Consumer's guide to using a Flash Media Server hosting provider

25 January 2008
There are a couple ways that you can get started with Adobe Flash Media Interactive Server 3 for your streaming media projects. You can purchase a license, purchase and configure your own server, hire an IT employee to keep an eye on its operation, rent a datacenter rack space for the server, and then pay for Adobe support options—or you could go to a Flash Media Interactive Server (FMIS) hosting company, which will do it all for you for one price.
The following guide is intended to prepare you with the necessary knowledge you'll need to research a third-party FMIS hosting provider.

Essential information to know


Before you visit your first FMIS hosting provider, learn the following terminology and how it applies to your situation—and have the information at hand.
Simultaneous connections
The term simultaneous connections refers to Flash Media Interactive Server end-user connections. This is the number of simultaneous users who can interact with your media application at any given time. Each user of your FMIS application is considered a "connection" (so 40 connections equals 40 simultaneous users). If a user is connected to more than one instance of an application or connected to multiple applications, these connections each count toward the total number of simultaneous connections.
Knowing this maximum number of simultaneous connections is important. For example, if you have 40 connections available and 40 users connected, then when another user tries to connect, they will be rejected until one of the first 40 users disconnects.
Although FMIS offers unlimited bandwidth and users, many hosting companies cap the number of connections per customer account according to your chosen hosting plan. This ensures that your users experience an optimal performance on shared servers. If you were to purchase hosting on a dedicated server, you would receive the full benefit of unlimited simultaneous connections up to the extent of the server hardware's capabilities.
Streaming or peak bandwidth per connection
Your streaming or peak bandwidth is the rate of speed in terms of kilobits or megabits per second (kbps or Mbps) at which data is passed back and forth between the server and a single end-user connection. Smooth video, clear sound, and delay time are all factors determined by your streaming bandwidth. The greater the number, the better the stream.
In most cases, a decent quality stream begins at around 384 kbps depending on encoding practices and many other factors. For assistance in determining the optimum bitrate for your video, refer to the very cool Flash video (FLV) bitrate calculator created by Flash Bible series author Robert Reinhardt. For instance, if you wanted to stream a 640 × 480 pixel video, you would want to encode your video at a bitrate of at least 512 kpbs to ensure a quality stream.
Bandwidth transfer
Bandwidth transfer is the amount of video, audio, text, or other streaming data transferred from the server to the end users, and from the end users to the server. If your application involves a prerecorded stream that only pushes data "down" from the server to the end user, then it may use less bandwidth transfer (depending on the video's bitrate) compared to a live stream that is pushing and pulling data "up" and "down" between the server and end users. Also consider whether your application features one-to-many or many-to-many functionality because this not only factors into the necessary number of connections but also provides an idea of how much bandwidth will be used.

Note: The following examples use a month's time (30 days), as this is the most commonly used minimum payment term for third-party FMIS hosting plans.


Basic formula for one-to-many applications
For one-to-many applications, this basic formula provides a ballpark figure to work with:
how fast (average bitrate, in kilobits per second, of the broadcast)
× how long (average amount of time each user utilizes the application)
× total number of connections expected per day
÷ 8,388,608 (to convert kilobits to gigabytes)
× 30 days per month
300 kbps
× 60 seconds
× 100 user connections per day
÷ 8,388,608
× 30 days
= 6.44 GB per month
Basic formula for many-to-many applications
For many-to-many applications, consider the exponential factor as each user connects to all other users. A five-user many-to-many application would require each user to send one stream while receiving four other streams. For five users, this would total 25 simultaneous connections. Assuming that every user watches all other users for 30 minutes per day, here's a formula you can use:
how fast (average bitrate, in kilobits per second, of each user's broadcast)
× how long (average amount of time, in seconds, each user utilizes the application)
× square of the total number of user connections per day
÷ 8,388,608 (to convert kilobits to gigabytes)
× 30 days per month
300 kbps
× (30 minutes × 60 seconds)
× 5² user connections per day
÷ 8,388,608
× 30 days
= 48 GB per month
Knowing the streaming or peak bandwidth rate (see the second example above) and the number of expected views per month will assist you greatly in selecting the appropriate hosting plan to cover your expected monthly bandwidth transfer usage. It is fine to choose a plan that offers a little higher bandwidth transfer allowance than you think you need so as not to exceed your allotted amount per your hosting plan. This is important because FMIS hosting companies generally will not interrupt your service, but they will often charge additional fees for each gigabyte of transfer over your chosen plan configuration.
Several FMIS hosting companies offer various calculators to help you determine the appropriate combination of bandwidth and bandwidth transfer rate. As we mentioned before, try the Flash video (FLV) bitrate calculator created by Flash Bible series author Robert Reinhardt.
Disk space
Flash Media Interactive Server gives you the ability to stream video and audio files (FLV, MP3, and all H.264 formats) as well as store user-generated content such as as video files, chat history, recorded audio streams, and recorded video streams—all of which require disk space. The size of these files may vary depending on the length and encoding rate of the recorded stream. If your applications will be used for streaming large video files or permit heavy recording by users, then you would want a hosting plan that provides more disk space.
If too much data is stored on the server beyond the specifications of your hosting plan, the FMIS hosting company may charge overage fees. To avoid these charges, choose a plan that provides you plenty of disk space to suit your needs and clear old and unneeded files from your account—or simply upgrade your plan accordingly as your needs increase. Most FMIS hosting companies allow you to upgrade your plan anytime and will not penalize you for doing so.
Shared versus dedicated servers/clusters
Shared servers are what most basic hosting plans are founded upon. This means that your FMIS hosting account resides on a server (or servers) in which hardware resources are shared with other hosting customers. This is almost always your most affordable option. These plans are generally sufficient for small to mid-sized FMIS applications; large enterprise applications normally require a dedicated server or dedicated cluster solutions.
A dedicated hosting plan means that you are the only customer on that server and you have the assurance that all of the server's resources are yours to use alone.
A dedicated server cluster is a network of two or more dedicated servers providing you with increased connectivity in terms of number of simultaneous users and bandwidth, and also increased centralized disk space. This is ideal for websites that expect a large or growing number of simultaneous live connections as each server cluster, depending on its hardware, can potentially host a limitless number of simultaneous users.
A final option, which may be uncommon among FMIS hosting companies, is a virtual dedicated server. This refers to a single server being divided equally between at least two customers. Their connections, bandwidth, and disk space are guaranteed because no single customer can use up the entire server's resources beyond their allotted limits.
Type of application
It is important to know the functionality of the application(s) you intend to run and how users will be interacting with it. The most common types of FMIS applications are streaming video (live and prerecorded) and live user collaboration (text chat, A/V conferencing, whiteboards, and such). The type of application you use determines the amount of bandwidth, disk space, connections and bandwidth transfer required. Streaming on-demand video likely requires more connections and bandwidth transfer, although disk space depends on the size of your video(s). Streaming live video requires less disk space because you are not retaining any data. Hybrid applications (both video and data features such as chat or whiteboard) need more disk space and bandwidth transfer.
Region of end users (America, Asia, Europe, etc.)
Keeping in mind the region of the majority of your end users can help you determine which city to locate your main FMIS server. The closer the server location to your end users, the faster the connection. The farther away it is, the more you start to experience choppiness and increased latency as data packets get lost.


Custom application support
If you have built a custom FMIS application or have purchased one from a third-party developer and you are ready to deploy it, make sure to consult with the hosting company prior to running your application. Often times the hosting company has had experience with third-party applications and can help you avoid any pitfalls concerning the compatibility or programming of your particular application.


With the current release of Flash Media Interactive Server 3, much has been said of its reduced pricing versus the previous version Flash Media Server 2. This fact is probably not reflected much in the price of third-party hosting where plans are offered at rates such as $9.95 per month. However, it will likely make an impact on the number of connections and peak streaming bandwidth allowed per hosting plan, as basic hosting is often offered on a shared server. Dedicated servers, however, do not have these limitations, and so will cost more accordingly.
Consider the following points on whether or not you need your FMIS hosting company to provide Flash Media Server 2 or Flash Media Interactive Server 3:
  • Encoding of files: Be sure you know what types of files you want to use. If you are using FLVs, MP3s, and images, Flash Media Server 2 is adequate. However, if you want to use another file format such as MPEG, be sure the hosting company is using Flash Media Interactive Server 3, because this includes support for all H.264 encoded files. This also saves you the cost of re-encoding non-FLV files into FLV format.
  • Quality of video/audio: If high-quality video and audio are a priority, make sure your hosting company puts you on a Flash Media Interactive Server 3 server because it supports industry standard H.264 video and HE-AAC audio streaming for up to 1080p HD delivery. If this detail is not as important for you, then the video and audio quality of Flash Media Server 2 suffices.
  • Secure connectivity: If you want to ensure that your SWF files are protected from being reused, modified, or hosted in unauthorized locations, Flash Media Interactive Server 3 is the version you want. It features RTMPE, a new 128-bit encryption of Adobe's Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP). Although Flash Media Server 2 features a secure connection as well (RTMPS), Flash Media Interactive Server 3 offers enhanced security as there are many programs out there now that can work around standard RTMP connectivity. A bonus of RTMPE is that it makes it quick and easy to set up secure connections without having to go through the lengthy process of procuring an SSL security certificate. RTMPE also offers greatly improved performance compared to SSL connections.


Costs incurred by hosting your own


If you do not want to go the route of a third-party host, and prefer to set up your own server instead, what would those costs be? Table 1 outlines some of the major costs involved in hosting your own FMIS 3, all of which are included and rolled into affordable plans offered by FMIS hosting companies (Table 2). Lower costs and the advantage of server support from a hosting site far outweigh the costs and hassle of doing it yourself. Other than avoiding headaches and extraordinary expense, FMIS hosting companies often provide extra benefits like support, ready-made video players and applications, as well as enhanced bandwidth logs and live monitoring tools.
Table 1. Do-it-yourself vs. hosted FMIScosts
Plan option DIY cost Hosted cost
FMIS license $4,500/ea. Included
FMSS license $995/ea. N/A
Server hardware $3,000/avg. est.* Included
Bandwidth $100–$1,000/avg. est. month* Included
IT server admin. $4,000/avg. est. month* Included
FMIS Adobe support (Silver Plan) $10,000/year* Included
Colocation $500/avg. est. month* Included


*Note: Figures are based on averages and estimates.


Table 2. FMIS hosting price ranges
Plan scales Ideal uses Monthly cost
Introductory plans Experimentation, small applications, low-quality streaming audio/video $10–$30
Midrange plans Midrange applications, midquality streaming audio/video $30–$100
Larger plans More connections and high-quality, fast streaming audio/video $100–$200
Enterprise-scale plans Heavy bandwidth usage, top speed streaming, several hundred connections $200–$2500
Dedicated server plans Extreme bandwidth usage, thousands of connections $2500–$4500
Dedicated cluster plans Unlimited connections, large-scale community applications, rapid growth potential $7000 +


Where to go from here


Finding a third-party FMIS host is as simple as selecting one from the service providers list that Stefan Richter maintains on his site, FlashComGuru. Keep in mind that each hosting provider offers not only different pricing but also different support, options, and plan flexibility.
Know exactly what you want or need (shared or dedicated servers, simultaneous connections expected, server location, personalized 24/7 support, prebuilt applications or custom application hosting, short or long term contracts, and so on). Remember to ensure that you are being hosted on the FMS version you would like, because you will get more secure connectivity, HD-quality video, and H.264 encoding with Flash Media Interactive Server 3 than with Flash Media Server 2.
If you don't have the time to research your own needs up front, you could always go the trial and error route. Try a hosting company that offers a starter plan, usually around $10/month, for experimentation purposes and then increase your hosting plan's settings as you gain experience and find what works for you.
As complicated as all this might sound, it is definitely in your best interest to consider a hosting company that excels in customer support and reliability. There is nothing worse than being frustrated by poor (or a lack of) customer support or by having your applications drop connections, or not work at all, due to unreliable equipment and management. Look for a hosting company that is well known and has a good reputation, and possibly request to see some of their actual clients' sites.