Given the mounting evidence that broadcasting companies are keen to invest in IP solutions, how long will it be before they transition to it?
By Vinita Bhatia
It has been flaunted as an enabler of innovation and the path that will lead broadcasters to become agile and effective enough to meet the continually evolving needs of their viewers. But is the move to a software-defined infrastructure, IP-connected network truly the way forward?
Many companies providing IP solutions seem to think so. Imagine Communications, especially, believes that the mobile market is a particularly exciting place at the moment, because an outside broadcast truck is a complete and self-contained infrastructure that can be built as all-IP from the ground up. In addition to increased flexibility that enables mobile production units to accommodate a variety of client requirements, moving to IP provides a significant reduction in space and power, which are of critical importance in a mobile environment.
IP also offers opportunities in remote production, especially for sports production, as most personnel and technical equipment can be kept at the home facility, significantly reducing the effort at the venues. This results in savings for equipment, personnel and travel costs.
“The other obvious opportunity is in distributed production, which includes cloud-like hosting of distributed resources, which can then be flexibly mapped to certain productions. To a certain degree this might include remote productions, but it also works for fixed facility installations,” explained Hilmer Andreas, marketing and communications director, Lawo.
WHY SHIFT TO IP?
While industries like telecom and finance have been accepting IP technology since 2000, broadcasters have yet to adopt it fully, especially while considering an infrastructure overhaul. They are now realising that the real benefit of this shift is in the network itself.
Like Olivier Suard, VP, marketing, Nevion pointed out, replacing SDI equipment, such as a camera, with its IP equivalent brings little intrinsic value.
“SDI equipment can work with IP easily with adaption equipment, or adaption functionality contained in media nodes. Over time, once the IP network is in place and previous equipment replaced or upgraded for business or technical reasons (e.g. the need to support 4K/UHD or HDR), then it makes sense to go for IP,” he said.
Given IP’s agility, broadcasters can manage the contemporary growing needs of their broadcast facilities and more importantly, ensure their ability for future expansion. It is precisely this technological agility that makes the concept so appealing – high data rates, wide bandwidth and a system that is both format agnostic and scalable for whatever the future brings.
Somu Patil, VP, sales, Asia, Grass Valley, said, “An IP infrastructure based on open standards provides broadcasters with maximum agility and flexibility to adjust business models, capitalise on new revenue opportunities, and add new capabilities and services without having to constantly rebuild their infrastructure.”
According to Sylvain Merle, COO, Globecast, the associated shift to virtualised technologies and cloud services really changes the business narrative, which is vital for servicing the ever-growing OTT market and the associated growth in access devices. “IP offers the ability to use off-the-shelf, commoditised hardware and virtualised software. For our cloud playout services, all the on-premise and cloud technologies we are deploying work this way. That is a very significant change and radically alters the commercial aspects of playout,” he said.
The operational side also benefits, as new standards and specifications for handling uncompressed media over IP have defined a clear and common set of protocols for video, audio and data flows over a network. This brings added flexibility – all sources are available to all receivers as multicast addresses on the network.
Andy Warman, director of playout solutions at Harmonic and board member and marketing working group chair at AIMS added, “Management becomes easier since the various sources of video, audio and data flows can easily be found and connected automatically, rather than needing manual methods to determine if sources and destinations are present and match. That creates a plug-and-play environment for devices that join and depart the system. Possibly the most exciting aspect is that, when using the SMPTE ST 2110 standard, video, audio and data are separate from one another, but synced so de-embedding and re-embedding is not required throughout a workflow.”
Few broadcasters would consider replacing an existing SDI network with IP unless there is a clear technical or economic need. They would do this only if it offers them an opportunity to recoup any price premium through operational cost reductions such as pooling of human resources through remote work. And some companies have already realised this, like the Vitec Group.
Dave Dougall, VP, sales, EMEA Vitec Group revealed that of its some of its major clients have indicated that they have found a 10% premium for IP, but that the pricing differs from SDI pricing in that it swings more heavily towards revenue and support costs.
Other broadcasters might consider IP network because it means that they need not move premises, which is required when they need to rebuild SDI networks in expensive real estate locations. Another compelling reason could be that the capacity might be running out on the MCR, requiring replacement.
Suard pointed out that even if such a shift is not imminent, there might be a compelling event that drives the transition to IP. “The move to high-bandwidth formats such as HD, 4K/UHD and HDR, or the increase in studios or camera feeds could also cause such a situation. This could be the right time to consider either a full move to IP in the network, or at least a partial one, where the additional capacity needed can be provided by an IP network running in parallel with the existing SDI network. In any case, the economic fundamentals are largely driven by the need to invest in the network,” he said.
However, one needs to bear in mind that the equipment for an IP facility most likely won’t be cheaper than a traditional baseband approach. In fact, it might be even more expensive.
Hilmer justified that this still pays off because of streamlined workflows, a higher degree of equipment utilisation and production concepts like remote production. “For the decision process it is fundamental to not only look at the capex side of things, but also at the operational costs. And this is where the shift to IP immediately starts to pay off,” he noted.
OPENING UP OPPORTUNITIES
Often, broadcasters think that shift to IP is a like-for-like network replacement. Instead, they need to view it as an opportunity to harmonise their local and long-distance media networks around a single technology — the so-called LAN/WAN (local and wide area network) convergence. What this effectively means is that they can share equipment, studios and control rooms — even production staff — across locations in much easier fashion, leading to increased further savings and better production flexibility.
In fact, in current times, going IP can literally be deemed a pre-requisite for any aspirations that a broadcaster might have to moving towards a cloud-based infrastructure – be it private or public. Like Jan Weigner, CTO of Cinegy pointed out, this makes sense as their ultimate goal is cost reduction – both in capital spending and operations. “Video infrastructure and IT infrastructure always were separate. This can now be converged. Ultimately the respective departments, if they still exist, as well,” he added.
Another benefit of IP, according to Dougall, is that it offers new benefits and opportunities including lower installation costs, simple and flexible integration, and responsive workflows. IP also allows broadcasters to be format-agnostic and reduces the cost of trying and deploying new technologies.
At the same time, the move to software-defined systems running on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware opens up the chance to rethink not just the architecture but the whole business of creating and delivering content. Like Raj Yadav, regional sales head, South Asia, Imagine Communications, stated, “Traditional architectures defined the way that broadcasters work – with highly flexible software systems broadcasters can determine what is best for their organisation, which could be a radically new approach to the whole end-to-end workflows. With this chance to take a fresh look at how you work, allied to the cost reductions implicit in running operations on COTS hardware, broadcasters become more responsive to changes in the market, while enjoying reduced lifecycle costs.”
TEACHING THE SYSTEMS INTEGRATORS
As IP gains traction in broadcasting, vendors are now working on educating systems integrators and solutions providers on how and when IP technology can impact a broadcaster’s business model, and accordingly develop workflows that best suits their needs.
Yadav emphasised, “The real benefits from IP connectivity will come when you take a completely fresh approach to workflows and architectures. That, along with the need to understand the design and implementation of IP networks, calls for big changes in broadcast engineering principles and practices. Where broadcasters are ready to move forward, we have also collaborated closely in proof of concept projects, ensuring that everyone understands the practicalities and what can be achieved.”
Every other vendor has been promoting an IP-first strategy as well, highlighting the fact that an IP prompting workflow is ultimately more flexible and cost-effective. The challenge, however, arises when their customers decide to go for an IP but find a dearth of solution providers who are experts in its deployment.
The reason behind this is simple – until now, broadcasters have been experts in media networks, and picked products based on their clearly-defined needs, focusing on features and cost. However, IP expertise is in short supply among broadcasters, and so they are (or should be) more wary of the choices they make.
Suard said, “Products, their functionality and their costs matter of course, but the biggest decisions they need to make are much more fundamental: how to architect, design and control their IP network to get the true benefits of IP (including from LAN/WAN convergence). In short, broadcasters need help in the form of consultancy, services and solutions.”
Over the years, Nevion has assembled a group of highly competent and experienced people, who have an excellent knowledge and understanding of IP networks. These people have been providing ad-hoc support in pre-sales situations, to help media companies, broadcasters and telcos architect and plan their media IP networks. Other companies are doing the same and are using global events, like NAB, IBC as well as regional ones like CABSAT in Middle East to demonstrate their cloud playout developments to various customers and display its possibilities.
EASY TO BUILD AND OPERATE
The ultimate goal of the IP user is the kind of IP infrastructure or functionality they should choose. This, according to Weigner, is important is because he believed that all IP is not equal. “As IP is popular, all of the sudden everything is ‘IP this’ and ‘IP that’. Some of the ‘new’ IP standards are already dead and await replacement. TICO is a good example of something that does not fall in my definition of IP. SMPTE 2022-6 is another good example as, in my view, it’s just thinly cloaked SDI. SMPTE 2110 is ‘newer’ but inherently bonkers and evil, especially if you want to do anything with Cloud or virtualisation,” he stressed.
At the same time, Yadav felt that IP and the technologies it opens up, like software-defined architectures and virtualisation and the cloud, is very much a reality. The work of standards bodies like SMPTE, and the drive of cross-industry bodies like AIMS have ensured that systems are practical and deliverable today.
A good example is the compact, cloud-native disaster recovery solution that Imagine Communications developed for ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Limited in Mumbai. This IP-connected solution provides a full business continuity solution, supporting 15 ZEE channels, running on Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) servers on a virtual platform that mirrors the main playout centre.
Patil added that common standards are the key, and the passage of SMPTE ST 2110 is a giant step for the industry. “Interoperable solutions based on widely accepted, open standards have driven the industry’s growth and success for decades by accommodating broadcasters’ current needs and ensuring they’re ready for future advancements. Just as the industry did with SDI, broadcasters must maintain this approach with IP—utilising a single, standardised interface for transmission of video to ensure that widespread signal transport interoperability continues.”
Hilmer also underlined that as proven at IBC and NAB, and in several real-world live installations, IP is up and running and allows to design and operate interoperable, future-proof infrastructures . So it is not just more realistic, it is real!
Merle of Globecast noted that by and large, vendors are now ready with their products and those that aren’t may well begin to struggle. “Yes, there’s still standards work going on with SMPTE regarding uncompressed video over IP, and standards are vital, but in our experience there’s now a genuine market there from which we have been able to select products after in-depth exploration and evaluation. Our strength not only in the technology but even in the way we operate it is to serve our customers with adaptable and efficient workflows supporting their businesses,” he stated.
Going by these opinions, it might look that the move to an IP-connected is unstoppable. This technology not only allows broadcasters to move to software-defined architectures, but also gives them exceptional scalability and flexibility. And if they need to add new streaming services, or channels, or trial new formats like UHD, they can simply add the required functionality without further investment in hardware. Additionally, they can save on manpower and management costs and use that time to seize the opportunities presented by new ventures.