The growing adoption of IP is an indication that broadcasters are slowly, but positively, responding to this digital transformation
By Bindu Gopal Rao
The adoption of internet IP adoption has been high on the agenda of most broadcasters for a while now, mostly because of the benefits it brings to them in terms of scalability and flexibility. Due to the technology’s ability to address and route streams, it provides them the opportunity to create new workflows, which was not possible before. And given nature for transmission of data in smaller packets, it allows for easier editing and post processing, permitting them to significantly enhance the viewer experience.
“IP also opens up possibilities for software and platforms not traditionally found in broadcast, such as switching and routing, asset management, transcoding for viewing in different mobile devices, editing, and search engines,” said Rafael Fonseca, VP, product management at Artel Video Systems.
This transition to software-defined systems running on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware permits them to rethink architectures. They no longer need big and expensive pieces of purpose-built equipment that only do one thing. The move to an open platform means tapping into larger economies of scale, as well as the productivity advantages that come with the adoption of an agile and flexible platform.
“Broadcasters and content providers are empowered by IP, for example, to spin up new channels and reach new devices at a fraction of the cost and time it takes using traditional systems. A micro services, cloud-native approach to workflow design also means greater efficiency and the ability to rapidly incorporate new technologies and features into your operations. The result is a more efficient technology platform that is capable of new levels of creativity and productivity,” said Raj Yadav, regional sales head, South Asia at Imagine Communications.
Though media over IP provides many benefits to broadcasters, the transition from SDI does present challenges. “For this reason we advocate software-based solutions. As standards such as SMPTE 2110 begin to take hold, we will be able to help our customers make the transition through software-based reconfigurations better versus forklift hardware upgrades,” said Mark Horchler, SVP, marketing, Mediaproxy.
There are other challenges, too, that IP technology currently presents. For one, broadcasters will need to harness the flexibility of IP networking to support the time-sensitive services found in their network. “Latency, quality of service, and high availability must be maintained. Shifting to IP turns the network into an addressable entity very much like the public internet, with the potential to make it be vulnerable to distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS). Broadcasters will need to create ‘walled gardens’ and implement safeguards to protect it from these and other rogue entities,” said Fonseca.
The challenges of building a broadcast-ready network with next-gen architectures, which are rapidly diminishing, are no different than they are for traditional infrastructures. Reliability, precision-timing, high quality, etc., are all attributes that engineers must strive to achieve regardless of the technology domain.
According to Imagine Communications it is now possible to engineer a network in the IP realm that is just as robust and reliable as a traditional broadcast network. Moreover, the company claimed that all of these elements are ready today and proven in service.
“Imagine Communications started rolling out proof-of-concept systems for major broadcasters around the world starting five years ago. Today, we are delivering complete, broadcast-ready, best-of-breed systems that deliver magnitudes more of agility, without sacrificing quality or reliability. Probably the biggest single challenge along the way was achieving standardisation so that multi-vendor systems could be built. We took the initiative by being one of the founding members of the Alliance for IP Media Systems (AIMS), which drove the standardisation agenda and led to the adoption of common standards like the SMPTE ST 2110 family, said Yadav. AIMS has a roadmap for the future, which it hopes will lead to simple, seamless interoperability.
Every new technology comes with its bag of advantages and drawbacks. But over time, depending on the success of its adoption the former ends up outweighing the latter. Can we expect the same from IP as well in the broadcasting spectrum?
“From an infrastructure perspective, IP would allow broadcasters to select infrastructure that is not purposely built, thus reducing cost and leveraging new developments that come from the larger network community. In terms of service and quality assurance, it unleashes visibility and controllability of the services and the network supporting it. It also allows for applications normally found outside the industry to be leveraged within the industry, such as asset management, intelligent search engines, and editing,” said Fonseca.
IP technology, including SDI over IP, is a major step forwards for broadcasters. “Content is increasingly being consumed on IP-enabled devices such as smart phones and hybrid set top boxes. So, it makes perfect sense for IP to be adopted in broadcast production environments as well. The transition to IP may be challenging for some. However, the benefits of being able to instantly provision new channels or adding new services such as OTT will enable broadcasters to innovate and respond quicker to viewer trends,” said Horchler.
To transition to a full-IP network, broadcasters need to ensure that every component of their workflow, ranging from contribution to studio production, to playout, is IP connected. They then need to apply well-defined broadcast IP standards, such as those endorsed by the AIMS Alliance.
It is imperative to note here that there is no point in transitioning to IP connectivity because it is something people are talking about. You should have clearly defined creative, operational and commercial advantages before you make any technical plans. Imagine Communications recommends moving to a new technology foundation at one’s own pace and only when it makes business sense to do so.
“Hybrid solutions are also possible in order to bridge between baseband and IP as you transition their infrastructure. Over the past year or so, as competitive threats have increased from media companies that rely on native-IP platforms, it has becoming increasingly clear that the risks associated with the adoption of next-gen technologies is waiting too long to start your transition. Any purchases media companies make today, even the adoption of SDI-based equipment, should offer a clear path to an IP future,” added Yadav.
Interoperability is absolutely central to the revolution happening in the industry. For 70 years or more, television engineers have been able to select products from different vendors that best suit their operational requirements, confident that all the equipment will work seamlessly together. That fundamental ability to select the best-of-breed products that are right for you cannot be lost.
“That is why we supported the establishment of AIMS, and why we are completely supportive of the SMPTE 2110 family of standards, because those standards and the rest of the AIMS roadmap is the path to complete, transparent interworking. Today, one can buy products from multiple vendors, which are compliant to ST 2110, and be confident they will work together. The last few instalments of the world’s largest tradeshows, both NAB and IBC, featured IP interoperability showcases that involved equipment from more than 70 vendors. By all reports, these showcases represented the largest interoperability events in the recent history of the broadcast industry,” Yadav pointed out.
Many vendors currently have IP-based products in their portfolio, but broadcasting companies and production houses are unwilling to invest in these solutions as they believe that these are not interoperable. While vendors have been making steady strides in improving interoperability between devices, there is still a lot of room for improvement in standardisation.
The industry has demonstrated this at various forums like NAB and IBC, among others, and recognises that a mechanism to achieve interoperability compliance needs to be put in place.
Making the Cut
So how can broadcasting companies and production houses make a successful transition to a full-IP network? According to Fonseca, transitioning to IP will present broadcasters with a series of challenges and opportunities in three areas: networking, network management and service assurance/availability. In general, broadcasters would need to develop a migration plan that does not interfere with their ability to continue offering services and running their businesses. This implies deciding which parts of the network get transitioned first versus which ones can support the business during this transition. The key is to minimise technology ‘islands’ that might hinder service availability and assurance.
“A general challenge of this transition is the need to train personnel on the relevant aspects of IP technology. In other similar transitions, organisations have had to acquire expertise by means of bringing personnel from other industries with the expertise in IP. In many cases, the personnel had IP expertise but not relevant industry expertise, example, broadcasting, therefore the organizations had to train the IP experts on the new industry they were migrating to. From a networking perspective, broadcasters will need to harness the flexibility of IP networking to support the time-sensitive services found in their network. Latency, quality of service, and high availability must be maintained,” Fonseca added.
Transitioning to IP implies that the elements in the network are addressable entities with monitoring, control, and reporting capabilities that could be executed remotely and from a central location. This means that the investment is not only in networking equipment, but in a robust management network that will become the enabler for future efficiencies in the IP domain. Shifting to IP turns the network into an addressable entity very much like the public internet, with the potential to be vulnerable to distributed denial of service attacks (DDOS).
Experts aver that building a full-IP broadcasting infrastructure is more about having the right frame of mind than the right technology framework as this needs more of a cultural shift and a well-thought-out architecture that considers the requirements needed in support of the broadcast services which is fundamental to success.
It is not just the systems that have to make this transition; moving operations to an IT-based environment will require today’s broadcast engineers to acquire additional knowledge and skills. They will have to learn how to architect an IP network to deliver the same experience and quality of a traditional network.
Broadcast engineers who are naturally hungry to expand their knowledge base and enthusiastic to apply their skills to a new medium will definitely excel in an IT environment and be among the first to successful transition operations to the technology foundation of the future. It is not reasonable to expect anyone to throw out viable equipment before it is life-expired.
The capital investment in existing in these networks is quite substantial, hence the broadcasters need to plan a staged transition and select a technology partner who can support them through the shift. “One of the benefits of the new, software-defined architecture is that through the use of an orchestration layer, one can make the best use of the available hardware by only spooling up the processes you need at any time. A smart orchestration layer, like the Magellan SDNO from Imagine, has the capability of providing the overall control for traditional equipment as well as software solutions. This allows you to start building new workflows using a mixture of legacy hardware and new technology, working together seamlessly. The transition is made from traditional hardware to new platforms seamlessly and without disruption to your work,” added Yadav.
Cashing in on Efficiencies
Many companies believe that shifting to all-IP will give them cost and manpower efficiencies. “Moving to all-IP broadcast environments is not just about reducing costs, but also delivering more innovative services. IP environments are better suited to more complex content consumer markets where viewers want to access content from anywhere at any time,” agreed Horchler.
Within the parameters of IP infrastructure, there is also the need to investigate new formats like 4K, HDR and virtual reality. The reason is fairly simple – there is a continuous demand from consumers for instant availability of information on diverse platforms. And there is a shift in the economics as broadcast advertising comes under threat from these emerging platforms, which ironically are giving rise to new revenue opportunities.
“You may find, therefore, that the manpower efficiencies arise from releasing staff to concentrate on these new challenges, confident that the basics are being managed by the technology platform. With regard to cost efficiencies, again the change is that of mindset. The traditional broadcast architecture was characterised by a large capital expenditure to create a new platform, followed by seven to 10 years of largely static performance limited by the capabilities of that platform,” said Yadav.
It is interesting to note that in the software-defined world, the hardware and applications are distinctive of each other – the hardware uses IT standard computing and storage, in a broadcast machine room, data centre or the cloud. Wherever it is, there will be a constant turnover as disks are maintained in a risk-free state and processors are upgraded to the latest power capabilities.
This is also one of the lucre for moving more applications and services to the cloud – broadcasters can rely on these services to be managed by IT experts, and it can be billed as an operational expenditure rather than investing into these as an exorbitant capital expenditure. Shifting to IP helps them to leverage larger economies of scale and provides them with greater efficiencies due to the controllability and observability that the technology offers. And while the uptake for this might be taking a little time at the moment, it is a trend that is expected to bring positive changes in the broadcasting industry.