Having a collection of PCs and MACs stacked under a desk to facilitate the multitude of operational requirements not only proves difficult to operate but challenges our modern ideas around security and makes maintenance almost impossible.
The need to operate numerous computers within the confines of a desktop workstation isn’t new, but what has changed is the need to deliver a refined user experience, improved security and advanced maintenance capabilities. Although KVM has been with us for as long as we’ve been using x86 computers, the introduction of KVM control over IP has been a real game changer.
Not only has the user experience greatly improved, but maintenance has been streamlined and security tightened. We’ve been able to install computer servers and desktops in datacenters for some time, however, the switched circuit KVM systems previously available greatly limited the distance the computers could be installed from the user and often resulted in complex infrastructures. IP KVM has changed this.
One of the principal reasons for using IP is that we can take advantage of the massive innovation in the IT industry and use a common protocol interface to distribute our data. IP is ubiquitous and combined with ethernet and WiFi delivers the majority of our communication needs.
The massive increase in switcher speeds combined with link bandwidth improvements has further expanded the use of IP within the broadcast industry. 10Gb links can easily transport baseband progressive HD video and if visually lossless compression is used then 4K60p is easily achievable.
In a short space of time tape formats have been replaced by digital storage and VT edit machines have been replaced by high-performance computers. Consequently, IP is growing in strength for broadcasters as it’s the easiest method to move media assets around the compute and storage systems within modern broadcast facilities.
High value media assets need to be kept secure. Not only do broadcasters need to know where their data is at any time, but who is accessing them and from where. Keeping media assets on desktop workstations where anybody can easily access it is no longer an acceptable method of operation. Broadcasters are finding they must guarantee asset security, especially if you’re working with the edit masters from the next block buster movie.
By moving the compute power and storage capability to secure datacenters with restricted and monitored access, broadcasters are better placed to meet the demands of modern media asset security. IP KVM enables improved security as it facilitates and encourages moving high value assets to datacenters. Importantly, this includes secure storage of the disk drives which could be easily removed from desktop computers by malicious actors.
Maintenance is often challenging when computers are stacked under desks. Not only is it difficult for engineers to access the machines, but offices and office-edit suites are generally far from being ideal environments to store high value media and expensive computers. Dust, condensation and the occasional cup of spilled coffee all conspire against the desktop working environment to the determent of the precision electronics situated under them.
Computers consume increased power when rendering high quality video resulting in the fans spinning at high speed to cool down the processors, often resembling a jet aircraft preparing for take-off, and further reducing the user experience.
Moving desktop computing to its rightful place in the datacenter improves the user experience as well as improving security and better facilitating maintenance. IP has made KVM much more versatile than it has been in previous years and is a must for any broadcast facility looking to improve the workplace and advance high value media asset security.
In the perfect world, one computing device would meet all of our needs. We would be able to edit 4K video, answer our emails, and access web sites from the luxury of one machine. Although this may not be directly achievable due to security and operational challenges, the latest generation of KVMs streamline the user experience giving the illusion of the utopian workflows we are craving for.
Remote working has become a fact. Probably more out of necessity than a business requirement, but the need to remove ourselves from our physical place of work has become a reality. These interesting times have demonstrated the capability of how new working environments can benefit us greatly.
KVM, in its most primitive form of mechanically switched VGA, PS2 and serial control, has been with us for as long as we’ve used x86 computers. Early on, pioneers realized that for many applications, multiple dedicated machines could work as efficiently than a single mainframe type approach. The challenge with this methodology has been how to interact with multiple computers simultaneously.
Further challenges present themselves as operators prefer to use some computer platforms instead of others. For example, a Mac OSX for editing, Windows PC for office administration and a Linux machine when deploying web development tests. All these machines could easily be required by one person throughout their working day.
Multiple keyboards, mouse controllers, and trackpads all conspire to complicate the workflow making the working environment challenging and difficult. As the number of computers increases then the physical working space becomes compromised and potentially chaotic. And as CPU speeds increase then the cooling fans become even noisier further impacting the working environment.
Dedicated equipment rooms help solve many of the operational and environmental challenges. Having the computer servers installed in airconditioned and secure rooms not only protects the servers and data but reduces many of the environmental issues for the users. The big challenge is understanding how to deliver the human interface controls needed to maintain their efficient operation.
Virtualized and cloud computing is making a major impact on broadcast television. As well as providing many office and administration applications, virtualized machines are finding their way into the broadcast infrastructure to improve workflows and increase efficiencies. Many operational applications can be accessed and controlled through web interfaces, but others require the user to look at the GUI output on a screen.
Modern KVM solutions provide a whole array of different working practices to help users and system administrators. A balance between operational efficiency, ergonomics, and technical capability can be easily struck. For example, an editor using a high-end editing package may want to keep their MAC under the desk to maintain the highest video quality using preview and edit monitors, but at the same time be able to answer their emails on a virtualized Windows computer.
Virtualized computing makes support much easier as IT engineers don’t need to crawl around the floor trying to get to a suspect machine. Instead, they can interrogate the instance from anywhere with a secure network connection. Disk backups are easily achieved, and system wide monitoring can be better facilitated with centralized COTS servers running multiple instances through virtualization.
Instead of festering in dusty and environmentally challenged offices and studios, the servers are housed in datacenters with controlled temperature and humidity, along with conditioned and regulated power. Their reliability improves considerably, especially when we start to consider the many different configurations that allow the virtualized instances to be spread across multiple servers.
From the humble 256 color “320 x 200” pixel VGA to the incredible 4K displays available now, computer displays have grown considerably over the past thirty years. And with the increase in resolution and color, so has the user’s expectations. Blocky and poorly rendered graphics with visible banding are no longer acceptable, only the highest quality will do, especially in a digital world.
Maintaining High-Quality Video
This presents an interesting challenge for KVM solutions as transferring such high-quality video over any distance is a difficult task. Fortunately, video compression has achieved incredibly high levels of quality with HEVC compression achieving visually lossless images with only mild compression. For example, a 4K/UHD 60Hz baseband signal has a bandwidth of approximately 12Gbits/s, if we apply only 3:1 compression then the resulting signal has a bandwidth of approximately 4Gbits/sec. One, or maybe two 4K/UHD signals could easily be transported over a 10Gb network link.
KVM transmitters and receivers are used to multiplex the video and audio streams, keyboard and mouse signals onto IP networks so they can be decoded at the user’s desk. As well as improving security, this method also provides a much-enhanced working environment.
Using the mildest of compression now opens up a whole new experience for us as we can transport multiple 4K/UHD computer monitor feeds over a 10Gb network. Although this would require some network design and bandwidth management, 10Gb networks are easily achievable giving users two simultaneous video feeds to one workstation.
A KVM extender will be required and the outputs of the datacenter servers will need to be compressed in the transmitting box, then distributed over a network, and then to the user’s workstation where the receiver box will decode the compressed the video to provide the baseband HDMI feeds for the desk monitors.
Improved User Ergonomics
Assuming the user requires their MAC for editing at their workstation then the receiver box will have a separate HDMI input facilitating switching between the local MAC and remote virtual Windows machines. The hotkey switching is achieved locally from the keyboard to provide a seamless transfer between the actual computers.
Quite often a user will require multiple monitors with live video feeds from each of their computer instances. From the example earlier, the Mac editor will require one screen, and both the Linux and Windows instances will require separate screens. The glide facility provided by the KVM receiver will allow the mouse to seamlessly move across all three screens giving the illusion of a single interface. In fact, the KVM receiver is able to detect where the edge of one screen ends and the start of the next begins so it can switch the mouse control signals to the appropriate Mac, Windows or Linux device.
At this point, the user’s workstation is greatly simplified as their environment only consists of the KVM receiver, MAC computer, keyboard, mouse and monitors. Further resource in the datacenter can even be accessed through the hotkey switching.
Broadcast Bridge Survey
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