Michael Grotticelli /
06.15.2009 12:07 PM
Avid adopts agile automation software development

Since being purchased by Avid in April of 2006, automation provider Sundance Digital has navigated its way through a series of management changes and software updates that have helped redefine its business and grow its customer base.

This has resulted in an improvement in the way business is conducted, but getting there was more than a bit challenging.

By most accounts, Avid bought Sundance Digital in order to fill out its growing product portfolio and make it more attractive to larger broadcasters and media organizations looking for an end-to-end solutions provider. The problem was that while Avid was very familiar with content creation applications, it was less versed in the distribution end of the business.

“The idea was to link the production and transmission processes together into a complete workflow, and after several years we are now extremely successful at doing that,” said Rick Stora, product manager for Avid. “This integration took a bit of time because Sundance communicated with different people at the operations level, so we operated exclusively and quite separately from the general Avid operation.”

With the new management changes occurring since 2007, Stora said Sundance Digital management personnel made a conscious effort to operate as a cohesive unit.

“In order to improve our business, all of us here had to learn about Avid’s other businesses like editing, graphics and newsroom products,” Stora said. “We’ve spent a lot of time learning the corporate culture and how to use it to our advantage in terms of marketing and advancing the legacy Sundance platform. Broadcasters want reliability and ease of use. Today, if you can’t offer that as a standard feature you can’t be successful.”

This new way of working included adopting Avid’s corporate processes for developing software, which is called “agile development.” It’s a full set of regimented practices regarding how new software is created and tested that, Stora said, results in robust products that come to market in a timely fashion. Developing all of those resources in-house was a big shift for the former Sundance staff.

Today Stora and a staff of 14 software engineers work in Irving, TX, where they have always been located, and have been busy adding more features and functionality to the company’s FastBreak and Titan automation platforms.

FastBreak automation (four channels) and FastBreak Entry Level Edition (two channels) are targeted at smaller installations while the Titan platform is in use at a number of larger, multichannel facilities. There’s also more than a dozen different applications for automating a broadcaster’s operations — like ingest and transcoding — that eliminate time-intensive manual processes.

The current product focus is on developing more flexible systems that are easily expanded by adding new modules. This will help customers cost-effectively add more channels without adding more staff to run them. At the same time, the company continues to improve upon the software’s reliability.

Customers include major content delivery providers like Ascent Media and other types of big master control facilities. Broadcast users include New Jersey Public Television and Radio (NJN), which uses a Titan platform for on-air operations to manage and control satellite ops, video server switchers, archiving and routing; South Dakota Public TV; and KCSM, a public TV station in San Mateo, CA.

“Our challenge has been to build semicustomized systems for each customer that keep all the metadata straight in order to manage multiple channels, often made up of mixed formats and program types,” Stora said. “It’s tricky when you have to find a single program on a dozen servers running five channels each, but we’ve figured out how to do it automatically, without the customer having to think about it.”

The company has also focused its latest efforts on supporting the recently adopted Broadcast eXchange Format (BXF, SMPTE-2021), which standardizes the communication of three basic types of data exchange: schedule and as-run information; content metadata; and content movement instructions. Among other things, it provides a single method of exchanging data among systems such as program management, traffic, automation and content distribution.

SMPTE is now in the process of establishing and validating recommended practices for the entire industry, and the standard is expected to replace hundreds of proprietary batch and file-oriented interfaces currently in use. In May, the BXF committee convened to work on version 2.0, so the standard’s evolution, and the effort to streamline a variety of processes, continues.

At the NAB convention in April, Sundance demonstrated its year-old BXF Gateway, which gives the company’s automation systems a standardized means of data exchange with various third-party systems. Third-party vendors like it because they now only have to talk to a single box, without having to write multiple applications.

WJCT, a PBS station in Jacksonville, FL, is using a Titan automation suite and installed a BXF Gateway system last summer, which enables the station to streamline its workflow and increase the reliability and productivity of the systems' tasks by using the BXF communication protocol.

“Having access to data we didn’t before allows us to exploit all sorts of opportunities,” Stora said. “It replaces a lot of manual tasks, such as making dubs, and makes the process much faster and more productive. Also, processing daily schedules happens automatically.”

A positive benefit of this new collaboration between engineering is that Avid automation systems now have interface points with such products as the Interplay production asset management system. This gives users the ability to manage playback and content creation from the same interface. That’s new for the automation industry. And, the newest Sundance Digital systems are much more robust, so users can expand channels without affecting their on-air system.

Stora said going forward, Avid is looking to expand its product portfolio into more fully automating the administration processes of a TV station.

“We understand business rules and how to manage content,” he said. “We’re thinking about a number of other forms of local distribution for business and enterprise. Among our staff we have a lot of experience in integrating business and production requirements and helping customers get the most out of their available resources. That looks to be a new growth area for us.”



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