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Band-Aid: Network Appliances for MPEG Streaming

Jeff Sauer

September 2000 | If you asked the average, reasonably techno-savvy guy on the corporate street about MPEG video, he'd probably say he knows it's something good, but doesn't know quite why or what it could do for him. And, in not too many words, that sums up much of the frustration MPEG manufacturers have faced over the last several years. MPEG has always been a dynamite technology--a tour de force of compression smarts--but one consistently hamstrung by a lack of supporting infrastructure, and a recurring pattern of achieving technological maturity too far ahead of useful broad market solutions. However, it seems that's finally changing and, like so much of technology today, the answer is in networks and bandwidth.

It doesn't hurt that Wall Street has been enthralled with the Internet, networks, and words like "streaming" over the last year, but streaming video is also proving its own worth as an integral part of money-saving and revenue-producing solutions. And this is not the jerky, unreliable Internet streaming video made infamous by the likes of Victoria's Secret, but rather the same quality MPEG you'd see watching a DirecTV satellite. Better still, it's streamed without the need of a separate, complicated video server.

Buoyed by bigger and more reliable bandwidths across corporate and institutional internal networks, companies like Optivision, FVC.com, VBrick Systems, InnovaCom, Minerva Networks, and Optibase are building easy-to-use network appliance MPEG encoders that connect straight to existing network infrastructures and allow virtually immediate distribution of streaming video content, most notably live material.

MPEG has always been the promised format for bringing affordable, high-quality video--for use in corporate training, business news, product demos, distance learning, and medical consultations--to business and institutional users. The trouble has been that formats alone don't solve problems. Now, with the motivation and support of networking companies like Cisco and Nortel interested in increasing network traffic--and, thus, selling more network hardware--MPEG is fitting in comfortably as data traveling across networks and hardware makers are selling solutions, not just technology.

Naturally, MPEG is also the format for DVD and DVD authoring, another market segment that targets corporate and institutional video use. However, while many MPEG companies still offer DVD authoring systems, most have found that business flat. DVD player sales may be out-performing expectations for home use, but growth in the higher-margin, professional authoring and application market, that might have tempted the corporate user, has not been. Instead, the trend in authoring is toward lower-cost, broader-market solutions, like Sonic Solutions' DVDit!, leaving many MPEG companies looking for a bigger value-add elsewhere. Strongly suggesting an increased emphasis on streaming media at the expense of packaged media video distribution is the near-abandonment of DVD authoring by two of its most prominent early proponents, Minerva and InnovaCom. Both companies' core business has always been MPEG encoding; it's merely a matter of redirection that they have both recently thrown their weight behind network streaming applications and diminished considerably their packaged DVD focus. In a sense, it's the same gamble MPEG solution providers have always had to make: banking on their best guess as to what market and what supporting technologies are most likely to catch up to MPEG next.

It slices, it dices, it puts it back together on the other side

On the surface, and as the term "network appliance" is meant to convey, the concept behind streaming MPEG black boxes is quite straightforward. MPEG video component black boxes effectively hide an MPEG encoder--MPEG-1, MPEG-2 or both--inside a video component-style box with video inputs (and outputs if it decodes as well) and network ports for connecting it to existing networks. Remote, usually browser-accessible software configures the box with an IP address and sets encoding parameters--bitrates, format, etc.--and you're ready to encode video.

Using either T1, IP, or ATM interfaces and protocols, network appliances stream video directly onto local area networks (LANs) or wide area networks (WANs). By staying within LANs or WANs, streaming MPEG from network appliances has a distinct advantage over streaming video over the Internet in that it faces no "last mile" problem of dramatically reduced bandwidth. With no dial-up connections at the end of the line to drag down acceptable bitrates, MPEG streaming network appliances already have a major step advantage over the streaming video you might see on the Web.

While streaming video often conjures up thoughts of the competing formats from RealNetworks and Microsoft's Windows Media, those companies have focused on very low bitrate, Internet video streaming. Both companies boast successes in the corporate world, but neither company's proprietary codec scales upward to the higher quality very well. Everybody loves lower bitrates, of course, but often not when they are at the expense of quality. MPEG, particularly MPEG-1, offers both very good picture quality and low enough bitrates to assuage casual concerns about it choking network infrastructures. RealVideo's plug-in architecture does allow third parties like Digital Bitcasting to use Real's video server to stream MPEG and several companies, like Cisco with IP/TV, InfoValue, and VSoft, can also use the Windows Media server and player architecture for their MPEG solutions. However, that adds a level of complexity not faced by network appliances that are their own servers.

Both RealVideo and Windows Media encoders, at least today, are software and typically dedicated hardware that reside inside a Windows PC. Rather than simply plugging a network appliance box onto a network, Real and Windows Media streaming requires the configuration of a dedicated PC encoder and perhaps a second for actually serving the content to the network. With the streaming MPEG appliances, there is no separate PC acting as a video server and, therefore, much less mystery and fewer configuration hassles.

Most MPEG appliances can be used as encoders for streaming server products like Cisco's IP/TV or InfoValue's QuickVideo Suite, but those are solutions primarily designed to distribute stored, prerecorded content. What makes MPEG network appliances so intriguing is that they can take the server out of the equation and independently stream live video across a network.

Optivision: a streaming pioneer

Streaming MPEG, or network-attached MPEG, is not a new idea. Optivision has been selling black box solutions for almost five years, enjoying a mildly successful niche business. FVC.com and VBrick were not far behind. More recently, Minerva Systems, known for its premium MPEG authoring encoders, saw streaming MPEG so clearly as the future of the industry that it changed its corporate identity to Minerva Networks. And Optibase has announced that it will build its well-known encoders and decoders into a network peripheral this fall.

However, it's only been within the last year--with more stable network infrastructures in place across LANs, and WANs, including the availability of satellite nodes--that each reports that its business has picked up dramatically. Jeff Neidermayer of Optivision points out that "five years ago, the notion of streaming high-quality video might have seemed ludicrous. There just wasn't the bandwidth. Today, networks are faster and can support [very good quality] MPEG video, especially WANs. That makes distance learning and conferencing applications not only possible, but quite valuable."

Neidermayer now handles European sales for Optivision, but is an MPEG veteran going back several years to the early 1990s. He's been in the trenches with MPEG from the early days of VideoCD and half-jokingly says, "It's finally a real business."

Going Live

MPEG has renewed its pledge of inexpensive distribution of video content several times with VideoCD, CD-i, CD-ROM, and DVD. Yet each of those solutions has had only limited success, partly because they, by their nature, all use prerecorded video. Since shooting and editing video requires planning--often professional production--and can be quite time-consuming, it's more of an undertaking than many companies can commit to.

From a video production standpoint, streaming live content can be as simple as attaching a video camera to an MPEG "network appliance" and setting up a television mon-itor on the other end. Live video also has the distinct utilitarian value of bringing people together while avoiding expensive and time-consuming travel, and--while professionalism shouldn't be ignored--it's easier for viewers to forgive production value lapses in live material and focus on the information. Getting started with streaming live video is, thus, a lot more accessible to many more organizations.

VBrick Systems has been manufacturing its VBrick line of MPEG network appliances for about three years, almost as long as anyone. Its approach has been to produce a value product, with ethernet IP units starting at under $5,000, less than half of many competitors' solutions. VBricks are limited to S-Video and composite and encode MPEG-1 and not MPEG-2, but they're handily doing the job for many institutions that are on more restricted budgets.

It's no secret that configuring a network can be a sizable task, and to suggest that these MPEG network appliances are always Plug 'n Play without trouble would be an exaggeration.
Mike Savic, Product Management Director for VBrick, says that over the last year the company has seen significant growth in its business from schools, both universities and grade schools. "There's a lot of government funding available now for upgrading technology in schools, and institutions at all levels of education are tapping into that to enhance learning through multimedia and video." Savic suggests that its affordable VBricks are both easy to use and robust enough for classroom situations, and can be a lot more effective than the familiar old AV cart.

On the other hand, many organizations want the flexibility to encode at higher MPEG-2 bitrates for better, "DVD-level" video quality, and several companies supply that feature. Optivision CEO Mike Liccardo says that his customers "including corporate, institutional, and government want broadcast quality video for applications like tele-medicine, content distribution, corporate training, and distance learning." Liccardo agrees that the majority of the time, organizations will use lower bitrate MPEG-1. However, since today's networks have the bandwidth for MPEG-2, having the option for top quality is often a selling feature.

As Easy as Plug 'n Play?

It's no secret that configuring a network can be a sizable task, and to suggest that these MPEG network appliances are always Plug 'n Play without trouble would be an exaggeration. The MPEG companies do their part to deliver streaming data onto a network, but may still face hurdles if the network itself is not properly managed to prioritize video or allot bandwidths to specific types of data, and keep video and other data from getting in each others' way.

Optivision's Liccardo agrees that ease-of-use is critical to the success of network video appliances. "We're very pleased with our hardware, but it's the software that really makes it work. We have done some special things with our software and [proprietary viewing] client to ensure the most efficient streaming and smoothest playback. You can't just rely on the IP network to properly configure and deliver flawless video."

ATM has historically been a more robust standard than IP, and companies like InnovaCom still boast many successful ATM installations. InnovaCom vice president of worldwide sales Debby McDonald cites many successes with ATM products in mission-critical streaming video applications like Channel 26 in Orlando and an unnamed sheriff's department doing traffic monitoring. "These are the really interesting, high-profile types of uses, but we are seeing a lot more happening with our IP solutions" as IP networking has become more robust itself. InnovaCom's Brian Morrison adds that "ATM has been very compelling because it's been more robust in the past, but IP is growing. Ethernet has had its problems, but that's changing and the business is growing because of it."

Other manufacturers agree that the biggest growth in MPEG network appliances today is a result of better IP networks that are being better managed, but that doesn't mean all problems are gone. Most IP video appliances use UDP (User Datagram Protocol), the base protocol for streaming packets. UDP limits the extra overhead of packet monitoring and error correction, which is wasted on time-sensitive video data since re-sent packets would arrive too late anyway. Unfortunately, many firewalls are configured to shut out UDP packets, since their content is not easily identifiable. Most MPEG appliances are designed to be used within a network, but between LANs across WANs may still pose certain challenges.

While Cisco is trying hard to change it, most networks are also only configured for unicast streaming, serving a separate video stream to each viewer. For high-demand live content to a number of simultaneous viewers, unicasting can be a big drain on server resources. IP Multicast, on the other hand, sends out a single stream and lets routers replicate it, ideally far away from the server and close to the viewer. Unfortunately, while virtually all new routers and switchers include multicast capabilities, most default configurations don't have the feature enabled.

The Wider, the Better

The good news is that companies are increasingly interested in asking the right questions. Ultimately, Mike Liccardo says the biggest change in the last year is that companies are not nearly as overwhelmed by the idea of streaming video and can understand more easily how it might improve productivity. "The IT managers aren't saying 'no, don't do it'; they're asking how they can manage it properly."

Stable bandwidth over local area networks is critical for streaming video, but the increasing availability of bandwidth across wide area networks is really making streaming video valuable and accessible. "The real value of these solutions is providing remote access to video for a wide range of uses," says Liccardo.

Jeff Neidermayer, who's been marketing MPEG almost as long as anyone, has been envisioning the power of video solving problems for years and talks effusively about it finally happening. "When a top-notch medical expert can save someone's life without being in the same room or even country; or universities can increase enrollment to remote students; or companies can have high-level meetings without flying dozens of people around the world; or keep thousands of employees up to date with the latest information, that's powerful stuff."


A Second Wind for MPEG-1

For many casual observers, the ratification of the MPEG-2 specification marked the end of life for humble MPEG-1. After all, MPEG-2 is much better quality video with full resolution and 60 fields per second. It's the standard for DVD and Digital Television. MPEG-1 was a great technology, cramming "VHS-quality" video onto a 1X CD-ROM when no one else could, but that's been superceded by bigger, better, and faster, and there's no turning back, right? Not so fast...

Better quality is good, of course, but when you're talking about using up network bandwidth, bigger is rarely a selling point. And so it goes for MPEG in today's world of increasing, but never overflowing, network bandwidth.

MPEG-1 was created by the Moving Pictures Expert Group, a technical workgroup of the International Standards Organization, with the express purpose of achieving that VHS-quality video from 1X CD-ROMs, or about 1-1.2mbps (megabits per second). They succeeded using a combination of interframe compression, including motion predication, and by limiting MPEG's native resolution to 352x240 (SIF). At that native resolution, or its 320x240 square pixel equivalent on a computer screen, MPEG-1 looks very good and can be blown up to full screen on playback without looking that bad. At 2mbps or higher, MPEG-1 looks very good, even at full screen.

MPEG-2 was a second effort designed to achieve the highest quality video where bandwidth did not present a severe constraint, and it succeeded there, too. When top-quality video is required in streaming situations like tele-medicine, MPEG-2 is the way to go. But when it comes to video using up corporate bandwidth, MPEG-2 bitrates can be more than many IT managers are willing to accept on a regular basis, regardless of whether their networks can typically support simultaneous streams at MPEG-2 bitrates. When a CEO wants to put on his best face, top quality can be available, but MPEG-1 does the job handily in most situations and is the default choice for the wide majority of video over networks.

An interesting middle ground is found with "MPEG-2, Half-D1." Most appliances offer this format variation, which has 60-field frame rates for the full motion and full vertical resolution of D1 video, but halves the horizontal resolution to 352 to save half the bandwidth. Like MPEG-1, the decoder properly zooms the half-horizontal resolution to full screen on playback, leaving the video mildly soft to the trained eye. However, our eyes are more sensitive to motion so the full vertical resolution is a dramatic quality leap from MPEG-1.

Ultimately, until bandwidth is overabundant and free, MPEG-1's replacement is less likely to be MPEG-2 than MPEG-4. MPEG-4 is a new, very low bitrate format that has special consideration for integrating graphics and text into video while keeping bandwidth usage to a minimum for Internet streaming. Microsoft uses a non-standard codec it also has termed MPEG-4 at the compression format for its Windows Media Technology; however, as yet, few products leverage the new technology and MPEG-1 remains the industry workhorse.


Companies Mentioned in This Article

Cisco Systems, Inc.
170 West Tasman Dr.; San Jose, CA 95134; 800/553-6387, 408/526-7208; Fax 408/526-4545; http://www.cisco.com

InfoValue
4 Westchester Plaza; Elmsford, NY 10523; 914/345-5980; Fax 914/345-5996; info@infovalue.com; http://www.infovalue.com

InnovaCom, Inc.
3400 Garrett Drive, Clara, CA 95054, 888/464-6734, 408/727-2447; Fax 408/727-6625; info@transpeg.com; http://www.transpeg.com

Microsoft Corporation
10500 Northeast 8th Street, Suite 1300, Bellevue, WA 98004; 800/426-9400, 425/705-1900; Fax 425/705-1831; http://www.microsoft

Minerva Networks
2111 Tasman Drive, Santa Clara, CA 95054; 800/806-9594, 408/567-9400; Fax 408/567-0747; info@minervanetworks.com; http://www.minervanetworks.com

Optibase Ltd.
91 Medinat Hayehudim, Herzliyya 46766, Israel; +972 9 9559 200; Fax +972 9 9586 099; http://www.optibase.com

Optivision, Inc.
3450 Hillview Avenue; Palo Alto, CA 94304; 800/239-0600, 650/855-0200; Fax 650/855-0222; info@optivision.com; http://www.optivision.com

RealNetworks, Inc.
1111 3rd Avenue, Suite 2900, Seattle, WA 98101; 206/674-2700; http://www.real.com

Sonic Solutions, Inc.
101 Rowland Way, Suite 110, Novato, CA 94945; 415/893-8000; Fax 415/893-8008; info@sonic.com; http://www.sonic.com

VBrick Systems, Inc.
12 Beaumont Road, Wallingford, CT 06492; 203/265-0044; Fax 203/265-6750; info@vbrick.com; http://www.vbrick.com


Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com) is the Director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a Contributing Editor to NewMedia Magazine, Video Systems Magazine, Presentations Magazine, and AV Avenue.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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