Building a Video Delivery Network in 48 hours

Posted by Jon
on Friday, August 28

Last weekend, I participated in my first Rails Rumble. Rails Rumble is a 48-hour app building contest. We started from scratch Friday evening – you can have concepts and notes on paper, but no code or digital UI assets – and stopped Sunday evening, after 48 hours. You can use open-source code and public web services, and we made liberal use of both.

Our team consisted of myself and three of the Sevenwire crew: @fowlduck, @brandonarbini, and @steveheffernan. That’s two developers (Nate and myself), one developer/UI combo (Brandon), and one UI guy (Steve). All in all, a really good mix for the app. We’re also the team behind two video encoding services: Zencoder and FlixCloud.

Check out our app (and the 21 other great finalists) and vote at Voting ends this weekend, so do it soon.

The App

Our project was ZenVDN, a video distribution network. In other words, a place to upload video that you want to publish, i.e. via your blog or website. Upload one or more videos, and they’re transcoded into web and mobile formats, and sent to a Content Delivery Network for distribution.

After that, you’re given a page to manage each video, with HTML embed code to plug the video directly into your blog or website. You can also link directly to the videos, if you want to use your own player. And finally, each video has a public page on the ZenVDN site if you want to share the video directly.

So it’s a complete start-to-finish video publishing platform. Let’s say you’re Ryan Bates of RailsCasts. You can compress, upload, and host your own video files manually, or you can use a service like ZenVDN to do that for you. (I emailed Ryan about this, by the way, and he prefers the manual route. ;)

Another way to look at it: a better YouTube for video publishers. YouTube and its peers were designed for wide-scale video sharing, not for video producers and content owners. If you don’t mind YouTube’s quality and watermark, and you don’t mind your video being shared publicly on YouTube, ZenVDN probably isn’t for you. But if you want better quality and to own distribution of your videos, check us out.

What’s cool? A multi-file uploader with progress; direct uploads to our CDN, for speed and scalability; video watermarking; video thumbnails; wide input video support; a Flash Player integrated into the embed code; and detailed statistics (by video, by date, by format).

What’s missing? Again, it’s a working end-to-end product, but we’d like to do a lot more. Examples: Ogg support (for HTML 5), an RSS feed for videos, more public/sales information, and better privacy controls.

And, of course, paid subscriptions. We hoped to get e-commerce done during the Rumble, probably using Spreedly, but we ran out of time. Maybe in a 72 hour Rumble. In the meantime, our Free level limits the number of videos you can upload, and the amount of video you can stream. A paid level would increase these limits and let you use your own watermark (instead of the ZenVDN watermark on free accounts).

All in all, we’re really happy with where we ended up. I’m proud to say that Obie briefly questioned whether we could build the whole thing in a weekend. That’s praise.

The experience

The Rumble was way more fun than I expected. I had just worked a hard week, and a part of me was dreading the prospect of a long weekend of work. But it was actually a blast.

Why? Development flow, I think. Development flow is a really fun experience. It’s probably why most of us are developers, after all. We like to build things; we like to solve problems; and we like to work effectively. I’ll sometimes go days, or even weeks, without experiencing concentrated development flow like I did during the Rumble. (Stupid meetings.) So the Rumble was a really great experience.

Our team really clicked. We had a great mix of skills: across the four of us, we had one designer, two front-end coders, and three back-end coders. Besides the initial design concepts, every task could have been handled by more than one person, so tasks rarely sat in the queue for long.

We tried really hard to avoid rushing at the end. We stopped development with 3 hours to go, and two of us started testing, while two others recorded the screencast for the homepage. But it didn’t work out quite so smoothly. The screencast wasn’t done until about T-30 minutes, and we were checking in fixes and refinements until about 6:45. Then a minor Git snafu, and panic ensued. Our final submission came down to the wire.

Finally: sleep and breaks. Call me weak, but I like to sleep. I got 8 hours/night during the Rumble, which definitely improved my experience (and the quality of my code). We ate lunch at our desks, but took a 90-minute dinner break on Saturday, and stopped several times for a game of darts.

Lessons learned

1. Blitzes can be fun and effective. I’m inclined to try a Rumble-like iteration every few months, to avoid project monotony, and to ship stuff quickly when necessary. I did ~3-4 days of work during the Rumble, so I figure a 3 day Rumble plus 2 days of vacation evens out to about a week of work.

2. Focus is essential. If I had three 30-minute meetings during the Rumble, my contribution would have been cut in half. Good reminder of makers’ schedules.

3. Don’t rush at the end. We left three hours for testing and padding. We should have left six.

4. Prioritize well. If we had tackled e-commerce on Day 2 (as I almost did), we wouldn’t have finished our core product. Build the Minimum Viable Product first, and then move on to concentric circles of improvement.

5. Small projects can work. I have a bias against small projects; 3 month gigs feel so much more comfortable to me as a consultant than 3 week gigs. But done properly, shorter projects can work fine. We did ~$15,000 worth of work over the course of the weekend. No reason that experience couldn’t translate into a client project.

Next steps

So what’s next for ZenVDN? We’d really like to get a few video publishers using it. (Talk to me if you want to be a beta customer.)

And we want to monetize the site, of course.

We think it complements our suite of video-related products well – Zencoder is the core software; FlixCloud makes it an easy web service; and ZenVDN brings video publishing one step closer to the producers.

We have some other ideas for ZenVDN. But if you have an interest in online video, or are a publisher/producer yourself, we’d love to talk more!


Leave a response

  1. Dan WeinandAugust 29, 2009 @ 01:18 AM

    Great job guys. I’m really entertained that you’re still using that matrix clip.

  2. Wendy HuangSeptember 20, 2009 @ 10:54 AM

    It’s nice. I like the webside.