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Just-in-Time Packaging and Manifest Manipulation
Just-In-Time (JIT) Packaging is a tool which became available by a few encoder companies (such as BigBand Networks, which was later acquired by Arris corporation) a bit over five years ago. At the time, the solution was most focused on format fragmentation. Specifically, managing the encoding and storage variants of assets (or live linear streams) required to reach Apple devices, Android devices and PC’s. A single MPEG-4 file could be segmented and packaged into Apple HLS, Adobe HDS and Microsoft Smooth formats (now including MPEG-DASH as Adobe HDS and Microsoft smooth are phased out). JIT packaging shifted work which was previously done at the backend of transcoding into a separate function (in today’s terminology: a micro-service), which could be replicated multiple times. JIT packaging has never been standardized; the integration of the encoder with its specific variants of file formats, metadata passing mechanism, and content protection requirements continues to require significant expertise.
JIT packaging works with a single asset. A related form of magic which has occurred in the video delivery space is manifest manipulation. Initially created in 2014 to show the mapping of 2-second or 10-second blocks of a file at specific bitrates into a unified stream, manifest manipulation is now an art of redirecting the consumer between different type of contents for a variety of reasons. Manifest manipulation is today being applied to many different applications.
OTT companies have become adept at using JIT packaging and manifest manipulation to optimize delivery and fulfil new business cases – it’s time for carriers to learn the tools as well.
Business Cases for Manifest Manipulation
Manifest manipulation is now being used in the video spaces for a wide variety of services, including:
Program substitutions and blackouts – In a linear TV feed, it is possible to switch a user from one program to another by redirecting the viewing to another asset. This allows a content management system with business rule awareness to redirect a set of viewers from a live linear feed to alternative programming, rather than giving an error message. This helps broadcasters and operators to enforce their content rights agreements in a consumer-friendly way, avoiding “this content is not available in your territory” messages (or at least, making them a little easier to stomach with highlights on a sports-related channel or a great distraction).
Personalized Linear Playout (see related insight:UnTelco: Operators need to move beyond linear video programming) – While OTT services, and in particular, subscription VOD services, have given consumers a significant amount of choice, the time to make a decision about what content to watch is challenging. Using auto-play and moving from one asset seamlessly into another are great ways to avoid indecision time and keep consumers watching. While this can be done in the video player, there are benefits to doing it on the server side for a ubiquitous device reach as well as ability to target web clients.
Advertising Insertion – Ad blocking has been increasing significantly in certain geographies; there are a variety of way to handle ad blocking, from blocking content playback, promoting an upgrade to subscription offerings, etc. However, server-side manifest manipulation can solve the problem in two ways. First, the manifest originating from the same server as the content (as opposed to a dedicated ad server) helps on its own. It may further be possible, or, in the future, required, to cache the ad content itself on the content server or content CDN rather than the ad server. This would occur if and when ad blockers move to look at the video stream origin itself rather than simply looking for the ad server addresses.
Live to VOD – Currently, many video services have live offerings, or catch-up offerings, where catch-up offerings are in most cases made available after the complete program has aired, the content can be processed (tagging ad markers, encoded, etc), typically around 2-4 hours after the content has completed airing.
Start-over TV – Start over TV implementations or rewinding live content typically work within a cache buffer on the server, possibly using seek times in the URL and delivering a manifest file which points to the proper segments.
Cloud DVR – Cloud DVR typically differs from VOD offerings in the need of the consumer to specify that an asset should be stored before the program airs. This may have improved rights availability, compared to start-over TV or VOD offerings. However, a single copy of the stored content can be played out using multiple business models, each with appropriate ad insertion.
Clips and alternative timelines – with an increasing percentage of viewing on mobile devices, especially during the middle of the day, consumers are looking for shorter form clips to engage with. These clips can be used as “tune in” reminders to content as well as standalone forms of entertainment. While content providers with some premium content will make available exclusive edited clips for the purpose of tune-in and promotion, in other cases it can be economically to simply tag key elements of the content to be shared. These clips can be part of a larger asset tagged differently in the content management system, and delivered using manifest manipulation.
No one company specializes in all aspects of just-in-time packaging (JIT) or manifest manipulation. Companies are grouped into peers which handle some elements of the technology. Of course, in some cases the lines get blurry. However, the general player categories include:
On-network technology providers and system integrators:
Arris offers just-in-time packaging as part of the Spectrum Content Delivery Controller (CDC)
Broadpeak offers CDN products to operators, especially in IPTV but also some converged cable operators, focused primarily on the efficiency elements of adaptive bitrate.
Cisco offers just-in-time packaging and manifest manipulation on the content delivery suite (CDS) as well as part of the Infinite Video Suite.
Edgeware brings on-premise solutions for cloud DVR, catch-up TV, restart TV as well as efficient content delivery networks to operators.
Ericsson has core technology developed internally as well as acquired with Fabrix (Cloud DVR), Envivio (transcoding) and Azuki (multi-screen playback). Despite the uncertain outcome of the media unit, Ericsson has teams working within the mobile operator space around advertising solutions as well as mobile video services.
Nokia – The Velocix team (formerly Alcatel-Lucent) has full Cloud DVR and operator CDN solutions and is increasing investment in content delivery.
AWS / Elemental – Elemental, now part of AWS, migrated the packaging and manifest related functions into the Delta product, supported both on-premise and in the cloud. Elemental has demonstrated advertising-based workflows, content replacement and substitution workflows, and late binding workflows in the Delta encoder.
Bitmovin is a European DASH specialist that supports ad-insertion as well as hosting a variety of new and experimental workflows around VR, per-scene adaptive playout (increasing quality for the most critical scenes) and other new workflows.
Brightcove deploys JIT packaging as well as manifest manipulation both with its Zencoder transcoding platform as well as in its broadcast playout and ad workflows, acquired through the Unicorn Media / ONCE product acquisitions.
Microsoft Windows Azure Media Services features cloud-hosted dynamic playlist manipulation as part of its encoding and packaging workflows.
Ooyala has a very strong view of advertising monetization, working with broadcasters and publishers to maximize the entire ad value equation with dynamic playlisting and recommendation tools, together with
Imagine Communications took on RGB networks, and supports ad workflows primarily at the broadcaster workflow.
Telestream – Telestream has very flexible transcoding solutions which support dynamic packaging and late binding, typically applied within broadcaster production workflows as well as some distribution workflows.
Amagi – Amagi is a cloud-based playout company based in India, especially active in the Asian OTT markets, that has developed server side playlisting used for both content substitution and ad insertion workflows.
YuMe – From a programmatic standpoint, YuMe has been very focused on in-stream video advertising and managing all of the ad-related challenges around server-side ad insertion.
Adobe PrimeTime features both server and client side ad insertion leveraging playlist manipulation (on the server side), or a client-side ad SDK. Adobe continues to work with broadcasters and programmers on advertising insertion workflows tapping into the full value of IP delivery.
Iris.tv is a recommendations company with specialization in auto-play recommendations, especially among short form content sites. Iris plugs into a variety of SSAI solutions to steer the playback.
The most critical innovations in this area in the last year include a shift of these workflows from on-premise into the cloud, tighter integration between these workflows and storage systems, resulting in reduction in cost of storage and more efficient delivery. Another innovation relates to late binding of assets. Late binding allows separate storage of video files, audio files, caption files, etc which get stitched together at the playout time. These rule-based optimizations can then optimize the bandwidth based on what is required by the client player, while further minimizing the asset storage costs. A few companies, such as bitmovin, are testing interactive content delivery using manifest manipulation.
All in all, just-in-time packaging and manifest manipulation are some of the tools which OTT operators have tapped into to gain efficiency and business flexibility. UnTelco’s – a new class of operator focused on agility to embrace new business models – must also look at this tool to make the most flexible and efficient video services.