ideo On-Demand across Ethernet networks is a hot market today. NAB 2000 was abuzz with media streaming talk, and some recent technology migrations in the DVD world underscore the trend. Minerva, Optibase, and InnovaCom are three contenders in the glutted DVD authoring market who have re-dedicated their MPEG-2 technology to streaming--instead of packaged--media. It has taken a bit of work and time for NAS to respond and address the demand, but Miami-based JES Solutions has stepped up to bat with a potentially great VOD unit. The Media Ripper claims to deliver 20 MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 (non-localized) video streams across 100BaseT to Unix, Windows, or NetWare clients at a low price point.
JES Solutions has been with us for quite a while now, quietly providing, since 1990, CD-ROM solutions to media centers worldwide. With the Media Ripper, we wanted to find out how big of a splash it is prepared to make in the VOD market.
The unit itself is an 8-bay tower with both a Kenwood TrueX CD-ROM drive and a 6X DVD-ROM installed. As with most NAS systems today, the CD and DVD drives are used for content and software loading only--onboard hard drives handle the storage and delivery chores. The server module we tested came with a 36GB caching hard drive, giving us room for about sixty 600MB CD-ROM titles or eight DVD-Video titles. The module itself takes up an eighth bay at the bottom of the system. The five open bays in our system would allow for additional hard drive installs to bring the system up to a full 188GB if we needed to upgrade.
The Media Ripper performs much better than many NAS servers in setup. Since the unit supports IPX and SMB connections along with TCP/IP (i.e., HTTP), having the correct IP address configured at the start isn't essential. This made configuration painless. We attached the Ripper using our NetWare workstation, then gave it an IP address on our network and rebooted it. From there it was no problem to access titles using Windows Explorer or via our Web browser.
The Ripper automatically caches any CD or DVD title placed in one of its drives. Once the contents load, (and with the TrueX drive this is fast,) the disc pops out ready for a new title. As the unit is tailored for music or video title delivery, you may not have to hassle with a lot of user authentication and security here. Administrators can provide users with quick access without a lot of configuration. However, the unit does provide licensing control for each title to answer that concern.
We found that the Ripper delivers as promised on throughput. You'll need a 100BaseT or faster network to see it, but the system will indeed move video at the desired 3 to 7MB/sec. Why is this unit so much quicker than other NAS units? The trick here is the sequential nature of streaming video or music. Unlike data NAS systems, which often have to contend with sporadic reads from widely physically separated files on the drive, the Ripper can expect its users will want to read the entire contents of a given media file. The software can thus be optimized to cache for this type of delivery.
Our test video streams performed as well from the Ripper as from a local drive. The automatic music file conversion (to WAV format) was a welcome addition to our network users.
The Ripper uses an Allion server module for network connectivity. Allion is a relative newcomer to NAS, but a long-time Taiwan player in the adapter, hub, and testing markets. Our experience now suggests that Axis and Microtest might want to keep an eye on Allion in terms of sheer performance.
Although the Allion unit does perform well, it has a few drawbacks. First, it lacks an LCD screen. While this may help reduce costs, it also means we have no easy way to diagnose problems with the system. Instead, the Allion provides an elaborate scheme of flashing lights to indicate error conditions. This seems crude for the type of environment that NAS units typically find themselves in today. It also has some limitations in the client area, which we'll cover a little later.
The Ripper claims support for a wide variety of media including single and multisession CD-ROM, CD-Audio, Mixed-Mode, PhotoCD, and VideoCD discs. It also has DVD-ROM and DVD-Video support, although in our tests we experienced mixed results with DVD.
Some DVD-ROM titles would appear to mirror to the unit's hard drive, only to vanish as soon as we ejected the DVD disc. In another test, a DVD-Video title (from Technicolor) continuously showed a "Mirroring" status message and never completed. (Although in fairness we should state the disc was available to users from the unit's drive even if it never mirrored.)
The Ripper offers two ways to configure and manage the tower: Windows or browser-based. If you want to manage the unit via Windows, you'll need to install the NetBeui protocol so the Mirror Manager software can find the tower on the network.
The Mirror Manager is a cleaner, more straightforward tool than the browser version. But NetBeui is an extremely inefficient network protocol. Having to configure three protocol stacks on a workstation to work with the Ripper also seems too much for most users.
The browser-based tool requires several more steps to perform operations that in the Windows Mirror Manager only took one. Worse, some are counter-intuitive, like choosing the Share Control option in order to do a mirror CD operation. However, the browser tool does not require adding NetBEUI to your workstation. Also, you can use either tool, but you don't need to use both to run the Media Ripper.
The documentation with the Media Ripper also presents challenges. This OEM-provided tome identifies the unit as the FISC CDM which might leave some users confused about whether they're reading the right book about the right product. As we mentioned earlier, the FISC unit is provided by Taiwan-based Allion, a relative newcomer to NAS. The manual reflects this origin, and indeed applies to the Media Ripper or anything else a VAR or integrator might call it.
We found the manual nicely illustrated and quite comprehensive. As a blanket guide to an OEM product, the manual covers much more than just the pre-configured approach of the JES unit. It also covers in detail how to install the NAS thin server inside a tower, how to add drives, and how to connect the IDE cabling.
We found all this added detail interesting but very distracting for the novice user. In fact, the manual would intimidate many, implying as it does a lot of setup and procedures that in fact don't have to be performed for the average installation at all. For example, what would a novice administrator think when he or she reads the manual and finds a recommendation to install the server module in the center bay (not the bottom as in the Ripper) of the tower?
Curiously, the manual also hints at features not found in the Ripper. For example, it mentions support for AppleTalk, AFP, and HFS--which would be great news for Mac fans--but these aren't supported in the shipping version. (The manual calls this "early releases of the firmware.")
The manual also is quite dated, having been written in June 1999. Client software for both Microsoft and Novell show versions now two years out of date. This will present hurdles to users with newer versions of the software who now must extrapolate from the older illustrations to their versions. This early printing also means there's no coverage of DVD support.
Worst of all, the manual often lapses into a confusing dialog such as: "For NetWare clients, the user name and password for accessing the FISC CDM are naturally coming with the share name and share password of shared devices."
I challenge any administrator to figure out what that might mean without an example.
We also found the Allion-equipped Media Ripper only supports Bindery mode for NetWare. Novell networks using pure IP (i.e., NetWare v5.0 and later) will have to implement IPX support to connect to the Media Ripper. Bindery mode also means administrators can't use their NDS security schema with the Ripper. Instead, they must rely on a built-in user/group security mechanism or use bindery emulation on a server to authenticate--a drawback that other NAS vendors have overcome by providing full NDS support.
The same is also true of Microsoft's Windows 2000 Active Directory. The Ripper's server only supports domain services, not Active Directory. Again, this limits the type of environments that the unit ideally would run in.
AppleTalk users have no support at all in the current version of the system. This seems strange, as the unit is clearly touted for the education market. Lacking native Mac support looks like a major drawback for widespread use in that arena.
ripe for ripping
The Media Ripper delivers, as promised, the equivalent throughput of at least 20 MPEG-1 video streams over 100BaseT Ethernet on NetWare IPX or Microsoft NT/Win2K networks. It arrives at a perfect time, born into a market hungry for network video streaming, and comes at very competitive price points. JES scores with us for a keen perception of market need with this solution.
As easy to set up and configure as any comparable system out there, the Media Ripper gets up and running with no unwelcome surprises for the advanced administrator. For those users who meet its sometimes awkward requirements, the Media Ripper is the current champion for video delivery.
As much as we wanted to give the current Media Ripper unequivocal high marks, we think that the next version may be what we are looking for. We would like to see fewer problems with DVD titles, a better manual and online help, support for NDS and Active Directory, and Macintosh support. With these improvements, the Media Ripper will indeed be the killer system it wants so much to be for video on-demand applications.
NETWORKOBSERVER columnist David Doering (firstname.lastname@example.org), an EMedia contributing editor, is also senior analyst with TechVoice Inc., an Orem, Utah-based consultancy.
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