Today, Adobe announced the third versions of its two Flash Media Servers: Flash Media Interactive Server 3 and Flash Media Streaming Server 3. While the two servers represent a range of improvements to both products, the most significant of those improvements are the built-in support for H.264 support (and its delivery to all Flash clients including Flash Lite 3, the one found on handsets) and a whopping drop in price for the Interactive Server -- the one that's quasi-clusterable (for scalability) and offers intelligent caching -- from $45,000 to $4,500.
So what's significant about that? For starters, running a streaming media service, be it for your own content or as a host for others', thanks to Adobe, may no longer be the province of outfits like YouTube, Brightcove or media companies like CNN or Disney. Prior to shaving the cost by more than $40,000 per server, assembling a cluster of Adobe-based Flash media servers in a way that can scalably service hundreds if not thousands of simultaneously connected clients could easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Today, for what used to be the cost of one Flash Media server, companies with ambitions to be the next YouTube can now buy 10 such servers: one an "origin" server (the server that receives the initial request from a client), and the others "edge" servers (the servers to which the origin server, in an act of load-balancing, off-loads requests for servicing). Adobe's media servers run on Intel/AMD-based machines that run Windows Server or Red Hat Linux. Of course, just because the cost of Adobe's servers is now dirt cheap doesn't mean that the high-bandwidth storage and networking infrastructure that the servers must connect to won't set you back some serious coin.
To find out more about where Adobe is heading, I caught up with Kevin Towes, the company's product manager for Flash Media Servers for a podcast interview. To listen to the interview, you can stream it from the Flash-based player above (it's a coincidence our player is Flash-based - we've been doing it the same way via CastFire for a long time), manually download it through one of the player's menu options, or if you're already subscribed to ZDNet's IT Matters series of podcasts (see how to subscribe), it will be automatically downloaded to your PC and/or your MP3 player.
One of the issues Towes and I cover is the shift from delivering what has been traditionally thought of as low-def video on the Net (and on-demand) to hi-def. What is hi-def video on the Net? In the TV world, hi-def is thought of as being at least 720 lines of vertical resolution if not 1080. But on the Net, the definition of hi-def is the subject of some debate. In the the interview, Towes defines 480 lines of vertical resolution as being hi-def for the Net, a full 2x the lines of vertical resolution found in the 320x240 sized video windows that were once commonplace on the Net, but are now less so (YouTube video windows are approximately 480W x 362h). Just for grins, take a look at ABC's self-described HD channel for streamed content. I'm not sure how they do it (well, it involves a plug-in), but they do it well and wouldn't it be something if all Net-based video-on-demand involved as many bits and full-screen video without caching problems.
Speaking of "streaming," Towes and I talked about the differences between streamed video and progressively downloaded video and why today, so much Net-based video is still choppy when, with some better caching, it doesn't have to be that way. From Towes' point of view, there's no single culprit since so many factors play a role. But, while the company's servers support 1080 and 720 modes, Adobe's sweet spot for streamable "HD video," if you ask ask him, is apparently 480 lines of vertical resolution that require no more than a 3 Mbit/second bit rate (preferably 2 Mbit/sec).
Not to be forgetten, Towes and I also talked about the Flash Media Interactive Server's little cousin: Adobe's Flash Media Streaming Server -- a far lower cost ($995), non-clusterable solution for streaming stored or live video in on-demand fashion. Towes and I covered a wide range of other video related topics and talked about the other measures that content providers can take to improve Net-based video performance as well as something called Device Central -- a technology from Adobe that, once a handset running Flash Light 3 communicates its profile (handset manufacturer, model, network type, screen dimensions, etc.) to an Adobe media server, dynamically selects the most appropriate version of the content to ensure the best user experience on that given handset.
The pair of servers, announced today, won't be available until the end of January. Sometime between now and then, I hope to get a demonstration up close and personal. In the mean time, check out the podcast interview.