Home Media Server Concepts Evolve

Digital media servers are heading straight into the living room, thanks in part to the DVD evolution.

DVD hardware penetration went from 25 percent in 2002 to 75 percent today. Since its introduction about eight years ago, the DVD has now become the fastest new consumer electronics product in history. The Consumer Electronics Association believes the DVD will reach 88 percent market penetration in 2005.


With this phenomenal growth curve comes an accelerated demand for storage media. One indicator is the sale of blank DVDs, which increased more than 210 percent in 2004 and is expected to overtake CDs in the not-too-distant future. The explosion in storage is a result of the growth of digital imaging products such as digital still cameras and camcorders.

Excluding cell-phone cameras, sales of digital imaging products have reached between 3 and 4 million units per year.

Managing all this personal digital media will be an ongoing topic. The home entertainment market continues to be affected by the more recent introduction of DVRs. In 2003, the number of DVD recorders sold compared to DVRs was about equal, with 550,000 DVD-R units and 519,000 DVR units sold In 2004, that ratio became 3-to-1, with 2.36 million DVRs versus 877,000 DVD-Rs. The CEA predicts twice as many DVRs will sell in 2005, compared to DVD players--which indicates consumers are becoming more familiar with the technologies and are poised to accept the concept that serving media in the home is ideal for meeting their own viewing preferences.

At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the media server was identified as one of the top five technologies to watch in 2005.

Described as a "device or system that contains a hard-disk drive for storing digital media and may allow the distribution of those files to other devices located throughout the home," the digital media server has heretofore been available only as board-based components in a PC coupled with a very large, usually SCSI hard disk and a decent graphics card with a GUI, record scheduler and other applications.

With more than 52 percent of U.S households expected to have home networks by 2008, the server is poised to become an integral part of the home media center.

(click thumbnail)Pictured at right is Valencia, Spain's Design of Systems on Silicon (DS2) DSS9010 chio, in a board that plugs into a regular wall socket and moves A/V content on a home network at 200 MbpsHowever, with that expectation come obstacles that still must be overcome, including product interconnectivity, bandwidth capacity, rights management and copy protection. Ultimately, once these issues are headed toward resolution, the media server marketplace is expected to grow rapidly.

Home media servers will be designed to serve all forms of media, such as digital images, home movies, audio, news and information, calendars, appointments, etc. With the content delivered via the Internet, cable, satellite and telcos, the media server may well become the single aggregator that harmonizes all forms of media into a single-entity platform.

Given that the server will provide both a repository and the means for distribution, play-out devices may be tailored to the user's personal environment. This will prompt manufacturers to develop a single universal playback device that can adapt based upon type of media. As for moving media, the features now found in DVRs will certainly be extended to independent displays and discrete play-out devices placed throughout the home and networked via a common user-enabled system.


For media retrieved from traditional content distribution channels--broadcast, cable, satellite or telco--it is conceivable that a server could integrate all this content to a single storage and play-out system. Depending upon the rights agreement, that media could be divided into two purchasing categories--download to rent and download to own. Activation would be enabled via a software application and controlled by the copy protection/usage rights selected at time of purchase. Serious efforts to deal with the issues of conditional access are ongoing, so when the media server applications are ready for widespread deployment, the control and rights issues will already be in place.

Concerns about transferring pre-recorded DVDs to a central media server remain a topic of discussion due, in part, to "copy-never" protection present on rented or purchased DVDs. Other than an analog duplication and redigitization, the only other solution already available is a DVD-jukebox that could be integrated into the home media server. Of course, personal digital media, such as home movies, digital pictures, etc., would have full rights and capabilities with the ownership designation set by the server administrator to any level--e.g., unlimited view, single view, copy once, copy-never, etc.

Long term, the media server could ultimately change the delivery and playback model as future generations evolve. For example, cable customers now pay a monthly fee for a converter box that delivers 150 or more channels on a continuing basis. Options such as pay-per-view and video-on-demand are naturals for the media server.

Future implementations of home media servers may further change the cable and satellite models, whereby the consumer might purchase a period of time and have some or all the content cached directly to the media server. That content is then authorized for storage for a given number of days or views per media port. Additional fees for permanent private-use storage would allow consumers to build libraries accessible only over their existing home network. This concept might become more preferable than today's cable model, for which consumers spend the same dollars on 380 channels, most of which they cannot possibly watch.

The home media server concept could further extend the DTV capabilities in the local broadcast space. Content from the local broadcaster's DTV transmission could be cached to the media server, allowing features such as conditional access or time-shifting to more easily be integrated into the home. The copy protection for broadcast network programming already has a mechanism--the broadcast flag, which might also become the signaling control for prevention of sharing of programs in unauthorized ways.

Today, solutions for individual media server implementations are available to consumers, but building a full-feature media server remains a challenge. The task may exceed the complexities of hooking up a DVD, VHS, cable/satellite, over-the-air analog and digital television. Single-board solutions offer some of the features on one device, but to get full features across all services usually requires multiple cards or components.

Also absent is the control interface to exchange and display media across various devices. Multiple remote controls are typically required, along with even more creative logic to determine what can be recorded when and what can be watched later.

There is hope for the human control issues and expanded viewing experience. Whether via satellite, cable, IP-over-telephone-lines or fiber-to-the- home, the ability to capture and use media will certainly demand a more universal platform. One of those elements in the chain is most likely expected to be the home media server.

Karl Paulsen

Karl Paulsen is the CTO for Diversified, the global leader in media-related technologies, innovations and systems integration. Karl provides subject matter expertise and innovative visionary futures related to advanced networking and IP-technologies, workflow design and assessment, media asset management, and storage technologies. Karl is a SMPTE Life Fellow, a SBE Life Member & Certified Professional Broadcast Engineer, and the author of hundreds of articles focused on industry advances in cloud, storage, workflow, and media technologies. For over 25-years he has continually featured topics in TV Tech magazine—penning the magazine’s Storage and Media Technologies and its Cloudspotter’s Journal columns.