What is a Media Server and how are schools using them?
From time to time I come across the mention of “media servers” and find myself wanting to better understand this technology and how it being used in meeting the needs of educational institutions. This weekend I decided to do some investigating. Here I share some of what I learned, and questions this raised. I hope some of EmergingEdTech's knowledgeable readers will contribute to the dialogue by providing insights that they may have about this technology and the questions I raise here. After all, blogging is at it's best when it spurs a ‘dialogue' from which many can learn!
What is a Media Server?
Wikipedia defines a Media Server as, “a dedicated computer appliance or … a specialized application software, ranging from an enterprise class machine providing video on demand, to, more commonly, a small personal computer or NAS (Network Attached Storage) … dedicated for storing various digital media (meaning digital videos/movies, audio/music, and picture files).” On reading this, one might wonder why, in this age of rapidly proliferating cloud services, an organization would want to implement their own dedicated media server(s)? Is the ownership of this type of equipment slowly being relegated to the cloud service providers, or are their still situations in which it makes sense for a school to implement their own media servers?
Why might schools implement their own media server hardware?
The question of when it makes sense to procure and implement your own dedicated media servers is further complicated by the expanding use of cloud based servers. Even if one wishes to have dedicated server(s) to provide specific functionality, it is now both feasible and often very cost-effective to use cloud based servers like those available from Amazon Web Services, to implement software-based services. So the question arises again … why procure and implement your own dedicated media server systems? Here's a few reasons that come to mind:
- Functionality: If specialized hardware devices can cost effectively meet requirements while also providing specialized functionality that software based services don't offer, then there is a solid case for procuring this type of equipment.
- Control: One never has more control over a technology service than when one hosts the service in it's entirety (assuming the requisite knowledge is gained by the staff supporting the service). If there is any concern about availability, security, integration capabilities, etc., the I.T. shops that need to support these services are generally going to be much more comfortable doing so when they have complete control over the hardware and software being used to provide them.
- Privacy: While many cloud services offer a high degree of privacy, this is ultimately much like the control issue. A lack of comfort with how cloud services potentially limit control and privacy is one reason for resistance to the move into the cloud. This resistance continues to dwindle however, as cloud services continue to mature.
- High volume: If there is a need to stream demanding media services like video to thousands of users simultaneously (for a MOOC offering, for example), it may be preferable to have these services hosted entirely internally, to help ensure that these needs can be met. Again though, with the continued proliferation and maturity of cloud services, this may be better left to providers who excel at just this sort of thing.
How are educational institutions actually using media servers?
Browsing around vendor's web sites can be a good way to further one's understanding of how their tools are being used by customers. The following use cases were gleaned from Wowza's Featured Education Customers page and the Helix Media Library case studies page (Wowza and Helix specialize in Media Servers and related services and have numerous customers in the education sector).
- The University of Utah choose media servers as the means of delivery for their lecture capture solution. This case study explains that the servers helped to ensure a simple workflow for creating and publishing content, students get reliable playback regardless of platform, and the system is both flexible and inexpensive.
- The French institution Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris uses media servers to host a High Definition website that, “provides a convenient and engaging online portal featuring lessons and conferences for students and the general public.”
- The University of Sussex is using media servers for a live TV production course.
- Harlow College in England specializes in journalism. Their teachers produce a lot of video content and they need to be able to easily upload content and stream it, and students need to be able to dependably access it from variety of devices. The case study indicates that Helix Media's servers met this need, and Harlow is now looking at incorporating these servers in Lecture Capture delivery as well.
- The University of Manchester streams a wide variety of media online – graduations, lectures, eLearning content, marketing content, and more. Thousands of publicly assessable videos are available here: stream.manchester.ac.uk.
These are just a few examples of how educational institutions are putting media servers to use. I'd love to hear from readers, and vendors, about other use cases, and about the trend towards use of cloud based media servers. Please comment and share your knowlegde!
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