Faced with increased demands to provide content ranging from 1080i HD at the top end to the smallest color LCD screens on a cell phone, broadcasters are grappling with how best to service these platforms while maintaining efficient workflows.
John Footen, director of software engineering at National TeleConsultants, just might have the answer: Leverage the heavy lifting done in the IT industry with Service-Oriented Architectures (SOA) and Business Process Management (BPM) in the broadcast arena.
HD Technology Update spoke with Footen, who gave a paper at NAB2007 on the topic, to gain some insight into how SOA and BPM can assist broadcasters going forward.
HD Technology Update: At NAB2007, you gave a paper during the Broadcast Engineering Conference on Service-Oriented Architectures (SOA) and Business Process Management (BPM). Could you please provide a brief definition of each?
John Footen: SOA is an approach to architecting software systems. It has been used in enterprise information systems outside of media and entertainment for many years now very successfully. Here’s a quick summary: SOA looks at the applications, people and processes in your media enterprise and considers the real business services that each of these provides to your organization. Each of these services is then exposed via XML in the most reusable way to a common middleware layer that allows all parts of the business to use the services from each other. For those who are familiar with software development, it is like object-oriented programming at the application level.
SOA provides you with increased agility in many dimensions. Because you abstract your workflow from the implementation details of how an application (for example, transcode) works, you can change the underlying technology without necessarily impacting workflow. Also, because workflow is now separated from these atomic, reusable, services, you can change workflow without necessarily changing technologies. This is a loosely coupled approach to architecting systems as opposed to the tightly coupled approach so often seen today. This provides a great deal more of the agility needed to deal with emerging threats and opportunities in broadcast.
BPM is a set of best practices, common outside of media and entertainment, around how enterprise architectures are leveraged to enable formalized business processes that simplify, automate and optimize your workflows to best serve clients, obtain improved results and lower costs. You can use BPM to define, collect and analyze business metrics. BPM is basically about continuous process improvement. You can use BPM to find bottlenecks in your production chain and determine the best ways to abate these. When properly implemented, BPM gives you access to business and technical metrics that are difficult to obtain in today’s isolated, tightly coupled systems.
With both SOA and BPM, I think it is important to realize that we, as an industry, have already leveraged much from the larger IT industry. And yet, there is still more in technologies and approaches that we can take advantage of. SOA and BPM are proven approaches in other industries, and they are completely applicable to ours as well.
HDTU: Deployment of HDTV, DTV SD channels, mobile TV, Internet, etc., offer broadcasters significant new opportunities for revenue streams previously unavailable. How can SOA and BPM help them best exploit those opportunities?
JF: One thing to try to think about is how hard it has been to predict what our new opportunities are. It is especially true that in the last five to 10 years, change has been coming in the broadcast industry at a rate never seen before. SOA is an architecture that gives you the greatest agility to respond to these new opportunities as they arise. It is almost impossible to predict right now what will be important to us as broadcasters five years from today. And yet, we must still continue to build and upgrade the systems we have now to address what’s before us.
A broadcaster who takes an SOA approach to design going forward will find it easier to modify his processes and technologies when the next requirement comes around.
SOA and BPM also provide the visibility you need into what is actually going on in your business so that you can understand how the changes you need to make will impact your business and systems.
HDTU: Although SOA and BPM may be new to broadcasters, they are proven concepts in other areas such as banking. Are these concepts transferable to broadcast? For instance, the concept of SOA — taking the heterogeneous environment of multiple software applications from different vendors and getting them to communicate with one another — is laudable, but is it realistic for broadcasters, who continue to this day to wait for vendors implementing MXF to begin delivering on the promise of the connected, communicative workflow that ties multiple vendors’ MXF-compliant products together seamlessly?
JF: One thing about BPM and SOA is that they help put more power back in to the hands of the broadcaster to control the communication channels in their facility. It is not about how vendors talks to one another, but about how vendors expose themselves directly or through wrapper code to the middleware layer. You can then use the tools available to enable communication between vendors that may not have been possible before. To a certain extent, once systems communicate in an SOA, data transformation can allow communication among heterogeneous standards.
It should be noted that the amount of R&D and implementations being done with SOA and BPM literally dwarfs the broadcast industry. One leading SOA technology vendor in the IT space puts more into just R&D on SOA by themselves than one of the largest professional media technology companies will earn in total revenues from all of its products. What this means is that how you look at how SOA is entering this space is more comparable to how the use of IT-driven technologies like TCP/IP became so common rather than media industry-driven technologies like MXF.
NTC recently joined the board of the AMWA, the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA). AMWA is about putting AAF and MXF to work. One of the keys to that is the upcoming work that will be done there with regards to SOA approaches to working with AAF and MXF. NTC is working closely with AMWA to use SOA with MXF to help address these concerns.
HDTU: How do you envision broadcast implementation of BPM simplifying, automating and optimizing workflow in an environment that demands such a wide variety of output — from 1080i HD at top end to a cell phone screen at the bottom?
JF: BPM is perfectly up to the task of helping broadcasters optimize their workflow for multiple distribution formats. One way to look at it is that BPM is not a specific technology, but rather a methodology. BPM has been used in places like manufacturing, where the diversity of output is at least as great.
So, whatever video format comes out of the end of our chain today — or in the future — is not critical to implementing BPM. You can get the visibility and continuous process improvement available from BPM no matter what it is you distribute.
HDTU: To date, are there any broadcasters implementing SOA and BPM, and what’s been their experience with these concepts delivering on their promises? If there are none, why?
JF: NTC is an independent consulting and design firm that is under NDA with every company I know of that has implemented BPM or SOA with us or other companies. What I can say is that these approaches are new to our industry at this point. Those who have started down these paths have been happy with the results. SOA and BPM do present a kind of idealized vision, and no such vision is ever realized perfectly or all at once, but I think it is safe to say that they are providing real-world benefits today to some organizations. I also feel very comfortable in saying that SOA and BPM represent another one of those inevitable transitions that we go through as an industry. Very much like nonlinear editing or video servers, there is a time when it is hard for people to see the vision of a new way to approach solving their business problem. I am sure not too many of your readers would want to give up their nonlinear editing at this point!
HDTU: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JF: One quick thing. The key reason why SOA and BPM are among several concepts that are becoming available to the broadcaster now from the IT industry is because of the growing pervasiveness of file-based systems and workflows. The technological means that were developed to deliver on SOA and BPM could not operate well in our older tape-based world. Now, however, we have an opportunity, with large percentages of the facility being file-based, to use SOA and BPM to provide agility, visibility and productivity benefits like never before.
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