VBrick allows building of TV stations

Traditionally, use of streaming video in the enterprise has been limited to transmitting tiny talking heads. Trying to include useful features such as whiteboard shots and product demonstrations has proven too difficult for all but the most advanced and costly video distribution systems.

VBrick Systems Inc.’s EtherneTV Media Distribution System changes that. It isn’t cheap, ranging from US$10,000 to more than US$100,000 for a complete system. Yet VBrick has succeeded in creating a single system that combines near-broadcast quality, appliance-like ease of setup, and flexible support for live broadcasts, on-demand streaming and videoconferencing.

At the heart of the EtherneTV system is the Media Control Server (MCS), which facilitates browser-based control of live and stored video. Then there are the VBrick appliances, or “bricks,” which provide distributed or high-density encoding and decoding of MPEG video. A typical setup would have the bricks getting their initial configuration through DHCP, with the MCS handling connection or multicast channel setup.

My test setup included the VBrick 6300 brick, which came equipped with full-screen MPEG-2 encoders and decoders, and the VBrick 4300, which contained an MPEG-2 encoder and an MPEG-4 decoder.

VBrick’s decision to offer MPEG-4 as an encoding alternative to the meat-and-potatoes MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 was a good one. The format meets low bandwidth requirements and can stream reasonably good video to even mobile phones and handhelds.

Each brick can be controlled in a variety of ways: via serial- or Telnet-based command line; with a Web browser through an encrypted login; with SNMP; and via the MCS scheduler.

I also tested the EtherneTV-NXG VOD (Video-On-Demand) Server, which boasts 75Mbps of streaming throughput and is capable of sending and receiving dozens of simultaneous media streams, and the EtherneTV-STB Set Top Box, which includes a single decoder for displaying streaming video on a TV or monitor.

Setting up the EtherneTV system is wonderfully simple. You can take a factory-fresh VBrick encoder, plug it into a DHCP-enabled network, and — with just a little bit of configuration through the serial interface — you are ready to stream.

It quickly became apparent during the setup of the various components that VBrick has paid a lot of attention to user comfort; even the occasional user should have no trouble. Context-sensitive help and well-worded configuration fields made this system nearly goof proof. Further, the look and feel are carried from each brick’s internal Web interface to the browser-based client/player to the VOD Server’s UI.

From the MCS Web interface, everything is point-and-click. From the UI, an admin can assign video streams to store to the NXG Server, rebroadcast the stream to multiple locations via unicast or multicast, or perform a lookup in the scheduler to connect directly to another VBrick unit, all without touching the keyboard.

Admins may set up time-based streaming through the scheduler to rebroadcast stored video, set up point-to-point video conferences, or set up broadcasts. Session setup can include testing for far-end equipment so high-bandwidth streams aren’t sent to nonexistent end points.

All the end-user interfaces are uncluttered and simple. For the Windows client, users just point their browser at the MCS, and the necessary plug-ins are automatically downloaded and configured.

Once the tiny client is installed, currently available program content will show on the initial display. Admins can also embed specific video-on-demand or stream addresses into Web pages using the included HTML files.

VBrick has the nifty ability to break up captured video into smaller pieces for upload to avoid swamping network connections. The Current screen displays currently running streams. Authorized users may drill down for more details, such as its origin, where it’s going, and who has viewing rights.

Overall, I found that this system covers every portion of the video distribution spectrum. The next edition, due in September, aims to build on the system’s strengths, adding client-side publishing capabilities, support for Mac OS X clients, and integration with LDAP, Microsoft, and Novell directory servers for authentication and permissions. The MCS will be able to present content from multiple VOD Servers.

With scalable video delivery, the EtherneTV system delivers the equivalent of your own private television network, dovetailing nicely into your existing company intranet.

Brian Chee is associate director and founder of the Advanced Network Computing Laboratory at the University of Hawaii’s Department of Information and Computer Sciences.

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