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AVS › AVS Articles › Avs Guide To Media Servers Part 1

AVS Guide to Media Servers, Part 1




If you're like me, you've collected hundreds—if not thousands—of shiny silver discs in various formats, including Blu-ray, DVD, and CD. Not only that, you might also be downloading and/or streaming audio and video content from the Internet. Having access to so much content is great, but it's also confusing, with multiple source devices connected to multiple inputs on your AV receiver or preamp/processor—not to mention finding what you want in a library of discs, downloaded files stored on various computers, and streaming content.


One solution to this problem is a centralized device, generically called a media server, that stores all digital-media files and provides access to streamed content. Of course, this can be accomplished with a media-center PC, but PCs are notoriously complicated to set up, difficult to use, and fraught with anomalies and crashes. This is fine—even fun—if you're a computer geek, but not for the whole family.


Another, more widely palatable option is a dedicated media server, which is really a computer devoted to one function—storing and playing audio and video content. Dedicated media servers normally provide a more intuitive user interface than media-center PCs and are available in two broad categories—those that deal with video and audio and those that deal with audio only. Examples of AV servers include those from Kaleidescape and Mozaex, while audio-only servers are offered by Autonomic, CasaTunes, Meridian (whose audio-server system was formerly known as Sooloos), and Olive.


Let's Get Physical

At the heart of any media server is its hard-disk storage—the more, the better. Depending on the type and level of compression, high-def Blu-ray video can require up to about 15 GB or so for each hour of content, while standard-def DVD video can consume up to about 3 GB per hour, both including a multichannel audio soundtrack. (More highly compressed downloaded video consumes much less space.) Two-channel 24-bit/96 kHz uncompressed audio takes about 2 GB per hour, while CD-quality audio (two channels of uncompressed 16-bit/44.1 kHz) requires a mere 660 MB per hour. Losslessly compressed audio formats such as FLAC and Windows Media Audio Lossless use about half as much as uncompressed files, and highly compressed MP3 files consume less than 60 MB per hour.


These days, media servers can easily provide 1 or 2 terabytes of hard-disk storage, and sometimes much more. With 1 TB, you can store at least 60 hours of HD video, 330 hours of SD video, 500 hours of uncompressed 24/96 2-channel audio, 1500 hours of CD-quality audio, 15,000 hours of MP3 audio, or any combination thereof.


That much hard-disk storage is often implemented in a RAID (redundant array of independent disks). Several physical hard-disk drives are combined in a single enclosure, and data are distributed among them with some level of redundancy and error correction to protect the data in case one or more of the drives fail.


RAIDs are categorized into several levels that define the type of data redundancy, called "mirroring," and error correction, or "parity." These levels are numbered from 0 to 6, which indicate increasing safety of the data. For example, RAID 0 has no redundancy or error correction, making it very unsafe, while RAID 6 provides the most safety. There's also RAID 10, which is a combination of RAID 1 and 0, but it still has no error correction.


In RAID 2, 3, and 4, the parity is stored on a single, dedicated drive, while in RAID 5 and 6, the parity is distributed among several drives. If a data drive fails, the parity information is used to rebuild the data on that drive after it is replaced. A RAID 5 system can continue to operate if one data drive fails, and a RAID 6 system can tolerate two drive failures, though the speed of performance in both cases is compromised until the failed drives are replaced and the data are restored.



The Kaleidescape 3U Server provides space for 14 hard-disk cartridges using proprietary RAID-K (similar to RAID 4) with a total storage capacity of 36 TB. That's enough for about 900 Blu-rays or 5400 DVDs.


If the internal storage isn't enough, some media servers let you expand their storage by adding external hard-disk drives. Some even let you install or upgrade the internal hard disk as higher capacities become available.


Of course, the server must also have AV outputs so the content can be played on a video display and audio system. Video servers have an HDMI output, and all servers have some combination of coax and/or optical digital-audio outputs as well as analog outputs such as component and composite video and analog audio.



Seen here (top to bottom) are the Mozaex Player 3 and RAID Server, which provides up to 15TB of RAID 6 storage.


In some cases, such as Kaleidescape and some Mozaex systems, the server feeds its content to a separate player via the home's local-area network (LAN). With these systems, the player is connected to the AV system.


Let's Get Loaded

If a media server is to consolidate your collection of AV content on discs, it must be able to copy that content from the discs to its hard disk, a process called loading, importing, or ingesting. It's also commonly called ripping, but this term carries the connotation of stealing, as in ripping off, so media-server makers don't like to use it.



The Kaleidescape system includes (top to bottom) the M300 player, M500 player, and 1U server. Not shown here is the 3U server and Disc Vault carousel.


In some cases, such as Mozaex, the server itself provides a disc drive from which discs are loaded, while in other cases, such as Kaleidescape, discs are loaded from a separate player or disc carousel, and the data are sent to the server over the home's LAN. In fact, the Kaleidescape system lets you load up to four discs simultaneously, even while playing multiple streams of content already loaded on the server. Mozaex lets you load one disc while playing one stream.



Meridian Control 15 audio server


The Meridian Control 15 is the only component in the company's Digital Media System with a CD drive and hard disk, which lets you import CDs directly. Otherwise, CDs can be imported to a computer and transferred to the hard disk in a Media Core or Media Drive unit.



Olive 6HD audio server


The Olive 5HD and 6HD both provide CD drives, and they can also import audio files over the home's LAN. The Autonomic, CasaTunes, and Olive 4HD systems do not offer a CD drive, but they can import audio files from computers on the network.


Let's Get Legal

You might well wonder about the legal issues around importing copyrighted content on commercial discs. It is perfectly legal to make copies of CDs that you own for your personal use, so you can load your entire collection to a server with no legal worries whatsoever.


However, DVDs and Blu-rays are a different story. Unlike CDs, the data on both types of video discs are encrypted to prevent copying, and makers of all legitimate disc players must license the encryption scheme in order to play the discs. For DVDs, the Content Scramble System (CSS) is licensed by the DVD Copy Control Association (CCA), while Blu-rays use the Advanced Access Content System (AACS), which is licensed by the AACS Licensing Administrator (AACS LA).


In order to load DVDs and Blu-rays onto a media server, these encryption schemes must be defeated—and both have been, even though this is generally illegal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). There are a few exceptions, but "space-shifting" (making copies for use in the owner's digital devices) is not one of them.


In 2010, a US District Court ordered RealNetworks to stop selling its RealDVD decryption software, though there are lots of similar programs available. And after a protracted court battle between the DVD CCA and Kaleidescape, the server company and its agents (dealers, etc.) have been enjoined from making or selling any product that copies and plays DVD content from a server. As of this writing, that injunction has been stayed pending an appeal by Kaleidescape. Meanwhile, the company continues to make and sell media servers that can import DVDs and play the copies directly from the server.


Blu-ray is a different kettle of fish. The AACS license states that you can make as many copies of a Blu-ray disc as you want, but you can play only one copy at a time. (Kaleidescape contends that the DVD CSS license includes no such provision, which is one element of the ongoing legal case.) The play-only-one-copy-at-a-time rule means that, if you want to play the copy on the server, the physical disc must be precluded from playing under any circumstances.


How does Kaleidescape get around this? By requiring the Blu-ray disc to be in one of its players when you watch something copied on the hard disk. If the disc is in a Kaleidescape player, the system makes sure it can't be played at the same time as the server copy. Of course, this is pretty inconvenient, negating some of the benefit of a server. After all, the whole point is to consolidate all your content without having to deal with physical discs.



Kaleidescape M700 Disc Vault


Kaleidescape addresses this issue by offering multi-disc carousels called Disc Vaults that can hold up to 320 DVDs and/or Blu-rays. Content can be loaded onto the server from a Disc Vault, and titles on the server can be played as long as the discs from which they came are in the carousel. A system can have multiple Disc Vaults, so you can store a collection of any size, though this can get very expensive.


Mozaex solves the encryption problem differently. While its servers and players include licensed decryption software for playing physical discs, they do not provide unlicensed decryption software for copying DVDs and Blu-rays to the server. Instead, the company shifts this responsibility entirely to the user. According to Mozaex, the DMCA makes it illegal to make, sell, or give away unlicensed decryption software, but not to acquire or make legal use of such software.


But what constitutes legal use of decryption software? Mozaex cites expert opinions that copying DVDs and Blu-rays for personal use "may well be" lawful under the Fair Use Doctrine, but I've seen other expert opinions that maintain it is still illegal. And the Mozaex website advises its dealers not to use decryption software to load encrypted content onto the server for their customers, even content owned by those customers. It also suggests that dealers might want to have buyers sign a "hold harmless" agreement to cover their legal bases.


What about importing SACDs and DVD-Audio discs? Both formats are encrypted, so the legal issues apply. But I know of no media server that provides the ability to copy either type of high-resolution audio disc to its hard disk, so this concern is moot.


Let's Go Home

Of course, none of this legal rigmarole applies to home-made videos, photos, and other self-generated content, which can be loaded onto the server or, in some cases, streamed from other computers or storage devices on the home LAN. In particular, many networked media systems can include a device called network-attached storage (NAS), which is a high-capacity hard drive connected to the LAN.


If you want to stream content from other devices on the LAN to the server or player, they all need to recognize and communicate with each other. One way that server companies support this is by implementing a set of networking protocols called UPnP (Universal Plug 'n' Play).


In order to play videos, photos, and music from one device to another over the network using UPnP, they must also be compatible with a standard called DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance). This standard defines different types of devices and files that can be streamed between them, supported encryptions and resolutions, control parameters, and copy-protection issues. All DLNA-compliant devices use UPnP to communicate with each other, but not all UPnP-compatible devices are DLNA-compliant.


The Mozaex system can stream from a NAS, but it employs a proprietary protocol, not UPnP/DNLA. Kaleidescape and Meridian offer no such capability other than their own, proprietary hard-disk units. The Autonomic and Olive systems can stream audio files on a NAS or networked PC using UPnP/DLNA, while CasaTunes is planning to add this capability this year.


Let's Go Online

Aside from imported discs and user-generated videos and photos, another important source of audio/video content is online streaming and downloading, which many media servers can accommodate. Streaming from providers such as Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, and Pandora is more common, because the content is played as it arrives from the Internet—no copy is stored on any device in your home, so there are no copy-protection issues to deal with.



Autonomic MMS2 audio server


However, you must have sufficient online bandwidth to receive the stream without interruptions. If the available bandwidth is not enough—for example, if others in your home are also streaming or downloading large files—the program you're trying to watch or listen to might pause occasionally while some of the data accumulate in a temporary buffer.


How much downstream bandwidth is enough? For Netflix video streaming, you need at least 3 megabits per second (Mbps) for what the company calls "DVD quality" and 5 Mbps for high-def quality. Vudu specifies 1 Mbps for standard def, 2.25 Mbps for 720p HD, and 4.5 Mbps for 1080p HDX. By contrast, streaming compressed audio requires much less bandwidth—Pandora Internet radio recommends at least 150 kilobits per second (Kbps) or 300 Kbps for its "High Quality" audio, while Spotify recommends at least 256 Kbps, and MOG streams at 320 Kbps.


Then there's downloading, in which AV files are sent from the content provider over the Internet and saved on the server. This is the paradigm used by iTunes. In this case, your downstream bandwidth is less critical—the file takes as long as necessary to download, pausing whenever it needs to. When the file is safely stored on your server, it can be played without interruption because, presumably, the bandwidth of your home LAN is higher than the downstream bandwidth coming into your home—typically, 10 to 100 Mbps up to 1 Gbps.


Some download providers sell content outright, while others let you rent titles for a limited period of time. Buying a downloaded title is just like buying it on Blu-ray or DVD—you can play it as many times as you want for as long as you want. In addition, you might be able to download or copy it to several devices, subject to its digital rights management (DRM).


By contrast, renting a title from a provider such as Vudu lets you play it only for a limited amount of time. For example, you might have 30 days to start playing a rented title, after which you have 24 or 48 hours to finish watching it. After that, the file becomes unplayable.


A relatively new development in the world of online content is cloud storage—for example, using a service called UltraViolet (UV). This service lets you store your copy-protected content "in the cloud" (on a remote server maintained by someone other than you), including content on UV-compatible physical discs, and stream it to any of your playback devices. You can also download owned content from your cloud-based "locker" a limited number of times.



CasaTunes Xli audio server


The Mozaex server can stream from Netflix, Vudu, and Hulu Plus as well as download from iTunes. Kaleidescape is currently working on its own "electronic delivery store," which will be an online retailer of movies. As for audio servers, the Autonomic, CasaTunes, Meridian, and Olive systems can all access various audio-streaming and Internet radio services.


Another new feature of some server systems is the ability to play content from iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. The CasaTunes and Olive systems can access audio content on both platforms.


Android and iOS mobile devices also provide a new way to control these systems, but that will have to wait until the next installment, in which I'll also discuss user interfaces, multi-room distribution, and advanced features.


For more info on the systems I've mentioned in this article:








Comments (43)

I am glad to see an article on this. I have over 250 Blu Rays I would like a system like this for. However, I can get off my lazy butt multiple times for $15K plus. WIll part 2 be touching more on NASs and XBMC alternatives?

Yeah, interesting read. Hopefully part two will be more directed towards the budge friendly alternatives. For $15k I can hire someone off the street to change Blurays for me and probably get me a drink and pop some popcorn while they kill time during the movies. Thumbs up!
Thank you, I love this article.

I setup an audio server which is really not difficult and doesn't even require a large hard drive. I have about 200 CDs in lossless and I believe it's under 100GB.

On the video side however, I have 900 Blu ray and there's no way I want to rip them or try to manage that many TB of hard drives. I only tend to watch one per day and it's not asking too much to actually load the tray.

Slowly though my cloud video library continues to grow via the Vudu movies I get with my Blus. I think I will prefer my Video Media server to be cloud based and leave the managing of that much data to off site cloud. No questions about the legal aspects either... the system already exists and it's quite practical.
I agree with LowellG and tbris84. I would love to have a system like Kaleidescape, where everything is integrated and assuming easy to use... however the prices are just outrageous right now. I'd be a customer at about $2K max, and that would have to include players for at least 2 rooms and decent storage. Right now prices are so high that it's not even a viable option since it does nothing that my own 2 feet and 2 hands can't do since at these prices the afforded convenience is only for the rich or stupid.
I didnt see any mention of buying digital copies for the server through amazon for instance. You can download to two different computers and I assume you can watch it on two devices at a time.
I'm curious on why people want to rip their DVD/Blu-ray movies. Once I watch something, I usually won't watch it again for several years, if any. The only exception is movie for kids, they seem to watch things over-and-over-and-over!
A great idea made cumbersome and impractical by copy protection laws. If people could be trusted not to steal then the laws wouldn't be necessary, we could all have wonderous media servers.... and unicorns would roam the earth.
csmith: you are probably in the majority but some of us watch movies from our collections over and over. I have banks of drawers right next to the Bluray player so it is no big deal to change discs. Besides the cool factor of flipping through your collection electronically the big draw for me is security. If I could load up a media server my thousands of dollars of media could be safely tucked away from little distructive hands.
So riddle me this: If the Kaliedascope system has carousels to get around the law, why not stream the Bluray directly from the disc itself? Would be a lot less expensive, I think.
Ripping also allow me to watch it on any devices I want....And like DavidK442 mention, it is MUCH easier to browse through your collection on big screen then physically. On top of that, you can categorized and search much easier than physical discs, let alone the movie synopsis, play time etc from some software automatically.
However, i think Kaleidescape is too expensive. Get a 4-6 bay NAS and a Dune HD and you are good to go in less than 2k.
I use a Synology RAID DS1812+, a self-built HTPC, and JRiver Media Center. The Synology was about $1K and eight Seagate ST3000DM001 3TB drives cost between $800 and $1100. (You can start with less than eight and add more later). That's around 18TB space using Synology SHR-2 (RAID 6 like) config and the Synology is expandable with external units. The fast HTPC was built for under $900 and JRiver cost under $50. It's a very nice setup with lots of room for $3K. I love the Synology for ease of use and it's large selection of applications that run locally. You can do certainly do this for less than $3K too using a smaller RAID, cheaper HDDs, and cheaper HTPC or other player.
Stevenjw, are you ripping blurays, and if so are you doing it lossless audio/video and what software? I played around with several rippers, but only 2 worked for lossless and there were still some problems. I was using XBMC on the computer to view. I am not exactly fond of that either.
I have over 740 blurays and love the ability to play any movie with a click . I'm using an HTPC though with a separate library server. I usually know what I want to watch so I just search for the film with Everywhere Search on my computer. If I don't know what to watch I'll use MediaPortal to browse thru my collection; I can search with it too and even more specific like searching for actors and such.

An easier set up would be a Dune and some NASs or HD boxes. I came from a PCH A-110 but after my collection grew so big I decided I wanted to use an HTPC. I love being able to use my mouse to click where I want to go in the film. I also like the ability to search my movies and change out posters/coverart/details.
I'd like the ability to go straight to the movie. No trailers, no forced ads, nothing but the movie. I hate the way most DVD's and bluray discs are authored. Stripped rips would be awesome. unRAID is a good storage alternative.
JRiver is the best software player for audiophiles. It even handles SACD .iso files.
PeteW,in that case use AnyDVD HD. It runs in the back ground,scans the disk you put in and just starts the movie with no bs at the beginning.
man after reading all of this, it sound easier and cheaper and you have more option to just build a HTPC instead of going with these servers, I use MediaBrowser.TV over my Media Center and love it
A HTPC (bought or built) with a network attached storage (NAS) server or aleternatively a home server tucked away somewhere in house, is lot cheaper, flexible in terms of laoding the media, storage and streaming options, easily upgradable as for as software or storage space is concerned. I do not see a upside of dedicated video or audio servers except to waste money on something which will be a vintage item in few months or at most a few years
for readers new to this concept, an excellent article to become acquainted with media servers. for readers who have been building their own HTPC systems, an excellent confirmation of why we build those. Like stevenjw, i prefer jriver server on my HTPC and jremote on my ipad or iphone. Finally have the ability not to need a keyboard or mouse while choosing and listening to music or movies or photo....

All my years as the family computer aficianado is paying off. Listening to HDtracks at 192khz/24bit instead of itunes transcoded 48kz. In fact I am sitting upstairs typing this comment while downstairs my wife can use the iPad to browse and play whatever she wants on the home theater system. Freedom at last!
AVS › AVS Articles › Avs Guide To Media Servers Part 1