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First Look: Flash Media Server 4

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[Editor's Note: Want to learn more about what's new in Flash Media Server 4, right from the source? Streaming Media's Dan Rayburn moderates a Q&A session with Adobe's Kevin Towes on Friday, September 10 at 2 p.m. ET in the next installment of Streaming Media's Ask Adobe Web Event Series. Click here to register.]

Remember those late-night infomercials where you're guaranteed to add bulk and muscle to your skinny frame? And if you buy now, they'll also throw in another supplement-free of charge-that guarantees you'll lose weight, regardless of what you eat?

While those types of offers have been the butt of many jokes (and a few lawsuits), the premise has been enough to sustain these ads for years, even as technology has advanced: From their start in the classifieds section of magazines such as Popular Science to late-night television and, finally, into your email spam folder, the premise touches a near-universal desire to better ourselves, whether by gaining muscle, losing weight, or a combination of both.

Adobe is making a similar offer, although it's studiously avoiding late-night television. The offer goes something like this: Bulk up on our new flagship server, part of the Flash Media Server 4 family, at a hefty price upgrade, and we promise your media delivery budget will go on a bandwidth diet as soon as it's implemented.

Sound too good to be true? After a first look at the Flash Media Server 4 (FMS 4) family of servers, the offer appears valid.

But don't take our word for it: Stay tuned for a testimonial later in the article from a large technology company that put the FMS 4 premise to the test.

Building Blocks
Just like our late-night weight loss infomercial example, where more than just a diet supplement is needed to lose weight, FMS 4 works hand in hand with several key product rollouts that have become available over the past few months.

To allow for FMS 4's functionality such as Fast Switching and Fusion, which we'll highlight in the next section, Adobe needed to roll out upgrades across its entire ecosystem, from content protection and HTTP delivery to updated players.

Deciphering the timing of all these rollouts was a bit of a puzzle, as each product update seemed to need another product not yet ready for prime time.

For instance, Adobe could have launched Flash Media Streaming Server (FMSS 4), which supports RTMPE. But persistent encryption, used in Flash Media Interactive Server (FMIS) and Flash Media Enterprise Server (FMES) in conjunction with Flash Access, would have required additional tools.

"The move from session encryption with RTMPE to persistent encryption with Flash Access 2.0 is key," said Florion Pestoni, Adobe's principal product manager of rich media solutions, when Flash Access launched. "Many content owners may choose to download content to AIR-based rich internet applications for offline viewing. Since Flash Access 2.0 content will play back on Flash Player 10.1 and AIR 2.0, persistent encryption is an important step toward making offline players adhere to licensing and DRM concerns."

Flash Player 10.1 was still in beta at the time of Flash Access 2.0's launch, as was HTTP Dynamic Streaming (aka Project Zeri). Both finally launched in June, but HTTP Dynamic Streaming only supported on-demand content.

The advent of FMS 4, then, is meant to addresses all aspects of the ecosystem: HTTP Dynamic Streaming for live encoding, coupled with Fast Switching, and Stratus, Adobe's peer-assisted networking for its new Real-Time Media Flow Protocol (RTMFP) delivery protocol.

Support for Stratus is a key selling point for the flagship FMES version. While Stratus was renamed Fusion under FMS 4, the RTMFP protocol's inclusion in Flash Player 10.1 meant that Stratus would enable group or user segmenting, to send messages only between members of the group. This was an important element of FMS 4's implementation of Fusion, as application-level multicast "provides one (or a few) -to[o]-many streaming of continuous live video and audio live video chat using RTMFP groups."

The lag time between Flash Player 10.1's availability in mid-June and the October availability of FMS 4 was beneficial in one respect: The typical time for upgrading from one version of a Flash Player to the next can be measured in weeks, while a Flash Media Server can be set up in days; as such, the likely installed base of Flash Player 10.1 users capable of Fast Switching is higher now that it would have been under FMS 3.5.3.

The advent of FMS 4 means that Adobe has almost finalized the move to its new ecosystem, with H.264 hardware acceleration for Macs as the only ecosystem piece still in beta.

What's New in FMS 4
Adobe's Flash Media Servers have undergone a radical set of changes in the past few revisions. FMS version 2 offered numerous iterations. But Adobe slimmed down the product line to just two for FMS 3: FMSS and FMIS.

The price points between FMS 2 and FMS 3 also dropped, in part due to competition, to a base $995 for FMSS and $4,995 for FMIS. In FMS 4, the price points are the same for the two lower-end servers. But Adobe adds a third server, FMES, at a cost many times the FMSS price point; a spokesperson for Adobe says customers should contact the company for quotes.

So what do you get for all that extra money? In a word, multicast. But this is not just traditional IP multicasting, which is also available in version 4 of FMIS, but a combination of IP multicasting and what Adobe is calling application multicasting.

Adobe calls this combination Fusion, while others call it peer-to-peer multicasting. Regardless of what it's called, it's a key element of FMES.

Other features available in FMIS and FMES include the integration of HTTP streaming, for both live and on-demand content delivery, and Fast Switching.

HTTP Dynamic Streaming
Those who have followed the advent of HTTP streaming delivery for on-demand content will remember Adobe launched a stand-alone HTTP streaming solution, Project Zeri, a few months ago. Tied in with its adaptive bitrate segmenting solution, Adobe Dynamic Streaming, and the advent of Adobe's stand-alone content protection server (Flash Access 2.0), the premise of Project Zeri was to allow progressive downloads to act like streaming delivery via the use of already prevalent HTTP caches and web accelerators.

"We built in support for all Flash codecs," Kevin Towes, Adobe's Flash Media senior product manager, noted at the release of Project Zeri late last year, "including H.264, VP6, H.263, HE-AAC, VP6, MP3, and all metadata that exists within the formats or live stream. Project Zeri will allow you to stream all the same content regardless if it is live or on-demand with no ... change to your live encoding technology."

The advent of FMS 4 allows for live streaming via HTTP, where the Project Zeri prerelease version had only allowed on-demand content to be segmented into adaptive bitrate segments. In addition, FMS 4 will support both data pipe encryption (via RTMP-E) as well as persistent bit-level encryption, when coupled with the Flash Access 2.0 server.

Fast Switching
Working hand in hand with HTTP streaming and Adobe Dynamic Streaming, FMS 4 introduces the concept of fast switching.

Fast Switching was originally scheduled for FMS 3.5.3. But it was delayed until the advent of FMS 4, in part because the launch of Flash Player 10.1 was required to support Fast Switching on the client's machine. Fast Switching uses newer features within Flash Player 10.1 and FMS 4 to reduce the switching time between adaptive bitrate segments. As users no longer need to wait for the buffer to play through, the decreased switching time means that an end user's Flash Player can more rapidly adjust to changing network conditions, increasing and decreasing quality in a more timely manner, while maintaining an uninterrupted playback experience.

RTMFP or Fusion
Real-Time Media Flow Protocol (RTMFP) is a big deal, not just for Adobe but also for the enterprise users at which Adobe is targeting the FMES.

First, let's look at the RTMFP technology and then at possible implementations, including a brief discussion of a prerelease test done by a Fortune 100 organization.

Available in Flash Player 10.1 and AIR 2.0 applications, RTMFP is Adobe's foray into User Datagram Protocol (UDP) transmission of content.

Unlike the more widely used Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) that Adobe's RTMP and many other streaming protocols are based on, UDP is designed to hammer home content with lower latencies.

If TCP and UDP were to star in a good cop/bad cop comedy, TCP would be the kinder, gentler character that serves as a foil to UDP's gruff and overbearing demeanor.

TCP works with other protocols to guarantee the delivery of data, conferring to guarantee that its content has arrived all in one piece, with the option of sending follow-up packets if a few packets went missing along the way. As such, TCP is ideal for data delivery when it comes to data that doesn't need to scale or isn't time-sensitive.

UDP, on the other hand, doesn't play as well with other protocols. And its "take no prisoners" approach means that it gets the content delivered, no matter what other types of content are clogging up the pipe. Still, for wide-ranging or scalable implementations-especially those that require two-way communication-UDP is more effective that TCP.

"Reliable data transmission in TCP is achieved by re-transmission of lost data, which introduces latency," Adobe states in a FAQ on RTMFP. "Because minimizing end-to-end delay is one of the most important goals in real-time communications (a few hundred milliseconds' delay may render a conversation unusable), TCP is not well suited for this purpose."

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