Azure Media Services

Overview

Azure Media Service (AMS) is a product offered by Microsoft on the Azure Platform. Its aim is to facilitate:

  • On Demand Live Streaming
  • Media Platform in the Cloud
  • Extensible multi-tenant media service. (Single instance of a software application serves multiple customers.)
  • A simple rest API (Application Program Interface) for Developers to code against.
  • A secure storage for media content which is encrypted when you up load content to the server.
  • Encoding and packaging of media in multiple formats
  • Media can be delivered to any device. Microsoft have highlighted Windows 8, iOS, Xbox, HTML5, Windows Phone, Silverlight and Flash.

Architecture

Azure Media Services is built upon the existing Azure platform and provides a simple API structure for developers to interact with.  (Although, you don’t actually need to use Azure as the origin servers as it is possible to plug in other 3rd party ones)

By building on the features offered in Azure,  i.e. Azure CDNs, scalability, managed infrastructure,  it is possible to deliver content to clients in dispersed locations and offer services that they would not be able to have.

AMS defined is a Platform as a Service (PaaS). This means it distinguishes itself from other similar offerings, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), by including the licensing of the OS and automatically patching the servers when updates are released. Meaning that the user is not required to configure,  install and manage the software required to run the servers.

Azure CDN

The Azure CDN offering is a limited basic one, in which you cannot offer complex features such as geo-blocking and push publication of content. For these features it is necessary to utilize features offered by 3rd parties,  such as Limelight, Akamai, Level3.

Azure Data Centers

AMS uses the current data centers offered by Azure and has a global presence in 3 regions (North America, Asia, Europe) and 6 data centers ( incl. Hong Kong, Singapore, Dublin and Amsterdam)

  • North America
    • North-central US – Chicago, IL
    • South-central US – San Antonio, TX
    • West US – California
    • East US – Virginia
  • Asia
    • East Asia – Hong Kong, China
    • South East Asia – Singapore
  • Europe
    • West Europe – Amsterdam, Netherlands
    • North Europe – Dublin, Ireland

Unfortunately likelihood of a data center being opened in South America is low on the priority of Microsoft. I was told that they are more likely to open one in China in the near future.

Development

In order to utilize the features offered, the developer needs to firstly load the media content on to the media service by creating a location for the media to be stored. To add content to location, the user creates an “asset” within Azure Storage. This contains multiple sets of files and can include more than one related file. This is all handled via the API.

Once uploaded the media is given a unique reference in the format of a URL. The URL can then be used to request the data assuming that correct permissions have been passed.

Workflow

Within the assets it is possible to create templates which will encode and process the files so that you can be assured of continually creating the same types of content.  However, there are no SLAs on how long it can take to create the files.

Encode

  • Data which is ingested is automatically encrypted.
  • It is possible to do fast upload via UDP.
  • It has bulk upload support.
  • Encoding is based on Expression Encoder which means its possible to publish to H.264 or VC1 video.

Process/Package

  • Can be packaged to MP4, Smooth Stream, WMV and DASH (Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP).
  • Has the ability to prepares content for dynamic remux . It does this by keeping a copy of the MP4 files locally so that the can be transformed into the relevant format.
  • Currently only available for on demand and not available for live streaming

Service Providers

It is possible to use other tool and services to help in the workflow and the processing of the media onto AMS. AMS gives you the ability to plug in other solutions to help manage the process

Current Status

AMS is still in “Preview” and is not in general release to the Azure community. It is expected to be available “Some time at the end of the year”.  However, January is a more realistic timescale and that is dependent on the delivery of the new Azure Management Portal, which itself is still in preview.

Likely Cost

Currently unknown, but Microsoft said that if we were to provide them with figures on amount of storage, number of files  etc… that they would be able to work out a guideline figure.

Summary

The platform and features have been  proven to be ready, as it was used by various broadcasters (CTV, France TF1)  to deliver their online content during the Olympic Games this year.

However, I feel that the technology still needs to harden before I would recommend using it. I’d like to see the technology in active use for at least a year before it was considered. I would imagine there are still some issues with the platform that we would undoubtedly come across.

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