Software-defined production is
not a new idea, but it's catching on fast.
A number of Service Oriented
Architecture (SOA)-type software platforms, from companies like Avid
(Avid Everywhere), Dalet (Media Life), Grass Valley (Stratus), Sony
(Media Backbone), and others are now available to help broadcasters
and production companies streamline their content creation and
distribution operations by providing "task-specific"
software tools under a single common interface.
value of a software-defined production system like Grass Valley's iTX
is fewer moving parts.
These production platforms include
an underlying orchestration layer or application framework upon which
customers can add different modules (transcoding, logging, editing,
playout, etc.) built for video production and distribution. But is
this a "new" idea? Interestingly, these platforms are
strikingly similar to the iTX intelligent transmission software
platform, which was introduced by an automation company called
OmniBus in 2006 to redefine playout applications. It's safe to say
iTX was a bit ahead of its time.
"When we first launched iTX,
many people were very skeptical that it would ever be suitable for
primetime playout and we certainly didn't make many friends with
hardware manufacturers," said Ian Fletcher, the man who first
developed the idea of "software-defined workflows" and
current CTO at Grass Valley (a Belden company). "However, now
everyone has realized that the integrated playout channel is the only
viable way forward and virtually all automation vendors and most
server vendors now have at least some level of integrated solution."
Of course, this software-centric
strategy has also driven a M&A frenzy in the marketplace (there
have been more than a dozen acquisitions in this industry since
January), as hardware vendors recognize the complexities of
automation and the huge amount of domain knowledge required to put
such a platform together. According to Fletcher, it's sometimes more
cost-effective to buy companies rather than trying to build the
technology from scratch.
"iTX was always much more than
just playout and, even today, many people don't realize this,"
he said. "We have always felt that the future of playout was
increasingly around the workflow and
orchestration required to deliver
content in many different formats to many different platforms."
Interestingly, when Omnibus first
launched iTX, the company thought that the initial early adopters
would be small, low-revenue channels. However, right from the start
iTX was adopted by many of the world's largest broadcasters "because
they had the most to gain from the business benefits it provided,"
Fletcher said. "Whilst this has given us some challenges, it has
also enabled us to deliver a rich feature set that meets the
requirements of these most demanding of customers. And we continue to
develop this, particularly in the areas around the production of VOD
content and catch-up TV, as part of an integrated transmission
CTO Ian Fletcher has seen SEO-style platforms gain favor over the
Basically, the real value of a
software-defined production system is fewer moving parts. Clearly, if
you are removing 6 or 7 discrete devices from different vendors and
replacing them with a single, integrated solution, you have reduced
potential points of failure and lower maintenance costs. The other
major advantage is the agility of software systems. When new codecs
or formats, such as 4K, come along, it is much faster to bring those
to market as part of a software system.
"Of course no piece of
software is infallible and so it is important that your system is
designed to cope with potential failure," Fletcher said. "The
advantage of the reduced cost of software systems means that it is a
lot more financially viable to maintain completely redundant
transmission chains. Broadcasters also need to treat their IT
networks with increased vigilance, both in design and maintenance, as
they become part of mission-critical transmission systems."
However, does hardware processing
need to get faster and more powerful to keep up with what
broadcasters need to do?
"You can never have enough
processing power," Fletcher said. "As Moore's Law has
continued to serve us so well over these years, the software systems
simply expand in scope and complexity to soak up that additional
power. When we first launched iTX the available computing power was
just about sufficient to manage a stream of HD. Now we are doing many
channels of HD, advanced 3D graphics, up and down conversion with
high quality de-interlacing and advanced audio processing all on a
single server. And now we have to do it all again in 4K!"
Looking at the implementation
issues surrounding software-defined networks, Fletcher said customers
should be less concerned about technical issues and far more about
straight swap of a traditional transmission chain for an IT-based
transmission chain isn't going to fundamentally change your
business," he said. "Most of the major projects we work on
are broadcasters re-designing the way they acquire, manage and
distribute content. This is more of a classic business process change
challenge than a technical one because, in order to design your new
workflows, you first have to understand what you do today. You would
be amazed how many broadcasters don't understand this until we force
them to sit down and think about it."