Flexibility At The Core Of Decentralized Infrastructures

Most broadcast and media production professionals acknowledge that if they were to design the ideal video production and playout facility today, it would be all based on Internet Protocol (IP) operations. Due to the inherent benefits—cost savings, scalability and flexibility—this decentralized design is quickly becoming the favored way to build an operations platform that meets today’s production requirements and can grow to accommodate future technology improvements as they emerge.

Even with the generally positive experience of legacy SDI-based “fixed facilities,” production networks defined by software technology, where every resource is utilized to its full potential, can be much more cost-effective, efficient and the fastest way to get things done in a multi-use facility; including one that is tied to others remotely located.

Perhaps the biggest advantage is flexibility. SDI is a point-to-point one-way system while IP is bidirectional and can carry multiple uncompressed signals at the same time. A notable future advantage may be lower installation costs, but that’s not necessarily the case today. And if designed carefully, the production staff won’t see much difference in how their individual jobs are conducted, as their systems and tools largely have not changed—although many hardware devices have now been reimagined in software. Therefore, the inherent flexibility of IP makes it a logical choice for systems that have varying needs up to and including 4K UHD. Deploying multiple signal paths for redundancy is another benefit that ensures system reliability.

Maximizing Resources

These IP networks allow users to pool resources (ingest, playout, archiving, cameras, switchers, servers, etc.) and send signals to any destination within a facility or externally—as opposed to a single direct link between one or two pieces of equipment in the SDI world. It means having the ability, with a few button pushes, to launch a set of configuration changes that help spin up and assign resources to meet the needs of the next show. This allows shared resources to support different business-driven requirements, maximizing the ROI. This also fosters highly collaborative workflows, where team members in different locations work closely together to accomplish their goals. In addition, these production and delivery processes can be easily automated, so human intervention is minimal.

In an IP infrastructure every piece of equipment is routable, so the network makes the best use of the resources available, whether they be in the next room or across the world. This includes which operator is seeing what devices, what cameras are assigned to which switcher and which control room will handle the production. Also, the operator in the control room can take on a different role as required. One day it’s a graphics operator, the next it could be a replay operator. Therefore, not only is the use of technology maximized, but talent and behind-the-scenes human resources are as well.

So, just from a productivity standpoint, the most useful facilities are also the most agile, as software-based infrastructures help manage and spin up or down whatever resources you need for that particular show. Yet there’s no point in having a flexible facility unless you have a reliable way to help manage system elasticity. This part is mostly accomplished with a workflow orchestration layer, that is, special database-processing software situated between the technician within a facility and the individual devices near and far that helps manage activities and ensures the equipment communicates with (controls) each other. And it can all be accomplished from a single operator’s seat.

Flexibility In The Field

The same holds true for an OB Van in the field. Today’s production trucks are being designed with full IP systems on board that can accommodate 1080i HDR one day and 4K UHD the next. A software-based network processor forms the core of the infrastructure design, providing all signal processing with complete freedom to select formats by signal or by production. It also manages conversion between legacy SDI feeds, newer equipment and the IP infrastructure. In this way, the truck is engineered to do whatever today’s show needs, which might be completely different than the show you did the day before. Software takes a lot of the heavy lifting out of the workflow so the staff can focus on creating the best show possible. And the equipment rack is half the size (and weight) of an SDI system.

For those concerned about system reliability, system designers have to build in stability. This is where the orchestration layer comes in, providing complete control over all audio and video streams.

Moving Large Amounts Of Data

When building an IP-based system, system integrators should be aware that while the physical installation of equipment might go relatively fast, system software configuration takes the most amount of time and effort. This is where standards like NMOS and ST 2110 help locate the equipment on the network and ensure they talk to each other, either locally or over long distances.

Media companies are also recognizing the need for IT professionals knowledgeable in how to move large amounts of data around a facility quickly and in a highly deterministically way. The system has to be able to send the right camera feeds to the desired studio control room and that takes networked coordination.

Designed For Useability

When designing an IP infrastructure, it’s also important to develop a plan for the amount of resources needed for each project and when you need them most. A good design strategy is to pick the most common productions that your teams complete every day and develop a set of system parameters in a template that can be recalled at will. This can of course be adjusted as time goes on and your business model (and technology) changes. It’s similar to designing a few template system configurations that can be easily recalled at a moment’s notice. The system design should also be able to accommodate last-minute ad insertions or late-breaking news events that will deviate from the normal production day and perhaps make use of new assets in studio or in the field. The flexibility of a software-defined IP network enables you to do that, simply reassigning resources via the orchestration layer to where the action is.

Taking A Phased Approach

While moving to IP is clearly the way forward, many facilities won’t (or can’t afford to) overhaul their existing SDI facilities overnight. In fact, many will use hybrid IP/SDI gateways and other types of products that allow a user to migrate slowly over time. They will also deploy “hybrid” infrastructures consisting of equipment on premise as well as in the cloud—often working closely together so that the user can focus on the task at hand without worrying about where the assets are located.

Looking at it objectively, some would say that implementing an IP network is largely a smart economic choice. But it’s also a physical challenge. Cameras, studios, lighting and talent have to be somewhere. Indeed, a lot of the time the location of the facility and assets chosen is determined by where the talent wants to be.

Some tasks, like channel playout are better suited to the cloud, so it’s no accident that in many cases these were the production workflows that moved to the cloud first. There’s specific, limited interactivity with ground-based staff, and the latency is manageable with current technologies.

But the question that needs answering is how much of the facility needs to be on the ground versus what should be deployed in the cloud? There’s clearly an economic difference between the two. The cloud is rented by time used, so if you’re going to do a show for an hour a week, the cloud makes more financial sense. I’m only renting the time once a week and there’s no capital investment. If you are doing a show every day, and you do two or three shows that share a control room, suddenly the economics of the cloud are not so attractive, because you own the equipment and can use it as much as you need to without on-going costs.

The IP Infrastructure’s Time Has Come

After much experimentation, there’s now no denying that leveraging audio and video signals as data packets across an IP infrastructure’s time has come. The fact that so many broadcast equipment vendors are now almost exclusively promoting software-centric IP technology shows that the concept has come a long way in a relatively short time. There was a time not too long ago when IP was mocked as too unstable for mission-critical video delivery applications. This year, that’s clearly not the case. With an IP infrastructure, all of the flexibility benefits are moving system designers away from the old way of working and into a new world of virtually unlimited signal flow possibilities.

At this point in the migration to all-IP operations, the industry has come to understand that there are real advantages—both technical and financial—to launching a new channel or setting up for a show, on the same day, by leveraging configurable infrastructure. That’s the power of a distributed IP network and it’s the most effective way to stay competitive in a rapidly evolving media landscape.

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