SOAs gaining traction as standards work continues

At the recent IBC Show in Amsterdam, numerous vendors were extolling the benefits of a service oriented architecture (SOA) for capturing, producing, processing and distributing video and audio content as digital files. It’s the latest industry buzz term, but this one appears to have staying power as it brings the potential cost- and resource-saving benefits for both customers and the manufacturers themselves.

Although clearly interested, many attendees were left feeling a bit cautious about how to most effectively design and implement such an IT-centric system, even with the knowledge that it would increase efficiency and staff productivity while helping content providers manage the transition to a multi-screen, multi-format universe.

“[SOAs] are useful when implemented correctly,” said Ian Fletcher, CTO of Workflow and Playout at Miranda Technologies. Fletcher was one of the chief architects of Miranda Technologies’ iTX Enterprise Suite of software tools that mange the entire content lifecycle for news and studio production. He also helped develop the G3 series of file-based products, one of the first implementations of an SOA in the broadcast space and the predecessor to iTX, while part of automation vendor Omnibus Systems, about 10 years ago.

“It’s certainly not a new idea, but it’s a new buzz term that our industry has adopted,” Fletcher said. “I would say we’ve had a lot of interest from customers that want to pursue this model. It’s clearly the future, in one form or another.”

On the exhibit floor, companies such as Avid (Interplay Central), Grass Valley (STRATUS), Quantel (Enterprise sQ and Qtube) and Sony (Media Backbone) also demonstrated how a software-based SOA can add value to their existing hardware products and pave the way for new technology and (software) feature enhancements to be developed and released sooner.

Virtually everyone at these companies said it would not necessarily reduce headcount. When designed and deployed in a way that does not disrupt current workflows, an SOA can also help broadcasters and content providers produce and distribute more content to more platforms without having to increase staff. In fact, one broadcast network in Sweden doubled its channel count while adding four people.

“We all have to understand that broadcasters are being challenged like never before as the industry moves faster and faster around them,” said Matthew Goldman, Head of Compression Technology, Solution Area TV, Ericsson. “So, they need next-generation tools and networking technology that’s going to help them stay one step ahead of their competition.”

At the IBC show, Ericsson showed its full suite of business and content management software and hardware products — called WatchPoint and the Media Delivery Management System, respectively.

“The value of an SOA to customers is that it keeps them relevant in this fast changing media world,” Goldman said. “With every day a new mobile or OTT service crops up. How are broadcasters supposed to compete and be proactive with fixed installations that require a lot of maintenance and extra staff every time a new platform is supported?

“The answer is a companywide architecture that can easily scale up when required and that allows you to automate many of the processes content providers now handle manually.”

At the moment, one of the concerns surrounding SOA designs is that, like asset management systems before them, there are many ways to implement them. This makes it hard for manufacturers to write code to enable their products to work seamlessly with third parties. At the IBC Show, the industry’s three main standards bodies — the Advanced Media Workflow Association (AMWA), European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE) — announced that they have been collaborating on developing a standard method for implementing an SOA to get the most value for video-intensive tasks.

Since 2009, the three groups have each formed working task forces that are looking into designing a “media-friendly” way of having individual devices talk to one another, and to enable a single “orchestrator” to request and complete various ingest, encoding, transcoding and sharing and distributing tasks involved in a normal production workflow. They all call this initiative a Framework for Interoperable Media Services (FIMS). There’s also an iFIMS component addressing Internet-connected architecture that leverages cloud-based computing and storage.

“We’re redefining how to address the video industry in terms that the computer industry would readily understand,” said Al Kovalick, a strategist and fellow with Avid, who is working on the standard. “The idea is to define a base layer upon which all the various manufactures can attaché their respective products to.

“The best part about this initiative is that virtually every major (and minor) company in this industry is on aboard and working together to make this happen. That doesn’t happen very often.”

The groups are being careful to avoid the pitfalls of the Media eXchange Format (MXF) work that was done several years ago with the promise of a universal way of handing files, no matter how they were created. What started as a good idea soon became bogged down in hundreds of pages of technical documentation that saw many manufacturers pushing their own form of MXF — leaving customers with incompatible files that could not be identified by the networked systems they were supposed to automatically interoperate with.

FIMS is defined as a way to promote common interfaces between “Orchestration Systems” and “Media Services.” The first layer instructs the second — which encompasses the various tasks involved in the creation and handling of content — what to do and when to do it.

“This is the first stakes in the ground,” said Brad Gillmer, executive director of AMWA, who worked on the MXF project as well. “We’ve learned a few lessons and are determined not to suffer the same fate as the MXF initiative by making FIMS a lot simpler to work with.”

Gillmer also said the FIMS 1.0 document has initially defined three major “service areas” that all companies on board should strictly adhere to. They are known as the Capture, Transform and Transfer services and should address 95 percent of the work that’s being done today.

However, hopes for a quick standard are not realistic, according to Kovalick, because new services and functionality will be added to the FIMS 1.0 document on a yearly basis.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever be done with FIMS,” Kovalick said. “It’s an evolving architecture that eventually will include things we have not even thought of yet.”

FIMS is also bringing competitive equipment manufacturers together to cooperate in ways they usually don’t. At the IBC2011 show, AmberFin, a developer of media ingest and transcoding solutions, announced that its iCR file-based signal processing platform has been integrated within Sony’s Media Backbone workflow orchestration and integration platform, and that similar interfaces are in development which will complete the ingest solution using the iCR platform.

Job requests and associated metadata generated by Media Backbone Conductor appear directly within the AmberFin GUI, with no need for switching between GUIs and systems. This is the type of third-party integration that Sony is now encouraging with its implementation of an SOA.

“Customers are looking to make their processes run as efficiently as possible, and streamlining the number of systems that users have to interact with is vital,” said Nick Smith, Business Development Manager for Sony Europe. “Together, Sony and AmberFin have created a very elegant interface between the two platforms.”

Jeremy Deaner, Chief Executive Officer at AmberFin, said that engineers from his company and Sony Europe have worked closely together over several months to develop the interface between their two technologies.

“An open development approach… benefits everybody, especially customers because it enables them to have greater control on their workflows,” Deaner said.

So, while the standards groups do their work, and more and more manufacturers consider how they can get involved, broadcasters and content providers should take notice and evaluate how best to pursue these models.

The ability to quickly add new channels and address emerging distribution platforms can only be done efficiently and cost-effectively with some type of SOA as the core infrastructure of their facility.

Without such a flexible and easily adaptable workflow, it will be hard to compete in today’s increasingly connected landscape — where the consumer is driving technology innovation at a faster rate than ever before.