It is the accepted norm for many large broadcasters to base their entire production workflows around a large centralized work hub, and it is often hard to argue against this approach. It allows all of the elements of the workflow to have common access to the appropriate media at any given point and enables collaboration between users.
Traditional best-of-breed vendors have also built out their solutions to cover large elements of the workflow under one roof, removing a number of integration issues. However, for smaller broadcasters, while their fundamental production requirements and aspirations are the same, it is not always appropriate or possible to simply scale down the same solution to meet their needs, let alone budgets.
A centralized production hub
The concept of a centralized production hub, using a large SAN or NAS device as the conduit through which all production data flows, is hardly new, and the sharing of media across a network is now an accepted part of the broadcast and production cycle. With the addition of client interfaces to storage systems, file level sharing from a centralized and networked location is now readily available. This allows users to access media and work on it from any workstation, to subsequently share media across different functions more easily, and ultimately to collaborate by working on the same file at the same time.
Beyond the theory, this model, and its associated technology, has adapted well to the constantly changing reality of the broadcast world. The move to HD (and now stereoscopic) has driven the need for larger and faster storage, increasingly complex workflows and quicker turnaround times. And the sheer scale of production environments now requires dedicated video networks, often isolated from the regular corporate networks required for the everyday operation of the business — all of which fits well with the concept of centralized work hubs.
To deliver the desired workflow around this hub, best-of-breed vendors have historically supplied different parts of the production chain. However, over the past 10 years, the market has seen significant consolidation, workflow has become king, and companies have developed or acquired much broader solutions to provide ingest, storage, editing and playout all under one roof. This approach clearly makes a lot of sense in terms of integration, workflow and support, albeit that many specialists catering for specific elements of the workflow will still argue the merits of their best-of-breed solution.
Scaling the size of this model upwards, or applying it to a broadcaster above a certain size, is simple and makes sense for all involved. Manufacturers are obviously only too happy to design systems in a way that can be grown over time or are well suited to large installs, and they often see spending on infrastructure solutions as a strong indicator of future investment. For the broadcaster, this often creates a platform for growth, acquiring technology that is either expanding or complementing their core investment. It therefore makes sense for technicians, engineers, consultants and integrators who are looking to grow the infrastructure of an existing site, or even specify and install a new site from scratch, to look at what's come before and scale or replicate as appropriate.
But, scaling these solutions down to a smaller operation is another story. The large number of smaller broadcasters and production facilities may have the same production values and aspirations as their larger counterparts, but certainly don't have the budget or the resources to implement the same workflows, nor do they require the complexity inherent in these larger systems.
For smaller broadcasters, a single integrated end-to-end solution is a must. It is simply too expensive and overly complex to have various components of the ingest, central storage, playout and nearchive/archive workflow represented by individual systems that interface to each other. This end-to-end approach often provides a simple, scalable and modular solution that is much more appropriate for the scale of operation, both now and in the future. However, even the brands that can offer the breadth of solution required are often cost-prohibitive due to the high level of initial investment required. So the question remains: How can we, as technology architects, reduce the cost for smaller broadcasters while maintaining or even improving the desired workflow and scalability?
If we accept that the concept of a central hub and an end-to-end solution is the best direction to take, then the next step is to consider what can be done to scale this up or down infinitum as required. Due to the inherent structure and building blocks of the larger systems, even if you drastically reduce its size, each function still needs to be split across several different servers, often including proprietary hardware, and each element of the workflow still needs to be separated by several client interfaces and associated licenses. For a smaller operation, this is clearly too expensive, but also unnecessarily complex. If your workflow dictates that a single user is fulfilling multiple functions, then the idea of that individual having to operate across a number of separate clients from a single workstation is no longer fit for purpose.
Central storage as the engine
Today some vendors have developed solutions that use the central storage not only as the hub but also as the engine. This structure enables many of the functions to be done in just one or two servers, or for larger operations, to split and apply the same functionality across multiple servers as required. This also combines all the tools in to a single interface that can be split across any number of workstations depending on the workflow. This, combined with the scalable infrastructure, makes scaling up much easier than scaling down the inherently larger systems.
And, finally, it makes the management, editing and sharing of files much quicker as access to those files is direct from the central hub. The resultant system is, therefore, reliant on fewer constituent servers to deliver the same fundamental workflow, providing a system that is not only cheaper in the first instance but also has considerably lower running costs. The user also maintains the benefits of having a single vendor covering all elements of the workflow, and being able to access content from any location on the network.
Larger broadcasters might argue that the obvious trade-off in such a system is the depth of functionality and level of redundancy it can provide. However, when dealing with a fraction of the budget and resources, smaller broadcast and production facilities will welcome the news that they can recreate the same workflow and systems of the big boys in a more affordable way.
Richard Satchell is business development director for Autocue.
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By Tom Butts