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The Moving Picture -
White House Puts the "W" in Video

Jeff Sauer

May 2001 | Who woulda thunk it? A year ago, it seemed that Al Gore carried the future of high-tech in the government on the shoulders of his ill-fated presidential campaign. Now, Gore's teaching at Columbia and the affable, but perhaps less intellectually-gifted, governor from Texas is at the helm and watching streaming video in the White House. He may have had Dell and Compaq down there in Texas, but you wouldn't really think of W as the high-tech visionary, would you?

Heck, Clinton/Gore presided over (or prospered from, depending on your politics) the greatest explosion of new technology since the industrial era more than a century ago, if not ever. And it's well-documented that Gore was the administration's point man for all things high tech. Such inane alleged claims as "I invented the Internet" notwithstanding, Gore seemed genuinely committed to driving digital technology forward were he to become president.

Yet, it's George W. Bush whose administration is overseeing the White House's new venture into streaming video. And talk about mission critical: this technology, reputedly of postage-size pictures and stuttering frame rates, is positioned to serve up the most current and crucial visual information available to none other than the White House Situation Room. Think Bay of Pigs, Iran hostages, Desert Storm, or any other national or world crisis and, chances are, top government officials have formed decisions in that room.

It's the National Security Counsel (NSC) that has put a streaming infrastructure in place for the White House. The plan is to allow real-time live video feeds, or on-demand video clips, to be delivered to hundreds of desktops throughout the building, including the Situation Room. The NSC already has a 24-hour-a-day watch and alert center. Now, it will be able to provide television quality, MPEG-1 video from satellite feeds, reconnaissance footage, archive material, or even CNN directly to the president and his advisors.

"This White House set-up," you say, "must be some heavy-duty iron, probably custom-built and wasting taxpayer dollars." Au contraire. Admittedly, some details must remain confidential, yet there's nothing terribly secretive or out of the ordinary about this installation, other than that it's the White House. It's a closed network for obvious security reasons, but one that can still send video to nearly 300 desktops.

The White House is using commercially-available products from Wallingford, Connecticut-based VBrick, makers of self-proclaimed "value-oriented, easy-to-use, play 'em and go" video network appliances. Rich Mavrogeanes, president and founder of VBrick, jokes that his solutions are "so easy even civil servants can use them." Yet, more to the point, he adds that they're also reliable enough for the White House ("close enough for government work" jokes need not apply), and he's thrilled that his products and this technology are being used to assist national security.

The NSC has incorporated several VBrick Model 3200 network appliances to encode and decode MPEG video at targeted locations throughout the White House, but has also deployed software MPEG StreamPlayerII players to staff desktops using VBrick's Ethernet TV kit. Authorized users can view live and on-demand streams, and store interesting video clips directly to hard disk for replay and review.

As much as he likes the idea of having the White House as an exclusive customer, Mavrogeanes says that the whole process of working with the NSC was, in many ways, much the same as doing business with corporate customers. The National Security Counsel did its due diligence, comparing other possible solutions, including everything from configuring each desktop with a video capture and playback card, to solutions from VBrick's competitors in the network MPEG streaming appliance space. And while a formal bid proposal was necessary, Mavrogeanes boasts that the cost of his entire installation came in well under the government's threshold for demanding a full-blown and prolonged bid and review procedure.

VBrick's first contact with the National Security Counsel was in November 2000, and the installation was in place about the time of George W. Bush's inauguration in January. I know what you're thinking. Wheels were already in motion; it wasn't W's doing after all. Maybe if Gore had been elected, this would be just the tip of the streaming video iceberg for the government. Maybe he'd have wired the whole country. It's possible, but one step at a time.

Truth be told, Mavrogeanes is pleased to give those oft-maligned civil servants the credit. It was not Clinton, Gore, nor Bush who made streaming video happen in the White House. Rather, it was the permanent NSC staffers, the ones who don't necessarily change with every new administration, who had the understanding and the vision to make streaming part of the best-equipped information network in the world.

As it is in most organizations, it was the IT guys working hard to stay on top of the latest technology who made the White House safe for MPEG. And that's probably the best part of the story. It's the White House and it's a high-profile use of the technology, but it's nothing that isn't being done in companies and organizations around the country to make better use of their information, assets, and time. Who knows what the government might accomplish if it helps them do the same?


Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com), columist for The Moving Picture, is the director of 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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