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A media server refers either to a dedicated computer appliance or to 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) for the home, dedicated for storing various digital media (meaning digital videos/movies, audio/music, and picture files).
By definition a media server is a device that simply stores and shares media. This definition is vague, and can allow several different devices to be called Media Servers. It may be a simple Network-attached storage, a Home theater PC (HTPC) running Windows XP Media Center Edition, MediaPortal or MythTV, or a commercial web server that hosts media for a large web site. In a home setting, a media server acts as an aggregator of information: video, audio, photos, books, etc. These different types of media (whether they originated on DVD, CD, digital camera, or in physical form) are stored on the media server's hard drive. Access to these is then available from a central location. It may also be used to run special applications that allow the user(s) to access the media from a remote location via the internet.
A media server can also be an appliance which combines the necessary hardware and software combinations to offer Audio Visual content over the Wi-Fi Network. In a business setting such as a hotel, residential complex, hospital or airport, a Zapelin Media Server (ZMS)  can be used to transform DVB-T, DVB-S, IPTV content into a streaming format so that this content can be "injected" into the Wi-Fi Network. An appliance such as the ZMS is also capable of taking content of IPTV source to be transformed to a DVB-T format that can be "injected" into the coaxial network. This means that it is possible to provide IPTV content to all the TV's without the need of set-top box or Internet connections in each room.
The only requirement for a media server is a method of storing media and a network connection with enough bandwidth to allow access to that media. Depending on the uses and applications that it runs, a media server may require large amounts of RAM, or a powerful, multicore CPU. A RAID may be used to create a large amount of storage, though it is generally not necessary in a home media server to use a RAID that gives a performance increase because current home network transfer speeds are slower than that of most current hard drives. However, a RAID configuration may be used to prevent loss of the media files due to disk failure as well. Many Media servers also have the ability to capture the media. This is done with specialized hardware such as TV tuner cards. Analog TV tuner cards can capture video from analog broadcast TV and output from cable/satellite set top boxes. This analog video then needs to be encoded in digital format to be stored on the Media server. This encoding can be done with software running on the Media server computer or by hardware on the TV tuner card. Digital TV tuner cards take input from broadcast digital TV. In the USA, the ATSC standard is used. In most of the rest of the world, DVB-T is the accepted standard. Since these transmissions are already digital, they do not need to be encoded.
HTPC packages with server capabilities
- Kodi Entertainment Center (formerly XBMC)
- TVersity Media Server
Media servers in performance environments
The growing use of motion graphics in environments such as theatre, dance, corporate events and concerts has led to the development of media servers designed specifically for live events. These machines are often high-spec home computers with increased RAM or hard drive technologies such as RAID arrays or solid-state drives. They are then supplied with software which allows the control and manipulation of video content, much like VJ software. One of the primary functions of these machines is to allow current show control technologies to control the playback of video content. Thus, a media server system may include inputs for DMX512-A, MIDI, or similar control protocols.
Media servers in telephony
In the world of telephony, a media server is the computing component that processes the audio or video streams associated with telephone calls or connections. Conference services are a particular example of how media servers can be used, as a special 'engine' is needed to mix audio streams together so that conference participants can hear all of the other participants. Conferencing servers may also need other specialized functions like "loudest talker" detection, or transcoding of audio streams, and also interpreting DTMF tones used to navigate menus. For video processing, it may be needed to change video streams, for example transcode from one video codec to another or rescale (transrate) a picture from one size to another. This media processing functions are the core responsibility of a media server.
With telephony networks moving more towards VoIP technology, and using Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), the idea of media servers has started to gain some traction. Typically, an application (the 'application server') has the controlling logic, and controls a remote media server (or multiple servers) over an IP connection, possibly using SIP. Protocols such as Netann, MSCML and MSML have been created for this way of working, and a new protocol, MediaCTRL is under development at the IETF.
The IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), the blueprint for next generation networks, defines a component called the MRF (Media Resource Function), which is a kind of media server. In the case of IMS, the 'controlling logic' is provided by the MRFC (MRF controller), which, along with layers above constitutes an 'application server'. Although the MRF has been associated largely with the legacy telecom H.248 protocol (see Gateway Control Protocol), it is claimed that SIP-based protocols like MediaCTRL will ultimately prevail.