Software-Defined Automation: Are We Nearly There Yet? Part I

Playout automation has been enabling fewer people to control more channels for decades but we’re not quite at the point where human interaction can be eliminated altogether. Since most linear broadcasters will either move to a software-based deployment for their channels themselves or give them to a service provider that carries out that transformation for them. The first of a two part article assesses the layout and establishes the benefits of software playout and MCR operations.

For more static or thematic channels which are exclusively scheduled by traffic there is less need for an operator to actively ‘run’ things, but operators will still need experienced staff around to react if there is a problem, or to manage breaking news which would interrupt the schedule.

In the playout environment of managed services provider Red Bee Media, automation is used to assist in the execution of repetitive operational processes, so that human interaction is focused on exceptions to the norm or on complex tasks that humans are simply better at carrying out.

“There are some historically manual operational tasks that now happen entirely automatically and there are some channels that, providing certain rules are followed, can be run with a very light touch,” explains Red Bee Media's Richard Cranefield, Head of Product for Playout Services. “But as many of the channels we deliver inherently need to accommodate multiple live events and late changing commercial content, we need to retain an ability to deal with unpredictability and react quickly to complex and altering scenarios. For that reason, we retain our highly experienced playout staff but make sure they have the support of automated software tools in order to raise the reliability of our output.

Within operations, automation is less about removing people from the equation and more about supporting them in delivering a quality output. It is at the beginning of a new channel’s life, in its deployment, that automation has had most impact on the workforce.

In Red Bee Media’s MCR, automation is used primarily for control and monitoring of acquisition, routing, processing, and distribution whereas it still uses ‘hands and eyes’ for broadcast support, project support, 24/7 service desk and remote assistance with events, studios and news teams.

“Our MCR (and most of the broadcasting industry) is now in a hybrid state, supporting both traditional SDI and IP routing under software-defined control and monitoring technology platforms,” says Kristian Langbridge, Head of Distribution Services, Red Bee Media. “To handle both, you need edge devices capable of converting between the two formats. We won’t be able to fully convert to a software-defined set-up until SDI becomes a legacy format.”

Leaving that aside for one moment, the move to software defined playout and master control is already underway. James Gilbert who co-founded Pixel Power, thinks the lockdown will focus people’s attention on the timing of investments.

“The crisis will adjust the list of requirements for operators shopping for a system. The ability to operate remotely has not been high up the list of considerations until now.”

In the current situation we find ourselves in, a software only approach makes it easier to maintain playout, even if staff need to vacate the building in an emergency.

Evertz reports a number of its customers performing playout from home, which with a hardware-based solution, is just not possible.

All playout systems vendors claim to be software defined and have been tracking this way in their tech development for five or six years. The benefits of a software only approach are just too strong to ignore.

“Upgrades can be effected more quickly and systems are more scalable, enabling broadcasters and media companies to be more reactive to business changes. Integration with third party systems is usually more effective,” says Daniel Robinson, Head of R&D, Pebble Beach. “For solutions which are deployed on virtual machines, the host hardware can be shared with other applications and reused for different applications if, for example, a virtualised channel is decommissioned at the end of a season or event.”

Monitoring by exception can be hugely helpful in enabling efficient operations across multiple channels, reducing headcount whilst not removing the opportunity for human intervention altogether. Having a consolidated view across all channels of any upcoming errors or missing media means that a single operator is presented only with the information that requires attention, enabling them to take remedial action as soon as an issue arises.

Time to market is a key factor. For operators like Red Bee, the benefits of automation and software deployments are felt more at the beginning of a channel’s life. This is not an inconsequential impact. Historically the launch costs of starting a channel, simply in manpower, could be half of the effort dedicated to a basic channel over a five-year period.

When channel infrastructure is built out of bespoke appliances they needed to be unboxed, racked, wired, configured, and tested. At a rough estimate Red Bee reckons an investment of 400 days of effort to get a channel from idea to on-air. In contrast, a refined software deployment can cover the same ground in less than a day.

“Scripts can now launch replicas of a known good channel configuration, for example,” says Cranefield. “Software emulations of appliances from multiple vendors are automatically connected across the existing network and end-to-end testing is also partly automated. We don’t wait for boxes to arrive, no wiremen go into the racks room, there’s no SDI router to expand or appliances to soak test.”

Software-based playout.

Software-based playout.

Moving to software only affords a greater range of service flexibility but operational spaces are obviously still physical. In many cases the aim is to emulate the appliance-based way of working in a software world without impacting the operational user experience.

In the MCR, software provides the ability to scale up quickly across private and public cloud infrastructure, add new services and new features without having to refresh expensive hardware.

“It will inevitably reduce the monolithic software stack of many of today’s broadcast solutions into micro services, licensed on a pay-as-you-go basis,” says Langbridge. “This will drive increased competition and ultimately reduce costs for the broadcasters.”

What automation and software deployments have enabled Red Bee Media to do is get greater efficiency and quality out of these operational spaces and the teams that operate within them. Cranefield says that these spaces now have a far less machinery deployed within them, making the rooms cheaper to cool, less noisy and therefore also more pleasant places to work in.

The quality of production output can also be expected to increase as a result of using software only tools. Evertz says its software-defined systems permit customers to increase from one operator per channel, up to as high as one operator per 50 channels, with the human operator providing a safety net to ensure programming is running. That cost saving can be returned back in to the content production, presentation or acquisition.

“It’s worth noting, that the greatest return on investment is when our Mediator-X solution is used to deal with the entire content factory,” says Martin Whittaker, Technical Product Director, Evertz. “That process starts right from the beginning, whether its ingesting or managing production edits or scripts, integrating with Avid and Premiere Pro, processing content through third party automated checks, utilising AI and ML where possible, even producing, managing and delivering packages for VOD and Direct to Consumer platforms.”

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