Video hub: Why stream at all?

In response to Home video hub on a shoestring, Justin asked, “Why not just stream the media over cifs/nfs/sshfs?”

Why indeed? Well, as my fellow amateur Internet broadcaster Justin Zeigler (coincidentally of the same first name) observed, “some people mistake the unix way as doing things the oldest way possible.” There are niceties streaming video solutions provide that are much better suited to solving my particular problem.

Streaming puts the burden of handling different codecs and providing material at a bitrate the client systems can handle on the server. Remember, I said my client system is underpowered and the network I’m delivering across is wireless B. These constraints make streaming video the ideal solution.

Now, if I only wanted to stream the music videos and other material designed to deliver over the Internet, I’d be fine with a remote filesystem. But DVDs and mythtv recordings are too demanding on my little laptop’s resources to work at all.

But, just to make sure, I tried both sshfs and nfs today. Sure enough, I could stream a Quicktime music video from sshfs just fine. However, neither sshfs nor nfs could deliver the material from a mythtv recording fast enough for the client to keep up. I tried both vlc and mplayer, and both were so stuttery they were unplayable. I gave mplayer a larger buffer (32K) which cleaned up the first few seconds of play while the player read from the buffer, but after that, it started stuttering again. And this was with only one floor of separation between the WAP and the laptop, to make sure I had a solid connection.

Clearly, Videolan’s ability to transcode on the fly and stream over the network is a great convenience to me. I suppose I could do a file-to-file transcode and then read the resulting file from sshfs, but I don’t find that nearly as handy as the streaming solution. So I’m sticking with Videolan, as I find it the easiest to use, most elegant solution to delivering a broad range of video material from our powerful hub system to our less powerful client system.

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Home video hub on a shoestring

In our family, we have centralized all our best entertainment technology in a single system, a white box amd64 with PVR, 3D graphics, 1G, a 21” monitor, DVD burner and VCR. A number of older, far less capable systems have always surrounded this “hub”. A K6-2/400 with a less-than wonderful ATI Rage IIc graphics card presently serves as my wife’s system, and my PII/300 laptop roams the house on wireless B.

This has always been the model for our home network, dating back to the late 90’s when the hub in our cramped apartment was a P/100 delivering sound through a $30 pawn-shop stereo to two main rooms, and the satellite node in the family room was a DEC VT-420 on a long serial cable. So, house-wide delivery of sound has always been possible. But doing the same for video remained unsolved until just this weekend.

Kudos to the Videolan team for making it possible. A number of years ago, I recognized their vlc player was ideal for playing DVDs on my K6-2, handling the job with less CPU and less frame drop than other alternatives at the time. Not too long afterwards, though, we upgraded our hardware so saving CPU cycles was no longer an issue, and switched to other players to take advantage of features they offered over vlc.

But a recent email from a friend brought me back. This friend asked if I had seen a certain Linux documentary video he had found. I hadn’t, and was intrigued. But since the hub was tied up by the kids at that moment, I figured I’d try watching on the old PII laptop. I didn’t really think it would work, but remembering how well vlc did on my other old hardware, I gave it a try. It worked! No frame drop at all.

Buoyed by that victory, I recalled that I had downloaded the Debconf 6 DVD ISOs some days ago, but had not yet been able to watch them. You probably can guess why … yup, the single hub system, the only one really capable of doing a good job displaying video, was pretty much always tied up by various other family members.

Now, I knew there was no way I could get those DVDs onto the laptop, as it has no drive and only a 4G hdd. Nor was I willing to go to the bother of ripping individual tracks to transcode and send over one at a time. But I then recalled that vlc, as well as being an excellent standalone player, is primarily the client for a streaming video system. So I set out to learn how to stream video.

Back when I was first introduced to Videolan, I knew there was a server program, vls. I had a quick look at that and was overwhelmed by the wide variety of possible MRLs and codecs, and a bit mystified as to which magic spells were needed to make it stream to the laptop.

It then occurred to me I had probably plunged in too quickly, and should back off and go look for more docs than just the man pages. Sure enough, they have plenty of excellent docs, leading to the discovery that the vlc gui itself has easy to use Wizard and Open dialogs to set up streaming. With that sorted out, I was streaming in no time.

At this point, I was delighted to discover that I could successfully stream a 1024 kbps mp4 stream across wireless B form the basement to any other room of our two-story semi. And ever since then, I’ve been having great fun with the family, trying a wide variety of other video sources lying around: music videos, home videos made by friends, TV shows recorded from the PVR, DVDs direct from disc, and yes, finally, those Debconf 6 ISOs.

I tell you, it’s like Christmas come early! Thanks, Videolan. You’ve made my week.

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