Bursting out of the logjam

Buffer solves network streaming problems by taking content in faster than it plays it out

Burst.com is hoping to solve one of streaming media's biggest headaches, the network troubles that can bring the best media players and encoding algorithms to their knees.

"The network in between a Web site's server and the client [or viewer's] computer is full of latency, noise and disruptions," explains Richard Lang, Burst.com chairman and CEO. "Every time there's a disruption, the video starts to buffer, and that makes the viewing experience very jittery. And if you watch long enough, it turns it into a slide show."

The latency and disruption problems have kept most computer users from attempting to enter the world of Internet video. Those brave enough to venture into online video often return with nightmarish stories of unsatisfying streaming experiences, locked-up computers and the feeling that one needs a new pair of glasses.

Burst.com is looking to end the madness. Beginning June 8, the company will demonstrate its new technology at http:// U2.burst.com. The demonstration features rock band U2 (which has been working with Burst.com on the technology for the past decade) in a 90-minute concert performance from its latest tour.

A key part of Burst.com's solution to the problems of online video and audio distribution is building a cache on the client's computer that brings in the content faster than it plays it. "It basically allows for the viewer to experience the content at the same quality it was encoded at," Lang says.

The cache doesn't have to be bigger than a real-time streaming cache, he explains. "But it's always filled faster than it's being depleted. And the material being viewed is not playing off a server 10,000 miles away. It's being played off the local drive."

There are two ways a Web site can utilize Burst.com's Burstware. For sites that already have their own network for storage and playout, the Burstware software can be licensed and loaded onto the network, and the content hosted as it was previously.

In the second way, the content is hosted on Burst.com's network, and visitors to the original site are linked to it on Burst.com's servers. The latter model, Lang says, is becoming the company's main business, thanks to demand. The company will announce a deal for burst-enabling online content for a major cable network in the next 45 days.

On the client side, Lang says, the content can be played back with either Microsoft's Media Player or Quicktime for Windows. Macintosh users will be able to access "burst" material by the end of the year, and the RealNetworks RealPlayer is currently running internally at Burst.com and will also be "burst-enabled."

Before clients can view burst-enabled content, Lang says, they are asked whether they want to add the necessary plug-in to their computer. Once they select yes, the auto-install plug-in is sent to them. "From that point forward, the computer is a server."

The importance of the burst technology, according to Lang, is that it will allow for a lot of the pent-up content waiting to be distributed over IP networks to finally begin hitting computer screens. "No Web site wants to start offering the content unless there's a way to make money, and that involves either charging the viewer or having advertising," he says. "But there's no stickiness now: The content won't play long enough for users to consider it a complete viewing experience, and Web sites can't get advertising if they can't prove people stay around long enough to watch the content. This could change that."

Another important piece of the Burstware solution, according to Lang, is a piece of middleware called the Conductor, which sits on the network and manages the content. "One thing that is unique is that it provides the mechanism for reliable 'failover.'"

Reliable failover means that, if a server playing out content crashes or encounters another problem, the client computer is turned over to another server. "It quickly sends a bunch of data to the client, topping off the buffer again," Lang says, "so that the person has no idea there was a problem."

The server also has a moment-by-moment overview of every client connected and can make decisions based on that overview as to how to send content to the client, when to send it and how fast, he adds. "This completely optimizes the available bandwidth."