Taming The Virtualized Beast

Without doubt, virtualization is a key technological evolution focus and it will empower many broadcast and media organizations to work differently, more efficiently and more profitably.

But, there is a danger that the perception of this new technology can advance beyond reality in the real world. Virtualization is not the answer for every scenario, in every scale of operation. Before embarking on a voyage towards virtualization, the user must ask themselves some fundamental questions.

Firstly, does the user prefer flexibility in his production and distribution workflows, which is one of the key advantages of a virtualized environment. Or does he prefer operational efficiency – especially in 24/7 media processing operations? Quite simply, if the workflow is stable and not subject to modification very often then a software-based system solution running on a bare-metal on-premise installation would be preferable. Target setting of this type is a fundamental conversation we have with our customers at the start of any virtualization project.

SMPTE 2110 Media Streams With A Virtualized Environment

One question we are frequently asked by customers is whether it is possible to handle SMPTE 2110 data streams within a virtualized environment. The answer is yes, R&S already has such applications up and running across Europe.

Once such application is technology and production center Switzerland ag (tpc), which has opted for a purely software-based R&S PRISMON monitoring solution from Rohde & Schwarz. As a subsidiary of SRG SSR, tpc is responsible for the entire technology and production of the TV, radio and multimedia contributions of Swiss radio and television broadcaster SRF.

In a new campus building for SRF, the Swiss broadcasting company serving the German-speaking region of Switzerland, tpc relies on IP infrastructures operating the SMPTE 2110 standard for its complete technology environment. Here, R&S PRISMON is being deployed to monitor video input signals, mainly as a multiviewer.

SRF/tpc/SRG are building a new all-IP news and technology building in Zurich-Leutschenbach. The SRF news and sports desks, the national services of the Swiss public broadcasting organization SRG SSR, and tpc will be integrated in the new building in the next few years. tpc is building a completely new SMPTE 2110 compliant, IP-based system infrastructure for the various TV studios, post production, the new nationwide master control room (MCR), and a central ingest and playout center. The aim is to streamline operational procedures and simplify processes.

A variety of video input signals are monitored at various places in the new building. R&S PRISMON simultaneously monitors signals from broadcast management, ingest, the MCR, production, and the sports desk. For control purposes, they are displayed on multiple monitors using the multiviewer function found within R&S PRISMON. Also, the multiviewer output complies with SMPTE 2110 and features extremely low latency despite the software-based approach.

R&S PRISMON performs various forms of media analysis, including input loss, freeze frame, black frame and audio silence. The solution detects dropouts and content errors and automatically generates real-time alerts – all available in SMPTE 2110 format. R&S PRISMON is able to receive and monitor these signals and output them as IP signals. The monitoring solution is very cost-effective since future new standards and media formats can be added at any time with a simple software upgrade.

tpc explained that they chose R&S PRISMON because it features leading-edge SMPTE 2110 technology and is extremely flexible. They were especially impressed by the software-based approach and virtualization capabilities.

We are pleased that we were able to convince the project management of the innovative strength and flexibility of our software-based R&S PRISMON monitoring platform. In the general coordination meetings, it quickly became clear that both sides shared a very progressive view on the implementation of IP-based transmission in the studio area.

If broadcasters are migrating from a broadcast specific standards and interface landscape to a generic IT/IP environment, then the migration has to be complete in order to realise the potential benefits of this new environment. However, life is never black and white – there are many shades of grey and this is where the strength of the relationship between the user and technology partner becomes so important during the transition phase.

Hannes Strobel, Vice President of Headend and Monitoring at Rohde & Schwarz

Hannes Strobel, Vice President of Headend and Monitoring at Rohde & Schwarz

You can operate ST 2110 within a virtualized environment as we have proved in Switzerland. The key question is whether this environment would provide the user with their required latency in a studio production environment. Also, does it provide the necessary media processing precision that you would achieve within a hardware-based installation.

To meet this challenge requires the skillsets of two different types of people – hardware engineers and software developers. Rohde & Schwarz has built its reputation over many decades on our hardware engineering capabilities. But also, PRISMON is a software-based product that is over 10 years in development. During this time, we have developed excellent software development skillsets and these are valuable when we address the needs of virtualized workflows.

With all these skillsets, we can advise customers: both advice and support throughout the signal processing chain and also on how the virtualized infrastructure is being set up. In order to maximize both latency and data throughput and stability, we can optimize the data processing throughput in a virtualized framework.

The question is how does a broadcaster tame that asynchronous IT/IP world in ways that enable viewers to consume AV content in manner they are familiar and happy with? The closer you can get to the performance that a traditional hardware-based system provides, the happier the customer is. It requires specialist knowledge and skillsets, but the big challenge is to customize a virtualized environment to the specific needs of that user – this is where the strength of the relationship between the customer and the technology partner is so important.

Third-Party Interoperability In Virtualized Environments

Virtualized environments will never be limited to just one vendor’s products but will be a basket of several different products from a range of companies. This requires a great deal of interactivity and interoperability within the broadcaster’s workflows. In this environment things will inevitably go wrong from time to time. It is essential that the broadcaster has a strategy in place for when this occurs so that the impact is minimized.

This is another important area where your technology partner should provide advice and support. In an ideal world, the user will test any new software’s ability to operate effectively within their virtualized environment, but this is not always possible. In this situation, standards such as SMPTE 2110 become important since they help promote operational stability and interoperability within a virtualized environment. However, three different vendors can interpret a standard differently and this will affect the way they operate together (or not). This is a factor that a broadcaster needs to build in to their virtualization strategy and it is one where their technology partner should be able to provide advice.

In conclusion, I note the amount of commentary around the Cloud, IP and virtualization. This is most definitely one interesting way to proceed in engineering workflows for a broadcaster but it is not a broadcaster’s cure-all. Software systems running on bare metal on-premise installations still have their advantages, especially in static 24/7 scenarios. To me, it is not an either/or; black/white question. Instead it is a question of balancing workflow flexibility and versatility against operational efficiency. And it will develop over the coming years as virtualization’s enabling technologies evolve. It is a question that needs careful consideration from experienced technologists. At Rohde & Schwarz, we are investing in virtualized architectures, but this does not signpost the immediate end for dedicated bare-metal offerings – far from it – it merely offers greater choice to the customer.

This article was first published as part of Essential Guide: When to Virtualize IP.

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