player at the time of playback isn’t only as a result of CDN interaction. Once again, configuring the platform to avoid delay requires specific know how and expertise.

4. Media delivery and playback

This represents the delivery of the product to the consumer – but it’s still so easy to get wrong. 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, as outlined above, there are numerous steps in between that can cause delay and ruin the experience. 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. However, whilst its configuration undoubtedly needs optimising, it shouldn’t be the first area of focus. Taking the wrong approach to designing OTT infrastructure will invariably mean common drivers of inefficiency are overlooked that can ruin user experiences. 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. They’ll do all the groundwork and make taming the monster look like child’s play.