Broadcasters are becoming more dependent on their IT-based infrastructures every day. It is increasingly important to have a solid network to support professional applications.
Given that this is a January column, it seems appropriate to look back at topics covered over the course of the previous year, but from the perspective of building an overall infrastructure to support your professional broadcast applications.
When evaluating a network for professional applications, it is critical to consider the overall network design. For most broadcasters, this means evaluating a network that is already in place. That said, the following points apply even if you are building a new facility.
Cable, wall jacks, patch panels and jumpers
In a facility that evolves over time, it is not uncommon to find a mix of cabling technologies. Given that network speeds have increased tremendously over the last five years, it is entirely possible to have a mix of media types and terminations in your facility. If there is Cat 6 rated cable throughout the facility, but there is an old Cat 3 patch panel somewhere in the critical path, the overall network performance will suffer. If you have not done so recently, conduct a survey of wiring, wall jacks, patch panels and jumpers, and other network cabling infrastructure to get the maximum performance out of your networks.
Rogue switches and unauthorized components
In facilities that have been in use for some time, it is not uncommon to find a switch or some other network component has been added without consideration of its effect on network performance. If the switch is old, or does not have capabilities needed in the network, you can experience significant performance issues. Look for equipment that is added haphazardly after the initial network design. On critical broadcast networks, create and enforce a policy that reduces the likelihood of the introduction of rogue network components.
Of course, sometimes in the rush to get a new facility on the air, broadcasters may grab whatever equipment they can get their hands on. They intend to replace that equipment as soon as things calm down, but frequently the initial equipment may stay in place for years, even if it was a temporary fix.
Level of redundancy
Everyone is under cost pressure these days. Furthermore, not every element in your networks is critical. Evaluate the design of your network, and employ appropriate redundancy plans for the business value being supported by the network. Network design allows you a great deal of flexibility in deploying redundancy only where it is needed. Just because you have a critical application on a network does not mean that every connection on the network should be protected from failure to the same extent.
Consideration for key network services
Most networks require certain services in order to function. In a typical broadcast facility, these might include Domain Name System (DNS) servers, Network Time Protocol (NTP) servers and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) servers. If you are responsible for a core broadcast network, know where each of these servers is located and what impact, if any, there would be if they quit.
Current software revisions
Committing to a regular plan of preventative maintenance is critical to maintaining performance. You should view the overall network in the same way you view a news camera or broadcast switcher. Network components require maintenance as well.
While networks do not require much physical maintenance, it is critical to maintain a plan for the upgrade of routers, switches and computers on the network. In many cases, this means committing to testing and rolling out software or firmware revisions as they become available. But this must be a conscious decision that also takes into account the impact of deploying upgrades in mission-critical applications.
For example, I know some plants where the engineering managers refuse to deploy any new software until the first major maintenance release is available because they think at that point the manufacturer has identified the critical issues that need to be addressed. I am not advocating this position, but it does make the point that while in many cases it is important to maintain your systems at the most recent upgrade level, you may decide to temper that decision based on your own experience and level of expertise.
My personal experience has been that you should not wait too long to upgrade systems, because the work involved in moving from old software to the current version may be huge. In many cases, it is easier to do it in smaller increments.
Logging and network monitoring
I strongly encourage you to invest time in learning about and deploying logging and remote maintenance technologies. They can help you to maintain facilities in peak operating condition, make you more efficient, and most importantly, they can inform you of problems that are developing before they become critical.
Develop a security policy
Create a security policy, and communicate that security policy to everyone in your facility, especially to people who maintain the IT infrastructure. Periodically review the policy for effectiveness given the ever-changing nature of security threats in a connected world. Remember that ultimately, your role as an authority on networks in the facility is to help others get things done to achieve your businesses goals using the technology. Do not use your policy to bully others or to unreasonably deny access to resources that help people get their work done.
These days, Internet access and security policy go hand in hand. In all professional broadcast facilities, employees need access to the Internet if they are going to do their jobs. How you give people the access they need, while protecting the core areas of the broadcast facility, is the critical question. You could adopt a policy of isolation, where you absolutely deny Internet access on the core network. Or, you could carefully allow Internet access for specific applications on certain workstations to precise people. This is a critical business decision that has important impacts on workflow, security and flexibility in the facility.
In my experience, a conservative approach to allowing access to your broadcast core network is the best practice. But you may find that access to the core network is required by other business units within the company. How you grant access to this network both from a policy and from a technical standpoint is something you should think about.
Other areas to consider
In addition to building robust networks for professional broadcast applications, there are several other areas you might want to explore.
One of them is virtual private networks (VPNs). VPNs allow virtual segmentation of the network based on department, functionality, network requirements and security. They ease network management, reduce required equipment (compared with segmenting your network with several separate switches), and increase up-front management effort.
Storage area networks and network attached storage are critical components of a shared storage installation, and they're frequently included in systems that broadcasters buy from others. Spend time to understand what you have. You can find simple off-the-shelf IT solutions, but beware of design compromises that have been made to reduce cost.
Video over IP is a technology that's becoming commonplace. It's deployed for program and commercial content delivery, backhaul and emission. Now peer-to-peer networking is used in some professional applications (think Napster for broadcasters).
Forward error correction (FEC) methods for video over IP make a difference. Take the time to understand FEC options. Realize that FEC may not be required everywhere and that it has a cost in terms of bandwidth and latency.
I hope this review helps you see the diverse topics covered in this column in a more connected way. As with many other engineering efforts, different aspects of network design interact, and a decision about security, for example, may dramatically impact your position on deployment of VPNs. Looking at your IT systems as a whole will help you design better networks, be more effective and facilitate others to do their best work.
Brad Gilmer is president of Gilmer & Associates, executive director of the Advanced Media Workflow Association and executive director of the Video Services Forum.
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