Anystream Agility Workgroup: Encoding Warrior

I tested installation on our own hardware running Windows 2000 and found the process to be pleasantly uneventful on both the client and the server.

All AWs contain an Ultra BlueICE board for accelerating video processing tasks. Unfortunately, the Ultra BlueICE board is only supported on Windows NT — not a problem since the AW is installed on NT, just a red flag. Most of my testing was done on the loaner AW running NT, but encoding and delivery tests were also executed on my own Windows 2000 installation to ensure repeatability.

Setting up File Jobs and running them worked as expected and did so reliably. Anystream uses vendor libraries for encoding Real, Microsoft and QuickTime, and it uses Ligos for encoding MPEG. The control over encoding options for each encoder was impressive. Anystream’s management of encoding parameters was well organized, powerful and comprehensive. I didn’t find a single thing I could do in a stand-alone encoder that I couldn’t do via Anystream.

The insanely cool part, though, is the preprocessing preview window that allows you to set any number of preprocessing options and preview the effect they will have on your video in a split screen. This works from any network client and truly blew me away. Anybody who can’t compute in their head the effect of changing a slew of video, color and noise reduction preprocessing options will appreciate this immediate preview. There’s also a slider in the preview window that will let you preview your settings on different frames and scenes of your video.

I was able to create Tape Jobs that controlled the Beta deck just fine, matching my in and out points to the time code. The true beauty of Tape Jobs isn’t the remote control of a deck, but the automation of the workflow. A single job requiring no human interaction with the server or the deck can control the deck, capture the video, encode to every desired format and bit rate, deliver to one or more destinations, and send e-mail with links to let people view the results.

For live capture, human interaction is required at the physical server to tell Agility when to start and stop capturing. This seems normal, since you’ll need to be there to start the deck manually anyhow. Live capture worked fine.

My buddy through all the testing was the monitoring system. I never failed to isolate a problem or get needed or desired status information about jobs in process from inside the "System Status" window. It’s a full-featured and elegant monitoring capability, which makes a huge difference in an environment where multiple people can run multiple jobs simultaneously.

Ghost in the Machine

The Avid workstation loaned to us for testing worked great as an editing workstation, but we had endless problems with outputting edited content into the AW using the AW’s VTR emulation, which lets the Avid treat the AW as a VTR. In the three or so weeks that we had the system on site, neither the Anystream rep nor the local reseller rep could make this process work as expected. Everything else about the system was rock solid, but we suggest you test this feature out carefully before buying if you need it.

Also, bear in mind that there are many, many other ways to move edited Avid data to the encoding system that don’t have this issue. The AW might not have been the problem — it may have been cabling issues, other hardware issues, OS or software configuration issues, or the Avid itself. Regardless, at the end of the day, it could not be made to work.

Chasing Demons

The documentation was complete and usable; support reps always answered the phone, and the product wasn’t oversold. But the Agility Workgroup is a high-end product for customers with meaty budgets. Depending on your needs, you may want to consider Agility SE, a software package that you can run on your own hardware, priced at $19,995. Or you may want to consider other encoding servers that are less expensive and not as full-featured, but may do everything you need.

Clearly, at roughly $50,000, it doesn’t feel like the Agility Workgroup is doing much to fight the Budget Sucking Vampires, but if you consider that it might reduce staffing requirements, and increase the productivity and reliability of your encoding, delivery and publishing, it might be easy to justify. And for just about every other encoding monster out there, the Agility Workgroup is a warrior that’ll save your neck without breaking a sweat, and maybe even keep you out of danger in the first place.


Agility Workgroup MSRP
Cost includes software and Ultra BlueICE board
Support Contract (Annual)
MPEG-2 Option
The additional items below are integrated and tested before delivery by Anystream resellers:

Computer choices are IBM Z Pro 6866,
IBM M Pro 6868, and Compaq DL 380
512MB of RAM
Internal 40GB drive
CD-ROM player/burner
Digigram VX222 audio card; XLR Digital/Analog
Adaptec Ultra2 Wide SCSI card
Medea RAID drive external; size depends on clients requirements
Matrox G450 Dual Head monitor card

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