Equally important, broadcast engineers and operators are extremely skilled and competent in using their traditional platforms. Will changing the core technology change the way they work? How will this change impact their productivity and the quality of work?
These are really important questions. This article reviews what benefits IP technology brings and how broadcasters can make the transition, taking advantage of those benefits without risking the skills and investments already in place.
Technology advances have accelerated the prospect of handling all content – realtime streams as well as packaged files – over an IP network. With the considerable support of the IT industry, we have now found a way to take the Internet’s “best effort” approach to getting a message through – and we have imposed on it the sort of time constraints and broad bandwidth that we need to handle professional-quality signals, even at critical points like contribution circuits and playout.
Why is that important? Because it means we can use standard, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) IT hardware for many of the functions performed in the broadcast network. We will still need targeted, specific software to deliver the unique functionality we demand, but much of the special-purpose hardware used today will phase out over time.
Ultimately the benefits are all economical. COTS hardware is generally less expensive initially and benefits from Moore’s Law cost reductions. We can work it harder because it is simply a platform on which to run software, not a device with only one purpose which has to stand idle until you want to do that specific thing. For example, blade servers can run multiple instances of software applications simultaneously, shifting priorities dynamically and faster than an operator could even notice the need.
We will no longer need expensive rack space, floor space, power, and cooling for all of these lightly-used bits of equipment. Once we reach the point where we can implement everything in software, we become much more efficient.
At Imagine Communications, we talk a lot about implementing “software-defined networking” principles into the broadcast network. Not only are the processes run in software, but the way that those processes are interlinked is also in software. That means our overall infrastructure becomes extremely flexible and responsive to new business and technical challenges.
A counter-argument to an all-software broadcast network is that a lot of legacy equipment is already installed and well within its working life. In addition, operators and engineers know how to use that equipment, and there is a natural concern that the new architecture will require new workflows.
These are important points, and Imagine Communications is very aware of these considerations. That is why we are actively promoting a managed transition – a transition at the pace that suits the operational needs of our customers.
Baseband connectivity and traditional broadcast hardware will be around for a long time, so the transition will take a number of years. This transition assumes that media companies will implement a hybrid infrastructure. In fact, most broadcast networks are already hybrid, integrating IP and baseband signals in various forms today, such as using IP signals in contribution or distribution, as well as in video servers. The next evolution of the broadcast network is simply the succeeding step of this transition, migrating some or all of the baseband signal transport, management, and processing to IP. To enable this transition, Imagine Communications has continued to upgrade and update its product lines by commonly integrating baseband and IP functionality, thereby allowing customers to make an easy transition to IP.
As an example, take a typical requirement in a broadcast centre: sending a signal from one part of the facility to another. Today, a router control panel will send an instruction to a physical broadcast device, like an Imagine Communications Platinum™ router. However, in the hybrid future, the signals in the facility will be routed in two different ways: baseband video signals through the Platinum router, and IP video signals through a 10 gigabit Ethernet switch from an IT switch vendor like Cisco or Arista.
Operators know that the best way to be sure that the signal has been routed is to press a button on a control panel and see it light up. So in the hybrid network, this simple workflow operation should remain in place, irrespective of whether the routing is over IP or baseband.
One of Imagine’s first product launches in this field was a Software-Defined interface that provides an orchestration layer. This is essentially a toolkit to enable hybrid infrastructures – a mix of IP and broadband – to work seamlessly together, yet still maintain today’s workflow processes. The operator should not need to know what is happening behind that button push. They only need to know that the signal will appear where it is required.
How fast will the hybrid transition take place? The important point is that every single broadcaster and facility is different. Their operations and requirements are different, and their technical infrastructures are different, so their transitions will be individually developed to suit their own needs. Perhaps the best piece of advice to broadcasters of all kinds is to find a technology partner that understands the positive potential of transitioning to IP-centric operations and who can work with you to develop your own transition plan, at your own pace, and work in conjunction with your current capital investments in baseband technology. Imagine Communications has a 50-year history in traditional broadcast infrastructures, and is now leading the industry into the software-defined future.