Video Servers In The Spotlight
With video expected to become a key business tool, corporate users are searching for servers that can efficiently store and distribute complex images
By Emily Kay
Video servers are primed to play a critical role in revamping the way corporations do business. With the media spotlight focused on recent computer-telecom joint ventures designed to bring 500 channels of interactive TV into everyone's living room, not many have noticed the revolution involving the same technology and many of the same vendors that's taking place at corporations across North America.
"Video-on-demand garners all the attention, but the market for video on a network in the business environment represents a more immediate opportunity," says Walter Miao, VP of technology with Link Resources Corp., a market research firm in New York.
Some businesses are already taking advantage of video server technology. For instance, Focus:Hope Center for Advanced Technologies, a nonprofit job-training organization in Detroit, uses video servers to teach manufacturing-floor skills to auto-plant job candidates. "This is a totally new concept in the way education is delivered and relationships are structured within industry," says Lance Mitchell, systems manager at Focus:Hope.
Video servers are specialized versions of corporate network servers. They store digitized video images that require far greater storage and network capacity than text files, and distribute those images across local area or wide area networks (LANs/WANs) to desktop PCs.
Hardware vendors targeting businesses with video server technology include Hewlett-Packard, IBM, nCube, Silicon Graphics, and Sun Microsystems. Leading corporate video server software includes IBM's LANServer Ultimedia for its OS/2-based Token-Ring, Ethernet, and fiber distributed data interface (FDDI) networks; Novell Inc.'s NetWare Video 1.1, a NetWare Loadable Module (NLM); and Starlight Networks Inc.'s StarWare NLM and Unix-based StarWorks.
Ben Linder, senior director of multimedia marketing at Oracle Corp. in Redwood City, Calif., says the database vendor devotes hundreds of designers to interactive multimedia efforts. Oracle plans in 1995 to release Intel PC-based Oracle MediaServer software based on video-on-demand technology and integrated with Oracle's relational database server. "Our core competence is servers," Linder notes.
Microsoft Corp. is working on a high-profile video-on-demand technology called Tiger, due in late 1996 or early 1997. But the company plans to release an unannounced corporate-level video server product sooner than Tiger, according to Colleen Lambert, Microsoft's Tiger video server product manager.
Meanwhile, users are going forward with what they have. Focus:Hope's Mitchell plans to run a training application over Starlight video servers to teach students how to do jobs like gauging the quality of an intake manifold. The servers will replace giant boards holding static, annotated photos of automotive parts.
For now, Mitchell is testing Starlight's software on a Sun Sparc 20 linked to HP and Sun workstations. When fully implemented, he hopes to run a Sun SparcCenter 2000 multiprocessor server linked to Unix- and Windows-based workstations, PCs, and Apple Macintoshes. The problem, says Mitchell: No video server software supports multiprocessing yet.
But using video servers presents challenges for many technology managers. Most LANs aren't built to carry the data loads video imposes, so managers either must provide enough bandwidth on existing networks to support video or set up separate networks dedicated to video. Even the slightest delay in the transmission of video can caus e out-of-sync, jittery images, and blank screens--not good enough for today's demanding users. "They want TV quality," says Jack Noon, president of Midi Inc., an interactive multimedia software developer in Princeton, N.J.
Midi, in addition to using vast amounts of digitized video in its custom project work, disseminates video training to its sales force over a 20-user Token-Ring LAN. The Ultimedia server runs on an OS/2-based IBM PS/2 Model 95 and allows 10 users to access video simultaneously without slowing the network or degrading video quality, says Noon.
Future applications, such as video groupware, will also push video servers into the mainstream. Hoping to facilitate communications among its busy top executives, Chemical Bank in New York will soon begin a pilot project using a test version of Lotus Development Corp.'s Video Notes running on either a NetWare Video 1.1 or Starlight StarWare video server. The video server software will run on a Compaq Computer Corp. Proliant 2000 over a NetWare LAN to four Pentium 90 PCs running Microsoft Windows. E-mail personalized with video clips may help "prevent communications barriers" that build up when managers have little time to meet regularly, says Tony Terracciano, senior technical officer at Chemical.
It may not happen tomorrow, but video to the desktop is primed to become a cornerstone of corporate multimedia technology.
Illustration: Kathleen McCutchen
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