Bruegel the Elder, Pieter.
Detail of Children’s Games’ (1560) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Children are often praised for playing well with others.” That same quality prized in kids can pay off for OTT (over-the-top) video streaming companies.

No matter the end goal, cooperation and collaboration can facilitate better business. So, for instance (and to extend the children-as-companies metaphor past its point of usefulness), when it comes to choosing vendors, who should you shovel with in the sandbox?

The old debate faced companies then, and it faces them now: should you lock in (and lock horns with) the known entity for all your services and applications — a giant with all its advantages of size and scale — or take a turn with the lone entity, a niche provider with all its advantages of reachability and nimbleness?

Tis a conundrum in most fields of business. Let’s plumb, then, the pros and cons of baiting both the lumbering whale and the limber fish. And in the true spirit of this blog of a thousand-and-one tropes, let’s also rack focus a few times, from video to web, from the dynamics of the origin and packager to the CDN (Content Delivery Network).

But first let’s bring to the foreground yet another of the many moving parts of the video streaming industry: the ad insertion business.

Adding ads

When inserting ads into your content, you consider whether it is better to play the field, or commit to a set-it-and-forget-it kind of monolith. What makes the most sense?

First, let’s define the ad insertion methods. If you want to do personalized ad insertion in a stream today, there are two major ways of doing it. 

  1. Insert ads on the server side with an SSAI (server-side ad insertion) platform.
  2. Insert ads on the client side with a CSAI (client-side ad insertion) tech habitat.

As a dynamic, or on-the-fly” solution, SSAI shows ads in a way quite familiar to anyone used to watching broadcast television: by inserting the ad directly into the video stream manifest. Your show plays, then an ad or a series of ads runs, then it’s back to your show, in one long flow. Replacing broadcast ads with personalized ones like this is called stitching.”

When ads are managed on the client side, the content and ads are divorced and delivered separately. The video player handling the content makes a call to the video player handling the advertisement, which takes over while it plays ads. Instead of stitching, CSAI may be thought of as switching.”

As a content business, whom do you hire to accentuate the positives — of either method, or both methods — and entrust to implement and manage your ad insertion technology?

Cue the beast

Only a few companies stride Earth with enough power and clout to exert full spectrum dominance over entire spheres of the internet. Contracting a colossus to oversee your ad tech infrastructure allows you access to their whole suite of solutions, which extends your range and may simplify your workflows, since they do it all.

Without identifying a specific company of this ilk, let’s form a composite of the few of them and call this beast-of-breed HumongousMedia.

HumongousMedia not only hosts content, it packages and protects it, too. And best of all, since ad insertion is what you need, HumongousMedia can place ads dynamically into your content, just in time. If scalability were a concern before, then subscribing to HumongousMedia’s complement of various applications and options can relieve your worries on that front completely.

Is there a minus to going out to sea with a media monster? Yes: a lack of extractability.

After signing on with HumongousMedia, having a change of heart later may prove difficult. Turning that entire tanker around, just to dock in a rarer port of call, demands such an expenditure of time and energy that you may instead choose to stay in your cabin, sip your piña colada, and say the hell with it.

Is size everything?

The charms of a particular provider

What draws you to a best-of-breed is not just its sheen of niche specialization, but its promise of being personable, too. In an age of automation, of grocery stores allowing” customers to scan and bag their own groceries, of bots snapping up rare sneakers online, the human element can count for something. You can reach a particular provider.

And they can also custom fit ad insertion solutions to suit the content provider’s profile. When the CDN needs changes or updates to their workflows, they’re often done in-house by people you may have heard of. And these same people from the indy vendor may actually care about your company, and affect your company culture, too.

So the best-of-breed — which we’ll name BespokeWorkflowsCo — bests HumongousMedia at the personality game, simply by having one. And the few things it does, it does really, really well.

But an independent like BespokeWorkflowsCo may not dazzle you with an impeccable interface like HumongousMedia can. And efforts to interlock Bespoke with other boutique vendors upstream and downstream of it may drain company time.

So, what if you embrace the unthinkable, and don’t choose sides? What if you stay above the fray, and play with everyone? Then your ad insertion could enjoy the benefits of agility and scalability, liberty without lock-in. Your business could insert ads in a way that is … humongously bespoke.

So you want all the benefits and none of the drawbacks. But what gives you the right to do that?

The abstraction layer, that’s what.

Better layer up

By hiding underlying complexity, a layer of abstraction can simplify and centralize processes and products. The internet itself is a mammoth stack of abstraction layers. A real world” or mechanical example of an abstraction layer is a car with an automatic transmission, having abstracted away the clutch.

Adding such a layer to your ad insertion technology means you can work outside the complexity of choosing between the known entity and the lone entity. Instead, all solutions providers sit at your disposal in one location, and you can toggle easily between them without commitment or compromise.

And it’s not only ad networks that can be abstracted inside a layer. To work with multiple CDNs simultaneously is possible, without the need to go all in” with just one. Diversifying your base of vendors, and indulging in dalliances with several at the same time, wins you better pricing and geographic coverage. Which is, of course, a performance gain.

Same goes for encoders and DRM (Digital Rights Management) systems.

Instead of devoutly wishing at the altar of the one true encoder, why not be encoder-agnostic? Then you can use that specialist encoder for a specific workflow, while using another encoder to deliver your day-to-day. And as long as we’re doing why-nots, why not implement CPIX (Content Protection Information eXchange), a format that shares content protection configurations between systems?

CPIX, like the multi-CDN method, offers à la carte selectability, too. Since CPIX remains open and supportive of all systems and formats, no one has to spend extra time retooling configurations if down the road they decide to appeal to a different encoder, packager, or DRM server.

The French Connection

Here it may be worth discussing, no, not the 1971 crime action thriller film starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, and Fernando Rey, but the parallel of two different, yet similarly open and best-of-breed video streaming technology companies who’ve both (won awards, albeit not Oscars, and) embedded their solutions within the workflows of leading French OTT media company Molotov.

In February 2022 Molotov announced that they were renewing their contract with Ad Insertion Platform (AIP), leading provider of server-side ad insertion technology.

The re-up let Molotov integrate AIP’s SSAI tech into their AVOD (Advertising-based Video On Demand) service Mango. Since then AIP continues to insert addressable, dynamic ads into the service, aiding Molotov in its accrual of value while it streams free-to-air AVOD content.

The other company maintaining a relationship with Molotov is Unified Streaming, a leader in smart video streaming technologies (and where the author of this blog happily works, and enjoys their coffee). Their collaboration with Molotov dates back to 2015, when the French streaming service chose Unified’s Origin to manage its workflows.

In December 2020, Molotov adopted Unified Streaming’s innovative Remix technology — a dynamic playlist-based system that allows on-the-fly and targeted editing of video streams — across Molotov’s Mango.

What allies these two companies, AIP and Unified Streaming, besides their global stature despite lean overhead (plus their own outsize reach and influence) and their excellence (in two affiliated fields)? Why does Molotov pack both companies’ brawn into its own systems architecture? Why give them the nod, instead of Humongous Media?

Peering in

A closer approach toward Ad Insertion Platform reveals that the media monetization specialist supports SSAI and manifest manipulation, but also sports a client-side interface. So AIP can play both the client- and server-side. Even if a device does not handle SSAI, AIP offers another acronym: a VAST/VMAP (Video Ad-Serving Template/​Video Multiple-Ad Playlist) client-side interface.

Thus, yes: AIP supplies a layer of abstraction between all the video delivery processes, and all the related applications.

So the advertisement publisher stays within its own ecosystem, and need not trespass, since it is securely interfaced to AIP. Inside its own confines, AIP communicates back and forth, all the while inserting ads for the Mango AVOD service of Molotov.

In this way not only can the OTT provider evade lock-in and overdependence, and retain mobility — so can AIP. The two companies are strong-as-hardened-steel links in end-to-end chains.

Origin story

Similarly, Unified Streaming, since 2015, has braided its technology — Origin, then Remix — throughout the manifests of the content aggregator Molotov.

As a software plugin for industry-standard web servers, such as Apache and Nginx, Unified Origin is a bit of a polyglot — it understands, parses, and translates languages (formats) well. Unified Origin allows a web server to ingest one format and package it on-the-fly to all formats. It’s befriended all the major DRM systems and codecs, too.

And as a playlist-resolving software engine, Unified Remix uses a playlist on the server side, ridding the player of all decision logic. Unified Remix bases the playlist on a general rule set triggered by a CMS, a recommendation system, or other business rules.

Unified Remix then transforms the remixed MP4 playlist into input for Unified Origin and Unified Packager, both of which can deliver all playout formats. (During this process the original assets are left untouched, which guarantees no lock-in.) Remix delivers to all devices from a single playlist. Which is a unified approach.

The SCTE-35-driven dynamic ad insertion, enabled through Unified Streaming’s integration with Ad Insertion Platform, benefits Molotov because ads are not inserted on the client-side but by a third-party ad service — AIP — that also serves the ads. This makes it more difficult for people watching the content to obviate ads. As a result, Molotov makes its service more lucrative, and frees itself up to do what it does best: culling captivating content, and transmitting it to the masses.

Another advantage of this DAI setup: it burdens the player that runs on the end-user’s device much less, because the player is no longer tasked with requesting and inserting the ads. Any player that works in an ordinary video streaming setup should therefore also work when DAI is implemented. So it’s easier to deliver an ad-supported streaming service to the widest possible audience.

Again, high-fives all around: for Molotov, AIP, and Unified Streaming.

Flex your fixes

The flexibility and freedom that come preloaded with both AIP and Unified Streaming fix issues for Molotov that other vendors and tech providers cannot. Best-of-breeds such as these, boasting abstraction layers to boot, just don’t lock Molotov up.

Encasing your ad vendors, encoders, web servers, CDNs, and DRMs inside a layer of abstraction gives your company flexibility and nimbleness, and signals your willingness to work with everyone. And that — to return finally to the metaphor — makes you popular at the playground.