High IQ Audio, Video

RealNetworks gets serious on streaming corporate media.

With RealSystem IQ, RealNetworks Inc. has greatly improved the quality of its streaming video and audio and has made some important improvements in the way RealServer handles content. But the biggest news in the suite is RealSystem Proxy 8, which finally addresses the bandwidth concerns that many businesses have about streaming media.

In eWeek Labs tests, RealSystem iQ—which consists of RealSystem Server 8, RealSystem Proxy 8 and RealSystem Producer Plus 8.5—not only provided better streamed images than previous RealSystem releases, but it also had broader content support and greater redundancy in the underlying server architecture.

In Version 8.5 of RealSystem Producer Plus, RealNetworks includes welcome features for sites deploying content for streaming, including a basic editor and a useful bandwidth simulator for testing content delivery.

RealSystem iQ, which shipped last month, gives companies all the core infrastructure needed to stream media content on the Internet or to employees via an intranet.

The introduction of RealSystem Proxy improves the performance of streaming content accessed by employees at a business and enables that company to exercise some control over that content.

Although RealSystem iQ is pitched as a package, each of the components is also available individually, which makes sense because few companies will need all the components. RealSystem Server Professional starts at $5,995; RealSystem Proxy is priced at $3,995; and RealProducer Plus is $149.

Tests showed that RealNetworks continues to have a slim technological edge over its main competitor, Microsoft Corp.s Windows Media. The latest version of RealSystem also does a good job of supporting a variety of content, such as Flash and even the competing QuickTime format from Apple Computer Inc.

As we reported in a June 6, 2000, review of the beta of RealSystem 8, RealNetworks has taken a major step in providing high-quality video and audio over broadband Internet connections. With the final release of the system, the improvement that RealNetworks is touting is a technology it calls neuralcast.

Neuralcast uses the multicast technology in RealSystem Server to make servers work together to deliver content. It provides increased load balancing and failover and also makes servers work together to provide better delivery. With the technology, current load or proximity to the end user can be used to determine which server delivers content to end users.

Neuralcast is an impressive technology and one that delivers on a promise that RealSystem Server has long had. However, few companies will deploy enough servers to take full advantage of the technology.

The real beneficiaries will be content delivery networks, which many sites (including eWeeks Webcast) use to deliver their content—although these benefits wont be seen until networks upgrade to the new servers.

Businesses that deploy RealSystem Proxy should see benefits immediately. This product addresses the limited ability that many caching products and proxies have had dealing with streaming content. Although setting up the proxy is simple, to get it to cache content, we either had to configure routers to send streaming content to the server or set the preferences on each users RealPlayer to point to the proxy server.

Traffic unjammed

Once users were pointed at the RealSystem Proxy, much of the streaming content coming into the test network was from the proxy, cutting down on overall network traffic and improving performance. Also, the proxy has the ability to take in live streams as a single stream, then split only to users requesting the content.

However, although RealSystem Proxy is a much-needed addition to the Real family, it could stand a few improvements.

The tool does provide some basic real-time monitoring, but to view the highly useful information stored in the proxy logs, we had to access the raw log files. We would prefer some way to access this information in the browser-based administration interface.

Also, while the proxy has good authentication features to control who can access content, we would like to see some of the content filtering features that are found in standard Web proxies.

Although sites doing hard-core video production will probably move to applications like Media100s Cleaner, the RealProducer Plus includes helpful new features for content creators encoding media for streaming. Several new codecs included with the product provide much greater quality and flexibility for encoding content. With the basic editor, we could do simple video and audio edits of files as we encoded them.

The new bandwidth simulation, which runs as a RealPlayer plug-in, lets users see how content will look at certain connections, though we still advise testing in real-life connection situations because the Internet is never consistent enough to simulate.