December 1, 2011

FlickStream: Linux Inside

Behind every successful business, there's Linux and open source. That might be an exaggeration, but it's not an exaggeration to say that Linux and open source are at the core of FlickStream. The Linux-powered service adds all sorts of custom content to the Linux-powered Roku digital video player.

I'm not one of those people who doesn't own a television or get hooked on favorite series. I don't have a problem with spending too many hours in front of the boob tube, mindlessly losing myself in dramatic story lines or unbelievable plots. In fact, I wish I had more time to sit in front of our big flat screen, and if I did, I wouldn't be flipping through the cable channels. Instead, I could lose myself in the wealth of options that my magical little Roku box streams onto my screen.

Long gone are the days of my childhood with four crappy channels and dead air in the middle of the night. We have Netflix, Hulu, Boxee, and Amazon options, people! But I really dig my Roku the most and have managed to squeeze in 55 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the past six weeks. (Ok, maybe I do have a problem and plenty of time to watch television.)

A few weeks ago I ran into an old friend and former colleague, Randy Reames, and when I asked him what he's been up to, he told me an interesting story about his unique connection to my beloved Roku. Reames and his FlickStream business partner, Michael Osten, had been using modified original Xboxes with XBMC as home media centers for a couple years when Osten read about the Roku Digital Video player, which was also known as the Netflix Player. In 2009, Osten approached Reames about collaborating on a way to make channels to package and stream public domain movies for the device.

"At first we were working out of my apartment here in Grinnell, Iowa," Reames says, "And once Roku opened up the platform to independent developers, we released Drive-In Classics and Moonlight Movies. These were a couple of the first channels on the Roku other than Netflix, Amazon, and MLB." FlickStream (SolveLLC) was born, with Co-Founder and President/CEO Michael Osten and Co-Founder and VP of Web Technologies Randy Reames, in addition to Josh Burnham, Chief Engineer.

The team developed the backend on a Debian LAMP server and built it so they could also develop for other set-top boxes and mobile platforms. In addition to Drive-In Classics and Moonlight Movies, FlickStream launched the first channel to tap into a live video stream, which was NASA.

After they saw the success of Drive-In and Moonlight, Reames and Osten came up with King-Fu Theater, Cowboy Classics, and Midwest Cage Championship (MCC, the major mixed martial arts fight promotion company Midwest). The partners have also built other channels, such as RacefansTV, SportSkool, and Bollyverse, for outside clients. FlickStream also has a couple linear or "live" channels, FlickStreamTV and Timeless Toons, which stream random obscure films and classic cartoons 24/7 rather than video on demand.

In addition to a couple of new channels in the works for clients, the FlickStream team is working to expand their channels on to other devices and platforms, such as the Samsung connected devices and the Android platform. Currently, FlickStream runs on the Roku, Boxee Box, Popbox, and iOS devices.

Reames says the new business has been going well. "There is always room for growth, of course, and in time we would like to be able to expand into getting some larger film libraries," he says. "Although the Roku has been getting saturated with several channels over the past year, ours still seem to be some of the most popular. We also think that expanding on to the other Internet-connected devices and set-top boxes will help us expand even more."

Linux-powered FlickStream

All of the FlickStream servers and some test video encoder machines are running either Debian or Ubuntu. "These are what we are the most experienced with and have been using for many years both personally, and with our past jobs," Reames explains. "We use Linux on the server side because it's what we have always used, and also because of the cost, ease of use, stability, and it gets the job done as we need it to." The Web servers are Apache, with MySQL as the database and PHP and Perl running the back end and standard HTML, CSS, and Javascript on the front ends. They also use FFMPEG and VLC.

Reames says that he and Osten would like to use an open source product for the video encoding of their linear streams, but they haven't found one yet that does what they need it to do. "We try to use as much open source tools as we can, both for the cost and also we often need to modify things," Reames explains. "This is such a new market and evolving technology that things that we are doing haven't been done yet, so we have to figure out how to make it work."

The team tries using open source software first, but sometimes resorts to commercial solutions to get the job done. "But that's often the nature running a business with a small team," Reames says. "You have to use what tools you need to to get the product out there."

When it comes to Linux, Reames and Osten are most experienced with Debian and Ubuntu, but they have worked with other flavors, including Red Hat, Mandrake, and Gentoo. "I think about 7-8 years ago, I talked Michael into breaking away from the RPM-based distros to Debian and we've pretty much stuck to that," Reames says. "There's a reason I have a Debian neck tattoo," he adds.

Reames says that he's partial to Debian and Ubuntu because the apt-get has worked the best for him. "I've messed with Ubuntu on the desktop some, and it has come a long way in the past few years," he says. "I remember spending hours trying to get anti-aliased fonts working on my Debian desktop machine years ago. Server side though, I'll always use Debian."

Although I'm not paid to endorse Roku or other set-top devices, I still think you should check out the growing number of channel options. With a team of Linux enthusiasts working behind the scenes to deliver a variety of public-domain flicks, set-top channels and streaming are making it even easier to watch what you want to watch, when and how you want to see it.

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