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Hardware Infrastructure Global Viewpoint – August 2017

Software-Based Convergent Content Monitoring for Broadcast and Streaming Media

Like all technology, content monitoring for broadcast and media services is a moving target, one that must support present and future content transport across all media format standards. In the past, the world was practically one-dimensional with uniform and specialized transport technologies and media formats in contribution and distribution environments, respectively. The type and number of end devices consuming broadcast services was limited to TV sets and radios. Such devices did not have any true intelligence or ‘connectivity’ of their own.

Consequently, monitoring devices were subject to the same static requirements. Their resulting technical architectures were mostly hardware-oriented.

This approach worked well as long as the broadcast environment did not change too much. However, specialized and focused hardware-dominated solutions are known to become inflexible and insufficient as soon as customer needs and application scenarios become highly dynamic.

Present and Future Challenges

Today, the industry presently is facing the following challenges:

  • Asynchronous, packetized signal transport: the established practice of monitoring a point-to-point connection is being challenged by monitoring in ‘the cloud’, where synchronous audio/video signals are split into pieces, packetized, and spread over asynchronous data transfer structures.
  • The number and type of signal sources in contribution/playout environments continues to increase.
  • Legacy SDI and SDI over IP mixture: until the transition to IP-based transport is 100% complete, a mixture of legacy SDI content sources and a set of IP-based source signals like SMPTE 2022-6/7, AIMS, and ASPEN is to be monitored – preferably in a single device.
  • Uncompressed/mezzanine format mixture: besides uncompressed signals also new mezzanine formats like J2K and TICO need to be handled by the monitoring system.
  • Multitude of intelligent end devices: in distribution environments, the number and type of end devices is literally exploding (TV sets, radios, web browsers with plug-ins, OTT streaming clients and VoD players in set-top boxes, smart home appliances, smart TVs, and mobile intelligent devices like tablets and smartphones).
  • Ever growing number of OTT protocols:
    • MPEG-DASH
    • HLS, HTTP Live Streaming (Apple)
    • HDS, HTTP Dynamic Streaming (Adobe)
    • RTMP, Real-Time Messaging Protocol (Adobe)
    • MSS/HSS, Microsoft Smooth Streaming, HTTP Smooth Streaming
    • ICECAST (Xiph.Org Foundation)
    • HbbTV (Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV, ETSI)
  • Complete and concise status information on a service requires collection and aggregation of information from different layers and technologies all at the same time.

Given this extensive set of new challenges, the traditional approach of hardware-oriented monitoring devices can no longer satisfy the multiple and diverse requirements of today’s broadcast and media service providers.

A Technical Solution for Today

Design Principles

A monitoring solution meeting today’s and future requirements must meet the following overall design principles:

  • Purely software-based with hardware-agnostic programming for high portability and to accommodate changing requirements, such as new formats for media encoding and transport.
  • Platform based on COTS IT hardware or hypervisor compatible with Open Virtualization Format (OVF) for low CAPEX and OPEX IP-based transport and signaling protocols for leverage of the established framework of the TCP/IP protocol suite.
  • Interworking to legacy formats/signals through COTS interface cards for later smooth migration to a purely software-based solution.
  • Open and modular software architecture for fast and flexible adaptation and extension to changing and newly arising requirements.
  • Scalability to leverage the ever-growing processing power in COTS general purpose CPUs through multi-thread/core programming techniques.

Benefits of Software-Based Content Monitoring

Extensibility: As the need by service providers for new decoders or more in-depth analysis arises, the function of the monitoring system is extensible by suitable software plug-ins. With the ever-growing power of CPUs in physical server platforms or in cloud deployments, there is no need for the costly deployment of special purpose, proprietary hardware to handle advanced encoding formats. Required functional extensions are handled purely in software via plug-ins. Custom monitoring functions specific only to a single service provider can be implemented as custom plug-ins extensions to the general software framework of the monitoring system.

IP_based monitoring framewoek.

IP_based monitoring framewoek.

Advanced monitoring functions: A complex task which can be elegantly solved in software is automated monitoring of simultaneous, heterogeneous media streams carrying identical content. In heterogeneous environments where a service provider is delivering identical content in different resolutions across different platforms combined with the complexity of combined Ethernet switching/IP routing and classical cabling, the wrong content may be delivered to the wrong platform (e.g. adult-rated content delivered to a children’s channel). The comparison of sample streams relative to a known-good reference uses criteria such as moving objects, scene cuts, average luminance levels, etc. If required, some pre-defined action is triggered, e.g. discarding the erroneous stream. In an environment with fast changing input types (protocol version, media format, etc.), such a complex monitoring function would be hard to implement in a timely and cost-efficient manner in hardware.

Screen grab of a content comparison application.

Screen grab of a content comparison application.

Convergent multi-layer KPI monitoring: IP-based transport of SDI signals in playout/contribution environments and OTT video streaming in distribution environments share the same key performance indicators (KPI) at the network level (bitrate, latency, jitter, packet loss, source/destination checks, etc.) Further overlaps exist with respect to KPIs on an application-level regarding lost frames and encoding errors.

Software-based monitoring allows for full simultaneous access to all these KPIs across all protocol layers and across all environments in one application. This way the broadcast and streaming media service provider can achieve end-to-end situational awareness via a single convergent monitoring set up.

Distributed Monitoring: Media and broadcast services have become very diverse and multidimensional. Data is collected from a set of distributed (unmanned) monitoring probes, but processed at a single, central unit for network-wide situational awareness. This can be readily addressed by a software-based architecture due to the inherent networking capabilities of the underlying IP technology.

Convergent content monitoring.

Convergent content monitoring.

Future Trends and Challenges

With its inherent capability to be adapted/extended (via the concept of plug-ins), a purely software based content monitoring system is well prepared to address upcoming trends/challenges such as:

Secure Remote Mobile Monitoring

Today cybersecurity requires secure remote access for monitoring from offsite. Remote users shall have fully situational awareness but without risking the integrity and security of the service providers core network.

In such distributed architecture, the central collection and processing instance also acts as a proxy for the secure distribution of monitoring information to a set of remote mobile monitoring clients. All monitoring information is distributed in the format of a ‘virtual multi-viewer wall’ via OTT video streaming technologies to a mobile app.

Heterogeneous input monitoring.

Heterogeneous input monitoring.

To ensure full data and network security, distribution is performed from the proxy in pure push mode (optionally event driven via alerts/alarms) to authenticated and authorized clients only. Clients shall have strict read-only access to monitoring information and cannot re-configure any settings on the central monitoring proxy nor on the distributed probes.

OPEX optimization is achieved as fewer manned monitoring positions are required and some of the on-shift monitoring personnel may even be offsite. CAPEX savings become possible if parts of the outlined architecture are migrated into the cloud.

On-Demand Software Licenses

Software-dominated, distributed, and network-based monitoring architectures also allow for further CAPEX optimization through on-demand software license allocation usually not available in traditional hardware-dominated solutions.

A software key license server is used to centrally administer all licenses available to a pool of distributed monitoring instances which are connected over the IP transport network to the license server. This dynamic, on-demand allocation and migration of software licenses keys minimizes the total number for software licenses a service provider needs to purchase to optimally equip this complete monitoring infrastructure.

The capability of on-demand shared software licenses is also an important prerequisite for the true cloud-deployment of a solution where monitoring instances can dynamically migrate through the cloud-infrastructure all the time.

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virtuWall secure mobile monitoring app.

Virtualization and Orchestration in the Cloud

With full virtualization of the monitoring solution, equipment vendors can provide the same software and feature content not only preinstalled on physical hardware but also as OVF image to their customers in the service provider community.

If functional building blocks of the workflow for broadcast and media services (content source, encoder, ad/logo insertion, DRM, monitoring, etc.) are virtualized, physical cable connections are replaced by (networked) software APIs between software instances representing individual functions in the workflow.

The net effect of such a virtualized framework and set of software functions with defined APIs is a high level of orchestration: definition, configuration, operation and supervision of complete workflows for services is conveniently performed via modern, GUI-based drag-and-drop methods. Besides faster ‘time-to-service,’ such orchestration promises noticeable savings in CAPEX and OPEX.

Conclusion

Today’s and tomorrow’s content monitoring solutions must meet a dynamic set of divergent requirements.

A fully software-based approach is flexible, future-proof, convergent, and enables virtualization/orchestration of workflow for broadcast and streaming media services in the cloud.


R&S PRISMON from Rohde & Schwarz is a monitoring and multiviewer system that supports present and future content transport and media format standards. In addition to supporting classic and IP-based SDI signals, it offers a comprehensive set of protocols for OTT/streaming scenarios. PRISMON is available on scalable IT hardware platforms and for cloud deployments.

Dr Markus Lautenbacher is product manager, monitoring and headend at Rohde & Schwarz.

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