Anytime, anywhere

Storage that can handle content creation and distribution can lead to new revenue opportunities.
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You don't need to look far in most TV stations and network facilities to find piles and drawers full of recorded video cassettes. Somebody saved them for something. This burgeoning accumulation of historic videotape in physical archives, often structured in someone's head, raises some important questions. For example, how long does it take one to find the exact footage they are looking for, and how fast can they ingest and prepare to edit the material into a new program, news or sports story, promo, or commercial? What event or crisis will propel the facility over the tapeless hurdle? How will managers recognize when it's time, and how does a facility prepare for it?

Any to any

The “end-to-end” systems broadcasters are accustomed to dealing with are devolving into “any-to-any” scenarios. More users and viewers are expecting content to be available from any source, at any location, in any format, to any device, anywhere, anytime. Today, broadcasters are building or investigating collaborative and distributed content storage infrastructure systems that deliver performance for real-time, multipurpose workflows to keep up with the demands of today's multiformat content strategy. To empower an any-to-any system, storage infrastructure must enable organizations to create, manage and reach a broader audience, anywhere, anytime.

Broadcasters have been watching the rapidly developing technologies of storage and recall of A/V and metadata with keen interest, and cloud computing seems to be at the forefront. It wasn't that long ago that storage and instant access to HD content was daunting and expensive. Time and technology has changed that for the better, and inter- and intra-facility private cloud computing is the model of the future. Interestingly, the cost of building an on-site cloud, based on a world-class storage infrastructure, can be less than the cost of a single new high-band 2in quad videotape machine, in 1970 dollars. Comparatively, in 2011 dollars, the price of a universal private cloud system is vastly lower.

Several manufacturers have specialized in designing and building world-record-setting file-based storage platforms for a wide variety of storage-hungry markets. However, few markets are more storage hungry or demanding of no-excuses quality than the professional broadcast, production and film industries. If there is one thing the news and entertainment industries agree on, it is that nobody has time for lingering hour-glass icons, dropped frames or digital artifacts, in formats up to 4K and beyond.

Vision to reality

The broadcast and film industries are looking for new revenue streams and ways to enhance existing revenue streams. As dreamers, consultants and visionaries recognize and agree that active storage is necessary for progress, it will be the broadcast engineers' duty to make it reality.

Active storage solutions for the electronic media industry have split between those who develop and build video server control software and hardware and those who build world-class mass storage systems. Mass storage systems are not actual servers, but rely on products such as Apple's Final Cut Pro, Avid's edit systems, and numerous master control server and traffic systems. (See Figure 1.) Some manufacturers are finding a better and more cost-effective business model by focusing on the functions and parts of the system they do best. This allows them to take advantage of mass storage systems manufacturers to provide the functions and parts only a highly-specialized technology company can design and build, using the economy of scale in the larger world of petabyte-scale storage to keep prices reasonable. A growing number of well-known manufacturers serving the professional broadcast industry have developed partnerships with massive storage infrastructure suppliers to fulfill the demands of not only file-based broadcast servers and editing systems, but to prepare for new business opportunities based on repurposing and on-demand revenue streams.

Users of massive storage file infrastructures can be categorized in three groups: production and post, air play, and on-demand. Ideally, regardless of the user group, a mass storage system must be as accessible and simple to operate as an external hard drive. Operators and users should not have to browse through endless partitions and drive letters to find the content they want.

Mauro Cassanmagnago, deputy general manager and engineering director of Videotime SpA Mediaset Group, shared some of his ground-breaking experience in the preparation of this tutorial. He says, “At the most basic level, the specifications of massive file storage infrastructures are size in bytes, I/O speed, response time, and average and worst-case read, write and read/write times.” Features such as scrubbing and network infrastructure such as Cat 5/6/7 or Fibre Channel will vary by facility.

Every facility and content provider is unique, so no universal standards for a one-size-fits-all storage infrastructure exist. Typically, the number of I/O channels is more a function of external equipment and cards than the storage system, provided the storage infrastructure has the size and speed to handle the aggregate I/O.

More channels require more speed. Higher resolutions require more speed and storage. Other due diligence questions managers must answer are often more about the control systems, demands and predicting the need, in x-bytes, for online, nearline and offline storage. Answering these questions will guide managers in determining the size and speed their facility demands. Not only must managers carefully identify and document their present requirements, but also they need to do as much research and deduced reckoning as possible to predict future requirements.

Not the usual suspects

Before servers and mass storage, many bottleneck problems in television facilities could be solved by adding more VCRs. In a tapeless facility, bottlenecks can be resolved by adding more I/O to a central location. To determine the amount of I/O needed is to identify workflow. Once media material is ingested into the system, it can go to and from several destinations and sources simultaneously. (See Figure 2.)

While most broadcasters are used to thinking in terms of source to antenna, the new environment demands more flexibility and a new way of thinking. Some, such as mobile DTV, may still end at the antenna, but others will be streaming to multiple locations on the Internet or across private networks. Some users may be logging and previewing. Others may be editing or cuing for air play. Still others may be streaming to viewers or other facilities needing the material. All these functions add up to overhead the storage system must handle flawlessly.

Over provisioning, meaning having too much online storage at the expense of offline and nearline storage, can be trouble if the system isn't planned and designed well. The system must have the power not only to handle day-to-day needs, but also to continue operating seamlessly even while it is rebuilding drives. The secret to successful system design is the balance of speed, channels, online, offline, nearline and the ability to transcode for distribution to a variety of viewing devices.

DIY?

Some broadcast engineers pride themselves in building systems from scratch, and building a mass storage system on a local workbench is not out of the realm of possibility. However, it might not be the best solution. Several factors should be considered before choosing the DIY option. Obviously, budget is a issue, and at first glance DIY may appear to be the least expensive. If you're considering DIY, you need to think redundancy and bandwidth, which are what people normally think of. You also need to come up with a solution for latency, or you may face the real risk of dead air. In the long run, this decision may prove to be the most expensive.

Manufacturers are providing large-scale solutions to a wide variety of markets, which keeps finished product prices down and reliability and invisible self-healing technology at the forefront of design. They also share the benefit of economy of scale. They buy the latest, largest and most efficient hard drives by the pallet, and design systems specifically to parlay every advantage a particular drive has to offer. Some new mass storage systems have remarkably small physical footprints, keeping the cost of operation per rack and square feet of floor space to a minimum. Another factor is redundancy. Similar tapeless mass storage in multiple facilities, having similar systems with exchangeable parts, keeps things simple, speeding repairs and lowering spare parts inventories.

Over time, a mass storage system will pay for itself. It will lower the cost of replacement VCRs, electro-mechanical bench repairs, scanner replacements, alignment tools, fresh tape stock and other tape-related expenses. Better yet, tapeless facilities increase efficiency and expand creative opportunities. They also open the doors to new media opportunities and revenue streams, such as repurposing and transcoding services. Eventually, every facility will be virtually tapeless, but beware of putting all your eggs in one basket. All electronic equipment eventually fails, and in broadcasting it's not unusual for that failure to occur at the worst possible time. You don't see movie studios throwing out films that have been digitized, so don't forget the power of the VCR or VTR to save the day in a critical pinch.

Bob Vassar is senior manager, rich media, at DataDirect Networks. The author would like to thank Mauro Cassanmagnago, deputy general manager and engineering director of Videotime SpA Mediaset Group, for his help in preparation of this article.