Flash Communications Server MX

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coverFlash moves into real-time audio, video and message-based communications

Love it or loathe it, Macromedia Flash has changed the face of the Web. Building on the inherent benefits of the SWF format's vector efficiency, it has added animation, audio, interactivity and advanced programmability to enable the delivery of full-scale, multimedia extravaganzas over the Web. Effectively the widespread penetration of the Flash player has enabled Macromedia to build its own design-rich alternative to HTML.

Flash's self-sufficient, do-it-all approach is its greatest strength but also its greatest limitation. In particular the need to re-author the entire SWF movie whenever you want to update content creates a serious authoring bottleneck. The end result is that while Flash offers the richest Web experience available, it tends to be used for one-off, self-contained projects. In other words the experience might be refreshing and engaging, but the content is anything but.

Flash MX changes all that. Alongside eye-catching new features, such as its support for short-format video embedding, Flash MX breaks entirely new ground with its introduction of pre-built interface components and its support for Flash Remoting. Using these, designers and programmers can produce a one-off Flash-based interface that efficiently interacts with server data to provide fresh content in a design-rich environment. That's a huge leap forward, but it still leaves the Flash end users as essentially standalone islands. That's where Flash Communications Server MX (FlashCom) comes in with just one aim in mind - to improve online communications. Where Flash Remoting handles transactions, FlashCom handles interactions.

And in the same way that Flash Remoting is built on the use of the dedicated binary AMF (Action Message Format) protocol to optimize data exchange, FlashCom is built on the sophisticated TCP-based RTMP (Real-Time Messaging Protocol) designed specifically to support the efficient exchange and synchronization of messages, data, audio and video. This is further enhanced by Flash's existing audio and video codecs and the use of what Macromedia calls SharedObjects which act as the brains behind multi-user communications. The end result is that, whether you're interested in providing 1-way delivery of a long-format video, 2-way chat or a multi-way video-based linkup, FlashCom provides the tools.

So how do you put FlashCom to work? First of all, you have to produce your communications-enabled application. As you would expect, the control over FlashCom is provided by a new range of Communications ActionScript objects that are made available from the Actions palette. Getting started is relatively straightforward - to begin a video or audio link, for example, all you need are the Camera.get and Microphone.get commands - and with server-side ActionScript you can take absolute control of tailor-made projects.

Using the supplied samples, components and ActionScript commands you create your communication-based rich application in Flash MX.

Macromedia provides tutorials and working examples that you can explore, but much the easiest way to get to grips with FlashCom's potential is to download the range of pre-supplied Communications Components from the Macromedia site. The current set includes customizable components to handle connection, login, and chat and even ready-to-go room-based forums, video conferencing and shared whiteboards. To check that your application works as intended, FlashCom provides an in-built Network Connection Debugger and browser-based monitoring and administration tools.

Ultimately FlashCom's unique selling point is that all the end user needs to begin communicating is the near-ubiquitous Flash player - the most widely deployed software on the Web. Access a 1-way or message-based SWF and FlashCom can begin to work straight away. Access a 2-way or multi-way SWF that uses video or audio and a Security Settings panel will appear asking if you want to allow access to your webcam and microphone. The Flash player automatically detects any standard USB and Firewire devices and seconds later you can be talking online or video conferencing.

Using the Flash player rich client, Flashcom can offer anything from unbranded long-format video playback to multi-user chat rooms.

It's impressive power but there are some deployment issues that need to be addressed first. To begin with there's security. RTMP isn't an encrypted format so isn't acceptable for some applications - though you can set up ticket-based authentication if you have a SSL-enabled server. Next there's scalability. FlashComm can be deployed across multiple servers or server clusters and supports load balancing, but it's clearly happier with multiple instances of smaller group interactions - it isn't the right choice for a live-broadcast of a Madonna concert. Finally there's the server platform itself. At the moment this is restricted to Windows-only solutions with Unix-based versions following on later in the year.

The issue of client support is even more relevant. Macromedia is right that its use of the Flash player is FlashCom's greatest strength, but it's not quite as simple as the company pretends. To begin with, much is made of the Flash player's 98% browser penetration but that's for all versions; to take advantage of FlashCom the end user will need the version 6 player which currently offers nearer 40% browser support, similar to QuickTime's. And to fully benefit from FlashCom the end user will need a microphone and webcam ready to go, which again cuts the percentage dramatically.

In the longer term there's little doubt that the Flash 6 player will become near universal and, with more rich applications available online, the number of webcam/microphone users should grow rapidly. Eventually FlashCom should reach its full potential for the simple reason that it enables the all-important end-user experience to be taken to another level. With FlashCom, online communications is no longer a weak-spot for Flash. It's yet another strength.

For the moment though there's a strong feeling that Macromedia is testing the water with this initial release of FlashCom before pushing it more aggressively. That's a good idea for users too.


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System requirements: Personal Edition: Pentium II 500MHz, 128MB of RAM, 50MB of hard disk space Windows NT4 (SP6), 2000 or XP, CD-ROM, Macromedia Flash MX. Professional Edition: Pentium II 500MHz, 256MB of RAM, 50MB of hard disk space, Windows 2000 Advanced Server or Windows NT 4 Server (SP6)

Tom Arah

October 2002

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