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3 basic streaming terms you need to know

3 basic streaming terms you need to knowStreaming is all over the Internet, the news, and people’s devices. People use the term “streaming”, but for someone new to the topic it can all get confusing. So to clear it all up, let’s look at three terms related to streaming you should know in order to understand the hype, the truth, and the technology.


What exactly is streaming anyway? It’s actually a technical term used to define how data is transferred over a network. You may think it’s something new, but the first streaming actually occurred in the 1930s. Music was delivered over electrical lines to commercial outlets (department stores and elevators mostly) rather than via radio. It was more reliable and better sounding at the time. This system, created by George O. Squire, eventually became known as Muzak.

Getting back to the technical bits, streaming is when data is sent over a network in a continuous fashion that allows the recipient to access it before the entire data set is received. This is achieved by buffering the data for playback (as in video and audio content) while the rest of the data is still being received. This process is in contrast to downloading, which requires the entire data set (usually a file of some sort) to be received before it can be viewed, listened to, or interacted with in any way.

The first time data was streamed on the Internet was back in the mid-1990s, starting with the band Severe Tire Damage in 1993. While various content was available to be streamed during the rest of the 1990s, it really wasn’t until the early 2000s that streaming became more common place with the adoption of Adobe Flash.

Since then, various formats, protocols, codecs and corresponding players have been developed to support streaming. Part of the reason the terminology has become so commonplace is because those efforts, along with improving bandwidth, have made streaming easy and affordable for just about everyone.

Streaming media

So if “streaming” is just the technical transfer of data, what is it that’s being streamed? Most people here would say movies or music, maybe sports or TV shows. But the real answer is “media”. In traditional computer terms, media usually refers to some sort of storage media (like CD-ROMS or hard disks). With the birth of the digital world, media now can refer to video and sound content (based on the shortened form of the word multimedia, or rich media).

It’s important to know the difference between streaming and streaming media. The prior refers to the method of delivery for content, the later refers to the content itself – video, audio or both.

TV shows, sports, music, movies, and anything else you can watch or listen to on your devices today aren’t media exactly. They more correctly represent the type of content in the media. Just like we don’t differentiate watching a 30-minute TV show from a 2-hour movie on a TV, there really isn’t any difference from a viewer’s perspective between streaming the two either.

There is a technical difference though, that most of us don’t ever think about. The more media we stream, the more bandwidth is required. For most Internet users in the UK, movies and TV shows streamed at home no longer pose a problem. But if you’re viewing the content on your mobile, a full length movie can use gigabytes of data. A short movie trailer though, probably won’t put a dent in your allocation. You could also stream hours and hours of audiobooks and podcasts and never even notice the bandwidth used. Audio and video are two distinctly different types of media, with massively different requirements.

Streaming Server

A server is just the name given to a computer that has a special job. Its purpose is to serve up data, or perform functions requested by other computers. Servers are much more powerful computers than we have as desktops, laptops or mobile devices. They need that power to meet the demands of other computers, called clients, make of them. You’re reading this blog right now on a device that’s acting as a client. You loaded your web browser and clicked on the blog to read it. Your browser sent a request to the PlanetStream servers for the blog (and other website) content. The server sent it back as requested.

That’s a very simple example, but it’s also what happens when you stream your favourite TV shows. Behind the scenes there’s a lot more going on though. In streaming, the server is running special software to deliver the media to the clients that request it. Windows Media Services and Flash Media Server are just two of the many software packages available to run on a streaming server.

It’s also important to know that a streaming server is not the same as a streaming service. But every streaming service needs to have streaming servers. For example, PlanetStream has servers that our customers use to stream their content. So we’re a streaming service provider, not a streaming server. Some people refer to Netflix or Amazon Video as streaming servers, but technically that is a wrong usage of the word. Those are streaming services, which in turn have to run their own servers to provide their service.

Devices such as Roku, Echo, and even Chromecast are not servers either, but are the client that requests the content (as opposed to your laptop or mobile).

The differences in these terms may not seem too important. But if you’re interested in using streaming for yourself or organisation, it will help you better understand what it is you’re trying to do. And understanding will help you communicate with the experts you’ll need to get started. If you’re still confused, leave a comment as we’ll get it all cleared up. Or you can always find us on live chat where we’d be happy to personally answer your questions.

Oliver Burt

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