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Multimedia File System Paradigms

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Multimedia file systems use a different paradigm than traditional file systems. This chapter excerpt from Andy Tanenbaum's Modern Operating Systems will first review traditional file I/O, then turn our attention to how multimedia file servers are organized.
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Let us continue our file systems' study by looking at multimedia file systems. These file systems use a different paradigm than traditional file systems. We will first review traditional file I/O, then turn our attention to how multimedia file servers are organized. To access a file, a process first issues an open system call. If this succeeds, the caller is given some kind of token, called a file descriptor in UNIX or a handle in Windows to be used in future calls. At that point the process can issue a read system call, providing the token, buffer address, and byte count as parameters. The operating system then returns the requested data in the buffer. Additional read calls can then be made until the process is finished, at which time it calls close to close the file and return its resources.

This model does not work well for multimedia on account of the need for real-time behavior. It works especially poorly for displaying multimedia files coming off a remote video server. One problem is that the user must make the read calls fairly precisely spaced in time. A second problem is that the video server must be able to supply the data blocks without delay, something that is difficult for it to do when the requests come in unplanned and no resources have been reserved in advance.

To solve these problems, a completely different paradigm is used by mul-timedia file servers: they act like VCRs (Video Cassette Recorders). To read a multimedia file, a user process issues a start system call, specifying the file to be read and various other parameters, for example, which audio and subtitle tracks to use. The video server then begins sending out frames at the required rate. It is up to the user to handle them at the rate they come in. If the user gets bored with the movie, the stop system call terminates the stream. File servers with this streaming model are often called push servers (because they push data at the user) and are contrasted with traditional pull servers where the user has to pull the data in one block at a time by repeatedly calling read to get one block after another. The difference between these two models is illustrated in Fig. 7-1.

Figure 7-1. (a) A pull server. (b) A push server.

7.5.1 VCR Control Functions

Most video servers also implement standard VCR control functions, including pause, fast forward, and rewind. Pause is fairly straightforward. The user sends a message back to the video server that tells it to stop. All it has to do at that point is remember which frame goes out next. When the user tells the server to resume, it just continues from where it left off.

However, there is one complication here. To achieve acceptable performance, the server may reserve resources such as disk bandwidth and memory buffers for each outgoing stream. Continuing to tie these up while a movie is paused wastes resources, especially if the user is planning a trip to the kitchen to locate, microwave, cook, and eat a frozen pizza (especially an extra large). The resources can easily be released upon pausing, of course, but this introduces the danger that when the user tries to resume, they cannot be reacquired.

True rewind is actually easy, with no complications. All the server has to do is note that the next frame to be sent is 0. What could be easier? However, fast forward and fast backward (i.e., playing while rewinding) are much trickier. If it were not for compression, one way to go forward at 10x speed would be to just display every 10th frame. To go forward at 20x speed would require displaying every 20th frame. In fact, in the absence of compression, going forward or backward at any speed is easy. To run at k times normal speed, just display every k-th frame. To go backward at k times normal speed, do the same thing in the other direction. This approach works equally well for both pull servers and push servers.

Compression makes rapid motion either way more complicated. With a cam-corder DV tape, where each frame is compressed independently of all the others, it is possible to use this strategy, provided that the needed frame can be found quickly. Since each frame compresses by a different amount, depending on its content, each frame is a different size, so skipping ahead k frames in the file cannot be done by doing a numerical calculation. Furthermore, audio compression is done independently of video compression, so for each video frame displayed in high-speed mode, the correct audio frame must also be located (unless sound is turned off when running faster than normal). Thus fast forwarding a DV file requires an index that allows frames to be located quickly, but it is at least doable in theory.

With MPEG, this scheme does not work, even in theory, due to the use of I-, P-, and B-frames. Skipping ahead k frames (assuming that can be done at all), might land on a P-frame that is based on an I-frame that was just skipped over. Without the base frame, having the incremental changes from it (which is what a P-frame contains) is useless. MPEG requires the file to be played sequentially.

Another way to attack the problem is to actually try to play the file sequentially at 10x speed. However, doing this requires pulling data off the disk at 10x speed. At that point, the server could try to decompress the frames (something it normally does not do), figure out which frame is needed, and recompress every 10th frame as an I-frame. However, doing this puts a huge load on the server. It also requires the server to understand the compression format, something it normally does not have to know.

The alternative of actually shipping all the data over the network to the user and letting the correct frames be selected out there requires running the network at 10x speed, possibly doable, but certainly not easy given the high speed at which it normally has to operate.

All in all, there is no easy way out. The only feasible strategy requires advance planning. What can be done is build a special file containing, say, every 10th frame, and compress this file using the normal MPEG algorithm. This file is what is shown in Fig. 7-0 as ''fast forward.'' To switch to fast forward mode, what the server must do is figure out where in the fast forward file the user currently is. For example, if the current frame is 48,210 and the fast forward file runs at 10x, the server has to locate frame 4821 in the fast forward file and start playing there at normal speed. Of course, that frame might be a P- or B-frame, but the decoding process at the client can just skip frames until it sees an I-frame. Going backward is done in an analogous way using a second specially prepared file.

When the user switches back to normal speed, the reverse trick has to be done. If the current frame in the fast forward file is 5734, the server just switches back to the regular file and continues at frame 57,340. Again, if this frame is not an I-frame, the decoding process on the client side has to ignore all frames until an I-frame is seen.

While having these two extra files does the job, the approach has some disadvantages. First, some extra disk space is required to store the additional files. Second, fast forwarding and rewinding can only be done at speeds corresponding to the special files. Third, extra complexity is needed to switch back and forth between the regular, fast forward, and fast backward files.

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