RealNetworks Helix Broadcaster Brings Encoding and Server Together

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One of the pioneers of streaming, RealNetworks, today announced the Helix Broadcaster, a line of streaming "appliances" that combine both the encoding and media server functionality in a single box.

"We see the Helix Broadcaster line as a way for company with streaming requirements to meet any size need," said Michael Womack, senior director of Helix products at RealNetworks. "Combining the encoding and serving together, we have the opportunity to offer small business and enterprise alike the chance to encode HD-SDI signals and serve them out without needing additional hardware."

 With this move, Real is broadcasting its intent to move beyond software and into hardware, as a way to differentiate itself in a marketplace it helped create. With the introduction of hardware, available in five different versions, Real is leveraging a partnership with a hardware vendor (which it is not revealing) to combine its twenty years of software expertise into an all-in-one appliance approach.

"We feel our price points will be an industry disruptor," said Womack, during an interview just prior to this year's NAB trade show in Las Vegas. "We scanned the market, looked at the current market leaders, and determined we could offer quad HD-SDI or IP ingest—and serve it out via an integrated Helix Server—at a lower price point than most other encoder-only solutions."

While we've not yet had a chance to see the units, one of which will be on display at Real's booth at NAB, the concept of integrating the server and encoding together is certainly intriguing. In previous tests, including those I did for the 2011 Best Workflows study, the need to have a separate server meant that much of the encoding testing required a separate process, or even a separate machine, to handle fragmentation of adaptive bitrate (ABR) content.

"By using the same CPU for encoding and serving, we can choose to do fragmentation at the server," said Womack, "after serving up an industry-standard, compliant H.264 stream."

This is possible, Womack says, due to the fact that Real has the internal knowledge to know what Helix Server scenarios will tax the CPU and which will not.

"In most scenarios, we know that our Helix Server configurations on average only consume less than ten per cent of the CPU cycles," he added, "meaning we have about 80 per cent, after accounting for 10 per cent overhead, to use for encoding of HD-SDI or IP ingests."

Real's Helix Broadcaster will come in five flavors, three of which are 1 rack unit (RU), one of which is a 3 RU form factor, and another that is a blade server configuration. One limitation, as described by Real in its product details, is the blade server currently only supports a single power supply. This may be cause for concern for those who look to install dense configurations in a data center environment, where dual, redundant, hot-swappable power supplies are the norm.

"We've been working on the hardware front for about three months' time," said Womack, "and we think what you'll see on the show floor on Monday will be a testament to how far we've come in just that short time period. We will continue to expand the capabilities of the different versions of Helix Broadcaster over the next few months."

We look forward to testing this novel appliance concept, comparing it to units that cost many times as much as well as those whose price points are lower, but lack some functionality.

We also look forward to seeing an initial unit in operation on the NAB exhibit floor on Wednesday. The NAB show's exhibition halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center will remain open until Thursday.

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