Systems Management in the IT Universe

When exactly did IT become such a significant presence in the broadcast plant? Conventional wisdom points to the birth of digital television. In retrospect, the seeds of TV facility computerization began the moment stations considered how automation might improve traditional facility workflow processes.

The industry has since come a long way. The large multi-rack, hardware-centric automation systems of days past have evolved into software-driven solutions that touch virtually every operation in the plant – and often beyond, as in the case of centralcasting and other networked, multi-site systems.

Broadcast engineering has in the process changed from an RF and electrical focus to essentially requiring IT and computer knowledge. This is even true of the transmitter, which today boasts built-in computer systems to deliver a cornucopia of readings to the remote engineer.

This suggests computerization of the entire air chain, from production to transmission. We’re not quite there yet, but clearly the influence of baseband video is fading as hybrid infrastructures take hold. IT has its fingerprints on almost every component across the broadcast infrastructure and workflow today, and its impact to date is clear as we progress toward an all-IP plant. Ultimately, this transition establishes a requirement for a flexible and secure systems management strategy that can scale, and protect, as the IT infrastructure grows to new heights – and often, new locations.

Inside Outside
The advancement of 10Gig Ethernet technology in the IT architecture plays a role in simplifying overall systems management. Beyond enabling quicker transport, traffic architectures come together in a 10GigE design, eliminating hardware and excessive wiring to bridge multiple servers. Notably, 10GigE accommodates local and storage area network traffic, improving quality of service (QoS) as a result.

The evolution of Data Center Bridging plays an important part here. Data Center Bridging brings together several standards to boost centralized IT traffic management – including prioritization in bandwidth-challenged situations – and reduce network congestion. This ultimately minimizes data loss and increases QoS in fast 10GigE transport scenarios, while also reliably accommodating storage traffic. It also provides an excellent framework to transition to cloud environments, due to its centralized – and very scalable – design.

The evolution of Data Center Bridging brings together multiple IT standards, which helps with traffic management, including prioritization in bandwidth and reduce network congestion.

Elsewhere, the common song from vendors is that IT simplifies the workflow process. It is true that these systems eliminate many of the manual processes, checks and balances previously required when pushing content from one position to another. Today, everything is visual and centralized. This fosters an environment where different groups collaborate on jobs and expedite workflow processes quicker, achieving faster turnaround to air.

The digital asset management system plays a big role in that faster turnaround today, touching everything from server ingest and content editing to near-line storage, long-term archives, program scheduling, and even rights management to protect broadcasters from costly penalties and legal action. Elsewhere, data exchange protocols like BXF are furthermore opening doors to bridge automated playout environments with back office business systems.

Meanwhile, a multitude of signals race across the digital infrastructure: routers, multiviewers and core processing equipment incorporate more IT functionality to support better interoperability for facility-wide distribution. Externally, the management of video networking and compression systems becomes more vital as broadcasters cross into the second and/or multi-screen threshold, delivering content over-the-top as well as over the air. This extends to content management systems integrated rights management systemsensure that all broadcast rights are upheld, protecting broadcasters from costly penalties and legal action.

Overall, the transition to digital and/or IP introduces more software layers while retaining significant hardware pieces. Therefore, broadcasters more than ever require a comprehensive systems management approach that pays no special attention to any single process or component. Instead, it must bring all of these layers together into a manageable operation.

A Common Architecture
There are several network-wide monitoring options out there, but SNMP remains a significant tool for the central management of networked systems and components. The fact that this protocol originated in the IT world of switches, routers and hubs makes it an ideal choice for widespread systems management. Its openness allows broadcasters to incorporate drivers that connect to systems across the plant, to the transmitter facility and onto networked locations in nearby markets or across the ocean – all controllable from a single device or workstation.

SNMP supports extensive monitoring and control through several important communication layers. Communication between a series of software-based “managers” and “agents” – the latter typically residing in IT routers and switches - supports the passage of MIB (management information base) data objects. Through a series of object identifiers, these text-based files ultimately help agents decide how to react to a command: execute the command immediately to complete an important task; or store for later use or research.

At its simplest, software managers talk to agents to understand the operating conditions of network-connected components; and change the settings and values as necessary via defined set points. Furthermore, the agents residing within routers and switches work bi-directionally – for example, alerting managers to troubleshoot problems (high temperatures, low storage capacity) via alarms, otherwise described as traps. Overall, the benefits of SNMP-based systems management translate to less downtime, and lighter workloads for engineers.

Virtually all companies offering infrastructure components support SNMP systems that identify data values and objects across multiple network-connected systems and components. The best of these systems incorporate signal encryption and password protection – both part of the SNMP v3 release - to maintain system-wide security.

Security in the Plant
The proliferation of IT technology in the plan invites a number of potential security concerns. One particular concern is for broadcasters pulling in content from multiple locations.

A large number of distribution channels—and particularly the use of unsecured transmission channels such as the public internet—creates a significant security risk for broadcasters and media companies. Files may be swapped for foreign, corrupted or malicious content, and viruses introduced that can cause serious harm to broadcasters’ systems. For companies that receive content from many different sources via different networks and transmission methods, ensuring content is a greater security challenge than for companies that only need to secure a small number of known network connections.

Broadcasters operating multi-ingest systems can better protect their operations through the integration of powerful security technologies and measures to ensure that only clean, uncorrupted files get through. One option is to place firewalls at the point of ingest from public networks which keeps suspicious content out. Similarly, virtual private networks (VPN), which utilize encryption and/or dedicated virtual point-to-point connections to secure video files during transmission over public networks, may be established to protect the files from piracy as well as malicious tampering. Secure encryption is essential but in many cases does not offer sufficient protection.

The security measures required differ based on the characteristics of the broadcaster, the number of operations centers environments, how video files are encoded and encrypted for transmission and the types of networks via which they are transmitted. Broadcasters can assess the various risks and design custom, fail proof systems to protect valuable content during distribution from multiple content providers, and delivery to affiliates and viewer platforms.

Systems management across the IT infrastructure seems simple in theory – fewer operators required to monitor and manage more systems and components – but there is a time commitment required to do it right. Broadcast stations with minimal resources may not be an ideal situation to keep a close eye on everything – and react quickly to abnormal conditions. These stations often turn to managed services specifically for managing systems and monitoring conditions. This allows broadcasters to focus on the services they need to provide while lowering the risk of network downtime – a natural fit as more broadcasters consider transitioning to private cloud and/or hosted services.

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