AppleTV Architecture

If you spend any time reading Apple’s literature you will discover that they have an intended architecture for their AppleTV devices.  I was surprised to learn that Apple’s idealized concept for their media device was so completely different from how I had envisioned its use.

Apple sees the AppleTV as a centralized media consumption device.  Obviously the AppleTV is targetted for tech-savvy home users and, from what I have seen from Apple’s officialy advertising, they expect a multi-computer home to have iTunes running on several computers (in bedrooms, home office, etc.) and a single AppleTV unit places in the home’s “media center” location attached to a large screen display and surround sound audio system.  Under this design the AppleTV is the media consumer interface to all of the home’s computing resources.

I am sure that for many potential AppleTV customers, especially those already very much entrenched in the ubiquitious use of Apple’s iTunes, that this model may make sense.  A family of four could have a Mac or a PC located in the parents’ bedroom, in each of the children’s bedrooms each running iTunes and containing the individual users’ personal audio and video files.  Then a single AppleTV device placed in the living room or den and hooked to a big screen LCD high-definition television display and a surround sound audio system could be used for serious viewing or family time and the individual computers could be used for personal viewing or listening.

This model makes a lot of sense, especially in a home where all users have computers available to them and each person is likely to want to maintain their own repository of media.  In many cases I believe that this may not be the optimum approach.  This “centralized AppleTV – decentralized media” approach leaves much to be desired by my reasoning for the average media consuming family.

My proposed architecture is based on the theory of “decentralized AppleTVs – centralized media.”  I feel that more often it will be a better use of resources to have many AppleTVs located throughout the home wherever media consumption is desired.  For example, having an AppleTV in each bedroom and in the living room and/or den.  Then, to support the AppleTV units, one single Mac or PC computer running iTunes would be used as a centralized “media server” so that all files are managed from a single location.  This gives each AppleTV throughout the home access to the entire family media archives very simply.

Of course you can use Mac desktops running FrontRow to replace specific instances of the AppleTV.  This can allow for mixing and matching additional functionality as needed without disrupting the base home media architecture.  This system allows every room to use movies and music through a dedicated “entertainment” machine while the desktop computers, if they exist, can be used solely for computing and will not have to share resources – most notably screen real estate – with video content.

Storage of media under Apple’s proposed architure requires each computer user to choose, store and protect their own media.  This means that each computer must be treated as a valuable resource and required dramatically more long term media management.  It also means that there is a likelihood of media duplication throughout the house.  If every family member wants to be able to watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid when they are going to bed at night then each computer has to have its own copy of the movie.  It only takes a handful of movies before this causes significant storage bloat.

Under my proposed architure you can simply use the “media server’s” internal disk for media storage, or if you grow beyond that point you can install a larger drive or just attach external hard drives.  If you have serious storage needs then you can back the iTunes application with an external storage system such as a NAS device.  Consumer grade NAS devices start under $1,000 and it is not financially unreasonable to move to custom server-based storage solutions which can easily hit 14TB today and will scale far beyond this in the near future.  (For reference, a typical new desktop machine today holds around .16TB with the largest drives being just 1TB – so 14TB is a significant amount of storage.)

Possibly the biggest advantage of having centralized media storage is that backups are very, very simple.  There is no bloat as there are not multiple copies of the same files floating around in different locations, and backups are only necessary from the media store (either the local drive, the external drives or the NAS device.)

In a previous article I discussed using the AppleTV as a means of controlling content being made available to children.  Apple’s architecture does not really take this advantage of their own system into account, but under my architecture children can safely have an AppleTV installed into their bedrooms with them having unlimited access to it without any worries that they will be able to access unintended content using it.

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