Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Yes Virginia, You Can Network Multimedia ... but, Do You Really Want To?

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Yes Virginia, You Can Network Multimedia ... but, Do You Really Want To?

Article excerpt

In this issue, Margaret Sylvia of the Lone Star state outlines the technical and management considerations that arise when preparing your network for its inevitable transition to multimedia. Texans are notoriously bold and gung-ho. Although that transition to multimedia is inevitable, the question for most of us is--when? If "multimedia" is construed as running Windows across the network, then the answer is "right now or pretty soon" for many libraries. But if we're talking about CD-ROM reference titles incorporating heavy-duty multimedia content, then the answer is less clear.

The literature and the Internet chatter indicate that some libraries regard networking multimedia as impossible for the foreseeable future, others regard it as quite possible, while some others are doing it right now. Most just aren't sure. Exactly why anyone would want to network these materials is not at all clear--these aren't the thousand dollar bibliographic databases of general interest that present networks handle so well. These are relatively inexpensive titles of more specific interest demanding an expensive new network.

Let's acknowledge right from the start that networking multimedia is, in general, a perfectly tractable problem. However, it is definitely a problem. You could even say that it is a whopper. What are the specific problem areas?

The most obvious characteristic of multimedia data is that it is storage-intensive. The prodigious CD-ROM that can store a few hundred thousand pages of text can hold only a quarter thousand images, and only a few minutes of uncompressed video. Further, unlike text data that can be transferred from disc to user (or server to client) in manageable chunks, multimedia data such as audio and video need to be transferred in a continuous bitstream (otherwise, the music/movie has to pause, leading to the kid's complaint in the advertisement--"Hey, mom, how come the video is so weird and jerky?").

The storage intensity and continuous nature of multimedia data require mucho horsepower if a system is to handle it effectively. William Blake, the English poet, put it well in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" when he said, "Enough! or too much." With multimedia, "enough" is a lot, and "too much" just about right. Thus, the most basic problem with multimedia is clear and obviously manageable through the liberal application of that old standby, money.

In the May issue of Information Today, Peter Jacso specified the "mid-range" multimedia PC he recently selected for the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Hawaii. They bought a Zeos Pantera, a 90 MHz Pentium with 16 MB RAM, 850 MB IDE hard disk, 64-bit video card with 2 MB RAM, 15" monitor, 16-bit, 44 KHz wavetable synthesis audio card, and a 4x CD-ROM drive. A nice configuration, capable of delivering very satisfactory multimedia performance, though not without compromises with the $3,000 budget.

So a basic standalone workstation already needs a fair amount of power, and costs a pretty penny. A server machine will need still more power, and both the network and the client stations will need serious bandwidth to deal with the continuous glut of multimedia data that it will supply to them.

Any system can only be as strong as its weakest element, and in the case of multimedia several potential bottlenecks arise. …

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