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Streaming media picture on Linux coming into focus

  • June 16, 2000
  • By Paul Korzeniowski
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The days when people watched the news just on TV are over. A growing number of consumers want to get their news off the Net, in video form as well as in print. And in the spring of 1999, Atlanta, Ga.-based broadcaster CNN Interactive Inc. discovered that it wasn't prepared for just how many of its customers wanted to watch CNN news on the Web.

With traffic on its Web site skyrocketing, CNN Interactive realized that its streaming media server farm, which was running on Sun Solaris servers, would have to be expanded rapidly. "Performance was going to suffer unless we quickly put a server in place that could handle 3,000 video streams," says Tom Gerstel, manager of enhanced service development at the company. Instead of adding more Solaris servers, CNN Interactive chose systems running on Linux. "A Linux system seemed capable," says Gerstel, "and its low price eased the cost justification."

The company now has 25 streaming media servers. Four of them are dual-CPU Hewlett Packard NetServer LPR systems, with 500 MHz Pentium III chips and 1 GB of RAM, running Red Hat Linux.

As a broadcasting company, CNN Interactive is at the forefront of a movement which will eventually make video images on the Web as common as text. The infrastructure to support such applications is slowly falling into place, and increasingly, Linux is becoming a part of it. Desktop and server streaming media software suppliers have ported their products to the open source operating system, at the same time as networks are becoming robust enough to support the high bandwidth that streaming media demands.

"We are beyond the stage when corporations were trying to determine whether or not they could get video technology to work," says Christine Perey, president of Perey Research & Consulting, a Placerville, Calif., market research firm that focuses on video technology. "They know that they can do that and are now examining its potential benefits and ROI."

The primary mechanism for carrying video transmissions is streaming video. A streaming media server stores items centrally -- such as a company president's message or a complex diagram -- so users can later pull the audio, video, or graphical data across the network to their desktops for playback.

Streaming media on Linux to double this year

Streaming media server and desktop software that runs on Linux are available from Apple Computer Inc., Burst.com, Entera Inc., and RealNetworks Inc. "Two years ago, about four percent of our streaming servers were deployed on Linux; we expect that number to at least double this year," says Marty Roberts, a product manager at Seattle, Wash.-based RealNetworks.

In fact, the technology has reached the mass market. RealNetworks claims that there are 115 million copies of its desktop video player stationed on users' desktops. Corporations have been slow to adopt streaming media because they have not seen clear business benefits.

That is starting to change. "Companies are starting to see that streaming media can improve internal communications," says Kyle Faulkner, chief technology officer at Burst.com.

The technology has obvious speed advantages over snail mail. And while employees can download video files using file transfer protocol (FTP), streaming media is more convenient. With FTP, large multimedia files must be downloaded in a single large chunk before they can be viewed, while streaming media lets companies store multimegabyte files on centralized servers and send specific sections to individual workstations on demand.

Streaming media offers employees flexibility, a key in today's fluid, rapidly changing enterprises. "In a large company, it is impossible to get every employee to look at their PCs at the same time," says George Garb, a senior manager for developer relations at Cobalt Networks, a Mountain View, Calif., supplier of Linux-based computer appliances. "Streaming media enables management to get key messages out without disrupting workers."

Streaming media is also far cheaper than satellite broadcasts for delivering such messages. Depending on the number of participants, a satellite broadcast can cost as much as $100,000 per event while a streaming video broadcast is priced at one-tenth of that amount.

These sorts of advantages mean that streaming media technology is starting to be accepted in certain niches. Not surprisingly, online content providers like CNN Interactive have been the earliest adopters. Music companies are beginning to rely on the technology to distribute portions of songs over the Web. Brokerage houses have been adopting it to improve communications with their customers, with videos of financial analysts providing their insights about key companies or market sectors to clients over the Web.

Training is another area of emphasis. Traditional methods, such as videotapes, seminars, or live events, aren't always practical. Distributing videotapes can be expensive, and employees' schedules sometimes prevent them from attending live classes.

A Linux video server -- on a mainframe?

Because the technology is so new, many organizations are still experimenting with how to best employ it. Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for example, is evaluating the possibility of using its IBM S/390 mainframe -- running the new Linux mainframe port -- as a digital library to deliver streaming video and audio to students and faculty, according to Harry Williams, director of technology and systems at the college.

And there are still rough edges to streaming media technology. IT managers need to devise strategies for managing the bandwidth-intensive applications, and may want to upgrade their networks before attempting to run many video streams on them. They also need tools to monitor bandwidth usage: while a handful of 1 Mbps streams may not have an impact, tens, hundreds or thousands probably will.

Corporations also need to be able to plug various desktop video players into any server, something that is not possible now. "In a year or two, all vendors will move away from proprietary video streaming interfaces to standard ones," predicts Richard Desoto, vice president of marketing at Entera.

Vendors are responding to these problems and packaging their systems for easier deployment. Red Hat and RealNetworks forged a strategic alliance to create an integrated media delivery solution for Linux. Under the agreement, RealNetworks' RealServer 7.0 is bundled with Red Hat's open source operating system software and distributed to Red Hat Linux users.

Entera includes caching and proxy functions in its system and signed a deal with Cobalt so firms can drop a Linux video server into their networks with minimal configuration requirements.

Companies are also outsourcing streaming media application development and maintenance to a growing number of application service providers focused on this market. Activate.net Corp., Akamai Inc., Interocity Development Corp., MCI WorldCom, and RealNetworks are a few of the companies with such services.

Clearly, streaming media -- and along with it, Linux as a streaming media platform - is an area that is ripe for growth. "To date, there hasn't been a killer streaming media application, one that will drive acceptance of the technology through many corporations," says Cobalt's Garb. "As more companies experiment with the technology, one will emerge and use will spread."

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