What is Server-Side Ad Insertion (SSAI)?

SSAI (Server-side ad insertion) is a combination of manifest manipulation, ad server communication, and ad bitrate and resolution normalization, all of which happen on the server side before presenting a manifest to clients. Server-side ad insertion may also be referred to as dynamic ad insertion, or ad stitching.

By whatever name it is known, server-side ad insertion is difficult to get right for numerous reasons:

  • Server-side ad insertion requires a highly scalable origination service
  • Personalized manifests are not cacheable
  • Reporting and custom player behavior require clients to know an ad has been played
  • Different ad standards (VAST, MAP), ad servers, origin servers, and player environments complicate server-side ad insertion workflows

To cope with fluctuations in demand for just-in-time server-side ad insertion, a highly scalable architecture is required – particularly for broadcasters that must deal with the sharp peaks in demand that breaking news, sports events, and popular TV series bring. Cloud-based video processing with a server-side ad insertion integration is one-way broadcasters can scale to meet audience demand.

When events are underway, the number of concurrent viewers can vary greatly and unpredictably. For example, viewership for a closely played game may remain steady for much of the contest, then surge by hundreds of thousands of new viewers during the last few minutes.

The key to managing viewer variances is in encoding and packaging that can be virtualized for rapid deployment and hosted in a cloud infrastructure for quick auto-scaling.

Because dedicated single-path hardware encoders and packagers lack flexibility, the practical solution is to spin up instances of cloud-based video processing as they are needed. The cloud is uniquely well-suited to creating millions of individually tailored manifests of content and advertising for live-streamed events.

Technology Behind SSAI

Dynamic ad insertion technology is a combination of several elements:

  • Manifest manipulator — responsible for creating a streaming playlist, which is a continuous combination of content and advertisements
  • Content delivery network (CDN) — a system of server nodes that automatically determines the optimal source to stream ads to the viewer
  • Ad decision server (ADS) —  it chooses what ads to stitch into the video content based on the user’s location and other factors.

How Does Server-Side Dynamic Ad Insertion Work?

So, you decide to watch a movie, a TV show, or a news broadcast. Here’s what happens after you click “play”:

  • The video player sends a request to the SSAI vendor with user-specified data (geolocation, internet service provider, search engine queries, current trends, and other info).
  • The ad decision server creates a manifest that instructs the player. The manifest includes the advertisements for streaming, their duration, and beacons (markers that activate ads).
  • The content delivery network (CDN) sends the content with a specific manifest to the video player. The ads are sent to the CDN in multiple quality versions to adapt to the viewer’s internet connection.
  • The player automatically sends requests to the ADS when playback hits beacons, and the CDN server forwards the ads into the stream.
  • ADS creates reports about user behavior. It can include what part of the ad was seen and if the viewer interacted with it.

Server-Side Ad Insertion in Streaming Video

For broadcasters and video content providers, an inherent tension exists between the need to deliver a premium viewing experience – complete with start-over and time-shifted TV functionality – and to monetize streaming video offerings and services. The challenge of monetizing over-the-top (OTT) video content will only continue to grow as viewership on connected devices increases.

To optimize streaming video revenue opportunities, advertisers are increasingly seeking ways to match the interests of individual consumers with ads and deliver them in a non-disruptive way.

Ad personalization reduces the consumer desire to employ ad blockers and creates a mutually beneficial streaming experience for video providers and audiences. Beyond the relevance of topical interests, ad personalization can also connect with individual viewers in ways that are emotionally relevant to them, sparking changes in thinking as well as in purchasing.

While the opportunities to capitalize on ad personalization and ad insertion grow, the question for broadcasters, pay TV operators, content programmers, and all video providers is, what is the best way to meet the needs of the video business and the viewing audience?

The solution needs to balance monetization requirements with the ability to provide a high-quality viewing experience for subscribers – a balance that server-side ad insertion can consistently maintain.