The Future of Media Servers

Fictional Denon Media Server

Denon’s new Blu-ray Media 2TB Server? Alas, no, just one (very imaginative) artists concept rendering of what the future may bring. Are you listening Denon?

Digitized media and distributed A/V are gaining traction, fast. Where this trend will take us, and which media server technology will dominate are the big questions.

Jan. 04, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

A few years from now, we may all look back and wonder how we ever got along without a media server. Today we’re trying to figure out exactly what a media server is, but one thing seems certain: It’s the next big thing.

There’s no hard and fast definition, at least today, of what media servers do. They come in different flavors. For years, companies catering to the custom installation market, including Escient, Crestron, AMX, Audio Design Associates, ReQuest, iMuse and others, have offered their versions of music servers: hard-disk recorders that dub music from a customer’s CD collection, store it as an MP3 file and then distribute it around the house. Homeowners access the music via a keypad system, where it joins FM, satellite radio, cable music channels and, lately, the iPod as another source of music. Some of these companies have added video to the mix, and that has complicated the picture a bit.

The tricky part is trying to send encrypted content around the house over a network. Content owners want to be sure their work doesn’t end up as free media on the Internet, so they encrypt it to prevent piracy. Consumers are allowed to create MP3s from their own CDs and can send those files easily to any room. Creating an encrypted video file from a DVD or premium TV show is a shadier area, and manufacturers have different approaches and philosophies for how to do it.

The Kaleidescape server, at the high end of the market, makes exact copies of DVDs and stores them on the hard drive, which can handle up to 440 standard-definition DVDs. Consumers buy the DVDs, which Kaleidescape stores on the server, but they don’t have to contend with the discs themselves. You can start a movie in the home theater and finish in the bedroom without having to take a disc with you. Kaleidescape systems start at more than $12,000, including the server, DVD reader and a player, and are typically managed by a high-end control system like those from Crestron, AMX, Elan and others.

But Kaleidescape’s road has been rocky. The company was sued by the DVD Copy Control Association, and although the suit was tossed out of court last year in California, other companies remain wary about facing the same legal issues.

At the other end of the spectrum is Microsoft, which is targeting the broader market with its media server, the Media Center PC. Media Center PCs make music, video and pictures available to TVs throughout the house via Media Center extenders. Early-generation Media Centers could only record standard-definition cable TV—or high definition from over-the-air broadcasts—which limited their appeal. Today’s advanced Media Center PCs come with digital CableCards, enabling consumers to receive HD cable signals the same way they would with an HDTV.

Media Center extenders take various forms. The Xbox 360 (at press time, $349 for the 20-GB version with HDMI) is an extender, allowing users to hit a button on the Xbox remote to access music, video and pictures stored on a Media Center PC and show them on a TV elsewhere in the house. HP’s Media Smart TVs—another version of an extender—pack networking technology and software that let you access content stored on your Media Center PC. Media Smart TVs ring in at $1,999 for the 42-inch LCD and $2,499 for the 47-inch LCD model. Even the Pioneer Elite BDP-94HD Blu-ray Disc Player includes Pioneer’s Home Media Gallery feature, which allows you to access digital media files stored on a PC over your existing home network. You can view photos, music and movies on TV and assign a music file to be the soundtrack for a photo slide show.

Expect to see extenders appear in many forms over the coming years. Linksys and D-Link recently introduced extenders as set-top boxes with and without built-in DVD players (prices not yet available). Niveus Media has also introduced a higher-end, rack-component media center extender (price also unavailable).

You can credit Apple for a big part of the popularity of media servers. As soon as consumers had a serious investment in downloaded music and video files, they wanted a way to enjoy them around the house. Apple’s solution is the Apple TV, which stores music, videos and photos to play back on TV. Apple TV receivers, $299 for the 40-GB version and $399 for the 160-GB model, connect to a wired or wireless home network via a simple setup process.

Distributing content is one role of a media server. Another emerging role is backup storage. As more and more of our content is digitized—and not stored on CDs, photo paper or even DVDs—we need a way to protect and secure it. Enter Windows Home Server.

HP is the first company to announce servers based on Windows Home Server software. The 500-GB ($599) and 1-terabyte ($749) MediaSmart servers take on several roles, and few of them resemble those of a standard PC. The servers don’t come with a keyboard, monitor or mouse, for instance. They connect to the home network and communicate with the other PCs in the home. The HP servers are smaller than the standard desktop, too, measuring 5.5 (W) x 9.8 (H) x 9.2 (D) inches. “The HP MediaSmart servers look like they belong on a bookshelf, not like they’re nerdy computers,” says Scott Evans, group manager in Microsoft’s E Home division.

Media servers based on Windows Home Server software stay powered 24-7 and automatically back up all data from all of the home’s PCs once a day. “Media Center is the entertainment center, and Home Server is backup, consolidated storage and a remote access gateway for the home,” Evans explains.

Remote access gives you the ability to retrieve your content from outside the home by going to the customized URL for your home server over the Internet. If you’re visiting the grandparents in California, it’s easy to bring up all the photos of the kids over the Internet, but forget about watching those recordings of “Weeds.” Protected content can be accessed on the home network, but you can’t get it from outside of the house.

How do you choose a media server? Start by determining what’s important to you, says Mike Seamons, vice president of marketing at Exceptional Innovation, whose Lifeware software runs on the Windows Vista platform and Media Center PCs. Seamons breaks out media servers into three types. “If you want a rockin’ entertainment system on your TV, then start with an entertainment server,” he says. A Media Center PC can feed content to up to five rooms, he notes. “If you’re not looking at plugging in TVs, and you just want someplace where all your content is living safely, then get a storage server, and you can have all [your] pictures, videos, music and important documents backed up.” The third category adds home control, and that’s where Lifeware makes its mark by providing the hardware connections and software for home control including lighting, thermostats and security.

EI’s entry-level LifeMedia Server 200 ($3,500), which provides entertainment and home control, includes Windows Vista Ultimate and offers 500 GB of storage. In media terms, that translates to roughly 60 DVD movies, 170 hours of standard definition, 80 hours of HDTV, 5,000 CDs or 250,000 photos. The server is the holding pen for TV, movies, music and digital pictures and also manages automation, offering connections for supported lighting systems such as those from Insteon, Lutron and Centralite. Twenty zones of lighting control would be a $1,500 software upgrade, Seamons says.

For peace of mind, you can add a storage server for backup and duplication of data. EI’s 2-terabyte storage server is $6,000 and offers redundant backup. Software licensing fees are part of the Lifeware scenario, too, which is available through dealers only. You buy a one-time server license for Lifeware for $500, and then add $125 to $500 per screen, depending on the functionality of the screen. In addition, license fees apply to each device, such as a lighting module or thermostat, that communicates with the system.

The advantage of going with Lifeware, says Seamons, is the straightforward, unified user interface that combines entertainment and automation under the same menu. There’s also the Microsoft platform compatibility. You don’t have to use EI hardware for Lifeware to work, although the company offers a full line to meet a wide variety of applications. Depending on your needs, you could go with a robust four-tuner Media Center PC system from Niveus or a music-centric PC from Russound or a MediaSmart extender from HP.

The Microsoft field will only get larger as more third-party companies come on board. Evans of Microsoft notes that in its fifth generation, Media Center now boasts 60 million users. “It has enough of a user base that it makes sense for third parties to build more hardware products that work with Media Center directly,” he says. That even includes high-end supplier Crestron, which will deliver its own Media Center PCs in 2008.

Still, there’s a thriving market of proprietary server systems that are taking varied approaches to whole-house distribution of entertainment. Control4 has linked up with Sony, for example, to stream content from the company’s CAV-CVS12ES High-Definition Video Distribution System. The Sony switching system distributes up to 12 HD signals—from any HD source including DVD, satellite or set-top box—to up to 12 different TVs over a single Cat 5e wire.

High-end control company AMX keeps its server and control solution in-house. The AMX MAX home entertainment server stores movies and music, which users select through an AMX touchscreen controller, TV or PC. You can search for media by cover art, title, artist, genre, playlist or other data via icons or on-screen text that’s customizable to the user. In a hurry? Type in the movie you’re looking for using a virtual keyboard.

iMuse, which sells through the custom channel, provides the hardware server for DVDs and CDs and leaves it up to dealers and owners to choose the ripping software required to decrypt and store content to hard disk. The iMuse Ascent media server stores movies and distributes them to Sierra players that connect to TVs in satellite rooms. The company expected to ship high-def versions for Blu-ray and HD DVD discs by the end of last year. Server prices start at $4,000, not including installation.

Escient’s Linux-based Vision series servers start shipping to dealers in February and will allow users to import their movies and videos (if the user confirms that they have the right to do so) and play back content in the same way the company’s music servers organize and play back music. “Escient’s vision for the future is one in which people have an easy and totally secure way to access and enjoy their entertainment media throughout the home via a single intuitive interface, and our new Vision series products make this promise a reality,” according to Bill Carson, general manager at Escient. Regarding the digital rights management issue, Carson notes. “We are placing the power and responsibility to choose how you manage your content with our customers.  We’re providing the capacity for users to store all of their digital content in an extremely secure environment and access it throughout the home.  At the same time we are requiring customers to confirm that they have the right to put the content there,” he says. The Escient model uses standard file-transferring software to move DVD content from the home PC to the Vision hard drive.

According to Carson, Vision differs from Kaleidescape in features and price. The company has integrated the Rhapsody music system with Vision and adds digital image support. The price of the Vision system starts at $3,900 for the S100 single-room solution. The networked 4TB VX600 ($8,000) server connects to VC1 client boxes ($1,999 each) to give users access to all files on any media servers in the home.

Other media server companies are more cautious about video distribution. “The legal stuff happening on the video side has held us back,” says Bill McKiegan, vice president of sales and marketing at ReQuest. The ReQuest VRQ controller works through a Sony DVD changer and can distribute movies throughout the house via a third-party switcher, but the company is avoiding a hard-disk solution for DVDs at this time.

Instead, ReQuest is looking at online download opportunities in the form of high-speed Internet services, including Verizon’s FiOS network, whose promised download speeds of 6 megabytes per second make hi-res video downloads a realistic alternative to discs. “The download model is much more viable, and that’s the direction we’re looking toward,” says McKiegan. “The silver disc will eventually become obsolete.” Look for ReQuest to introduce a video download solution in mid- to late 2008.

As online media proliferates, A/V distribution will go more mainstream, according to Exceptional Innovation’s Seamons. “Anybody who’s moving toward getting digital, high-definition, on-demand content over the Internet,” he says, “is going to need servers like these.”

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