Streaming Video on the Cheap

In Uncategorizedby tfwm

You know, I was thinking… what would it take to stream our services live on the web?

That question by our senior pastor is how one of my more interesting sojourns in technology began.

Thinking (as I often do) that this should be someone else’s job, I quickly got some prices for streaming audio and video from well-known web hosting services. The costs weren’t overwhelming, but they were significant. Furthermore, they would represent one more monthly fee that would stretch an already strained budget.

We were already paying for a broadband Internet connection (DSL), an ISP, and web hosting fees. What to do?

After consulting our resident computer engineer (a blessing every church should have in their membership) I was told there was a solution that would cost us nothing. That’s right… nada. All right, it would cost something… we would need an additional DSL connection. Otherwise, the software would be free, and it would run on a surplus computer someone had donated to us.

Here’s the deal:
Both Microsoft (Windows Media Player) and Real (makers of Real Player, Real Jukebox, etc.) offer free versions of their media servers. While there are limitations on these free-ware versions, they offer the functionality needed for the average local fellowship.

Disclaimer: If your website is getting a million plus hits each month… this isn’t for you. In our case, we chose the Real Media Server as our initial foray into web media streaming. Using that surplus computer, a free version of the Linux OS (we use Redhat v.7) and the already mentioned Real Sever free-ware, we were on our way.

The next challenge was to connect all of this to the Internet. That’s where our only additional costs come in for the extra DSL connection. However, at $50.00 a month, you may be paying less than having someone else host your media streaming, and you retain all the advantages of having the server in your own facility. There are a host of technical details that you will need to tend to, such as how to maintain a static IP address if your DSL provider dynamically assigns floating addresses for your connection. Most broadband providers do this to discourage you from using your connection to do what I am proposing, so check with your local provider to make sure you aren’t violating the terms of service agreement. In our case, we are using one of the nation’s leading DSL providers, and they are completely OK with this. Of course, you will also need someone on staff or in your fellowship who is familiar with networking and the Linux OS. This person should be intimately familiar with establishing network security, as you could potentially expose the computer assets of your entire church to the whims of malicious hackers. This is one of the main reasons we chose the eminently secure Linux OS over the Windows environment.

Of course, your streaming bandwidth will be limited to your DSL capacity. In our case, this is roughly 240 – 340 kilobits a second, depending on the overall traffic on the DSL. This means using dialup streams of, say, 16 kb/s for audio and 34 kb/s for video, we can have 10 to 20 people viewing our listening to media content at the same time, more than enough for a church of our size. The live event streaming will tax this bandwidth most readily. If you post media files on your website available anytime, the likelihood of everyone wanting to access them at the same time is remote.

The real advantage is that the limit as to the amount of material we make available for streaming is only dictated by the size of the server’s hard drive. When someone else hosts your media streaming, they usually charge you for 1) how many people are accessing these files and 2) how much stuff you’ve got on their server. This kind of flexibility provides a real enhancement to our website, and a greater variety of venues for our media productions (once linked to the sites of allied ministries).

Having the Real server on site also means we don’t wait for files to upload to someone else’s server. Even with broadband connections, this takes time. Having the Real server on our internal network means our producers can quickly output productions directly to the Real server, or plug in the output from live events without a lot of fuss.

If all this sounds like way too much geeketry (ignore your spell check… that’s a word I made up), take heart. I bet there’s someone in your congregation who is a closet Linux fan just waiting to be tapped. If not… it’s time to pay the media-hosting piper.