Monday, 5 November 2012

Taming the Octopus

Well, Microsoft finally released Windows Media Center for Windows 8 and with it I set about my seeing if I could get TV working on MediaServer and HTPC.

I'm still a little frustrated that I need to maintain the server to manage storage and feed the living room TV while having  a separate machine drive my home theatre.

That being the case, I spent a LOT of time researching Virtualisation and what's possible. It turns out that PCIe passthrough is now possible. With a correctly specified motherboard and cpu (VT-d supported), it's possible to pass PCI and PCIe devices directly to VMs when using Xen or KVM on linux. (no support in Hyper-v on windows yet)

In theory, I could set up 3 or 4 VMs on one box. Two could be media players driving living room and HT via separate video cards. A third could be my unRaid with a multi-channel SATA card passed through for native speed/access and the 4th could be by NZB appliance.

In theory.

To even figure out if this worked, I would need to invest in a complete update of the server hardware etc. and could look forward to many weeks of puzzling it all out.

I decided to shelve that for the moment and work instead on getting live TV working with my existing set-up.

I currently subscribe to SkyHD which we love in our house but have a few gripes with, mainly it's difficult to view in multiple rooms without costly additional subscriptions and the box keeps running out of storage space with no room to expand.

I'd read that it was possible to ingest the satellite signal into Windows Media Center using a Dreambox and software from DVBLogic. To try this out, I went ahead and ordered an Octopus PCIe bridge and DuoFlex S2 from Digital Devices.

This set-up appealed to me. The Octopus occupies a single PCIe slot and allows for the connection of up to 4 dual tuners giving a possible total 8 tuners in a single slot. In addition, it's possible to mix & match tuners so for me, I'll be going for 2x DuoFlex S2 to support my Quad LNB on my satellite dish with the option to add one or two dual DVB-CT tuners to give up to 4 digital terrestrial tuners.

I started small with the base Octopus and one dual DVB-S tuner. I popped it in to my Windows 8 box and installed the drivers (touted as Windows 8 compatible) but no joy. No matter how often I installed & uninstalled the drivers, the device remained resolutely disabled in device manager.

Next, I installed it on my Windows 7 machine in the home theatre. Surprise surprise, it worked straight away , WMC scanned the transponders and TV images appeared. So, nothing wrong with the hardware then.

I always find sleeping on a problem helps and next morning, I woke to realise that I hadn't tried installing the drivers on Windows 8 but targeting Windows 7. A quick flick in the properties menu of the driver installer and finally the tuner sprang to live under Windows 8.

Next up, I had to configure my Dreambox and install the DVBLogic software to get it all working as required. I'm not going go into details of how this was achieved as it's pretty well documented elsewhere and it does work well. A lot of reading, a bit of Linux knowledge and some trial & error went a long way!

The DVBLogic software is a bit of a chore to figure out in the sense that there are so many options and a bit of reading is required to determine what's needed. They do provide a 20 day trial of everything though so it's just a matter of investing the time to figure out what's needed.

I ended up with TVSource and Connect! Server on my MediaServer. A couple of nice side-effects; The Connect! Server package includes the network client which can be configured with WMC on additional machines. This means that multiple PCs running WMC can essentially share the tuners on the server. Also, there's an iOS client that allows viewing of live TV on my iPad.

Obviously, you can't view more live channels than you have physical tuners, but it's progress.

I've gone from a situation where live TV viewing was restricted to one location to a point where I can have it essentially on any device I need throughout te house. I'm a little concerned about all the extra software that's running on the server now. In particular, DVBLogic uses FFmpeg to encode streams to iOS devices. I'll need to stress-test this running along side a few instances of Plex to see where the server limits are.

Next steps are to get a remote control solution working on MediaServer (currently keyboard driven) and install a few more tuners now that I know the hardware works.

I had considered looking at alternatives to WMC such as nPVR or MediaPortal. However, the amount of work involved in getting the supported WMC/DVBlogic working has really put me off this as those two could only be more difficult. Plus, Plex integrates somewhat with WMC so I'll let this bed-in for a while and review in a few months.

There's going to be a big step in our house soon as we move from set-top box for TV to WMC. It will be interesting to see how that goes. At least it will mean we don't need to keep changing the inputs on the TV all the time to switch between Plex & TV. At least.

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