Operating An IP Broadcast Facility:  Part 1 - Control Is Key To Successful IP Facility Operation

As IP technology continues to mature and the industry gains a better understanding of how IT-centric infrastructures work, many broadcasters are now eager to migrate away from the limitations of SDI to grow their businesses and make them better able to support increased production demands and multiplatform distribution.

The business case for moving to IP is now being proven daily at a number of new facilities in the U.S. and Europe that are launching new radio and video over IP services without increasing staff or equipment. Thanks to switched network infrastructures these resources are being utilized more efficiently, so the ROI on the required technology is achieved faster.

However, with so much system complexity and third-party interoperability that needs to be designed and managed, centralized control and monitoring of IP infrastructures has become critical to packet-based productivity. Like in an SDI environment where the router was responsible for signals being distributed in a deterministic fashion, data switches and significantly increased signal processing are now under software control. This allows the facility to reconfigure its signal paths at a moment’s notice and adjust the workflow to fit the job at hand.

Facility Management Makes (Business) Sense

Heretofore in a traditional broadcast facility there has never been a need for an overarching control system. That’s because all of the systems that are needed to complete a production don’t recognize each other on a network. You might have an intercom system and a production switcher and a multiviewer. They are all needed to complete the overall production, but each is a standalone system. Bringing them together under central control is where the magic happens.

Take the audio guy for example, who is sitting in front of a large console and a multiviewer in his suite. He needs to see images and labels on the multiviewer as he’s mixing a project. In order to get the right picture and labels on the multiviewer, he needs to tell somebody to route it to him. Therefore, he needs access to the console, the intercom and the multiviewer. So, either a dedicated person is required to be on call and manage the distribution of signals that the audio guy requires, or he can do this himself by pushing a few buttons—working faster and more efficiently.

Control And Monitoring Saves Time And Money

“That’s what a control and monitoring system does,” said Axel Kern, Product Manager for the Lawo VSM broadcast control system. “It saves time and effort and allows the operator to work faster and be more productive by having everything where and when he needs it.”

A software-defined IP control system interpolates and tags all of the third-party systems in a facility and forwards the control of them to the end user. So, everybody has access to the signals all of the time, but they use a task-specific remote control at their station for their personal needs. All of the complexity stays in the background.

This, then, is about controlling devices in order to share signals with the least amount of effort.

“We do not forward or touch an IP stream from a transmitting device to a consuming device,” said Kern. “We tell the consuming device where to find that stream and how to get it. That’s what a broadcast controller does. It’s a simple xy routing for the end user but behind the scenes it’s much more complicated. This does not mean that working directly with the streams is not necessary, but it makes sense when it comes to deeper system or telemetry monitoring, which Lawo addresses with a product called SMART.”

Network Switch Acts Like A Matrix Router

In an IP facility the central (core) router has been replaced by edge devices that stream directly into the network. The network switch works like a matrix router. In order to perform the stream route, the control system operator tells the edge device to register to an existing stream without working at all with the infrastructure in the middle. A more sophisticated way is to control the infrastructure in the middle to pre-route streams to an egress port on the network where the stream leaves the infrastructure and goes into the edge device. For example, a camera sends its signals into an egress port where the monitor sits and displays the signal.

The big change from baseband infrastructures to IP is that all signaling becomes abstract. With SDI, you had one cable between devices carrying either a separate signal or an embedded signal with video and audio. If you unplug that cable you lose one signal.

In a networked infrastructure, you use fibers with a bandwidth of 10, 25, 40 and 100 Gbps. On these fibers you have up to thousands of audio signals and hundreds of compressed video signals. If you unplug one of those fibers, the you lose an entire production. Protecting against this failure requires specialized software that maintains control over the entire infrastructure. If one signal goes down, you can move to another signal automatically and not lose time on your production.

Initial Cost Is Higher

The required network infrastructure discussed here is not cheaper to deploy than a baseband design. Indeed, most current network infrastructures need to be updated every five years or so. But at the end of the day that’s why it becomes so much more flexible to operate than SDI. New devices, as they become available, can simply be plugged into the network and be immediately available to any authorized person across the entire facility. In terms of technology, an IP facility is always up to date if it is planned and maintained properly.

ROI Is Quickly Apparent

Configured correctly, the financial return from a switched IP network becomes quickly apparent. It starts with connecting all of the signals from the studio into a network and at the same time connecting all consumers (RX devices) of those signals. This allows you to connect several studios to the same devices, which can then be used as required—either separately or in parallel with another user.

With IP, you avoid hard-wiring anything. Previously, you had one router per studio, or per facility and there were limits to its I/O capability. The switched network infrastructure greatly exceeds this I/O capability, so you can have many different workflows going on at the same time. Without the need to unplug anything physically, you can reroute streams from one studio to another with a single button push. This allows you to route Studio 3 to Control Room number 4 on one day and Studio 3 to Control Room 2 another day because Control Room 4 is being used by something else.

That flexibility allows you to use existing equipment to the maximum, down to every individual signal processing module.

“The equipment cost a lot of money, so the key is to get as much capability out of it as you can,” said Kern.

What the software controller does is to create a pool of available resources. Each resource is tagged and the user simply searches for that tag (e.g., for transcoding) in order to carry out a function on the network. All they look for is the output of the transcoder, for example, and not the signals going into the converter. The control system manages all of the processing in the background.

This allows you to create new types of productions in a much shorter time span. All of your equipment is used to its maximum capability. Many facilities are now running two or three studios with one control room, or even control rooms abroad in remote facilities. So this software-controlled system design allows you to produce more content with the same resources and manpower. At the end of the day many feel this clearly outweighs the cost of migrating to IP.

Making The Switch

The decision to migrate has to be made very carefully. Most broadcasters migrate from an SDI infrastructure to IP because they want to create more content within the existing facility they are in. An IP system design easily allows them to do that. It also lets them set up remote productions, which again allows you to get the most out of existing resources.

By taking the complexity away from the end users with a switched network control system, production staff can spend more time being creative and focus on the job at hand. When everyone’s working smarter, the business improves.

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