GV – October 1998

Video Servers Defy Definition
By Sheldon Liebman

In our current political environment, a lot of attention is being paid to the definition of certain terms. In many cases, the words or phrases in question seem pretty obvious to us. Even when there is room for multiple interpretations, we can guess what is meant by a phrase given the context in which it is being used.

One phrase that hasn’t been subject to public scrutiny is "video server," which is probably a good thing. Although we’ve been covering this type of product for a number of years, there still isn’t a single accepted definition of the term. This month, we’ll look at multiple meanings and even more products that can "technically" be called video servers. Whether you actually classify them all in this category is a decision that only you can make.

Defining the Possibilities
Back when computers and video spoke completely different languages, video servers were basically library systems that used control software to access videotapes and play their content through one or more inputs to a routing system. If the router was part of a television station, the output went on the air. In a production facility, it might go to the edit room. In a corporation, it could be piped to a closed circuit network.

Today, there are many different pieces in the video server puzzle. Instead of videotapes, most servers are using disk-based storage to provide digital information. Depending on the product, this storage can look just like a videotape or it can simply be a list of files. Although "full resolution" video is typically what we try to achieve, multimedia formats as small as 160x120 pixels can be "served" as well.

In my office, for example, I have a number of computers that are connected through a Fast Ethernet (100 Megabits per second) network. If one of these machines has a bunch of low resolution, Apple QuickTime movies on it and the other machines play these movies at various times of the day, it can be argued that the source computer is acting as a video server.

If the files are on a disk array attached to that computer instead of on the machine itself, is the array the server or is it still the machine? Does the fact that these are low resolution files affect whether we call this a video server? Shouldn’t we call it a MultiMedia Server or maybe just a file server?

Finally, in this example we aren’t actually turning the movies into a traditional video signal. Does this mean we aren’t serving video or is it enough to know that the original material was created in a video format? What if the material is 3D animation that was rendered directly to the QuickTime format and has never been recorded onto videotape? Does this affect whether we have a video server?

Fast disks, fast computers and fast networks can be used to "serve" video across Local Area Networks (LANs) and even across Wide Area Networks (WANs) without having a single traditional video connection. The source is a file and the destination is a computer screen.

Things get a little more confusing if you actually create a video signal as part of this loop. For example, if one of the computers viewing the movie is equipped with a video-compatible display card like an old Truevision Targa or a current CFE Gallea, the movie can be turned into a composite or component video signal by the display adapter itself. If it wasn’t a video server system before, does this turn it into one? Now, we can make the movie available as an input to a router and send it over a traditional video network. What if we use a scan converter instead of a video-compatible display adapter? Does this affect how we refer to the system?

Next we can look at the area of how the equipment is being controlled. In the examples above, the system looks and acts like a computer network. If we call something a video server, are we implying that it should be controlled by video equipment? Does it need to interface to a station automation system or look like a traditional VTR to other video equipment?

Digital Disk Recorder technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years and devices that used to store seconds or minutes of material are now capable of storing many hours of information. In a really large configuration, a DDR system can even replace a traditional library system. Does this turn a DDR into a video server?

Once we move into equipment that can be controlled by video equipment, do we need to require that it support recording as well as playback functionality? With computer-based systems, we can obtain video data from a number of sources. One of these is through video capture, but this is not the only one. Do we need to capture video directly onto a system in order to call it a video server?

A Little of This, A Little of That
Now that we’ve looked at the areas that can be used to define the term video server, we can look at some of the companies that create products addressing these issues. Depending on where your personal definition fits, the list of suppliers could include virtually every computer and storage manufacturer on the planet. Since we don’t have enough space to list them all, here is a small sample that covers a broad range of choices.

Accom was one of the first companies to extend the recording capacity of digital disk recorders and was an early player in the video server market. Today, the company offers the Axess product with support for up to 4 hours of on-line storage. Accom admits that this system is better suited for storing short clips and stills rather than acting as a pure video server, but they promise that true video server capability will be coming next year. It’s a good bet that they will announce these products at NAB 1999.

Arraid Data Storage Solutions
Arraid doesn’t technically make video server products, but they provide modern data storage formats for older video devices like still-stores and DDRs. Using Arraid products, old Ampex, Harris, and Quantel equipment, for example, can be upgraded to include more storage and faster data transfers than were originally available on the products. Arraid uses high speed SCSI drives to replace older SMD drives or even tapes, expanding the capabilities of older systems.

Ciprico offers a number of UltraSCSI and Fibre Channel disk arrays that support compressed and uncompressed video playback with bandwidth up to hundreds of MegaBytes per second (MBps). Ciprico disk arrays can be configured from a few GigaBytes (GB) up to over a TeraByte (TB) of storage and can be combined for larger storage and/or higher bandwidth requirements.

Eurologic is a company with an OEM focus on the film and video markets. They don’t sell directly to end-users, but they will pass along inquiries to appropriate distributors. Their Voyager series of storage solutions is being used in a number of high speed video applications, although not every reseller of the product admits that their storage comes from Eurologic. The company mentioned that their systems are also being used for HDTV applications.

Hewlett Packard
HP’s MediaStream Broadcast Servers and Disk Recorders recently became more affordable as the company cut prices on the models by up to 45%. In addition, HP introduced the availability of 18 GB drives for the products. With these larger disks, a single MediaStream server can have over 100 hours of on-line storage. Fibre Channel networking is available to link servers together for installations with over 1000 hours of on-line storage. At last month’s IBC show in Amsterdam, HP announced that their server is the first to broadcast using the new MPEG 4:2:2 compression format.

Leitch (ASC)
With its recent purchase of ASC, Leitch immediately became a major player in the Video Server market through the ASC VR300 product. Each ASC VR300 provides two video channels with simultaneous composite, component and SDI access. Systems can be configured with up to 24 simultaneous channels. The ASC VR300 uses Fibre Channel storage and each system supports up to 2 TB (over 100 hours) of on-line video storage.

CentraVision MPIRE is MountainGate’s digital disk-based system for processing, recording and storing video. It takes the place of multiple disk recorders by providing virtually unlimited storage and allowing concurrent shared access to material through the use of "virtual" tapes (vTAPEs). Using Fibre Channel networking, the system can be easily expanded by adding disk arrays for additional storage.

Philips Digital Video Systems
The Philips MediaPool Video Server was one of the first video server products ever introduced and has been upgraded recently. Today, it can be configured with as little as 4 hours of on-line storage and as much as 270 hours. The system can be used with near-line storage as well to manage larger libraries of information. MediaPool supports up to 12 channels of I/O and high speed networking for faster than real-time transfers between units.

Plasmon is a jukebox company that is well positioned to provide video server solutions in the near future. Today, the company offers magneto-optical and CD-R jukeboxes with up to 2.6 TB of storage capacity. As the DVD video format continues to make progress, Plasmon is looking at offering DVD-RAM solutions that will be able to provide high quality digital video storage and retrieval.

Pluto Technologies
Pluto currently offers two product lines in the Digital Disk Recorder category and has just announced a new Video Server product. Their VideoSPACE Digital Video Recorder offer 8- or 10-bit uncompressed video recording and playback. The newer HyperSPACE High Def Digital Video Recorder provides either 3 hours of HDTV capability or 4 hours of SDTV. Before the end of the year, the company will be delivering their AirSPACE Multi-Channel Broadcast Server, which can provide any combination of 10 Serial Digital or Fibre Channel networked streams and supports DV compression at either 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) or 50 Mbps.

Raid systems are the specialty at RMSI, which provides streaming video and multimedia products through the use of high-speed storage. Although they don’t really play in the broadcast market, the company offers a dual-Pentium multimedia file server that is used for high speed storage and retrieval of information in education, computer-based training and videoconferencing environments.

Rorke Data
At this year’s NAB, Rorke Data announced the release of StudioNet-FC, a complete Fibre Channel network and storage system. StudioNet-FC includes storage, networking and volume management components to allow workgroups to share access to video and audio files. Up to 2 TB of storage can be configured on the system using either JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks) or RAID formats.

Although this list of companies has been presented in alphabetical order, it is fitting that the final company to be listed is Tektronix. Their Profile family of disk recorders is one of the most popular products around and the company recently announced an arrangement with Avid that creates a very close partnership for broadcast sales and products (including video servers). The Profile PDR200 family uses MJPEG compression for applications like non-linear editing. The PDR300 family is based on MPEG 4:2:2 and the newer PDR400 family utilizes DVCPRO or DVCPRO/50, a perfect fit with Avid’s new NewsCutterDV system. Because the systems use different compression formats, they offer different capacities, but typical systems range from 10-20 hours of total capacity.

Are We Being Served?
As mentioned above, the number of products that can be classified as video servers depends heavily on the definition you choose to accept for this term. The most important thing to remember, however, is exactly what definition you are using to ensure that you can find the best fit for your needs. You may want a video server and they may call it a video server, but that’s probably not enough.

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