The Road to Alexandria (part 1): Introduction

(First of all, a sincere apology for not writing sooner. Communication is important, and I’ve sorely lapsed in my communication with the Plex community. This may have appeared as a lack of progress on Plex, but let me assure you, it’s entirely the opposite. We have some amazing things to share with you this year, and we’re only getting started.)

As most of you know, for the last year we’ve been working hard on best-in-class support for online media. Since we released the first version of the Plex Media Server with support for plug-ins, there have been hundreds of plug-ins written, and more than 1.4 million plug-ins downloaded from our store. We strongly believe that our platform is the easiest way on the planet to get media from a website to your living room TV.

On the other hand, many people who first see Plex are impressed most by how it handles your local media. To see a file on your hard drive spring to life with posters, fan art, and rich metadata is a wondrous thing indeed. Navigating through your library in various ways, seeing what episodes of a TV Show you haven’t watched, browsing through movie summaries and ratings, these things are all magical compared with browsing a lifeless Finder window.

The success of our platform for online media, coupled with our passion for building the best possible product, led us to focus our attention and energy in the last months on local content. Now as you may know, the library in Plex/Eight is based almost entirely on XBMC code. The XBMC library is quite possibly the best in the world, especially compared with other pieces of media center software. So the first question was: enhance or rewrite? At the end, we decided, just like with our plug-in framework, to throw out the existing code and rewrite it from scratch.

The ground up rewrite not only results in an extremely powerful library for personal content, but also sets the stage for providing many benefits beyond just the library itself. The latest major revision of the Plex Media Server, which incorporates the library, provides many other new capabilities under the hood that will allow us and developers to build some seriously cool new things.

This first post will serve as an attempt to explain the high-level features. Of course, the most important thing of all is its name. We decided to name the Plex Library after the Royal Library of Alexandria, the most famous library of the ancient world. (Naysayers may point out that the library was eventually destroyed, but hey, it lasted for hundreds of years!)

Here are some of the features of the new library:

  • Decentralized: This was very important to us. The XBMC library is coupled to the media center itself. In Alexandria, the Plex Media Server stores all the data, and serves it out via an HTTP/XML interface. In this way, multiple Plex applications can share a library, or multiple libraries. You can do cool things like stop watching a movie on one client and resume on another.
  • Flexible: As opposed to the XBMC library with its limiting Movies and TV areas, Alexandria allows a library to have unlimited sections. For example, you might have a “Documentaries” section, a “Home Movies” section, an “Anime” section, and a “Foreign Films” section, all configured to suit the media.
  • Open: As mentioned before, the data from the library is available via an HTTP interface to the Plex Media Server. In addition, a new class of plug-ins called Metadata Agents have been developed, which are responsible for finding and retrieving information about your media from the Internet. Agents already exist for IMDB, TheMovieDB, TheTVDB, and others. Agents can retrieve any sort of data, such as TV theme music, subtitles, and song lyrics. The agents can be combined and arranged so that the resulting information is a customizable amalgam. We’ve also added a new class of entities called Scanners, which are responsible for identifying media on your drives. This means that even if you have a completely different file system structure to your media, you can write a few lines of Python code and integrate it with Alexandria.
  • Unified: In Alexandria, even if a movie has no entry on IMDB (for example), it still sits alongside those movies that do. There is no more “file mode” and “library mode”. Everything in a library section, regardless of how much metadata it has, is a first class citizen of the library. This also allows content like home movies to live in the library, have their own fan art, posters, summaries, and other metadata.
  • Robust: One of the problems with the old library is that a change to the IMDB site, for example, could cripple the scraper and prevent new content from being added. Since the metadata agents and scanners live in Plex plug-in bundles, they are auto-updated from our site, so we can quickly push a fix. Additionally, Alexandria is flexible enough such that even if a metadata provider like TheTVDB is down, new episodes are still added (and somewhat magically, may even get full metadata!)
  • Developer friendly: The old scrapers were an enormous pain to develop, maintain, and even understand. We’ve built the new agents on top of our proven plug-in framework, which relies on modern features like XPath to make it easier than ever to bring metadata to your media.
  • User friendly: There are a number of features which make Alexandria a pleasure for users. The library management is centered around the Plex Media Manager built into the Plex Media Server, which makes it easy to add library sections. Once added, these sections show up instantly on all Plex clients in the house. The Media Manager makes it easy to maintain your media, correct matches, tweak the metadata, customize the artwork, and more.

This, in summary, is Alexandria. I’m sure the first question will be “When can I have it?” We are quite far along with development, and we have released early builds to a select group of testers, who have been extremely helpful with their feedback and help. I’m using it full-time on my Mini, and used it to watch the latest episode of Lost last night. There are, of course, many things to clean up, fix, and add, but it won’t be too long now before we open up the testing to more people.

Thanks again for your patience. I’ll write more soon, and cover lots more of the details of Alexandria. Until then, I’ll leave you with some quotes from the first group of testers:

“Setting up sources is MUCH MUCH MUCH easier!!”

“NIIIIICEEEEE!!!!”

“This is going to be soooo good!!”

“ho-ly sh*t! I can read and understand this!”

“PC users are going to want a Mac. This is way ahead of XBMC now”

“This is just … WOW!!!”

“That is fantastic! Exactly what we need.”

“This looks amazing…exactly what is missing”

“You guys, this is f**king amazing”

“Whacking sources before used to be such a pain in the ass. Now it’s no big deal.”

“Wow, this is really nice”

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161 Comments

  • @GeetJ – Yeah, i’ve seen that solution floating around on the forums. I turned it off a while ago, but manual update doesn’t work either. If i say “Update Library” or “Scan for changes” it goes through the (very quick) motions, but nothing is updated. If i re-scrape the entire folder (be that a whole TV show of 100s of episodes, or my movies folder) it will find the new episodes, but of course loses all of my watched/unwatched info and takes ages.
    I would go through and re do my entire library, wiping the slate clean, but if this new release is coming out sometime soon, as we’ll need to re-do it it anyway, i guess i’ll wait.
    If i have some time today i might try backing up my library, deleting app support etc, re-installing plex and restoring it, see if that makes any difference.
    Thanks for the reply :D

  • Elan: I apologize for the above. I don’t know why, but for some reason I wrote “Karim” in the name field because I was replying to him. My reply was naturally to him.

    Anyway, I would again like to voice my great appreciation for all the hard work that you guys put in to making a polished and civilized mediacenter solution. Keep up the good work, and I will keep my fingers crossed for a port(able) version of the media server.

  • I can confirm that the fix works insofar as it puts the display to sleep now (and keeps it asleep). However, I can also confirm that if the dim screen saver is active before the display sleeps then “waking” the display with the (apple) remote brings Plex back to the dim screen saver mode. At that point it’s not possible too get the dim overlay off (without restarting or perhaps waiting for the dim screen saver timer to trigger it again and then use the remote before the display sleeps). Anyway, I just turned off the dim screen saver and it works well. At least the display is sleeping now.

    Thanks much!
    Matt

  • So the new version will share/stream the media to other clients? Or is it just the library meta data that is shared with all clients?

    Will it be possible to share only library metadata between clients but have the clients accessing the media locally (from different source). I’m asking because I alternate between 3 different residences. My bandwidth at these locations is not big enough to support 720p streaming, but I do manually download media from my main location to watch when it’s fully downloaded. I would still like to use the decentralized library with all its selected posters, metadata and tags. Is this possible, and how will the library handle media that is not available, will this still be visible in library? Ideally for me only the available media would show in the library, while the non available media lie “dormant” in the background, so if I have different media on different clients their metadata is all stored in the decentralized library. (Hope the request makes sense, much harder to describe in a concise way with words than to myself in my head ;-) )

  • congrats… hope we can test it to have quickly a great release…
    All the best ;)

  • This sounds really great. Is any alpha release available?

    And please, fix the playlists too!! We need to create, name, save and load playlists!!

  • ALEXANDRIA I – EBOOKS
    About Alexandria, just have a question, or maybe a suggestion (or maybe a selfish request?).

    Currently Plex handles well comic books archives (.rar, .cbr etc) but the only way to access them is through the Pictures section and with zero descriptions, it’s very basic.

    I dream about a COMICS/EBOOKS section, possibly based upon the current TV structure (comics could be easily organized in “tomes/episodes” too), with scrappable summaries and cover/fanarts (could be possible from Amazon or other big comics dealers I guess).
    And consequently control could be a bit more reader-friendly on the GUI and with the Apple Remote (zoom & pan, SamrtScroll-like effect? Page curling? you’re the pro, I trust you!)

    I guess this could sound definitely as a “niche” use of Plex for Elan and other skilled devs, who are busy enough with common AV medias, but considering the growth of HD comics you can find nowadays, and the forthcoming explosion of ebooks for the iPad (I’m not sure reading a book on a TV would be comfy, but e-newspaper-magazines could), it’s maybe time to at least consider now the opportunity to implement this function in the future, not too lately?

    Best regards and congratulations for all the great work!

  • ALEXANDRIA II – SECURITY
    Now an other point I am a bit nervous a bit: security of all the set-up

    Real Alexandria Library finally burned (well historically it’s not completely true, but nevermind) and same can/could happen with Plex’s.

    User can do a wrong thing and mess up the library, or there could be a problem to Imdb if their database mix titles and therefore mix things in User’s Library, there could be an alien invasion or a black hole could eat us all, but whatever, problems can always occur.

    I wish there was a security function in Plex, maybe somewhere in the Settings, just a big button which says SAVE MY PLEX (which stands for “SAVE MY TIME” when you have a huge library and tweaked everything to be as you want) and would backup all the stuff (settings, library txt/pics, metas etc) in a single, secure place, as a single and secure file named Plex-Backup-User_day-month-yr.zip!
    … and of course a little button near it to restore everything if the shit happens.

    Of course this can be done manually already, but it would be so much convenient to just control this to GUI!

    And convenient too when you migrate your Plex on a new computer (ok I agree, this is a 0.85 reasoning: with centralized streamed Library, hooking a new mac to the Library will work like a breeze, but precisely, this makes central Library backups even more crucial!)

    Best regards

  • This looks awesome. Having a central library on my server for all the units in the house will be awesome. It’ll also be great to have a dedicated library section for my porn, ermm… documentaries, so they don’t all show up when browsing the movies section. Can’t wait for this, and will likely buy a new Mac Mini to replace the XBMC linux machine in my bedroom.

  • Very cool stuff! Multi-Client resume feature seems very interesting. Keep up the awesome work guys!

  • Great!!!
    I installed Plex on my new Mini a few days ago and I love it. It’s just that a want and much more for my living room!
    The posibility of add a ebook, comic and newspaper section sounds really good….
    I can’t wait for the next relaese.
    Thanks a lot… Plex is really GREAT!!!!

  • Guys, this is getting a bit ridiculous. No communication at all about what’s going on. It’s a bit unfair to tease people with what sounds like an absolutely amazing release, saying that there’ll be a screencast within a week…it’s now been four…

    I know that this software is free, and i cannot stress enough my appreciation for what you all do, but keeping people waiting like this is a bit odd for such a community driven project.

    Please tweet/blog/facebook some kind of update, it’s been nearly 2 months since this initial blog post, and that’s about 10 years in internet time!!

  • I would also like an update if possible. Having just ran into the scrapper not picking up a new show, I’m more than willing to alpha test something. Been checking back every day or so hoping for a new word.
    That being said, I understand you all busy and have lives. I love the product, and look forward to the new features.

  • I’d LOVE to help test this! This answers my #1 complaint about Plex and XMBC. I have 2 mini’s and an iMac. The mini’s are 100% dedicated as media centers and the Imac manages the content. It’s always annoyed me that I couldn’t sync the database across them.

    Thank You!!!!!!

  • Hello
    just checking in here everyday to see if there are some news, but nothing for the last 6-7 weeks ?

  • 08-12-10…
    Where is Plex 9?

  • Could we all get some kind of update? Even if its not good news I think we would rather hear about a delay rather than nothing at all.

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