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Beyond the box

As video servers become more affordable, more reliable and more readily available with larger and larger amounts of storage capacity, there is a sense that video servers are energizing the asset-management craze.

However, while video servers may seem more attractive and are branded as essential items for stations migrating to the digital multimedia realm, one cannot overlook the impact of the industrywide slowdown in capital or equipment spending. This—along with the emergence of a new class of service providers, such as Pathfire, that allow stations access to video servers without having to purchase them—is why the sun is not shining as brightly on video servers as it did a year ago.

"The whole marketplace is in a recession and has been for at least a year, though not just in servers," says Douglas I. Sheer, president of New York-based DIS Consulting Corp. "Shrinking spending by stations has hit all categories. As a result, many vendors are looking for new categories, really looking for anything to boost sales."

Alternative distribution modalities set up by Pathfire and other service providers are attempting to streamline content distribution based on a service-fee-based approach and what Sheer describes as the installation of "a catcher's mitt" for digital content.

"This creates a new class of small, efficient and free servers for stations which greatly reduce the need for stations or station groups to build their own server farms," Sheer says. "The single-function servers will find it very tough to hold their place. History tells us things tend to hybridize."

"I'm not surprised that people are coming out with new video servers, but what we really need is a new hybrid which handles both video and data well," says Gordon Castle, CNN senior vice president of strategic digital systems R&D. "We see progress in terms of data but only in a very controlled way. Other things we need are more ports and more bandwidth for moving files among video servers."

But file-transfer issues concern more than just the server. "To be able to play a specific clip at a specific point in time is not just about moving data; it is also about managing and allocating bandwidth," explains Harlan Neugeboren, senior director of engineering and technology at Time Warner Cable.

And all of these issues challenge server manufacturers today.

"What makes the transition to applications-driven hardware difficult is that the TV industry has one foot in the single-application-system world, where proprietary approaches dominate," says Larry Kaplan, president and CEO of Omneon Video Networks, "and one foot in the networked-hardware world, where independent applications drive the agenda."

When video servers first came on the scene, they were viewed primarily as a replacement for tape decks, their primary benefit being that they make it easier to access a clip for editing or playback. As the special report on the following pages reveals in examining the evolving category, video servers continue to make inroads as the central repository for video, audio and data information. The challenge now, for manufacturers and users alike, is to move beyond the server concept into making it part of a larger network concept.