Friday, August 16, 2013

SVSI N1000 series - Uncompressed video over network switches

Teaser post showing new devices,
not yet tested or even wired neatly.
Two weeks ago, before a much-needed week-long vacation, I left a teaser post showing some shiny new hardware on the Audiovisual Professionals group at the Google+ social network. For those not following me over on G+, this is the N1000 series from SVSI - a video and audio over standard network switches. It's a technology in which I've been interested for a while, but true uncompressed video has always been a big missing item; if you have a source and display in the same room, you want to eliminate the latency that comes with compression as much as possible. Does this solution fit the bill? Time to find out!

My test rig. HDCP protected content from the tablet,
non-HDCP from a laptop. And I'd not be the pixel-and-ink
stained wretch without an actual bottle of ink!
Physically, each encoder or decoder unit is about 7.875"x5.125"x 1" (according to my tape measure here). This fits them comfortably behind displays, in wall-boxes sized for digital media receivers, and other locations you'd want to stow one. There's also a 1RU rack-mount kit for two units, and a 2RU card-cage which will hold six card-versions of the same units. Encoder units have a DVI-I input for video with embedded audio, a single network jack, as well as captive-screw connectors for IR, RS-232, Audio, and DC power. The units can also accept power over ethernet, which is how I tested them. The decoder units are similar, with the exception of slightly different placement on the DVI connector.

I was able to get started and have a functional matrix within probably less than a half hour, using SVSI's Conductor Netlite software. It auto-dected all four units (plus a controller - more on that later) without a hitch, and easily populated them into a 2x2 matrix with reasonably intuitive mouseclicks to select crosspoints and then "take" to transfer. Separate matrices are created for N2000 and the forthcoming N3000 series devices. Sadly, I didn't have any of those to evaluate as of yet, although I'm working at acquiring an N2000 kit.

Front and rear views of encoder with network switch
So how was the switching? As fast and close to seamless as I could detect. Running tasks through the system (drawing on a tablet, using a mouse, etc) felt as natural as they would via a direct connection. Conductor will also let you rename units, give you their IP addresses, and send you directly to their page on a web-browser to adjust various settings, see extended EDID information, set up local play, etc. This is also where you'll find the ability to allow HDCP protected content, which is a quick and painless process. Once you do so, switching between protected and unprotected sources is as fast as any other switch. Compare this to the Extron XTP matrix which took well over a second for the same task.

Decoder and control processor
Along with the encoder and decoder units I got my hands on an N8001 controller. This appears to be nothing more than a small webserver, allowing control of a system via a web browser. IN addition to the familiar auto-discover and matrix controls, there are script editors and a "panel builder" utility for creation of a control interface. Scripts can direct video streams (either by IP address or the unique stream number the assigned to each encoder), direct audio, operate transport controls for SVSI's DVR appliances (not available for the N1000 series), or windowing processor (ditto) as well as embed other scripts, send RS232 commands, switch from "live play" to "local play" (calling up static images stored on the device) and give a delay between commands. Custom button graphics can be uploaded, or a standard squarish-button with rounded off corners labelled as desired. For relatively simple systems, it does the job quite well and is easily loadable to an Android or iOS device via an app. IT doesn't seem to have an intuitive enough design interface or enough options (conditionals, page-overlays, etc) to build really complex systems, but it seems very workable for simple interfaces. I was able to build a simple panel to route either source to one or the other destination very quickly and easily.

Concerns? There are a few. While the devices switch very quickly, they boot up very slowly. From a cold reboot of one of the encoders or decoders, it took a solid two minutes between plugging in the cable and having the unit recognized on the network. What's worse, it didn't always get the video stream back or sync with the display without re-sending the control command. There's also an odd delay and, on some displays a loss of sync, when switching from "live play" to "local play". Sync was re-established, but it took several seconds and some odd color-artifacts and vertical roll. This was odd.

Secondly, and not unexpectedly, is the issue of bandwidth. Each stream is 880Mbps. I have no idea how this would be able to scale up to 4K; it doesn't seem that there's be enough bandwidth available. Will we need to start deploying 10 Gigabit switches? Will this spell the end of uncompressed video over the network? Will we need to send multiple streams and stitch them together? The drawbacks to all of these solutions is obvious.

All told, it's an intriguing set of options. Pricing - especially for a large-scale system - would be far less than a similar HDBaseT solution with fewer proprietary parts, less rack space, less power draw.