Grass Valley’s Mike Cronk Talks About The Benefits Of AIMS

Hoping to calm customers’ fears of a lack of common standards for handling and delivering media across a file-based Internet Protocol (IP) infrastructure, a group of broadcast equipment suppliers have joined together forming an consortium called The Alliance for IP Media Solutions (AIMS). The group’s goal is to move the industry forward toward IP without the fragmentation that has been common in the broadcast industry.

The stated goal of all 55 members companies within AIMS is to strictly adhere to an open-standards approach that includes complying with the work of such standards bodies as the Video Services Forum (VSF), the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the European Broadcast Union (EBU) and the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA). By leveraging these standards, and not competing with them, AIMS wants to build confidence among customers that they can develop successful business models while making the investments necessary to build out their broadcast plants.

Mike Cronk, vice president of core technology at Grass Valley, has been named Chairman of the Board of AIMS, joining Deputy Chairman of the Board Steve Reynolds (Chief Technology Officer at Imagine Communications) and Chief Financial Officer Andreas Hilmer (Director Marketing & Communications at Lawo). AIMS will soon hold meetings to increase the Board to five seats. Per the AIMS bylaws, released in December of 2015, each Board member holds one vote and serves a two-year term.

The Broadcast Bridge spoke to Cronk about how AIMS will serve the industry—in a vendor-neutral way—as new equipment becomes available and broadcasters slowly migrates from a baseband SDI signal flow to an encapsulated IP packet network delivery system.

Why is it advantageous for broadcasters to move to an all-IP infrastructure when handling and distributing audio and video?

IP enables a lot more flexible and agile broadcast plant. You can spin up channels quickly, you can change things faster, all your data is on a common network, the infrastructure is more shared, and you can locate things in different places. So, from a business model, as has been proven in many industries, IP is a better way to handle data.

Now, when we get there, there’s a whole set of protocols that are required. If you as a company are spending money to develop technology, you want customers to buy it. The feedback from IBC 2015 was that the market was in a state of confusion. There were a lot of questions about competing formats and protocols and no one really knew which ones would win out. They simply were not going to buy anything until there was a clear path to IP.

Mike Cronk, Vice President of core technology at Grass Valley, and AIMS' Board Chairman.

Mike Cronk, Vice President of core technology at Grass Valley, and AIMS' Board Chairman.

That’s from the revenue side. The other side is cost. For a company like Grass Valley, it takes a lot of R&D effort to create new protocols and technology. And if I have to duplicate or triplicate that effort for each emerging protocol, then effectively what we’ve done is build three protocols and then have to pass that cost off to customers. And it slows down innovation. So, from a revenue and R&D cost perspective, AIMS made a lot of sense from Grass Valley’s point of view, and also from an industry perspective.

What was the genesis for AIMS?

Cronk: The idea is no one wants to see the fragmentation that we've seen so many times in the broadcast industry, especially with tape formats. This was a chance to move the industry forward toward IP, with everyone on the same page.

The reason for AIMS is that a lot of companies were faced with customers who didn't know which type of equipment to deploy and feared that their investments might be obsoleted in a year or so. So, the members of AIMS all saw a need to help customers develop their own migration paths in a steady and careful way.

If we as an industry fragment and sit on our hands, it’s going to be difficult to move forward. So, the idea of AIMS is to stimulate the market to move to IP sooner than later, understanding that a new set of standards needs to be in place, and for the most part it is. That has resonated with all of our member companies.

Things like this are not about one person, but a group effort. One of the main tenants of AIMS is that we are committed to using the standards that are already established or are close to being so. We’ve become cheerleaders for organizations like SMPTE, AMWA, VSF, IABM, and the EBU. These organizations have all worked on and created standards are open and the licensing requirements are clear. AIMS is trying to foster the adoption of a common set of protocols for IP, which is what customers want.

Why is there a need for an initiative like AIMS?

Cronk: Having a trade organization driving the IP transition makes a lot of sense, both from a business perspective, and a customer service perspective. In less than a year we’re at 55 members. That’s quite a feat in this industry. And those 55 members all have a common interest in making AIMS a success. They’ll sell more equipment a in a shorter amount of time than they would have not being part of an association like AIMS.

There are two conference calls with AIMS membership every week, one for the Technical Working Group and one for the Marketing Working Group. The Technical Working Group is hard at work trying to identify ways to foster collaboration among members, when it makes sense, and looking at the various standards and finding gaps that need to be filled. We then will take our recommendations to SMPTE and other standards bodies to add to their efforts. There’s always something going on and there’s a lot to do for a number of years in order to get a good handle on IP.

Why wouldn't equipment vendors develop technology to the open standards available, without having an organization AIMS?

Cronk: A lot of companies try to differentiate themselves and get an advantage over their competition. That’s how we end up with different protocols being used. I think that the mistake that some companies make is that they say, “We have a better way of doing it,” or a better control environment, etc. The problem with that, in regards to IP, is that IP is about a network. And what makes a network valuable is the number of people, companies and systems connected to it, all working together.

So, by trying to get an advantage on a network, you actually hinder your ability to create value because you need that network to write software services and all of the other things you can do once you have that network established. I think that companies that attempt to go out on their own is a misplaced approach, but I understand it because companies are trying to gain an edge and sell equipment.

If everyone is using the same protocols, how does a company differentiate itself?

Cronk: Well, it’s harder to differentiate yourself if you adhere to a standard along with everyone else in AIMS, but there are software features and unique capabilities that can be built into an open standards-compliant server, for example, that is more attractive to customers than someone else’s server. And there’s diagnostics and monitoring and other things that you can do better than your competition.

But what you send over the network needs to be the same as everyone else working in AIMS. It’s not that there won't be any differentiation anymore. It means that on the network you have to be the same and that’s not where differentiation is important.

Can you briefly describe the roadmap laid out by AIMS that members must follow?

Cronk: There are really two main sections. There’s IP Transport and other higher-level IP functions. On the transport side, we have identified SMPTE 2022-6 as the preferred protocol because it takes an SDI signal and packetizes it. It’s an already established standard, so why create a new one? This standard will be useful well into the future because since audio, video and metadata are all inherently tied together in an SDI frame (with ancillary data), everything moves coherently and it’s perfect for sending files over a WAN or contribution network.

The next step is, “what about production?” Well, many people want to break out the audio from the video, or they want to mix and combine things. We’ve come to understand that professional want to treat audio and video separately and then use a good timing mechanism to link those back together before playout. This is essentially a standard being worked on within the Video Services Forum and is known as TR-03.

SMPTE 2022-6 and TR-03 are similar in that they both use a technology called RTP, but what’s packetized is different. In 2022-6, you take the SDI raster and as it comes along you put bytes of that into a packet and send it off. In TR-03 you take just video, so there are no horizontal blanking, no vertical blanking issues. You just take the video and put into a packet and give it one IP address. Then you take the audio and put it into packets as AES67 and give it another address. The associated metadata gets a third address.

Then, using any IP switch that does layer-3 switching, and you can route these signals anywhere you need to. However, they stay separate signals. To combine them, there are methods described in the AIMS roadmap that detail which signals go with what. And then there’s a technology called Precision Time Protocol (PTP), which allows you to both provide sync as well as align these signals in time, should one take longer to get from point A to point B.

It can replace black burst to provide sync and it puts a time stamp in every single RTP packet so that you can know where that packet originated and therefore how it should be aligned. It promises to be a great solution for problems like lip sync. And I can do that automatically.

VSF TR-03 is the basis of SMPTE ST-2110, which is not a standard yet but is projected to be one sometime next year. Once it is a full SMPTE standard, it will be incorporated into the AIMS roadmap. Therefore, whether you are doing live production or sending video over a WAN, there’s a protocol for IP that makes sense.

How will AIMS avoid the incompatibility issues of previous attempts (e.g. the Material eXchange Format) at developing universal formats?

Cronk: A lot of the people who were involved in things like MXF still remember the pain of that. The fundamental issue with MXF was that it was completely unrestrained. You could do whatever you wanted with it, which led to interoperability problems. To solve interoperability, you have to define things to a level of detail that ensure interoperability and [MXF] didn't do that.

There is an effort in the TR-03 and ST-2110 work to constrain things sufficiently so that a receiver from company A can accept a transport stream from company B. One of the great things about AIMS is that, unlike MXF—where there weren’t interoperability test being done by third-parties organizations—there are a number of events being staged to prove that different pieces of equipment works together. There are always new interOp events happening, like the one we had at IBC, to ensure that we are moving along the right path to true interoperability.

That’s not to say that 2022-6 or TR-03 is the perfect approach, but we feel it’s far stronger in terms of ensuring interoperability than previous attempts like MXF and others.

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