Streams of Thought: Gettin' High (Def) in Amsterdam

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Getting high in Amsterdam isn’t anything out of the ordinary. In fact, with its ubiquitous "coffee shops" and lax laws on psychotropic substances, Amsterdam is something of a mecca for the young traveler who wants a bit of excitement.

But during this year’s IBC show, held in early September in Amsterdam’s RAI Congress Center, the broadcast world was looking to get high in a completely different way. In addition to the quest for high-definition television, which is moving along quite nicely, IBC 2007 also pushed the envelope for high-definition video across the net and IPTV walled-garden delivery systems.

In addition to high-definition streaming, though, two other highs were being sought: high availability in terms of server uptime and high efficiency in terms of delivery system robustness. As streaming tools move from novelty to mission-critical, these two highs will also be key to maintaining the total streaming delivery experience.

High definition.
A year ago I noted a trend toward high-definition acquisition and HD streaming delivery. The last mile was (and still is) an issue, and various approaches—from better compression to more robust fiber-based last-mile solutions—are being tried. But the trend was there, and this year’s IBC showed it growing by leaps and bounds.

Two areas that were of particular interest were file-based (hard drive or solid-state medium) video cameras and HD encoding cards. While HDV, a high-definition video format based on the popular MiniDV tape-based video cameras, has been around for quite some time, the format is flawed in that it primarily captures 1080i in a 1440x1080i format and then extrapolates up to 1920x1080i. The format, along with a lower bitrate H.264 format called AVC-HD, are good for consumer and semi-pro applications, and the price point of HD cameras below $8,000 (and many below $6,000) is particularly appealing. But tape-based workflows place additional steps in the process, especially if the only output will be a digital streaming file. That’s why Sony’s announcement that it’s bringing high-end HD cameras that record on solid-state media down to the HDV price range is of particular interest. Sony’s XDCAM EX will ship in November (by the time this article comes out) for less than $7,000, which puts it at the same price point as Canon’s XL H1. The Sony device, which records on PCI Express cards—meaning that it will fit in PCI Express slots now available on newer laptops as a replacement to the older PCMCIA slot—will record full 1080p signals.

HD capture cards are also of interest, with some of the HDV cameras allowing for direct HD-SDI output from the camera head. That’s why ViewCast, which has lost some of its lead in the encoding card space, had a welcome announcement at IBC when it said it would ship its new HD encoding card immediately. The Osprey-700 HD, first demonstrated at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference in April, records in resolutions of full 1080p, 1080i, and 720p. The company, which ran the risk of losing a prime slot in the encoding card market if they didn’t get into HD, says the card will encode both SD and HD. ViewCast also announced that its Niagara encoding platforms will now support Adobe Flash 8 and H.264 as well as Microsoft’s VC-1 SMPTE standard.

High availability
At its most basic level, as broadcasters look to move their workflows from black boxes and electromechanical devices to file- and server-based devices, they’re concerned about the reliability of these PC-based devices. Those broadcasters who are kicking the tires of new equipment want to see that things can be done better, but not at the expense of reliability; after all, many of these PC-based devices are replacing black-box gear that’s worked well for 30 or 40 years.

The most apparent result of the move towards high availability was evident in the upswing in the number of vendors displaying "white box" or private-label servers at IBC as well as those who are selling mass storage solutions. Some companies, especially those who have large workflow solutions, are bundling servers together with software as their own solution, but more often server companies are staying separate from the software companies that put their software on a standard Linux, Mac OS X, or Windows server configuration.

One company following this latter trend is Digital Fountain. The company is best known for its Quality of Service (QoS) offerings for large file delivery via the use of Forward Error Correction (FEC) algorithms that allow a full file to be reconstructed from less than the original amount of data. The company’s FEC has been adopted by the DVB-IPTV (Digital Video Broadcasting-IPTV) standards body as an IPTV FEC solution; the company, however, lacked a high-availability option, so Digital Fountain’s broadcast play required creating the broadcast equivalent of "bulletproof" or "Five 9s" uptime. The company sought out a partner with a history of high-availability software solutions for IPTV head-end deployments and settled on a new partner relationship with Milan-based Neptuny. Neptuny’s high-availability software, bundled with Digital Fountain’s FEC software, is dubbed ToughStream Server. Digital Fountain claims ToughStream Server provides enhanced QoS or on non-QoS networks with uptime guarantees and failover switches of around two seconds.

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