Serving Up The Next Step In The DTV Transition

Picture a local station news department where complete nonlinear editing, video browsing, and the recording of a voice-over track can be completed all on a reporter's PC desktop. The video and text for each story, stored as large amounts of digital data, is simultaneously available to multiple users on a network and can be located at a moment's notice, saving time and money.

This futuristic vision is a reality at ABC O&O WLS-TV in Chicago, thanks to a multichannel Thomson Broadcast Solutions Profile video server linked to an all-digital Avid Media Browse newsroom system. Barring any last minute glitches, it will go online in August.

Of Growing Importance

Indeed, digital video servers continue to play an important role in today's multichannel world. As station news departments like the one at WLS begin to move to all-digital operation, servers have become key to designing and implementing asset management and automation systems that require less staff yet result in increased productivity. "The use of servers has saved stations a lot of time, energy, and expense when compared to a tape-based environment," said Jim Jensen, server product manager for Pinnacle Systems. "In addition, reliability of the technology has been a key issue that has stimulated the move to servers for all kinds of production and distribution."

Servers also provide users with the advantage of being able to scale up as the need arises. System cost then depends on how many channels a broadcaster wants to program and how many staff members will use it. Jensen said that a Pinnacle MediaStream system could cost from less than $40,000 for a three-channel server to more than $200,000 for a very large networked storage system (one that can accommodate over 100 channels).

Other manufacturers' technology offerings are similar in price and functionality, offering the ability to handle everything from a small audio file to full HDTV content.

For less than $40,000, Pinnacle's MediaStream 300 video server features two MPEG-2 video channels and 25 hours of storage in a 2 RU package. It also offers standard Fibre Channel networking and Ethernet WAN connectivity and is designed for spot playback, time delay, caching, and edge server devices for WAN content distribution.

The MediaStream 700 offers up to seven channels of MPEG-2 video and more than 1,000 hours of online storage. For larger facilities, the MediaStream 1600 delivers up to 16 I/O channels and the potential for hundreds more in a Fibre Channel networked configuration.

At Leitch, Eddy Jenkins, director of Product Marketing for servers, said his division is enjoying its best quarter to date. Without getting specific, he indicated Leitch servers have generated over $10 million dollars (worldwide) in revenue since the beginning of this year.

"There's a tremendous amount of activity around servers these days," he said, adding that stations are demanding larger systems with greater expandability.

Share The Wealth
The ability of multiple people to use the network at the same time, known as "shared storage," is one of the most important benefits digital technology has brought to the industry. Leitch's VR series of servers are designed to facilitate the new architecture that treats video as data. Once footage for a story is digitized, this information can be used and repurposed in a myriad of ways, resulting in a quick return on investment.

These days it's important for manufacturers to offer a complete news solution because, due to proprietary protocols, servers from different makers often cannot easily communicate with each other. Jenkins said that's why the VR series includes servers, storage, news editors, proxy editors, and media management software.

For example, at approximately $40,000, the two-channel VR445 digital video (with multichannel audio) server offers 540 GB of Fibre Channel storage and is expandable in channel pairs. The cost is dependent upon whether a customer wants "record-only" channels or "record and play" capability.

The news department at ABC affiliate WJLA-TV in Washington, DC (owned by Allbritton Communications) has upgraded with several VR440 shared storage servers combined with Leitch's NEWSFlash-II editing system for collaborative newsroom workflow management. The system includes 20 channels of ingest and playout, 11 NEWSFlash-II editor workstations, and over 5.4 TB of storage. CNN also uses a 44-channel VR440 broadcast server for its news package playback.

The evolution to servers is not just a major market phenomenon. Omneon Video Networks has been helping a number of smaller broadcast and cable clients make the transition to digital. For example, Equity Broadcasting, in Little Rock, AR, owns and operates 60 stations in small markets throughout the U.S. Omneon Vice President of Marketing Tim Slade said that Equity started out with a small six-channel Media Server system (for under $100,000), consisting of the server hardware, a series of Omneon Media Ports (I/O boards), a Fibre Channel storage array, and system management software. It utilizes RS-422 protocols to manage file ingest and play-to-air.

Equity installed its initial server in Little Rock in March and has since increased its capacity to 14 channels (in increments of two channels). The company plans to build a second central site to protect against system failure. It is also using NVERZION automation software to manage its traffic. The central facility in Little Rock distributes programs via Ku-band satellite among the station group directly from the server, minimizing staffing and operation costs.

"Broadcasters should be looking to install a server that offers the most flexibility for their money," Slade said. "The system should be able to handle multiple formats on the same server because in the real world, where images are acquired from a variety of sources, that's what stations need."

Few companies are as well-versed in the IT space, where the server originated, more than hardware provider SGI. The company markets two versions of its Media Server for Broadcast system, the two-channel MSB-320, for $45,000, and the eight-channel MSB-380, both based on the SGI Origin platform. Broadcast installations include KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, WCBS-TV in New York, and WXYZ-TV in Detroit.

At WCBS, a Panasonic NewsBYTE nonlinear edit system is paired with an SGI Media Server for Broadcast. Similarly, WXYZ owner Scripps Howard Broadcasting bought a new SGI server system at NAB for sister station KJRH-TV in Tulsa, OK and if all goes well could upgrade all of its news divisions with SGI in the near future. It is using Crispin automation software to manage the digital audio and video files.

Steve Lose, Business Development Manager, North America, for SGI's Media Industries Group, said that broadcasters are now focusing on system development and efficient workflow as their immediate goals.

"We're seeing a shift in focus at stations, from a box-to-box replacement strategy to an overall system approach," Lose said. "The important part of this is the need to distribute digital data throughout a facility and to the outside world. Everyone agrees that servers are the best way to do that."

Along with a shared file system (based on the IRIX file system) known as CXFS, all models of SGI servers support both DVCPRO and MPEG compressed files on the same hardware rack, in addition to video file recording and transfer protocols such as MXF, TIF, and GIF. For machine control, SGI servers feature RS-422 and LAN/WAN remote control capability via a proprietary protocol called Multiport Video Computer Protocol. Internet Protocol (IP) operation is also supported.

"Once material is digitized inside the server, people can move it around a facility freely," Lose said. "That's a big shift in the way broadcasters are used to working and brings with it a number of workflow benefits."

Also focused on minimizing equipment costs and maximizing productivity, Thirteen/WNET New York, the PBS station serving the largest television market in the U.S., purchased a Broadcast MediaCluster digital video server system earlier this year from SeaChange International. Ken Devine, vice president and chief technology officer, WNET, said that his company chose the Broadcast MediaCluster for its ability to deliver video for SD and HD. The station plans to do both simultaneously for several years to come.

WNET's Broadcast MediaCluster 1654 can store over 2,050 hours (at 8 Mbps) of video content in a fault-resilient configuration of clustered servers comprising 180 GB disk drives. In support of WNET's HDTV efforts, the MediaCluster is configured with SeaChange's ASI Transport Stream cards, which allow HD content to be recorded onto the same cluster that is simultaneously storing and playing SD data.

"Broadcasters are focused on implementing video server systems that enable them to grow their operations as they build new businesses with their content," said Brian Cabeceiras, vice president of Worldwide Broadcast Sales at SeaChange.

A Clear Path To The Future
Looking ahead, manufacturers are endeavoring to link more and more of the distribution chain processes up with the server, enabling different kinds of material to be played off the same server. Most likely, there will be continued communication and interoperability between the server and edit systems, asset management software, and automation systems. This allows content to remain in the digital domain, for the highest quality, and provides users with the ability to create new programming from existing material.