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Digital Convergence
F E A T U R E  
Hardware or Software? Wading the Video Stream

  March 18, 2002
  By Darrin Woods

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Buckaroo Banzai sweeps in to save Penny Priddy and retrieve his oscillation overthruster from the evil Lord John Whorfin just in time to save the Earth from ...

Wait a second! Your users aren't watching full-screen movies at their desktops. They're doing serious work. Corporate training. Videoconferencing. Distance learning. But they'll do it better if they can see clear, full-motion images on their computers. Bringing video to the desktop is an important cost-saving step for the enterprise. Your job is to find the best technology to deliver it to your staff and partners.

arrow Hear Darrin Woods discuss streaming video

(requires RealPlayer)
Enterprise customers have two primary choices: hardware-based MPEG encoders or software-based encoders combined with streaming servers. From an ROI (return on investment) perspective, most enterprises will find it easiest to recoup their investment on the streaming servers, since those servers are often free. Furthermore, streaming servers can conserve bandwidth, since it's often possible to send decent quality images even over a dial-up connection -- a trick hardware encoders can't perform.

On the other hand, hardware encoders provide the ultimate in quality. While the MPEG encoders have a higher entry cost and greater cost per seat than do the streaming servers, they have the advantage of being one-box solutions that need no additional hardware outside of the video source and a network connection. To deliver video to every desktop within an organization, MPEG is probably not the solution. But conversely, streaming servers may not be the best solution for providing a high-quality video signal to boardrooms or sales meetings.

On the hardware encoding front, we asked several vendors to participate in our tests and found only two that had the guts to show their stuff: Amnis Systems and VBrick Systems. We invited Optibase and Cisco Systems, but neither was willing to put its money where its mouth is. Minerva Networks and Path 1 Network Technologies didn't have finished products ready to show. Amnis and VBrick have similar products and delivered essentially the same quality throughout our testing.

We wanted to test cross-platform compatibility to see which vendor could deliver to something beyond a Microsoft Windows-centric network but found that our two participants were just that: Windows-centric. Worse yet, we found that, because of driver and DLL problems, they would not operate on the same machine. An enterprise would therefore need to choose one or the other to use for its corporate video solution. Even with the incompatibilities, it was a tough decision to choose one over the other. In the end, we chose Amnis' offering as our winner, because of its one-box solution and multiple resolution and bandwidth capabilities.

What Do Readers Think?

Check out our e-poll results
on desktop video.

On the streaming server side, we found the compatibility dreams that are made of. Unlike hardware encoders, the main issue with these servers is, indeed, compatibility. Our three participants -- Apple Computer, Microsoft and RealNetworks -- proved that their players could work on multiple operating systems and deliver some level of quality video to each. We graded each on quality, compatibility, ease of use and price.

After we spent weeks in arduous testing and watching our favorite movie over and over, our numbers showed that Apple's Darwin Streaming Server 4 and QuickTime Player 5 package deserves top honors. Apple proved it could deliver a robust server and client that performed well. Its images beat the competition over a range of bandwidths. Best of all, the software is free, regardless of which operating system you're running.

RealNetworks' RealSystem solution took a close second and fell well behind Apple in the price category, since the costs of RealNetworks server software escalate into the thousands of dollars, based on the number of viewers you wish to serve. Finally, Microsoft's Windows Media Services fared poorly in all but the highest-bandwidth quality tests. If you're running Windows 2000 Server and all your clients are Windows-based, this software is a no-brainer, but it's truly the least common denominator in streaming video.

When Quality is the Name

Although all three software-based streaming servers we tested can transmit good-quality video at higher bandwidths, they require at least one computer to encode and a second to deliver video. You may want a solution that is easier to administer. Having one piece of hardware that can encode and deliver high-quality video to the desktop is a great benefit. This quality and simplicity come with a price, though. Each player that is deployed to the desktop will cost anywhere from $30 to $150 per unit. If you have an enterprise of several thousand employees, the per-seat costs could drive the expense to the moon. You should also consider the additional bandwidth necessary to deliver this video to the desktop, as these devices typically encode either MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 streams and require an average of 1.5 Mbps of your network.

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