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Digital Fountain: Quantum Leap?

San Francisco-based startup Digital Fountain (www.digitalfountain.com), announced a whole new way to serve and deliver content.

"This is not an incremental change in streaming delivery, it's a quantum leap," said Cheryl Haines, VP of marketing at Digital Fountain. The company said it can stream to users on a massive scale without affecting server load.

Digital Fountain unveiled its on-demand Streaming Fountain and Download Fountain for serving streaming and downloadable files. The servers use the company's patented "Meta-Content" technology, which essentially represents data packets as a series of unique mathematical equations. Once enough of these equations are received, the receiving computer reconstructs a perfect copy of the original content.

Although Digital Fountain supports QuickTime, RealNetworks and Windows Media files, the company made a deal with Microsoft that touted its digital rights management technology. Other partners include Sony and Cisco. Sony will develop a solution component for satellite communication that will use Digital Fountain's Meta-Content technology, while Cisco will use the servers to distribute media over enterprise wide area networks and the Internet, available in May.

Digital Fountain said that it solves one of the first rules of streaming: the more popular you are, the higher your costs. "In quest of the Holy Grail of efficient, economical distribution of large files and streaming media over the Internet, much has been promised but very little delivered," said Cliff Meltzer, Digital Fountain's chief executive officer. "Using an entirely different and new technology, Digital Fountain today delivers on that promise."

"Digital Fountain appears to have solved the paradox of popularity," said Michael Hoch of the Aberdeen Group. "Digital Fountain's technology promises to eliminate the cost barriers associated with Internet-based communications."

Meta Content

Haines said that traditional streaming doesn't scale because servers must send data to every user. With Digital Fountain's Meta-Content technology, Haines said, it doesn't matter which packets are received, or in what order; it only matters that the right quantity are received. Benefits to this approach are that all users are treated as a single group, so the load required to serve many users is the same as for one user.

"We don't send the content, it's the mathematical metaphor of the content," said Haines. She explained that the "transformation" process doesn't reduce the size of the file; it merely chops it up into slices where it can be recreated at the end users computer. "It's almost like the DNA of the content," she said.

Nuts and Bolts

Digital Fountain said its products lead the way in terms of server capacity. Streaming Fountain supports up to 4,000 - 700Kbps video streams, 10,000 - 300Kbps video streams or up to 60,000 narrowband streams. Haines said that server can reduce overall costs of ownership by requiring fewer servers, less rack space and fewer support personnel.

Streaming Fountain is a rack mounted appliance, that can be used in both unicast and multicast scenarios. Digital Fountain also effectively reduces server load and alleviates network congestion created by heavy traffic on IP networks other than the Internet. Content delivery networks can use Fountain Servers to move data efficiently along their backbones. Satellite operators can use Fountain Servers to send rich data reliably and far more efficiently than they could with existing technology.

Essentially, the Fountain server supports any media type because it just needs the digital file where it can transform it. The server just sends out one stream for each bit rate, so Haines said it can work well with transcoding solutions like Anystream's to get files into different rates.

Perhaps the biggest downside is that the technology isn't available for live content. "We could have created a product for live, and we definitely plan to do a live product, but on-demand is more interesting," said Haines. "If you use standard multicast you can do live today. No one has an answer for on-demand."

It also requires a plug-in on the end user's media players. But company officials shrug off the plug-in concern saying that people are used to downloading small additions to their players.

The metacontent technology is rooted in academic research, said Haines. "We built software around to make a product, and hardware to create the server — this is not something you'd create in a garage overnight," she said.

Haines said that the company can extend this into any architecture or network. "You can also deliver it to end users on any device: PCs, PDAs, set-top boxes."

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