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HomeArticlesTechnicalVirtualized Video Infrastructure The New Foundation for Agile, Efficient Video Service Delivery
Wednesday, 04 March 2015 07:47

Virtualized Video Infrastructure The New Foundation for Agile, Efficient Video Service Delivery

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This article describes the virtualized video infrastructure (VVI), an IT-centric architecture that unifies previously discrete hardware-based functions for broadcast and multiscreen delivery within a single simplified software-defined workflow, and the media processing efficiencies, agility and significant bottom-line benefits a VVI enables in the modern video facility. In addition to explaining the key elements and functions of VVI, this paper examines three areas in which virtualization offers key financial and operational advantages over classic video processing models: software virtualization of hardware resources, use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) blade servers for physical infrastructure, and deployment of media processing applications that run on virtual hosts rather than dedicated machines.

INTRODUCTION: Today’s hardware-defined video architectures are often costly to deploy and maintain, and they can be exceedingly complex.

Device-specific software running on fixed-function appliances, themselves using customized processors and bespoke video technologies, result in environments that scale poorly and are locked into discrete workflow applications.

Though video processing has long been an appliance-based operation rooted in a hardware-centric world, the maturation of the software-defined data center is leading more media facilities to examine how they can bring video processing and distribution tasks onto an IT infrastructure. Broadcasters and video service providers are wondering if VVI can benefit their bottom line in the same way that IT-centric data center infrastructures yield economic advantages for other business activities, including sales, marketing and billing. Offering a host of both operational and economic benefits, virtualization has in fact emerged as a very compelling approach for not only optimizing computing infrastructures, but also for boosting the performance of the video processing applications that run on them.

As an inherently open ecosystem, VVI provides greater flexibility and lower TCO than traditional video infrastructure deployments. It allows broadcasters and service providers to maximize the value of their bandwidth and realize the full monetization potential of their content. With VVI, media companies have the freedom to choose the server hardware and software applications that best meet their technical and budget requirements, and gain the agility to scale up that infrastructure without compromising the availability of live video services.

VVI also provides the benefits of a multi-tenant architecture, in which adopters can select and run multiple applications from different vendors on a single infrastructure. Because these applications can be managed via a common interface, media facilities can improve their focus on key processes while reducing the administrative and operational resources these processes require.

The ability to employ fewer personnel to administer and operate a shared virtualized infrastructure has a direct effect on improving the bottom line.

ELEMENTS OF A VIRTUALIZED VIDEO INFRASTRUCTURE:

A VVI enables the hosting of fully integrated video production and broadcast functions on standard IT hardware. Within this ecosystem, applications run on a virtual machine (VM), which is a software-based emulation of a computer and its operating system, rather than on custom hardware. A layer of abstraction separates the applications running on the VM from the supporting computing, storage and networking hardware, and this virtualization layer enables the deployment of VM-based applications on a wide variety of COTS hardware platforms, whether generic servers or blade servers. In some media processing applications, multiple VMs may be deployed on a single blade server.

The physical infrastructure layer of the VVI typically consists of IP network switches, an optional storage server, a rack-mounted chassis and blade servers. Blade systems typically incorporate an enclosure, the blades themselves (sometimes referred to as “cards”), integrated network fabric, embedded code provided by the blade supplier, and a blade management software application.

The virtualization and application layers of the VVI typically include a hypervisor; a VM, including the OS and the applications being hosted on the VM (Figure 1)

and management tools for the monitoring, provisioning and redundancy of video processing applications (Figure 2). 

    Within the virtualization layer, the hypervisor is the software that abstracts the processor, memory, video and storage resources of the physical infrastructure layer (e.g., the blades) to create one or more VMs. Within the application layer, the media processing application and OS use these virtualized resources of the VM — independent of the physical CPU, memory, network interface cards 

and storage disk. It is this “decoupling” of VM-based applications from the physical hardware through resource virtualization that allows media applications to run on a variety of hardware platforms. The hypervisor assures that each and every application maintains ready access to necessary compute, storage or network resources.

From management and provisioning points of view, the VVI is divided into three layers, each with discreet management: the physical infrastructure, the VM infrastructure, and the applications. These three layers (Figure 2), along with management elements, form the operational ecosystem that enables video services to run on a virtualized infrastructure. Use of a VVI improves video operations by moving the focus from application-specific servers or custom hardware to the video encoding applications running on a unified hardware infrastructure. The VVI features incredible scalability, and it can serve a large ecosystem supporting hundreds or even thousands of video processing channels, all hosted as software applications on its VMs.

To simplify VVI management, the physical and VM infrastructure management layers typically are combined in a centralized management function and dashboard. Infrastructure management, illustrated in green in Figure 2, enables management of blades, their embedded software, chassis configuration and monitoring of critical functions, as well as status of the virtual machines and the blade chassis network fabric. Shown in blue, application management provides control over sources, video or media processing applications, application and configuration redundancy, and the associated video service outputs.

BENEFITS OF A VIRTUALIZED VIDEO INFRASTRUCTURE:      

The VVI introduces three key benefits over appliance-based video processing models: bespoke hardware independence via the virtualization of video processing applications; CAPEX and OPEX savings via use of COTS blade servers for physical infrastructure; and greater business agility by facilitating flexible selection and rapid deployment of video processing applications (Figure 3).

Collectively, these advantages enable significant cost savings while giving video service operators the ability to build and maintain more efficient and cost-effective video processing workflows. As a result, VVI adopters can potentially define and distribute new video channels globally in a fraction of today’s time and cost. 

The value of the VVI can be upwards of a 30-40 percent improvement in TCO, realized through more flexible operations, reduced time to launch new services, and lower CAPEX and OPEX than traditional video processing running on custom appliances. The dynamic and modular nature of this infrastructure is well-suited not only for introducing new services, but also for augmenting existing services through the licensing of additional VM-based applications.

There are additional advantages. With the shift into a software-based environment, media companies reduce their space, power, equipment and personnel requirements while gaining much greater flexibility in managing and allocating resources according to changing business and operational requirements. The VVI offers a flexible development infrastructure that supports technology reuse and accelerates time to market. 

SOFTWARE VIRTUALIZATION OF HARDWARE RESOURCES

First among the primary benefits of virtualization is the use of VMs to create a virtual host environment for decoupling video processing applications from the underlying physical infrastructure. When hardware may be treated as an independent element, it is no longer necessary for a media facility to align its systems on a single brand, model or generation of hardware. A virtualized video processing application, or “build,” will accommodate an evolving hardware configuration. This frees VVI adopters to purchase their host servers at the best possible commercial terms in a competitive market rather than be bound to custom hardware appliances, which can yield some very compelling cost savings.

Another benefit is that older VVI systems may remain in use even as the latest generation of hardware is added to the mix. New hardware systems can be chosen not according to vendor, but rather for their features, capabilities and price point. Scaling is seamless, so users can add new chassis and blades as required to expand computing resources, and thus enable new video processing services at a fraction of the time previously possible. The ease and speed with which a new blade server can be added also helps to assure faster recovery in the event of a hardware failure. The widespread use of popular COTS blade servers can make their support and servicing simpler, as well.

Despite the fact that the supporting physical infrastructure may incorporate a variety of blade or server hardware types, the virtualized infrastructure can provide the user with a single encoding application image that can operate on all blades. Because this common view of disparate hardware resources is extended to the applications running on the VM, users can improve the density and performance of their applications while using existing software licenses. In addition, by taking advantage of day-part allocation or re-allocating resources on the fly, adopters can optimize the sharing of hardware resources among media processing needs. A broadcaster might, for example, run live encoding for part of the day and file-based encoding for the remainder of the day.

A centralized VVI management solution can be employed to provide users with infrastructure-wide visibility of the virtual network, hosts, VMs and blade servers — and their associated 

components. In addition to reviewing system health reports and analytics, VVI adopters can monitor server and VM configuration changes, and manage centralized troubleshooting of networkrelated performance issues. Management of even a large-scale data center becomes simpler with virtualization, as a dashboard typically provides configuration templates and aids users in automating key tasks, ranging from network provisioning to deployment and maintenance (Figure 4).

PHYSICAL INFRASTRUCTURE BUILT ON COTS HARD WARE: By enabling media processing applications to be decoupled from underlying hardware, the VVI opens the door to considerable simplification of a media processing headend’s physical infrastructure and management. Less complex physical network connectivity translates to lower CAPEX for the infrastructure, as fewer switch ports and cables are required; blade enclosures hide the complexity of the physical network through the use of a network fabric within the blade enclosures. In the majority of cases, the number of physical ports/cables required in blade-based infrastructures is only 25 percent of that required by traditional 1-RU generic servers or custom media processing hardware chassis — which translates to a significant reduction in infrastructure costs compared to traditional video processing headends.

The blade servers themselves needn’t be procured from any one vendor, nor must they be purchased at the same time. Businesses that opt for a VVI can combine a variety of servers of differing models, release dates and capabilities within the physical infrastructure so long as they have sufficient CPU, RAM or other resources required to support video processing applications. Consequently, the factors most important to the user — including performance, price, vendor and availability — can guide hardware investment.

The innate scalability of VVI enables the seamless addition of hardware without any impact on application performance; as a result, media companies can make strategic incremental investments in accordance with their budgets and short- and long-range technical plans. The latest blade server hardware can be mixed with previous-generation systems as the infrastructure expands or evolves.

Through its capacity to unify disparate hardware systems within a larger ecosystem, the VVI creates a converged infrastructure for supporting the various applications that run on it. A virtualized infrastructure eliminates the need to qualify a video processing application on each hardware system from each vendor, in turn doing away with the delays and headaches caused by interoperability issues. Adopters have the flexibility to allocate resources either to improve application performance, or to address potential performance gaps — whether as a result of server failure or an increase in processing load. As new media processing applications are implemented, hardware resources can easily be expanded to accommodate an increased number of video processing applications.

In contrast to appliance-based media processing solutions with dedicated servers or custom hardware, the VVI relies upon a unified pool of blade servers, their operation optimized to support multiple applications. In doing so, the VVI also reduces overall power consumption, in some cases by 40 to 50 percent. Non-trivial savings are also realized in space, cooling requirements and interfaces (Figure 5).

Centralized management of the VVI — even an extensive VVI — can be accomplished much more efficiently than a traditional, custom hardware video processing solution with multiple hardware types. Provisioning, configuration, monitoring and troubleshooting all are incorporated into the central management system and dashboard. Providing a common interface for multiple applications, the VVI eliminates operators’ need to learn the intricacies of different GUIs or control panels for each discrete custom appliance or product in the workflow.

As with other, non-video-related IT-centric infrastructures, the consolidation and simplification of management tasks improves system administration efficiency significantly. In so doing, the VVI frees video operations staff to focus on video services and applications rather than the reconciliation and management of varied hardware systems, which can, in the VVI solution, be managed by the virtualized infrastructure staff.

Through the VVI dashboard, administrators can apply network and security settings to all blades across all applications in the data center without physically accessing individual hardware systems. For those facilities that create and customize their own OS, security settings and subsequent patches, centralized control and configuration facilitates maintenance of these parameters across applications and virtualized products.

Providing a window into the VVI, with clear demarcation between infrastructure and application issues, the dashboard speeds isolation and resolution of faults. Robust troubleshooting tools within the dashboard make it easy to identify failures, to back up and restore configurations, and to provision spares as the need arises. Using the virtualization layer, users can quickly recover from hardware failures and minimize any vulnerability following the switch to backup blades. By enabling innovative deployment scenarios, VVI makes it possible for users to achieve the redundancy and elasticity their operations demand.

VM-BASED VIDEO PROCESSING APPLICATIONS: While software virtualization and the ability to employ unified blade systems throughout the infrastructure yields enormous operational and financial benefits, the ability to run applications on this virtualized infrastructure may have the greatest impact on businesses that shift to a VVI.

During a time in which agility in introducing new media services can be a significant competitive advantage, the VVI offer the valuable benefit of near-immediate application deployment. Users can trial new applications quickly, without shipping new appliances and without risking a great deal of time, resources or money when implementing a new discrete video processing capability. Instead, VVI users can develop, debug, deploy and maintain applications on VMs, subsequently taking advantage of updates to benefit from the latest software releases and improvements. Hardware fit and gate limitations no longer constrain deployment of new applications and the realization of new processing capabilities.

In the virtualized environment, a range of applications can be run on a common platform (Figure 6). This dynamic function integration can span a large segment of the content chain, from content acquisition, to encoding, processing and packaging for delivery to service subscribers.

Service providers can take advantage of ongoing enhancements to application code efficiency to increase their output/channel capacity. With software-based processing, the steps previously “hard-wired” in ASICs can be optimized to improve application performance. The algorithms and processing applied to video can be tailored to the character of the video. Likewise, the user can balance the degree of processing applied against the volume or density of processing to meet target outputs. As Moore’s Law suggests, ongoing improvements in CPU technology and performance will facilitate greater processing density and performance by VM-based applications. A VVI is also well-suited for disaster recovery operations, as it enables fast automated recovery, whether within a cluster or across multiple sites. The portability of applications running on VMs makes this an effective approach even across different hardware types. 

Additionally, a VVI can facilitate short-term repurposing of its resources and capacity for alternative applications. This versatility enables media facilities to adapt smoothly to the unique demands of high-intensity live events, such as premium sports tournaments and elections coverage.

CONCLUSION: A VVI empowers today’s media facilities to take advantage of the latest COTS hardware to run multiple operating systems and applications, simplify overall infrastructure and its management, improve performance and efficiency across the enterprise, and seamlessly and dynamically scale resources to meet changing business and operational needs. With this infrastructure in place, adopters significantly reduce investment and maintenance costs while dramatically increasing the speed with which they can deploy new applications to deliver the video services their customers demand. The economic benefits are powerful, too. While the TCO of a VVI is lower than that of traditional video infrastructure deployments, the flexibility of this infrastructure to enable selective implementation of both hardware resources and various VM-based processing applications is essential to the agile and effective scaling of operations and video services. This multi-tenant

infrastructure allows media companies to improve their ROI, and also simplifies and streamlines workflow and operations, in turn enabling users to focus more time and resources on the video applications and live video services that drive their business.

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