Service Oriented Architecture

SOA is the new way to design a facility’s workflow.

The broadcast industry has a great need for agility and efficiency in dealing with new technologies and business models. Distributing content to HDTVs, mobile phones and software-based media appliances imposes new challenges on the production workflows of all media enterprises.

Advances in technology are moving so rapidly that media companies can no longer add or change a system without considering how quickly it will become obsolete. Although file-based production allows for less expensive, faster turn-around, it also introduces new issues such as security, administration and media management, all of which must be dealt with efficiently. Large, single-vendor, vertically integrated solutions with a long ROI are quickly becoming impractical.

Media companies have traditionally integrated each new system or business model separately. Getting one new system online in a media enterprise can be relatively straightforward. A new HD editing system, for example, can usually be installed and configured relatively easily. Connecting it to other systems in the enterprise (such as automation or asset management) was likely part of its selection process, so integrating it in the workflow is largely an exercise in vendor management.

A patchwork approach to integrating each new system and business model, however, really doesn’t work in the digital age. (See Figure 1 on page 66.) Even with good system-design practices, this course of action will create further hurdles over time. After two, three, 10 or 20 such additions, a media enterprise is left with multiple silos of vertically integrated systems working together over tenuous communication channels. This kind of tightly-coupled, point-to-point architecture inevitably relies on informal data (phone calls, e-mails, etc.) to communicate important production-chain information (such as tape numbers or clip metadata). Data can be easily lost, misunderstood or entered with errors into multiple systems. Each subsequent change becomes more difficult than the previous because each system iteration adds complexity.

The real challenge today is not to address each individual change, but the process itself of making these changes. In short, broadcast companies need to build business agility into their design process and infrastructure so that when faced with new distribution models or content-production requirements, they are able to react efficiently and effectively. In the digital age, this has become essential to broadcasters and media facilities. A technology solution known as Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is one way to do this.

Understanding SOA

A system architecture that addresses the business needs faced by broadcasters today must:

  • Facilitate the development of highly reusable business and infrastructure components.
  • Have an easy-to-implement alteration and update strategy for these components.
  • Allow for the greatest transparency of standards and other communications options among these components.
Figure 1

A focus on reusability and ease of alteration allows such a system to address both current and future business requirements. (See Figure 2 on page 68.) SOA is such an approach; it treats discrete and reusable business functions as services because they offer a business service to the rest of the enterprise. Instead of concentrating on points of integration and technical compatibility, SOA operates according to a functionality-centric facility design. Beginning with the traditional tightly coupled verticals of software, an integrator can design and connect reusable services using SOA technologies.

Even though most software vendors (including producers of software-based media systems) do not currently claim SOA support, their software can be made compliant to a facility’s SOA by wrapping the programmatic interfaces offered by the software to a service interface. (See Figure 3 on page 70.) This creates reusability because vendors that offer different implementations — but essentially the same business service — can be individually wrapped to present the same service interface. A service interface is the only communication point between that software and the rest of the media facility in an SOA, so it presents a single point for alteration. If the underlying application changes, only the connections between that consistent wrapper and the specifics of a vendor’s API need to be changed. This is known as separating interface from implementation.

The way an SOA addresses greater transparency is through the use of a common messaging “layer” built over an enterprise network. This middleware layer provides the communication infrastructure needed for various services to interoperate. It is a single network, which means that there is a common location for data management, information gathering and security. However, it can also be distributed over many computers or many facilities, providing necessary redundancy and reliability.

Once several services are connected to the middleware layer, the benefits of SOA begin to really become apparent. Some of the best practices of Business Process Management (BPM) can be put in place in the form of automated business processes that work in the middleware layer and orchestrate communication among services.

Depending on how it’s defined, SOA has been around for a decade or more; it is not a new concept. The media industry is one of last verticals to begin adopting SOA extensively throughout its business. SOA has been put to use successfully in many other industries, including manufacturing, banking, retail, healthcare and telecom. Billions of dollars a day move through an SOA middleware layer. In fact, in heavily regulated industries (such as healthcare or finance), the use of defined services helps companies meet stringent privacy and security requirements. It also helps ensure that new business models and technologies fall within regulation.

SOA in Media

Media professionals can immediately conceive of potential services such as transcoding, distribution, scheduling and automation that would be good choices for integration. Using SOA, a media facility can service-enable many aspects of workflow, effectively becoming a Service-Oriented Media Enterprise.

Some areas that initially seem applicable may cause second thoughts for broadcast professionals, due to the high reliability requirements and real-time processing needs of many media applications. Past experience may suggest that commodity IT solutions don’t always meet the high standards that media facilities demand. In addition, the concept of a middleware layer may at first seem to be a single point of failure. This is a common reaction, but not necessarily an accurate one. Using well-established techniques such as server clustering and various redundancy and security schemes, a Service-Oriented Media Enterprise can ensure the same reliability in its computer systems as it is accustomed to in its broadcast systems.

Modern networks and modern media applications are fast enough to handle many upstream processes in a faster- than-real-time manner. It is important, however, not to assume that this fact implies that media will be moving across the middleware layer like SOA messages. An SOA will not generally alter the routes through which the media flows in a facility (whether those routes be SDI, FTP, or other transport). SOA does, however, offer the opportunity to abstract and automate control messaging or metadata movement. In other words, SOA can handle the non- and near-real-time applications that make up the vast majority of the modern broadcast facility.

There are many business challenges that are easily solved by SOA in broadcast. Asset management, automation, and rights and security are a few examples of immediately applicable uses of SOA. Any media enterprise hoping to keep up with the steeply rising curve of business changes would do well to consider using SOA when approaching these applications.

State of SOA in broadcast The beginnings of the SOA revolution in the broadcast industry are underway. A quick walk through the exhibits at NAB or IBC is enough to convince any media professional that many vendors have heard of SOA and are incorporating this methodology in some form into their products (or at the very least into their marketing messages).

Many vendors support a Web Services interface and make the claim that they are service-enabled. It is important to note, however, that these two are not the same thing. Web Services is the most common technology used to support SOA architecture. It is XML-based and provides standards and technologies for all of the necessary components of an SOA. SOA is a design methodology, while Web Services is an underlying technology. The knowledgeable broadcaster must be careful not to take a vendor’s Web Services interface as an indication that the product is inherently service-oriented.

There are, however, products on the market that organize themselves into distinct business services, each of which could as easily communicate with a third-party product presenting a similar interface as they could to other services in the product architecture. These vendors are getting the message of SOA and realizing that interoperability and established standards are the keys of making integration work. The vertical “silos” of integration that currently exist in many facilities can be slowly opened and integrated with the horizontal processes of the media enterprise.

There are also media vendors that offer middleware solutions (and often media-specific ones). A middleware solution in broadcast should be one that considers the types of business processes that a Service-Oriented Media Enterprise uses and interoperates with many third-party services over standards-based communication methods to accomplish this work. These solutions, when properly implemented, will become the core of the SOAs that are the future of the broadcast industry.

Some media enterprises have begun to incorporate middleware into their system architecture and have begun to service-orient their business. These early adopters will see the benefits of agility and visibility as other media companies are struggling with constant business change. The shift to SOA is inevitable; indeed, it has already happened in most other industries. The sooner that a media enterprise adopts the SOA methodology, the better prepared it will be to face coming challenges.

John Footen is a vice president and Joey Faust is a systems engineer at National TeleConsultants.