SI Perspectives On System Design With Utter Associates

We talk to Systems Integrator Erik Utter to get his insight into the challenges of production facility and system design, and the right time to go SDI, IP, Cloud or hybrid.

These days designing and building a video production facility is fraught with supply chain issues, complex networking configuration and, sometimes, unrealistic client expectations. Indeed, system integration (SI) companies are facing some of the most challenging assignments and doing their best to meet technology requirements established by the client and the SI in a series of stakeholder-specific discovery sessions.

“With every project there’s a misunderstanding of what it takes to complete a project,” said Erik Utter, president and founder of Utter Associates. His company has installed systems for a variety of clients, across the USA, including a regional sports network, a major corporate AV venue and several government and education facilities.

“That’s because most of the customers are not building new studios all the time and they don’t understand the process, from A to Z. The design effort required, the architectural issues; it all adds time to a project and some clients are not prepared for what it takes to complete.”

Experience Counts

Founded in 2004 by Utter, who spent 20 years designing production systems as a broadcast engineer working for a number of outlets—including NBC during its Olympics coverage—Utter Associates employs 10 full time people and another dozen contractors who have been very busy the past three years.

Utter stresses that upgrading existing infrastructure is a key component of every job he’s worked, because “That’s where it all starts,” he said.

“An important aspect of any project is the existing infrastructure,” said Utter. “You can change the technology whenever you want, it’s not that difficult, but the infrastructure has to be there to begin with.”

Erik Utter says moving to IP is not required for everyone.

Erik Utter says moving to IP is not required for everyone.

SDI Is Not Dead Yet

He’s referring to an SDI plant that wants to migrate to IP. Even in a hybrid situation, the network must talk to the SDI equipment or the facility will not run smoothly. However, he said that ST 2110 IP networking is not for everyone. There are some applications where it’s much more practical to do it over SDI, maybe 12G SDI in a UHD plant.

“When a customer wants IP. I ask the question “why?”,” he said. “IP is the only way to do things in production and distribution facilities that want to share content between rooms, buildings and even the world. But if you’re talking IP just for the sake of it, then it might not be the right choice. It might not make sense due to cost and performance parity.

Utter said an SDI environment is simpler to implement and operate, the available choices in how you implement SDI are better and there are many more point product s designed for SDI than IP at the moment. Yet, you can also connect an existing SDI studio to IP with gateways to convert legacy infrastructure. These days every SDI or IP project involves a series of gateways.

“If you build an SDI plant there are many choices of vendors, products, features, etc. If you go IP, you’ve narrowed that pool of suppliers down quite a bit. And you’ve increased cost.”

Moving To IP Has Limitations

One of the challenges of SI that Utter is constantly revising and improving upon is what he calls “Feature Parity.” For example, if you are looking at an IP-based video switcher,  are you able to utilize the same feature set you could in SDI? For the most part he says yes, but there are limitations with IP.

Then there’s the issues of complexity and cost. Moving to IP requires a new skillset in terms of maintenance engineering and support. Clients need to make sure that that person or team is in place and be prepared for what that is going to take (in terms of staff training and certification).

Software-Defined System Design

Utter has seen the move to software-defined network and virtualized products on COTS hardware and thinks it’s been good for the industry, in terms of functionality and the production benefits it brings. In this case the hardware is the gateway in and out of your SDI world and in and out of the IP world. Over the past three years they’ve deployed some form of this system in every project.

“You can pick and choose what gear you need and order them accordingly,” said Utter. “This is the technology that we see changing our approach to projects. It’s in the background and not as flashy as other things, but it’s probably the most important piece of any system we design and implement. It helps you migrate to IP as needed And it’s brought integration costs and complexity way down.”

Regional Sports Network Root Sports uses REMI production for every game to handle the graphics and replays out of their fixed location (home studio) in Seattle.

Regional Sports Network Root Sports uses REMI production for every game to handle the graphics and replays out of their fixed location (home studio) in Seattle.

They recently worked with a major online retailer in Seattle that built out a number of video production studios to create promotional content and employee messaging. It features a hybrid of SDI and IP systems that all work together with the help of a Ross Video Ultrix 12G routing system. It handles signal routing, multiviewers, TDM audio routing and processing, and 12Gb/s networking. The company is also a well-known cloud services provider, but interestingly chose to minimize its use of remote processing.

“This client has many divisions that are producing and distributing video content in one form or another,” said Utter. “They are also a cloud supplier as well, but there’s been a hesitancy in terms of software only products and the cloud. We landed on a hybrid environment, with things like transcoding, monitoring and graphics moved to the cloud. The cloud is also used for remote worker support and for system redundancy.”

Don’t Keep Your Head In The Cloud

In Utter’s opinion, the cloud has some advantages (reliability, safety and disaster recovery) and some disadvantages.

“The cloud is not the right option when the tools and content storage are in the cloud just for the sake of being in the cloud,” he said. “This client had a lot of traditional studios and everything happened on premise. In this case there was no compelling reason to move to the cloud.”

As an SI, Utter tries to work with clients to reduce the cost of cloud processing, stating that you need a strong business use case for something like that. You need to ask yourself: What’s the cost benefit?

“That requires a deep dive with the client over weeks of planning to really dig into what the current workflow looks like and where they want to go?,” he said. “What is the actual cost of the cloud versus on premise? That’s more than just an engineering question.”

Compression Is Key For Distribution

Compression is a big part of a distributed production system design and Utter now regularly recommends using the Secure Reliable Transports (SRT) encoding format, which he calls “a game changer,” allowing clients to bring remote content into their home studios do a full REMI production or a hybrid production. SRT maintains the low latency required for such productions.

One client, Root Sports, a regional sports network (home of the Seattle sports teams) and part of AT&T Sportsnet, typically rolls a big truck out to every game they televise. But they use REMI production for every game to handle the graphics and replays out of their fixed location (home studio). They are using that studio and same crew while sending content back and forth with SRT. He said it’s worked really well.

Video Engineers Vs. IT Specialists

As a Broadcast video engineer who has come to learn IT networking through years of experience (he said he’s been working with IT networks, on the administrative side, since the early 1990s), he said there’s often a turf battle between seasoned video and newer generation IT guys. For the latter, Common Off-The-Shelf (COTS) servers are the answer to everything.

“I bristle at the term COTS,” he said. “If you walk into a 2110 plant and you look at the network structure, that’s not COTS. It’s certainly not common hardware. In fact it’s uncommon enough that we’ve been looking at lead times for 2110 switches that are a minimum of six months, In some cases it’s been 9-12 months.

“I would not minimize 2110 and say, “It’s just video over IP” on common hardware, because it’s not,” he added. “There’s really been a sea change in video engineering and network engineering. As a broadcast staff, you really need to understand all of the pieces. The AES networking and timing components. They need to be understood by everybody.

Utter said he’s seen video engineers have come together with network engineers over the past five years to deploy these new IP networks and the responsibility has created a new specialty within today’s broadcast facility.

“So, we as the SI have to learn both disciplines,” he said, “and vendors have to cooperate amongst themselves to get everything to work together as well.”

A Happy User Defines Success

Utter said his favorite part of any SI project is the training day when all of the equipment has been installed and networked together.

“Many times the end users are not involved in the details of a project, they just see the end result and how it affects their daily job,” said Utter. “As the project is coming together I can usually see excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation on the faces of the operators, concerned that we’re changing the way they like to work.

“Success for me is the smile we see at the end of the first training day on the faces of the operators, knowing that we’ve made their lives a bit easier or more efficient. And they see it too. It’s a confidence. It’s my favorite day on any project.”

Flexibility Is The Holy Grail

In the end what clients want most out of a video production facility is flexibility, so Utter is careful to provide it in a way that’s instantly familiar to those having to use it. To get there they sit down with the end users, management and everyone involved to define what flexibility means to them. Each staff member has a different job, with specific needs, but they often have to work together seamlessly.

“We’re not just mitigating those needs, we’re actually answering those needs with a creative technical solution,” said Utter. “It’s not just the equipment and design, it’s also how the rooms are laid out. That’s the kind of details we as the SI have to pay attention to.”

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