Government Video - June 1997

Making Sense of Video Servers
by Sheldon Liebman

Last July, we took a look at video server technology. At the time, we explained that there are a variety of definitions that could be used for the term. Unfortunately, that's still true.

One type of video server is used to distribute video across an internal computer network. With advances in fast disks and fast networks, almost any system can be turned into this kind of video server. For more information on these possibilities, see "Digital Storage Saves Digital Video" in this issue.

Another form of video server is used to archive video material with the ability to search and replay information. With recent advances in Digital Disk Recorder technology, these devices are now capable of storing minutes or hours of information. A few years ago, the capacity of DDRs was measured in seconds. As their storage capacity continues to grow, the differences between DDRs and Video Servers may shrink or even disappear.

What is a Video Server?
Even with these advances, there are still some distinctions between Video Servers and other type of video storage and distribution devices. There are four attributes we can look for in a product to classify it as a video server.

The first is video capture. In order to distribute video, you must first have a way to record it onto the server. Today, video servers typically include a capture component, although this may not be true in the future. As more and more content is created digitally, it may be that capture becomes a totally separate function. Loading video onto servers will be accomplished through file transfers, just as it is with other devices.

The next component to a video server is playback. In networked video systems, video is often played on a computer screen. With a true video server, however, the output is one or more traditional video streams. Again, this may be changing. The introduction of ATV and HDTV over the next few years, as well as the shift to digital broadcasting, may alter this scenario.

If you can capture and playback video streams, there has to be an underlying structure to the information. You can call it file management or clip management, but it's the method used to identify, store and request video information. In a very basic server system, this may simply be a name that's associated with a particular piece of video. More advanced systems contain database systems with searching capability to identify all clips of interest on a particular subject.

Finally, you can't have a video server without connectivity. Regardless of the method used to capture, playback and organize information, a video server must be able to "broadcast" its information to multiple locations.

Serving Up Video
The number of companies that market products called video servers is actually quite small. When you add in fast networks and high capacity DDRs, however, the list can get quite long. For this article, at least, we'll focus on the products that are actually marketed as video servers.

ASC claims that over 800 of its VR video servers have been chosen by broadcasters worldwide. Their VR300 product line utilizes the company's FibreDrive technology to access Fibre Channel RAID storage. ASC says this allows multiple servers to have instant, simultaneous, random access to all of the stored material. The VR300 features 1 to 24 simultaneous channels and supports over 60 hours of online storage.

Hewlett Packard's MediaStream Broadcast Server supports up to 6 channels and 50 hours of storage. Over the past few years, it has gained in popularity and was recently chosen by KING-TV in Seattle after a well-publicized, in-depth server evaluation. For smaller applications, the company also markets the MediaStream Disk Recorder. This lower cost product supports up to 5 channels and 18 hours of storage. Both products utilize similar technology and can be used together in large installations.

IBM's RS/6000 computing platform is the basis for their MediaStreamer server. MediaStreamer supports up to 42 channels of output and can be configured with over 350 hours of content storage. Another product, MediaStreamer Archive, provides a solution for storage and retrieval of less frequently used video.

A new player in the video server market is Mercury Computer Systems, Inc. At this year's NAB, Mercury showed their MDVS line of hardware servers coupled with the company's SuiteFusion and LiteFusion workgroup software. Mercury's products are designed to allow real-time sharing of media assets such as video, animation, graphics and text. According to the company, the products can connect up to 80 Macintosh and/or Windows NT users.

Philips Broadcast Television Systems Company continues to expand its Media Pool MPS Series video servers. At NAB, they announced both lower prices and additional models for the product. Configurations are now available from two channels up to 12 channels. Philips also announced the availability of a media archiving system that combines the Media Pool with StorageTek's MediaVault robotic tape library.

Another new player this year is Pluto Technologies International. The Pluto Space system supports full digital input and output as well as fast networking and expandable storage. In addition to showing the product for the first time at this year's NAB, Pluto also announced two strategic partnerships. The company collaborated with Avid Technology on the DV-Native Newscutter for Windows NT and is a part of the new Jazz Media Network, a high-speed, private network for collaborative production.

Silicon Graphics announced their Origin video computing platform at NAB. Origin is an open, scalable set of products that are optimized for broadcasters and digital production studios. SGI claims the Origin platform handles playback of film resolution, uncompressed HDTV data, multiple channels of uncompressed video and more than 100 streams of MPEG-2. StudioCentral digital asset management software helps to catalog and manage the video information.

Sony Electronics Inc. Business and Professional Group recently announced the FlexSys Transmission System. This new system supports up to 24 hours of RAID storage and supports up to three channels of output. FlexSys is an integrated system utilizing both tape and disk storage for flexibility and cost effectiveness. The operation of the system should be familiar to any Betacart, LMS or Flexicart system operator.

Storage Concepts offers both the Videoplex and VideoStar servers for use in video-on-demand applications. These servers support MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 content with the capability to handle over 150 hours of programming and over 300 channels. Both systems are modular in design, so channels and storage can be added incrementally.

In February of this year, Tektronix Video and Networking Division expanded their Profile Professional Disk Recorder family with the introduction of the network-ready Profile PDR200 video file server. The PDR200 supports either two or four channels and can be used with the Profile PLS200 data tape library system and the Profile PDX208 external expansion chassis for additional storage. Using the expansion chassis expands the storage capacity of the PDR200 from six hours to eighteen hours.

Priced to Move
Purchasing a Video Server can be very expensive. Typically, these systems cost over $100,000 and can easily end up at twice that price. However, as with most technologies today, the costs of the pieces keep coming down. In this case, the two main components that are driving prices down are the disks that are used for storage and the compression/decompression technology. It is possible today to get a reasonable server for less than $75,000, which is pretty impressive. In at least one case, a solution is even available for under $50,000.

It's a Thin Line
With the growth of the Internet and internal company Intranets, it's likely that the need for networked digital video will significantly dwarf the need for some of the more traditional video servers that are mentioned here. As long as there is a way to create a digital video file, multiple users can play those files from fast disk subsystems using fast networks. Many of the players mentioned here are already well-positioned to take advantage of this trend. Next time we look at this topic, it will be interesting to look at how far that trend has gone.

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