Streaming Without A Streaming Server With Flash (Pseudo Streaming)

Published: 08th October 2009
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Adobe Corporation has a monster hit on its hand with Flash. The latest Flash Player, version 10, had been downloaded to almost 60 percent of computers worldwide within two months of its release. It has become the standard of choice on the Internet, for video publishers of all kinds, from the occasional poster to the professional pitch makers.

The problem for publishers has been finding a way to give random access to viewers without having them wait to download the entire video stream. This means that they need a way for the server to supply a particular portion of the video, so the idea is to let the viewer's "fast forwarding" be handled (quickly!) as a request for video images between certain time points.

How it works

When dealing with Flash, there are three options for streaming. A "progressive download" requires no particular server-based software of any kind, while "streaming" needs software such as Adobe's Flash Media Server installed on the server. "Pseudo streaming," on the other hand, is a progressive download combined with server-side scripting-in other words, instructions for handling the stream that are stored and carried out on the server-that will allow random access to the portions of the video not yet downloaded. The process is sometimes called "HTTP pseudo streaming," although we will use the shorter term here.

Pseudo streaming can be implemented on "regular old" HTTP servers running Apache, lighthttpd, Tomcast, IIS or other protocols. The server-side script manages the communication between Flash and the server. The viewer's Flash player sends a request to the server that specifies a start time, an HTTP request that inserts the time parameter into the requesting URL's "query string." This results in the server script serving up a video stream with the requested starting position. This is the technique employed by the super-popular YouTube service, since it is known to use lighthttpd servers.

Limitations and issues

Selecting the best method for you depends on the applications, the server and its capabilities, your target audience and, of course, your budget. Still, pseudo streaming is not simply a cost-cutting move for small firms or independent publishers, as it can be put to good use in a range of applications by all kinds of companies. Web TV, online product demos, "e-learning," movie trailers and video blogs ("vlogs") can all benefit from the ease of setup, its dead-simple use and the low cost of the functionality.

There are, of course, some limitations that must be considered. The most important one is how many simultaneous PHP connections your web server lets you make. Any publishers who want to broadcast live streams or service thousands of simultaneous viewers will still need to reply on streaming server systems. Adobe is ready for them, of course, with its Flash Media Server technology.

Clear benefits

Pseudo streaming is a smart solution to the problem of a previous generation, one where PCs and networking infrastructure were both less powerful than now. Still, whenever the network as a whole can be spared the time and bandwidth involved in media downloading, it is a good thing with positive outcomes for everyone. Efficiency is increased while needless downloading, and its costly cumulative overhead, is decreased. We can all win a little bit with this approach.

For the viewing experience itself, the biggest advantage to pseudo streaming and other streaming solutions is the viewer's ability to set a video "play" control to time positions that have not yet been downloaded. This is particularly useful and time-conserving in the case of full-length movies, as viewers can jump to the final scenes of a 135-minute movie, or any others, when they want to do so. In a nutshell, the benefits of pseudo streaming are

- ability to request any part of a video at any point in the timeline;
- flexibility to begin playback in the middle, or any other spot, of a video's timeline;
- integration possibilities for customized streaming servers plus server-side scripts; and
- current support for both FLV and H.264 file formats.

The future of streaming

It may be that the networks of the future, all sci-fi powerful and fiber-optic and everything, may not need any help with streaming. Superfast connections and superfast PCs may make all of these data-transfer troubles moot. In the meantime, of course, there are plenty of reasons to use low-bandwidth solutions to serve Internet users' video voracious appetites for content.

When network speeds are up another factor of two or four or 10, we may look back at pseudo streaming as rather quaint. Then again, any process that gives random access to video without downloading the media would seem to have a secure place in the web toolkit even as technology speeds forward. It's always nice to have simple solutions, especially as things become more complex. We will have to wait and see if pseudo streaming is a temporary gambit or a lasting process that may become "standard stuff."Amy Armitage is the head of Business Development for Lunarpages. Lunarpages provides quality web hosting from their US-based hosting facility. They offer a wide-range of services from linux virtual private servers and managed solutions to shared and reseller hosting plans. Visit online for more information.

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