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Hardware-Based Systems

Distribution of media assets over the Internet is network-intensive, so it makes sense that one company leading the way in media distribution is Cisco Systems. Cisco has developed the Application and Content Networking System (ACNS), which leverages software from Interactive Video Technologies along with Cisco ACNS hardware to streamline content delivery.

The Cisco system can provide video-on-demand services as well as live broadcasts and presentation distribution. Because it utilizes Cisco networking hardware, this system can be an extremely cost-effective solution for distribution of media assets throughout an organization. However, because it's a hardware-based solution, it involves tweaking your network infrastructure and limits you to distribution via the Cisco hardware. This system also comes with a hefty price tag. Still, for large organizations with offices located around the world, the Cisco-based solutions offer a very powerful means for content distribution.

For organizations that have Fortune 500 needs without Fortune 500 budgets, Digital Rapids' StreamZ server line offers content distribution that's primarily geared toward video distribution. The StreamZ line allows an organization to quickly and easily distribute media in a variety of formats over the web. The company's tagline is not far off the mark: "What if you could plug a VCR right into your network?" Your video goes into the server in one format, and comes out in any number of other formats—including Windows Media, QuickTime, DivX, and MPEG—in real time. StreamZ servers are extremely easy to use and integrate, and the servers scale to meet a variety of organizational needs. However, there are some drawbacks. Scaling the servers to larger enterprises means adding more and more StreamZ to your network, and the presentation-integration capabilities of the system are limited. If your media assets are principally on video, this might be the way to go, but for more complete media integration you might look at other solutions.

Along the same lines as the servers from Digital Rapids are the Optibase MGW line of servers for video distribution. These servers provide video-on-demand as well as streaming video options, and are designed to be a one-stop solution for video distribution. Unlike some of the other products we'll take a peek at later, the MGW line is limited to video distribution. However, Optibase is one of the leading producers of encoding hardware, and many of their capture cards form the basis of the other software-based solutions we'll explore. For standalone, hardware-based video distribution, Optibase remains a solid solution.

VBrick is another company offering hardware-based video distribution systems. One advantage to VBrick's architecture is that many of its products are designed to be highly scalable. In addition to encoding and decoding appliances, VBrick offers video-on-demand servers, streaming servers, and some very unique set-top box hardware.

Like the other hardware-based solutions, VBrick can provide simultaneous format encoding and distribution over the network. However, the EtherneTV set-top box is a product that plugs into your network and into a TV, LCD, or plasma monitor, allowing you to play network-distributed video sources over a standard television interface. It's a great way to distribute traditional video content to various locations and show that content over traditional video equipment. One nice feature of the VBrick product line is affordability. Because each appliance is specialized, the cost per unit tends to be fairly low, making it a cost-effective means for building exactly the network that you need.

Finally, Telestream offers a mix of software and hardware solutions in their FlipFactory and ClipView product lines. The FlipFactory line allows simultaneous encoding of video assets into a variety of formats, which can then be distributed over the web. The ClipView, ClipExpress, and ClipMail products offer a hardware-based distribution system that allows you to distribute encoded video over IP networks to a variety of locations and devices.

Media: More Than Just Video

Most of the systems we've considered so far excel in terms of video content distribution. However, what about true media integration? That's where software-based systems really start to outpace their hardware-centric brethren.

Video is a fantastic tool for communication. However, many organizations are just beginning to develop sophisticated video communications; the bulk of communications in many organizations still comes in the form of Microsoft Office applications that accompany presentations. Many organizations would be lost without their reports in Word, spreadsheets in Excel, and the ever-present PowerPoint slides that accompany that presentation to the board or client pitch.

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