Playout & Transmission Global Viewpoint – May 2020

Open Source Support

COTs servers can easily process live video and audio giving many broadcasters the opportunity to investigate open source software to help find new and innovative solutions. But is open source really zero cost?

Open source has its roots in the Free Software Foundation, an organization founded by Dr Richard Stallman in 1985 to promote freedom to study, distribute, create and modify software.

Anybody who is so inclined can download many of the GNU programs initiated by Stallman and the FSF including the source code. Probably the most useful is the GNU Compiler Toolset which provides every development tool you would ever need to program Unix-type computers in languages including C and C++ (to name but a few). With distributions such as Ubuntu and Debian, the compiled programs are available so you can download them directly without having to compile them.

This has given engineers an incredible toolset to help them develop software for a whole array of applications. No expensive programming tools or editing packages are needed, and anybody with a Unix-type computer can find themselves with one of the most powerful development environments with just a modest amount of effort.

One of the most useful open source programs for broadcasters is FFmpeg. This is a multimedia framework which is capable of encoding, decoding, transcoding, muxing, streaming and filtering many forms of audio and video. It has its technical limitations, and these must be understood before using them, but at the very least they are capable of solving some complex problems for broadcasters.

However, as with all things the devil is in the detail. On FFmpeg’s own website there is a very interesting statement that reads “FFmpeg has always been a very experimental and developer-driven project. It is a key component in many multimedia projects and has new features added constantly. Development branch snapshots work really well 99% of the time so people are not afraid to use them”.

Now, is working 99% of the time good enough for a broadcaster? What is the risk?

There are vendors supporting many of the open source solutions available to broadcasters. For example, Redhat provides support for Linux open source operating systems to help improve reliability and security.

There are approximately 27.8 million lines of code in the Linux kernel (just the kernel). I suspect there are few broadcasters who have the resource to familiarize themselves with the kernel source code and be able to test and upgrade it. And that’s before we start considering the implications for stability and security. The good news is that enterprise vendors make their business out of understanding and supporting open source code to provide stable and secure systems.

I believe open source software will go down in history as one of the major advances for the advancement of human knowledge, and as a research tool it cannot be beat. But if using it in a commercial environment then extra precautions should be taken and using enterprise support vendors are key to this.

Stallman goes to great lengths to promote the idea of learning from others and uses the phrase “free as in freedom, not free beer”. We would do well to remember this.