n RealNetworks Inc's boldest and riskiest move to date, the company is opening source code to its suite of streaming software, and will include support for Microsoft Corp's Windows Media in its streaming server for the first time,writes Kevin Murphy.
While Microsoft is playing its cards close to its chest, speculation is already mounting that the company may challenge RealNetworks for including Windows Media protocol support in its server without permission, though RealNetworks claims its development work was all above board.
At a press conference in San Francisco yesterday, RealNetworks unveiled "Helix", an umbrella brand for its latest generation of software and an industry initiative that borrows its form heavily from the open source process and the Java Community Process.
RealNetworks hopes to blow the streaming industry wide open, allowing commercial and open source developers to build their own streaming media systems. RealNetworks' own implementation will allow over fifty data types to be streamed, including the major formats: RealVideo, Apple QuickTime, Windows Media, and MPEG.
RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser said the Helix Universal Server is aimed at toppling the "Tower of Babel" of streaming formats, "making convergence actually converge". At the same time, the move may reduce Microsoft's ability to sell its servers for use in streaming media deployments.
Currently, companies deploying streaming media content delivery networks are likely to run most streams from a RealServer running on a Unix or Linux server, then deploy separate Windows 2000 servers for streaming Windows Media. Using RealNetworks' new Helix Universal Server, they will not have to deploy a separate Windows box.
Ajit Gupta is CEO of Speedera Networks Inc, a content delivery network company that is one of RealNetworks' over thirty Helix launch partners. Gupta said Helix servers would be deployed as "a substitution for what we already have on our network". Speedera names Microsoft as a streaming media partner.
The Helix Platform includes media encoder, streaming server, and playback client. The source code to the client will be made available in the next 90 days, while the code for encoder and server will be available before the end of the year. The Helix Platform will have its code open, but RealNetworks' own implementation will be proprietary.
RealNetworks' VP of media systems Dan Sheeran said that the open source server, Helix DNA Server, is the underlying "engine" of the streaming server. It will not include support for streaming any data types or protocols - those will have to be built by developers who choose to license the code.
Glaser said RealNetworks did not copy the Windows Media server code, and that the development of Windows Media support used a "clean room" methodology. "Our lawyers don't like the term," he joked when asked if the development constituted "reverse engineering".
Sheeran explained: "The way it was developed was, essentially, we watched the messages the [Windows] server and client sent to each other, then determined how to send the same messages."
Because Helix Universal Server will work on 11 operating systems, it means users will be able to stream Windows Media from Linux and varieties of Unix for the first time. Sheeran said users have been "crying out" for this capability, which, RealNetworks said, increases scalability exponentially.
Glaser said that in tests conducted by KeyLabs Inc, commissioned by RealNetworks, the Helix Universal Server on Linux deliver 400% more concurrent 20Kbps Windows streams than Windows Media Server on Windows 2000, and 200% more streams when both servers were running on Windows 2000.
Whether Microsoft will take this as a potential violation of its patents or software copyright remains to be seen. RealNetworks said the combination of previous licensing arrangements with Microsoft and its methodology means it is safe. Microsoft lead product manager Michael Aldridge said: "We haven't yet had a chance to evaluate this."
"It's not as universal as they would make it sound," Aldridge said, observing that client and encoder will not support streaming Windows Media. "Enterprises are not looking for a lowest common denominator, they're looking for digital media technology with the best combination of features."
Assuming RealNetworks's support for Windows Media is not challenged by Microsoft, the Helix strategy could mark a shift in the balance of power in the streaming media business, where Microsoft has been seen as making the best progress in the enterprise due to its no-added-cost server business model.
The Helix Universal Server costs between $2,000 and $42,000, depending on the bandwidth used (a departure from previous licensing models where the number of concurrent streams was the determining factor). Microsoft's Aldridge characterized this as a "tax on success", unlike the Windows model.
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