IP and Software-based Broadcasting Infrastructures: Fact vs. Fiction

IP’s suitability for live broadcasting is no longer debatable. It’s been proven in a variety of real-world global deployments over the past several years. Even so, there’s lingering skepticism around IP and a surprising lack of understanding.

Rather than question IP’s ability to provide robust, secure, low latency live broadcasting, the focus should be on factors around migration. IP is not the universal answer for all broadcasters and content providers. It doesn’t make sense in all instances. Do you need the flexibility and agility of IP? Is remote production part of your requirements? Does your programming involve on-demand services, like more digital effects or playout channels on a semi-permanent basis? If the answer to any of these is yes, serious considerations should be made for deploying IP.

If, however, your needs are single-purpose, long-term and fixed use, it probably makes the most sense to stick with existing SDI-driven workflows. The old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” does apply in some circumstances – especially when the ‘fix’ involves learning a new system and adapting to a new way of working. Ultimately if there isn’t a business need driving change, it’s likely easier and more cost effective to keep what you have in place.

The Marketing Conundrum

But make no mistake, IP technology can perform without fault to the high standards needed for live production. It’s the approach and implementation of new technologies that deliver varying levels of success. Adding to the confusion is the current discourse in the industry. Vendors are desperate to jump on the IP bandwagon and develop products that they can bring to market quickly, eager to not miss out on the opportunity. This is where problems can arise. Many, though certainly not all, of these products are not truly IP-based and have primary core processing still firmly rooted in hardware-centric SDI technology. In fact, many IP-labeled products are simply just SDI solutions with IP bolt-ons that ultimately require additional translation steps and won’t stand the test of time.

It’s tough enough for those in the industry to make sense of it all. But imagine customers who must wade through the hype and marketing speak to learn the technology enough to understand the differences. Claims to IP may not be completely accurate. There’s a lot of noise and not much way to filter out truth from exaggeration.

Hardware vs Software

The question of whether hardware-centric or software-based IP workflows are right for a new technology landscape shouldn’t be a question. Faster connections made possible by IP are extremely beneficial to content producers. But the real benefit from IP comes from virtualized live production workflows.

True IP deployment comes from running software-based functions on COTS (commercial off the shelf) routers that support current and future standards. Fundamentally, software-based IP infrastructures leverage the cloud for vital media processing functions. 

An IP-centric infrastructure can provide benefits extend beyond media workflow. Facility monitoring and automation can be easily incorporated into a total plant management system.

An IP-centric infrastructure can provide benefits extend beyond media workflow. Facility monitoring and automation can be easily incorporated into a total plant management system.

This kind of content production allows elastic function deployment, enabling infrastructures that can flex when and at the pace required without the need to pre-allocate resources in proprietary hardware.

Evolving Business Realities

Today’s viewers are extremely well connected and content is available on more screens than ever before. Providers and broadcasters must operate in the same way, with infrastructures that are flexible and can meet demand peaks in ways that are cost effective and scalable.

At the same time, other market conditions add even more pressure. In live sports, rights contracts – essentially what can be broadcast, when and for how long – can dictate the kind of infrastructures and workflows that will be most advantageous. These realities make it difficult for any one vendor, especially in these still-early days of IP, to have all the answers. So, the natural trend is for facilities providers to outsource and create partnerships to create the best end-to-end live IP solutions that meet needs of content producers, rights holders and broadcasters. 

And traditional broadcast providers are getting some competition in what has always been an insular industry. Cloud providers are stepping up to the challenge, answering new service demands for enterprises. They’ve already made the step to IP and beyond by deploying network function virtualization (NFV). While it’s not the video business, it could be a relatively easy leap to apply the technology. It’s a simpler transition and more natural extension for facility houses and cloud providers.

4K and Beyond

There has been some talk within the industry that IP isn’t ready for 4K. This simply isn’t true. As early as last summer end-to-end native IP delivered the low latency required for a 4K remote sports production of a high-profile soccer match at UEFA EURO 2016.

For this production, a native IP platform performed all functions in real-time software with the requisite ultra-low latency and frame-accurate “clean” switching, and SMPTE 2022-7 hitless protection using diversified signal paths for both the program and preview feeds. The team at the IBC in Paris had access to all cameras at the stadium in Bordeux some 500km away using a remote multiview feed in HD or 4K and a control system. The 4K/VC-2 HQ mezzanine compression solution provided visual lossless quality at 4:1 compression rates. 

For this application, media function virtualization (MFV), which embraces the network function virtualization of the telecommunications industry and software defined networking (SDN) of the data center world were at the heart of the workflow. This is just one successful test of IP for 4K. The most challenging hurdle to more widespread adoption is not the technology but the mindsets that must change.

The misconception around IP and 4K might be due to the fact that native 4K requires 12.5 gigabits per second. Generally 10 gigabit transport structures are used so compression is needed, which isn’t the most elegant solution. But it’s very achievable, and when you look down the road, the picture is even rosier. With 25 gigabit switches, which are becoming increasingly more affordable, the issue is resolved. SMPTE-2110 gets around the limitation altogether and enables 4K with 10 gigabit switches. Further, as 4K standards evolve, higher resolutions as well as HDR and extra frame rates will also factor in. So if you have SDI, it’s only a matter of time before you get stuck somewhere. IP is a stepping-stone to software-based solutions that work in the necessary higher resolutions and frame rates.

Migration Paths

While IP’s advantages are undeniable, choosing the right time to invest may be what matters most. That time will be different for everyone. Business requirements and budgets must be balanced with the need to move at the speed of the industry and the technology around you. Incompatibility could become an issue and fixes will be costly to install.

There are ways to make the move to IP incrementally. There is lots of talk around hybrid solutions, which serve a purpose though not very gracefully. For others, IP ‘islands’ can be deployed as budgets and requirements dictate. You don’t need a forklift for a seamless evolution to IP. But you need a way to educate engineers as well as customers.

Changing Perspectives

SDI and its precursors have dominated the broadcast industry for years. The new and unknown are never comfortable and it’s human nature to be wary and push back against change. With IP, engineers need to embrace fundamentally different underlying principals and technology – no longer do we need to rely on multiple pieces of technology to perform functions. Currently there is a knowledge gap as well as a comfort gap. But we all need to work to close it and embrace the idea that a single hardware platform can look after multiple functions.

There’s so much to be gained from embracing IP for live broadcasting and creating workflows that will endure as technology naturally evolves even further. All of the overzealous marketing and skepticism aside, there’s no doubt that IP is ready for live broadcasting primetime.

Joop Janssen, Aperi CEO

Joop Janssen, Aperi CEO

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